LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Conference II: March 15th, 2019)
“As [Jesus] was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold His mother and His brethren stood without, seeking to speak to Him. And one said to Him: Behold Thy mother and Thy brethren stand without, seeking Thee. But He answering him that told Him, said: Who is My mother and who are My brethren? And stretching forth His hand towards His disciples, He said: Behold My mother and My brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of My Father that is in heaven, he is My brother, and sister, and mother.” –St. Matthew 12:46-50
This scene from the Gospels is the concluding part of the Gospel Lesson for the old Mass of Ember Wednesday in Lent [Wednesday of the First Week in Lent], which we have just celebrated this past week. The Ember Wednesday Mass, held in Rome at the stational church of St. Mary Major, belongs in a special way to Our Lady. Her motherly intercession is supporting our prayer: she is the symbol of the Church as Mother: in her humility she models for us Christian discipleship.
In our introductory conference last week, we considered the mystery of Jesus Christ’s obscurity in the moment of His historical time, embedded as He is in the dirt-poor Jewish rural world of the Galilee. How remarkable it is–how stunning it is!–that God should send the world its Universal Savior channeled through such lowly, restricted circumstances. And yet, this is exactly what He did. And, as we noted in our last conference, this is what God continues to do in the life of His Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ: the universal message of the Gospel is ever-renewed to the world by means of times and places and people which are at once lowly and obscure.
If this is true of Our Lord, this is true as well, and even more so, of Our Lady. If Christ is hidden, Mary is yet more hidden. In that Gospel scene from Matthew 12, she who bears the privileges of the Immaculate Conception and the Divine Motherhood nevertheless consents to be lost in the crowd, seemingly disowned by her Son Jesus, in order for Him to teach the great lesson to the crowd of Galileans that it is not the right ties of blood but deeds of righteousness and doing the will of God which will bind one close to Him. In St. Luke’s Gospel Mary utter’s her ecstatic canticle of praise the Magnificat under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost: My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoicéd in God my Savior: for He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden, and behold, henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is His Name, and His mercy is on those who fear Him throughout all generations...”
Mary therefore is not a passive figure here, simply filling her assigned rôle in the religious mystery play: she is rather a very active coöperating agent of the divine will filled with grace. It is very much in keeping with the divine economy then to behold the heavenly Mary, appearing in various guises throughout the world and across the ages, for the sake of the Gospel. The hiddenness and obscurity of Galilee so long ago re-appear in new forms. The Gospel proclamation wells up from the midst of what is weak and despised by men in order to call men anew to conversion of life and salvation. This, I present to you, is exactly what we find in the events at Lourdes.
At the end of our last conference we saw Bernadette Soubirous, following her younger sister and their friend, as they scavenged among the rubbish near the great rock of the Massabielle outside the town of Lourdes, looking for driftwood for their mothers’ cooking fires. It is Thursday, February 11th, 1858, Jeudi Gras, the First Day of Carnival, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, just after the church bells had rung the Noon Angelus.
Let us summarize what Bernadette saw. At first she heard a “sound of wind as though it were blowing up for a storm”. But everything around her in nature was still. Inside the grotto of the Massabielle, however, a wild rose bush was shaking to and fro, but nothing else around it was moving. “In the opening a moment later I saw a girl in white, no taller than I am, who greeted me with a slight bow of her head; at the same time she held out her arms a little and raised them, opening her hands just as holy virgins do. On her right arm a rosary was hanging. I was afraid, I drew back...I saw the girl smiling at me very graciously and seeming to invite me to come nearer...”
Bernadette thought to pray: she took her rosary out of her pocket but she found she could not make the Sign of the Cross.
“The girl meanwhile turned sideways towards me. She was now holding the large rosary in her hand. She signed herself , as though she was going to pray. My hand was shaking. I tried again to make the Sign of the Cross and found I was able to. After that I had no more fear, I recited the rosary. The girl passed the beads of her rosary through her hands, but made no movement with her lips. While I said the rosary, I kept looking as hard as I could. She was wearing a white dress which came down to her feet, and only her toes could be seen. The dress was fastened high up around the neck with a hem from which hung a ribbon. A white veil covered her head and came down over her shoulders and arms almost to the hem of her dress. On each foot I saw yellow rose. The girdle of her dress was blue and came below her knees. The chain of her rosary was yellow; the beads were large and white and spaced out from one another. The girl was lively, very young, and surrounded with light. When I had finished my rosary she greeted me with a smile. She drew back into the niche and all of a sudden disappeared.”
This was the First Apparition. There were to be Seventeen more. But let us note the detail of Bernadette’s description of “Her”–“Acquéro” in Bernadette’s dialect. She called her “the girl” or “the little girl”. In later descriptions she said that Acquéro was a little girl like herself, about her own size. Now, although Bernadette was just fourteen, her growth was stunted by disease and poor nutrition. She looked for all the world like a little girl of ten, eleven or twelve.
As time went on she was pressured to alter her description. Surely Our Lady could not appear as a little girl like that. But Bernadette never wavered. When she was told that “the Lady” was a more respectful description than the “little girl”, Bernadette adopted it. But she would never saw that she had seen the Lady as an older demoiselle or as a fully mature adult Lady.
That was not how the lowliness of the Lord’s handmaid Mary had appeared, “embedded”, to the poor, sick and suffering Bernadette Soubirous, and no power or persuasion could get Bernadette to say otherwise.
(St. Bernadette: A Pictorial Biography: Leonard von Matt and François Trochu, Translated from the French by Hebert Rees, Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, A.D. 1957)