THE SONG OF BERNADETTE
Reprinted with a foreword by George Weigel
by Franz Werfel
(Ignatius Press, 2006, 578 pp, $37.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In my final years of school as my interest in Catholicism was being awakened, whilst rummaging through my parents' books, I stumbled across a Readers' Digest condensed version of The Song of Bernadette. Opening up and thinking I would merely read a few pages, my interest must have been immediately aroused, as I was not to put the copy down until summoned for dinner a number of hours later. Having opened this book again 20 years later, I again found the fascinating account of St Bernadette's apparitions of the Virgin Mary just as hard to put down.
Long considered the best retelling of the apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, the author of The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel, ironically was not a Catholic, but a Jew. Already a noted author whose works included, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel based on the Ottoman empire's genocide of the Armenians in 1915, Werfel fled Austria in the wake of the Anchluss in 1938.
Desperate to cross into neutral Spain in 1940 after France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany, as he was on the Nazis' 'hit list', he took refuge at Lourdes. Upon learning of the story behind the shrine, Werfel vowed that if his escape bid was successful, he would write a book about Lourdes. The Song of Bernadette was the fulfilment of this vow.
The account begins with a description of the dire poverty of the Soubirous family who lived a hand to mouth existence. Whilst collecting wood, Bernadette sees 'the lady' in a grotto and begins to pray the rosary with her. During subsequent visits, the lady made a request that a chapel be built and that there be processions. She also revealed the location of a spring, whose miraculous healing properties were soon demonstrated. When she asked the lady for her identity, the lady replied in the provincial dialect which Bernadette spoke, 'I am the Immaculate Conception.'
Bernadette, however, did not understand what the lady meant, namely that it revealed her identity as the Virgin Mary by identifying herself with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that had been solemnly defined only four years prior to the apparition.
Werfel not only paints a portrait of Bernadette's personality with his masterful prose but also delineates the characters of the other principal protagonists in the story as he recounts the reaction of the people of Lourdes and beyond, from belief amongst many of the residents to initial disbelief and caution by the Church, scoffing and mockery by secular humanists and attempts to suppress devotion by the secular authorities.
Towards the end of the story, Werfel contrasts Bernadette with one of the sharpest critics of the apparitions, Lafitte. Both by this stage were seriously ill with cancer. Whereas Bernadette, now a nun, was able to offer up her sufferings and was sustained by her hope in God, Lafitte, who had regarded the apparitions as mere superstition, is overcome by despair.
Werfel ended his story with an account of the beatification, in which he focuses on one of those present, Bouhohouts, who as a young boy had been cured spontaneously by the Lourdes water in 1858. The Song of Bernadette, a story imbued with Christian hope, was an instant success when first published in English in 1942, months after America's entry into the war against the Nazism Werfel fled. Such was its popularity that Warner Brothers Pictures secured the rights and made a film that has become a popular family classic, readily available on DVD.
The Readers' Digest condensed version of The Song of Bernadette, through which the reviewer first encountered the story of Lourdes, was consigned to a Brotherhood bin long ago in a house move. Nevertheless, it was part of the jigsaw puzzle in the path to conversion and is a story that continues to inspire faith, hope and love in God. It is thus a blessing that Ignatius Press has decided to republish The Song of Bernadette.
Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent college.