In 1858, heaven broke through February’s gloom with a radiant beam of light. The light came from a cave within a rock cliff, known as Massabielle, along the frigid waters of the Gave River in the foothills of the Pyrenees near Lourdes, France. An impoverished 14-year-old girl, who was collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, received the vision.
Bernadette Soubirous was born into near destitution on January 7, 1844 in a flour mill amidst the sounds of grist in grindstone. She cried through her baptism rites two days later. “She’ll be a bad one,” said her godfather. As a child, she suffered stomach ailments and had a bout with cholera, leaving her with breathing troubles, made worse by her chilly, damp, stone bedroom, with the smells of manure wafting through the widow. She wasn’t known to complain. As a child, she was illiterate and spoke Occitan, a provincial Romance language, rather than French. When work and food ran short, Bernadette was taken to her godmother, Aunt Bernarde, who ran a tavern. Bernadette tended bar and was known to offer free draughts of wine. “Here! Drink this,” she said to a friend who came in to pick up a liter. At age thirteen, she lived with relatives in rural Bartes, about three miles from Lourdes, to help with housework and tend sheep. However, she wanted to return to Lourdes. “Tell my parents that I’m bored here,” she told a visitor, “I want to go back to Lourdes to go to class and prepare for my First Communion.” On Sunday, January 17, 1858, Bernadette returned to Lourdes alone. She took the “old road” along a valley, which approached the Gave River flowing beneath Massabielle. The cliff’s shadows concealed a narrow cave which she probably didn’t notice. In less than a month, she would see a divine light shining from that cave’s darkness.
Cool and rainy was the morning of Thursday, February 11. “My goodness,” yelled Bernadette, “there’s no more wood!” Bernadette and her mother collected wood the previous morning, but she didn’t know that it had been sold to buy bread. Bernadette, her sister and a friend headed to Massabielle to collect more wood. Preparing to wade across the ice-cold river, Bernadette was taking off her stockings when she heard what sounded like a forceful “gush of wind” amidst the otherwise calm air. The poplars didn’t move. Bernadette looked toward the cliff. Above a grotto, in a narrow cavity within the cliff, some long-stem brambles were shaking quietly. A serene light radiated from the cave. Within the light stood a luminous young girl clad in white, smiling as if to say “welcome.”
Bernadette rubbed her eyes, but the vision remained. She took out her rosary and tried to make the Sign of the Cross with the crucifix, but she was too shaken with fear. Then, the radiant girl made the Sign of the Cross with her rosary. All fear left Bernadette. She was overcome with peace, and she made the Sign of the Cross as well. The radiant girl looked as if she was saying the rosary, passing the beads through her fingers, though without moving her lips. When the rosary was finished, the girl disappeared.
Meanwhile, Bernadette’s companions were collecting wood and wondering why she wasn’t helping. Bernadette asked them, “Did you see anything?” The girls said no and asked Bernadette what she saw. Sensing that the vision was hers alone, Bernadette abruptly changed the subject, commenting, “What a pair of jokers! You said the water is cold. I think it’s warm.” Her companions were puzzled, knowing Bernadette was sensitive to cold. After some banter, Bernadette curiously asked again, “Didn’t you see anything?” The secret could no longer be concealed. Her sister wanted to know what she saw. After getting the girls to promise that they would tell no one, Bernadette described the vision. That night, Bernadette’s sister told her mother. The word got out. That was the beginning of what would become a long and painful journey for Bernadette and the Soubirous family – a barrage of cross examinations, requests for miracles, and accusations of lying and fakery from kinfolk, townsfolk, a local commissioner, a prosecutor, doctors, journalists, the curious, the pious, a French parliamentarian, seminarians, priests, and bishops.
Bernadette would go on to have a total of eighteen apparitions, the last being on July 16, 1858. Sixteen of those apparitions took place between February 11 and March 25. Prior to March 25, the radiant girl didn’t reveal her identity. It was only speculation – by the public, not Bernadette – that the girl was the Virgin Mary. Bernadette called the girl, “Aquero,” which in Occitan means, “the thing” or “the thing I am talking about.”
Aquero told Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel at Massabielle. Of course, the priests were perplexed by the request of this unidentified Aquero. True to the form of a parish priest, Abbe Dominique Peyramale, Bernadette’s pastor, told her to ask Aquero for the money to build it. Controversy swirled around this mysterious phenomenon. Word spread throughout France. An epidemic of fake visionaries and imitators ensued. Bernadette’s visions at Massabielle attracted large crowds, worrying civil authorities.
But who was Aquero? On the night of March 24, the Vigil of the Assumption, Bernadette was sleepless with a strong desire to visit Massabielle. At 4:00am, she awoke and dressed herself. Though reticent, her mother permitted her to go the grotto. Bernadette was determined to get an answer from Aquero, as the priests requested, about who she was. During that morning’s vision, Bernadette made four faltering asks to Aqueroabout her identity. At the fourth ask, Aquero slipped her rosary over her right arm, unfolded her hands and extended them downward. She then folded her hands upon her breast, raised her eyes to heaven, and said in Occitan, “Que soy era Immaculada Counchetsiou.” “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette had no idea what that meant. But she was thrilled to get an answer. When the vision ended, she ran full speed to the rectory of Abbe Peyramale. As she ran, she kept repeating and trying to pronounce the mysterious name, lest she forget. She burst through Abbe Peyramale’s rectory door and yelled in full voice, “Que soy era Immaculada Counchetsiou.” The priest was stunned speechless. Catching her breath, she repeated, “Aquero said, Que soy era Immaculada Counchetsiou.” The astonished priest replied, “A lady cannot bear that name! You’re mistaken! Do you know what that means?” Bernadette wagged her head in the negative. “Then how can you say that if you didn’t understand?” Bernadette replied, “I repeated it all the way here.” Abbe Payramale was concealing the fact that he was deeply touched. Choking back his tears, he said, “Go home. I’ll see you another day.” Bernadette went home confused, thinking that if the priest didn’t know what that meant, who would? What was Immaculada Counchetsiou? It was explained to her that day by a local tax collector, Jean-Baptiste Estrade, who broke into tears when Bernadette told him what Aquero said. Bernadette then knew it was the Virgin Mary. For Bernadette, the feast of the Annunciation ended in joy and wonder.
But it was a long and troublesome journey from there. The attention – whether good or bad – caused much suffering for Bernadette. She entered a school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers and learned to read and write. On July 29, 1866, she took the religious habit of the Sisters at their motherhouse in Nevers. She was given the religious name Marie-Bernarde, in honor of her bar-tending godmother. Bernadette wanted to remain poor. When asked about the apparitions, she said, “The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.” Her chronic asthma, brought on by her childhood cholera, led to her getting tuberculosis in the lungs and bones. She died on April 16, 1879 at the age of 35. Her final words were, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner, a poor sinner.”
“A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1). These words of St. John record the first vision of a luminous woman, an “Aquero.” Authentic apparitions of Mary often seem to have to an apocalyptic purpose. They are a call to prayer, penance and fidelity to Christ amidst the spirit of Antichrist. They evoke a sense of peace and confidence that, in Christ, all will be well. Mary’s presence among us always inspires greater fervor in the Church – a return to the sacraments, more devotion in prayer, daily conversion of heart, turning away from sin, a broader and more inclusive love of others, a greater sense of courage amidst suffering and doubt. Mary’s presence opens our minds to the broader purpose of God’s Providence, over and against our tendency to turn in on ourselves. Let us raise our eyes to heaven, to the woman beyond the sun, to the Immaculate Conception, for the courage to look outward, upon the world and others, with a love that transcends ourselves.