“I do not promise to make you happy in this world; only in the next.”
– Our Lady of Lourdes to Saint Bernadette
It’s easy to assume that Bernadette Soubirous was declared a Saint because she saw Our Lady; the reality, however, is somewhat different.
Bernadette was certainly blessed greatly in being given the honour to see and converse with the Mother of God on eighteen occasions at the grotto of Massabielle near Lourdes, France, in 1858. This first part of her life is very well known. The lesser known part is what became of Bernadette once she left Lourdes; and it is this part that was the real furnace in which the gold of her sanctity was tested and purified, resulting in her eventual canonisation.
Nevers is a beautiful little town, boasting an impressive Cathedral dating from the 13th century, the only one in Europe to have an Altar at both ends, and the river Loire flows through the town. Arriving at the Convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers on 7th July 1866, the 22 year old Bernadette was very much out of her comfort zone; she had really only known the safe environment of her family, in the Cachot of Lourdes. Now, she was to enter the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. As a sign of her leaving behind all that she had known, she was immediately given a new name – Marie Bernarde. Arriving at the convent, a new part of Bernadette’s life had begun. This was the ‘hidden’ part of her life – although nowhere near as hidden as she would have preferred, since many would continue to seek her out from her arrival until her death in 1879. The day after her arrival, Bernadette was summoned to appear before the assembled community in the Novices Hall, and there she told the story of the appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes; after this, she would speak of those events only if compelled by religious obedience. Despite the graces granted to her, Bernadette was able to maintain a deep sense of humility –
“I know only too well that if the Blessed Virgin chose me, it was because I was the most ignorant. Had She been able to find someone more ignorant than myself, She would not have chosen me.. The Blessed Virgin made use of me, then I was put into a corner. That’s my place and I am more than happy to remain there.”
She was clear, too, in what her religious vocation consisted and what it meant in a real way –
“My divine Spouse has drawn me to a humble and a hidden life and has often told me that my heart will cease to beat only when it has sacrificed all.. Jesus crucified is my only happiness.”
Her humility did not preclude a good sense of humour, nor some minor human failings – amongst which, she could be impatient and quick-tempered at times, especially if she was over-tired. She always apologised for any failing she perceived in herself. A particular ‘fault’., one for which she became very well known by the sisters, was her ability to hide herself from the various well-wishers, prelates and voyeurs who came to the Convent with the intention of meeting her. She developed some very successful strategies for achieving this end. Asked once by a visitor if they could meet ‘the seer from Lourdes’, the young sister responded that she would go and look for her – and then did not return. Bernadette’s deepening sanctity meant that she looked closely at her faults in order to overcome them, a trait that she kept throughout her life. Shortly before her death, her written notes contained this goal –
“..An infallible means of attaining true holiness – an energetic, courageous, constant persevering will.”
Her life in the convent was regularly punctuated by periods of ill-health, leaving her in the Infirmary, where she also worked as assistant infirmarian. Asked by a fellow sister why she was so often there, she replied “I am doing my work.. that of being ill.” Intimately joined to this task, was another – prayer. She once said – “I can only pray and suffer”. But these, she did exceptionally well, writing to another sister, who had sent her a Crucifix from HIs Holiness Pope Pius IX – “with my Crucifix, I am happier on my bed of suffering that a queen on her throne”.
At the feet of the Blessed Virgin at the time of the apparitions, during the ecstasy of the sixth Appearance, on 21st February 1858, Bernadette had heard the Lady say something – the child would carry those words and that command with her always. The Lady had said – “Pray for sinners”. At Easter of 1872, she wrote a letter to Mother Alexandrine at the Lourdes Hospice, and it contained these lines – “How much Our Lord is sinned against. Let us pray for these poor sinners that they may be converted.”
Later, one of the other sisters commented to the Commission about Bernadette’s spiritual aspirations. She said – “She used to pray for the souls in Purgatory but even more for the conversion of sinners. I believe that she offered her sufferings for this intention. It caused her real pain to hear of some scandal. Then, she would pray with even greater fervour and offer her sufferings more earnestly for poor sinners.” Asked about Bernadette’s favourite spiritual practices and prayers, they were clear on one point – “the Rosary was the prayer she loved above all”. Several sisters later commented how devoutly she prayed the Rosary, and some mentioned a curious fact they had noticed; when Bernadette prayed the Rosary, she seemed to pause and emphasise the words ‘poor sinners’ with deep emotion.
Bernadette took whole-heartedly and with deep interior joy to her vocation to suffer and to pray. In her private notebook, in an entry dated 1873, she wrote –
“Cross of my Saviour, holy Cross, adorable Cross, in you alone is my strength, my hope and my joy. You are the tree of life, the mysterious ladder that links Heaven to earth, the Altar on which I wish to sacrifice myself by dying with Jesus.. complete abandonment, love and fidelity to Jesus my Bridegroom even unto death. The Heart of Jesus with all His treasures is my portion. There I shall live and die in the midst of suffering.. O my Jesus, make me love You, love me and then crucify me according to Your good pleasure.. O Jesus and Mary, grant that all my consolation in this world may be to love You and to suffer for sinners.”
This prayer was certainly granted by Heaven, for the little one suffered greatly as the years passed – not only due to her old friend the asthma which had so plagued her since childhood, but also because of tuberculosis of the bone, which left a large abscessed tumour on her right knee, which caused her continual and severe pain. And yet, despite her clear holiness, founded on the deepest humility and a life of heroic virtue lived day in and day out, Bernadette approached death in the way of the Saints – with an eye on her failings; she was what she still had to achieve, rather than what she had already achieved. The day before her death, she told the sister at her bedside –
“I’m afraid; I have received so much grace and I have made so little use of it.”
On the last day of her life, Wednesday 16th April 1879, Bernadette lay propped up on the chair in the infirmary, not even able to lie flat in bed because of the tumour on her knee. She was suffering terribly. Mother Eleanore was at her side and said she would pray for consolation for the dying nun. Bernadette replied – “no, not for consolation, but for strength and patience – Heaven is the place for consolation”. A few moments later, Bernadette looked towards the fireplace, above which was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, and which remains there to this day. Looking at it, Bernadette whispered –
“I have seen Her. Oh! How lovely She is, and how I long to go to Her!”
It was Easter week, and Bernadette was offering her personal Passion in union with that of her Lord. At 3pm, she kissed each of the Holy Wounds on her Crucifix, which had been fixed to her breast, then said – “My God, I love You with my whole heart, my whole soul and my whole strength!”. Turning then to Mother Nathalie, who had come up to the Infirmary and was at her side, Bernadette asked forgiveness for her faults and began to pray –
“Forgive me, pray for me, pray for me! Help me to thank to the end! My God! My God! ..Holy Mary, pray for me, poor sinner, poor sinner..”
And with this prayer upon her lips and in her heart, Bernadette Soubirous, known in religious life as Sister Marie Bernarde, gave her soul to God and entered that life where she had been promised happiness by the Mother of God.
Bernadette’s story does not end there, of course. It only begins.
Her mortal remains were on view for the veneration of the faithful until Saturday, 19th April. Her body was then placed in a double coffin of lead and oak, sealed in the presence of the civil authorities. With the help of the Bishop, permission had been obtained to bury Bernadette within the convent grounds, in the tiny chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph, in the middle of the apple orchard at the rear of the Convent. The vault was prepared and the coffin placed in it on 30th May, during a very simple ceremony.
By Autumn 1909, the Episcopal Commission was complete, having examined Bernadette’s reputation for sanctity and virtue. As part of this process, Bernadette’s body was exhumed on 22nd September 1909 in the presence of Bishop Gauthey of Nevers, the Mother Superior of the convent, doctors, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor and others, son that the remains could be identified. All swore an oath on the Gospels. The coffin was taken to the main Chapel, the outer oak coffin removed and the lead coffin cut open. Within, the body of Bernadette was perfectly preserved although the lower parts of her body had discoloured slightly. A rusting Rosary was still in her hands and her religious habit was damp. The nuns washed the body and replaced the habit, and Bernadette was placed within a new double coffin and reburied.
Pope Pius X introduced the Cause of Beatification and Canonisation on 13th August 1913 but the War interrupted the process and it was not until 3rd April 1919 that a second exhumation and identification took place, in the presence of Bishop Chatelus of Nevers, the Police Commissioner, two medical doctors and other civic authorities. The same procedure was followed as on the first occasion, in 1909. In his written report afterwards, Dr Comte wrote – “when the coffin was opened, the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odourless” although mummified now, with mildew in places. After verifying the remains, the body was buried again.
In November 1923, the Holy Father declared the authenticity of Bernadette’s virtues, allowing the way to Beatification and so a third identification of the mortal remains was necessary. The final exhumation took place on 18th April 1925 and on this occasion, relics were to be taken. This would be done by Dr Comte, who was present once more. He wrote a lengthy and detailed report on the condition in which they found the body and the removal of the relics.
Following this, the body was wrapped in bandages apart from the face and hands. A Parisienne wax-maker, Pierre Immans, had been charged with creating a very light wax mask to cover the face, as this had darkened a little over the course of the three exhumations; it also had the effect of softening, to some degree, the facial features of the Blessed, as the body was to be placed in the Chapel of the Convent so that the faithful could venerate it.
Bernadette was declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope Pius XI on 14th June 1925, permitting public veneration of the remains. The ornate gilt reliquary was completed a while later and the remains were placed within it on 14th July 1925, dressed in a new religious habit and clasping a Rosary. All of this took place in the chapel dedicated to St Helen, accessed only by the Sisters of the Congregation. The reliquary was transferred to the main Chapel on 3rd August 1925. From that date onwards, the faithful have come to pay their homage to the Blessed Bernadette.
Bernadette was declared a Saint on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 1933.