What she told Bernadette and what it means for us today
We call the “Message of Lourdes” the gestures and words that were exchanged between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous, at the Grotto of Massabielle, during the time of the eighteen apparitions. This message can be heard as: God is love and he loves us as we are.
Lourdes in the 19th century was one of the central places in the district with more than 4,000 inhabitants including nobles, notaries, advocates, doctors, officers as well as manual workers, tradesmen, slate workers, small artisans such as millers. Mills were plentiful; many were dotted around the outside of the town, along one of the streams that flowed into the Gave – the Lapacca. Bernadette Soubirous was born in one of these, the Boly Mill, on January 7, 1844. The bankrupt family were living in the Cachot.
On February 11, 1858 Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend of theirs, Jeanne, went looking for wood in the meadows and came to “the place where the canal rejoins the River Gave”. They were in front of the Grotto of Massabielle. Toinette and Jeanne crossed the icy water, crying out with the cold; Bernadette hesitated to do this because of her chronic asthma. She heard “a noise like a gust of wind,” but “none of the trees were moving.” Raising her head, she saw, in a hollow of the rock a small young lady, who looked at her and who smiled at her. This was the first Apparition of the Virgin Mary.
In Bernadette’s time the Grotto was a dirty, hidden, damp and cold place. The Grotto was called the “pigs’ shelter” because that was where the pigs feeding in the area usually took shelter. It was there that the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, a sign of total purity, the sign of the Love of God, in other words, the sign of what God wishes to accomplish in each of us, deigned to appear. There is a contrast between this damp and obscure Grotto and the presence of the Virgin Mary, “the Immaculate Conception.” It reminds us of the Gospel: the meeting of the wealth of the goodness of God and the poverty of the human person. “Jesus goes to sit at the table of sinners,” “because he came to search out that which was lost.”
At Lourdes, the fact that Mary had appeared in a dirty and obscure Grotto, in the place called Massabielle, the Old Rock, tells us that God comes to join us where we are, in the midst of our poverty and failures. The Grotto is not only a place where something happened – a geographical place – it is also a place where God gives us a sign by revealing his heart and our heart.
It is a place where God leaves us a message, a message that is nothing other than that of the Gospel. God comes to tell us that he loves us – this is the heart of the Message of Lourdes, and he loves us as we are with all our successes but also with all our wounds, our weaknesses and our limitations.
ON FEBRUARY 18, 1858 : SOME EXTRAORDINARY WORDS
During the third Apparition on February 18, The Virgin Mary spoke for the first time.
Bernadette held out a sheet of paper and a pencil so that she might write down her name, but the Lady replied: “what I have to say to you does not have to be written down.” This was an extraordinary statement. It meant that the Virgin Mary wanted to enter into a relationship which is of the order of love, at the level of the heart. The heart, in the Bible, signifies the very center of the person, that which is the depth of the person.
Bernadette was right away invited to open the depths of her heart to this Message of Love.
At the second statement of the Virgin Mary: “Would you do me the kindness of coming here for 15 days?” Bernadette was overwhelmed. It was the first time that anyone had addressed her in a formal way. Bernadette describes these words by saying that the Virgin looked at her “as one person looks at another person.” Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are persons. Bernadette felt that she was also respected and loved, she also had the experience of being a person. We are all worthy of our dignity in the eyes of God. Because each of us is loved by God.