Our Lady of Lourdes

Mary’s Apparitions at Lourdes (1858)

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes is that the Church, from 1907 on, has honored that event with the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes celebrated each February 11.

The story of the appearances is always worth retelling.

Bernadette Soubirous, aged 14, was the child of a very poor family of Lourdes, a town in the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France. On February 11, 1858, she saw a lovely lady in the nearby river side grotto of Massabielle. That day Bernadette was picking up sticks for firewood. She had two younger girls as companions; but only she had the vision. The Lady was clothed in a white veil and dress and a blue sash; and she carried a rosary on her forearm. She persuaded Bernadette to recite the rosary while she herself fingered its beads; but that day she said nothing.

When Bernadette told her story at home, she met mixed reactions. But she returned to the grotto three days later and saw the vision once more. On February 18, the Lady, still not identifying herself, asked Bernadette to come back there every day for a fortnight. She also told her on that occasion that she could promise her happiness only in heaven; not in this life. Future events would bear out her assurance.

The apparitions continued until July 16, 18 in all. Larger and larger crowds accompanied Bernadette to the riverbank as time went on. The Lady was now talking with Bernadette while the young girl was in a trance; but nobody else saw what Bernadette saw or heard what she heard. On February 21 the Visitor revealed to Bernadette a spring at the bottom of the cave. This spring, at first a mere trickle, soon began to pour forth thousands of gallons each day. On March 1, a cure took place at the grotto: the first of hundreds to come. On March 2, the Lady said she wanted a chapel built on that spot. Then, on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, she finally declared her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Just four years earlier, in 1854, Pope Pius IX, after consulting all Catholic bishops, had defined as a dogma of faith the immaculate conception of Mary; that is her sinlessness from the first moment of her existence. Bernadette had never heard of the term nor of the dogma. But the local priests now knew that the Lady who spoke was Mary.

After careful study, the local bishop declared in 1862 that the appearances reported by Bernadette were credible and that the spot might be visited by pilgrims. Now the young girl’s task was over. She had already suffered much at the hands of the incredulous. Eventually she entered a religious order, and lived out the rest of her life in seclusion and pain, and died far away from her home village.

Appearances of Our Lady had been reported before 1858, and still more have been reported since then. Only rarely have these apparitions been in cities (e.g., to St. Catherine Laboure in Paris, and to Father Alphonsus Ratisbonne in Rome). Most of them have taken place in remote country places (perhaps because they resembled Mary’s own home-village of Nazareth?). On each occasion the Lady has appeared in varying styles. On each reported occasion, too - even when the claims of visions have been authenticated (Lourdes, Fatima, LaSalette, Beauraing, Guadalupe, etc.), the appearances have become the subject of strong controversy. One even wonders why Mary continues to appear, considering the sometimes unsavory battles that spring up in connection with her visitations. But surely she must have good reasons. Perhaps Jesus permits this sort of confusion (no doubt attributable in part to Satan), in order to bring her message to the attention of a wide audience, once the outcry has ceased.

It is most important that in the face of any alleged apparitions, Catholics suspend any final judgment until the Church has made a careful study of the case and announced its conclusion. The basic criteria used are: Can these events be explained in other than a supernatural way? Do they in any manner run counter to revealed faith and morals?

We can be sure that it is Mary who appeared if her basic advice is the same one that she gave to the waiters at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you” (John, 2:5).

--Father Robert F. McNamara