St. Bernadette: Model of Humility, Strength and Steadfast Faith

When a woman appears to you, standing in a crevice in a wall of rock, and tells you to build a shrine to her, you might be tempted to either brush the whole thing off as some sort of hallucination brought on by Lord knows what, or you might seek immediate psychiatric help. If you tell anyone of this vision, they may very well suggest the latter.

When someone questions our faith, how do we react? If someone accuses us of having ulterior motives, or of being misguided, or of being downright dishonest, do we face this with persistent belief, or do we crumble at the first opposition? Perhaps these are questions that we don’t consider, and we might not have a ready answer.

St. Bernadette Soubirous faced criticism, unbelief, horrible accusations, and other opposition when she revealed her mystical visions. Her spiritual leaders scoffed at her, or worse. Her parents initially expressed the same incredulity as everyone else. But there was nothing that could shake her faith.

Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844. Her father was a businessman with little to no aptitude for business; eventually he turned to working odd jobs whenever he could, resorting to alcohol for solace. Bernadette’s mother Louise was a devout Catholic who instilled the importance of faith and a relationship with the Lord in her children.

The nature of her family life helped to develop a profound work ethic, a deep faith, and a strength and steadfastness in Bernadette. Louise had to find work whenever she could, in order to help the family make ends meet and give the children their daily necessities. Because she was out of the house many days, many of the household tasks fell to Bernadette, the oldest. This was not limited to cleaning and cooking, but she was a significant influence in the moral and religious education of her younger siblings, as well. There is even a report of Bernadette, as a young girl, taking her baby sibling out to her mother who was working in the field so the child could be nursed. Bernadette persisted in all of this, in spite of her physical ailments, and significant physical weakness.

Bernadette suffered greatly from early childhood. She was afflicted by digestive trouble from a young age, and a respiratory problem that would persist for the rest of her life. Bouts with cholera and tuberculosis threatened her life, but she fought through them every time. Young Bernadette also had a reputation as intellectually slow; her first communion was greatly delayed, because her teacher gave up after only a few lessons, insisting that Bernadette was too dull to grasp the material. But again, her obstinate refusal to give in led to her getting an education, and finally communing with her Lord.

The family’s poverty became so great that they eventually moved into a one-room dwelling that had previously been a jail, which was called “the dungeon”. When, on February 11, 1858, Bernadette, her sister, and a friend were gathering wood to heat the home near the grotto of Massabielle, near Lourdes, France, Bernadette had an experience that would utterly change her life. While Bernadette tried to find a place to cross the stream, she heard the sound of a great wind, but nothing moved – save a wild rose growing in a niche in the grotto. As Bernadette looked on, there was suddenly a blindingly brilliant light, and a figure clad in white – a woman whom Bernadette would refer to simply as aquero, “that one.” Bernadette proceeded to pray the rosary, and when she completed it the woman smiled and disappeared.

Bernadette did not claim to know who this person was. On February 18, her third visit to the grotto, the woman asked her to come back every day for 15 days. Word began to spread about Bernadette’s experiences, and the incredulity became rampant. Bernadette’s own parents initially tried to keep her from going to the grotto, as they were embarrassed at the sort of attention their daughter was garnering. Her sister and their friend who had been with her during the first visit said they saw nothing, which only added to the skepticism about Bernadette’s claims. And during these two weeks, large crowds began to gather at the grotto, much to the displeasure of the local authorities. In fact, the police took Bernadette in for questioning, to make her “admit” that the whole ordeal was nothing but an elaborate hoax. But Bernadette was not to be put off. Regardless of what was thrown at her, she remained faithful.

The local authorities continued to try to discredit Bernadette. They accused her and her family of various malfeasances. Her parents and other family members had come to believe her, and were unwavering in their support.

There were those who believed Bernadette implicitly. Many believed that the woman was Mary, Mother of the Lord, partially based on her description of the woman – dressed in a white veil, a blue girdle, with a yellow rose on each foot. The woman, whoever she was, asked for prayer and penance. It was not until March 25 that the woman identified herself. After Bernadette’s persistent queries, asking the lady repeatedly for her name, she finally answered: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was a revelation peculiar and confusing to Bernadette, but she related the information just the same, without a waver in her faith. And this revelation proved decisive in the reception and acceptance of the apparition.

Perhaps Bernadette’s holiness and humility, her unassuming nature, and her quiet steadfastness in the face of opposition, lend credence to the veracity of her claims. While Catholics are not bound to believe in the apparitions at Lourdes, the Church has deemed them “worthy of belief.” Regardless of one’s personal stance on these events, there is much that we can learn from this story of Bernadette. First and foremost, Bernadette is a portrait of strength. Her family, her pastor, her bishop, the media, tourists and gawkers, and people of all sorts were not only skeptical of her claims, but some were even hostile in their accusations. Some claimed she had a mental illness and should be institutionalized; others accused her of lying outright. Regardless, Bernadette persisted. This was not some pious idea, purely in the head of a dull or dunderheaded girl. In the face of all opposition, intensive interviews with Church officials, as well as representatives of the French government, Bernadette insisted she was telling the truth.

When Bernadette Soubirous lay dying, at the tender age of 35, she prayed to the Virgin Mary for strength to endure the trial. She had contracted tuberculosis of the bone, and was in great agony. She strove to continually remind herself that her suffering was not in vain, reportedly saying “All this is good for Heaven!” She died on April 16, 1879.

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Paul Senz is a native of Verboort, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Portland, where he is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.

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