In mid-September, Pope Benedict made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, in southern France, to mark the 150th Anniversary of Our Lady's apparitions to a young French girl, Bernadette Soubirous. Hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world made the pilgrimage with him.
It is a deeply moving story. Fourteen-year-old Bernadette, whose sickly disposition and poverty-stricken circumstances had left her with little education, was collecting firewood along the banks of the River Gave when she saw a beautiful young lady standing in prayer in a grotto in the rocks. Bernadette's two companions saw nothing.
On the lady's instructions, Bernadette visited the grotto another 17 times, during which the lady, speaking in the local patois, asked for prayer and penance and that a chapel be built on the site.
The sceptical local priest demanded that Bernadette get the lady to identify herself and prove objectively that she was present by performing a miracle, like having a wild rose bush bud and flower in winter.
Initially, the lady demurred, but then told Bernadette to drink from a spring which flowed from the rock and eat the plants which grew there. There was no spring, but Bernadette did as she was told and scooped out the muddy earth, from which a spring with miraculous properties has since flowed continuously. Many people have been cured by bathing in these waters.
Later, in response to Bernadette's repeated requests, the lady said in the local dialect, 'I am the Immaculate Conception', using the exact title under which Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of Our Lady's freedom from original sin, four years earlier.
Eventually, the Church recognised the apparitions and today some five million pilgrims travel to Lourdes every year to have their faith and sometimes their bodies restored. It is one of the greatest centres of Catholic pilgrimage in the world, a constant source of grace to those who believe and clear proof that Jesus and his Blessed Mother care for every one of us. St Bernadette was canonised in 1933. (For more on Marian apparitions see pages 10-11).
- Peter Westmore, Publisher