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Notes/Sermons



LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Conference I: March 8th, 2019)

When we look at the ways of God in showing us our Savior and accomplishing the Redemption of the world, we are struck by the way in which God situated things in such a particular time and place. The Universal Savior of Mankind – “Jesus Savior” was known during His visible life on earth as “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph the carpenter”. And the number of people who knew of Him at all during those brief three-years of His Public Life, were localized in the Roman-ruled administrative areas of western Syria, an utterly insignificant number relative to the population of the world at that time.  

This Jesus came from an impoverished Jewish settlement in the Galilee called Nazareth. It had no status of any kind in the Jewish world. From the center of Jewish religious authority in the Holy City of Jerusalem, places like Nazareth were contemptible places, suspect as regards the correct keeping of the Torah. All of the derogatory terms for poor country people used by the inhabitants of great cities would have applied for the way in which Jerusalem looked down upon such parts of Galilee: ugh!–rudepeasants! all of them!, bumpkins, hillbillies...Hear how they talk! See how they dress! Bone-ignorant and ridiculous people! How lucky we are not to be them!

It is not only true for us at a distance in the 21st Century. The same was true for the first centuries of the Gospel, as well even for people of that First Generation in other parts of the ancient world. The social-religious world of the Jewish Galilee was so distinct and so peculiar as to be almost impenetrable to outsiders. It is a continuing labor of Scripture scholarship to try to re-create this world as best we can by working backwards from the contexts of the existing Gospel Books and gleaning extracts from other artifacts.

And this is the astounding thing: that the message of universal salvation should have come to us out of such obscurity: that God should not only have become incarnate in a human-man, but that His humanity should also have been covered over with everything that triggers the negative judgments of social-pride and despising of others in people.

This is a great mystery indeed. St. Paul recognized it well. This is what is behind his words to the Corinthians at the end of the first chapter of his First Epistle to them: “For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble. But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the strong. And the base things of the world and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen: and things that are not, that He might bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in His sight.” (I Cor. 1:27-29)

And what God did first in Jesus Christ (drawing the universal not just out of the peculiar and the particular, but out of the most lowly peculiar and particular) He continues to do in the life of His Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ.  

This, I suggest, is the way we may approach the Apparition of Our Lady Mary Immaculate at Lourdes: the universal message of the Gospel is ever renewed to the world by means of a time and a place and a people which is at once peculiar, particular, lowly and obscure.

In the Year of Salvation 1858 France was a great nation. As a whole it was rich, it was prestigious, it held the balance of power in continental Europe. Its capital city Paris was a magnetic center of culture, of science, of all that was new and bold and interesting in this Century, which saw itself as a Century of great progress. In 1858 France was ruled by a dictator who styled himself the Emperor Napoleon III. He was the nephew of the warlord Napoleon Bonaparte whose French armies had conquered most of Europe only a half-century earlier until finally he had been crushed by a coalition of European powers. The nephew Napoleon III sought to revive the lost glory of his uncle’s Empire, and so he proclaimed his France to be the “Second Empire”, an Empire which he intended to last.

But in 1858 the frontier town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains was very far from le Paris mondain. Juridically, officially, it was part of France. Culturally, experientially, however, it was its own world apart. For many of the people, including Bernadette Soubirous’ family, French itself was a foreign language. It was poverty-stricken, and in the midst of economic crisis in the 1850s. There was a scarcity of food and an abundance of hunger-related disease. In her book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (1999), Ruth Harris writes: “The department of the Hautes-Pyrénées was notable for the poor quality of its military recruits, the ailing and the diseased soldiers a testimony to the ill-health of the population in general.” (Pg. 29)

Emigration to South America in the hope of a better life was the recourse of many people who could find the means to do so, and so there was a mass exodus of artisans and small-holders from Lourdes and the Pyrenees to Argentina and Uruguay during the crisis of the 1850s. The But in 1858 the frontier town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains was very far from le Paris mondain. Juridically, officially, it was part of France. Culturally, experientially, however, it was its own world apart. For many of the people, including Bernadette Soubirous’ family, French itself was a foreign language. It was poverty-stricken, and in the midst of economic crisis in the 1850s. There was a scarcity of food and an abundance of hunger-related disease. In her book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (1999), Ruth Harris writes: “The department of the Hautes-Pyrénées was notable for the poor quality of its military recruits, the ailing and the diseased soldiers a testimony to the ill-health of the population in general.” (Pg. 29) Emigration to South America in the hope of a better life was the recourse of many people who could find the means to do so, and so there was a mass exodus of artisans and small-holders from Lourdes and the Pyrenees to Argentina and Uruguay during the crisis of the 1850s. The poorer people and the destitute did not have the means to emigrate, even if they had wanted to, and so they suffered the misfortunes of life in place.

Such were Bernadette and her family. Since Bernadette’s birth in 1844, her parents had gone from being people with modest but decent means to poverty and finally to destitution. In February of 1858 they were living in a darkened room of the former city jail, the cachot, the “dungeon”, paying a token rent to a relative who owned the building. In an already poor place, the Soubirous were at the bottom of the heap, and looked down upon by others as human nature so commonly does in these situations.

It was on account of the family’s destitution, that 14 year-old Bernadette was scavenging for driftwood along the Gave River near the rock of the Massbielle at midday on February 11th, together with her younger sister Toinette and another girl. The poor were permitted to pick about the rubbish on this communal land on the edge of the communal forest since they had no other means of obtaining fuel for their cooking fires.

And it was here, on that day, that Bernadette first saw the beautiful white girl standing there in a grotto of the rock... 

Fr. Higgins

About Our Parish

Mary Immaculate of Lourdes is Newton and Needham Massachusetts's oldest Roman Catholic Parish. Founded as Saint Mary's Parish in 1870 it was renamed "Mary Immaculate of Lourdes" when the new Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1910. In addition to being a regular territorial parish of the Archdiocese of Boston it is also a "Mission Parish" since 2007 with a special apostolate for the Traditional Latin Mass (1962 Missal).

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