Lourdes: Yesterday, To-day and To-morrow

Ecclesiastical Authority.

"SO you have been pretending to see visions; you have been setting people gadding about with your stories!" Such were, according to the historian of Lourdes, M. Lasserre, the first words with which the parish priest greeted Bernadette when she went to him with a message from the Apparition, that a chapel was to be built on the rocks of Massabielle. M. Peyramale's phrase indicates the attitude of distrust assumed at first by all the clergy of the place. The parish priest was in the full vigour of age, beloved by his people, esteemed by parishioners of all parties; to him all looked, by one consent, for a sign of guidance. Faithful, however, to the traditions of the clergy, he maintained a certain reserve as to his opinion of the events that were about to transform his parish.

This was just after the Apparition of the twenty-third of February. That day the visitant had said to Bernadette, "Now, my daughter, go and tell the priests that I wish to have a chapel built for me on this place, and that I wish to have processions made to the Grotto." The child had risen from her knees and had gone straight to the presbytery, followed by the crowd. The Abbé Peyramale received her coldly. He was, of course, aware that all his words would be reported. He asked Bernadette guarded questions. He examined her upon the details. The child related what she had seen, and repeated the wish expressed by the Lady relative to the building of a chapel. All this was sufficiently surprising. But it was also moving. The priest could not suppress a feeling of awe in the presence of the child of thirteen who was hardly able to read, who but yesterday was keeping sheep on the mountain. The matter, however, was so grave and still so doubtful that he judged it best to receive the message with a smile. He gave Bernadette two counsels -- that she should ask the visitant her name, and that she should ask also for a sign. If a Lady were there, and if she wished for a chapel, she should be asked to cause the wild rose-tree at her feet to put forth flowers.

Bernadette promised to do all that M. Peyramale bade her. In spite of this, the priest took his decisive step; he forbade the clergy to approach the Grotto -- a prohibition which was ratified as soon as might be by the Bishop of Tarbes. The order, needless to say, was obeyed.

The Apparitions went on, the cures began. But no wonders succeeded in drawing a word from the clergy.

On the day following the second of March, when the new spring of water had gushed from the soil at the word of the Blessed Virgin and the touch of Bernadette, the child went again to the presbytery and renewed her request that a chapel might be built. The Abbé from that hour inclined to believe that the Lady who thus manifested herself to Bernadette was indeed the Blessed Virgin. He drew up a detailed report for the Bishop, who, on the word of a priest he valued as one of the most distinguished and one of the most scrupulously careful priests of his diocese, took thenceforth careful note of what was happening amongst his flock. He made no public sign, however, and received minute tidings day by day in silence and meditation.

On the fifth of April Monseigneur Laurence received the visit of the Prefect, who communicated to him the letter he had received from head-quarters instructing him to prevent Bernadette from having access to the Grotto. The Bishop did not consider it his duty to second the Prefect; he did, nevertheless, advise M. Peyramale to dissuade the child from her visits. At this time occurred the sign of the burning taper; it was the reply of the Apparition to the request of the Imperial functionary.

When the arrest of Bernadette was in prospect, M. Peyramale, as we have seen, emphatically opposed such a measure. But when the order for tearing down the offerings and for barricading the place was carried out by the police, and the crowd showed signs of resistance, the clergy counselled absolute submission. This issue of this advice was the only public act of the clergy during the months of the Apparitions.

The people were puzzled. They found it difficult to understand this policy of abstention. in face of such events. Neither their Bishop nor their clergy had ever approached the scene of the miracles in which their flocks believed. Many petitions were made to the Bishop that he would declare himself and reassure the timorous of conscience.

At this time an event happened which hastened the solution of the question and hurried the clergy out of their reticence. This was the exploit, above alluded to, of two little boys who -- not impossibly, it was thought, at the instigation of the enemies of Bernadette and her mission -- came forward with a tale of visions of their own. They went so far as to bless rosaries -- an incident whereof the Minister of Public Worship had heard in Paris. M. Peyramale, as soon as he heard of the matter, turned the boys out of the Sunday school, and gave notice that he held their story to be a fabrication. At the same time he kept Bernadette in her place in the school, and gave manifest proofs that he believed in her good faith. This seemed equal to a public profession of faith. As such the town received it. Moreover, the Bishop judged, when the month of July had almost run out, that the time had come for an official inquiry. For this he issued orders, as follows:

Events of grave importance to religion, which have stirred the neighbourhood and have been heard of abroad, have been taking place at Lourdes since the eleventh of February last.

Bernadette Soubirous, a young girl of Lourdes, in her fourteenth year, is alleged to have seen visions at the Grotto of Massabielle, situated to the west of that town. The Immaculate Virgin is said to have appeared to her; a fountain, it is affirmed, sprang from the soil. The water of that fountain, used as drink or lotion, is stated to have worked a number of cures, and the cures are reported to be miraculous. Crowds of people have assembled, and are still assembling, from parts of our own diocese and from other dioceses, to seek from this spring the cure of their diseases, with prayers in invocation of the Immaculate Virgin. The Civil Authority has taken action. And now, on every side, the question is asked why Ecclesiastical Authority should not pronounce itself upon the subject of these improvised pilgrimages.

Heretofore we have not considered that the time had come for us to give profitable attention to these occurrences. We believed that in preparing the judgment expected from us we could hardly proceed with too mature or too slow a deliberation; we decided to distrust the excitement of the first days, to allow the minds of our people to grow calm, to give time for reflection, and to pray for help in our attentive observation of the facts.

Monseigneur Laurence then proceeds to name those persons who had formulated a request for episcopal intervention, and announces that in compliance with their demand, he had ordered a Commission of Inquiry. The Bishop proceeds:

For this cause,
Invoking the Holy Name of God,
We have ordained as follows:

Article 1. -- A Commission is instituted in the Diocese of Tarbes to inquire:

Firstly, whether cures have resulted from the use of the water of the Grotto of Lourdes, whether as drink or lotion; and, if so, whether those cures may be explained as working by natural means, or are to be ascribed to supernatural causes.

Secondly, whether the visions alleged to have been seen in the Grotto by the child, Bernadette Soubirous, are real appearances, and, if so, whether they are to be explained by natural causes, or are invested with a character supernatural and divine.

Thirdly, whether the Apparition made any request, or manifested any wish to this child; whether she was charged with communicating such wishes, and to whom; what was the purport of such wishes or requests.

Fourthly, whether the fountain now flowing in the Grotto existed before the vision alleged by Bernadette Soubirous.

Article 2. -- The Commission shall bring before us none but facts established by evidence. Upon these facts it shall present a circumstantial report, together with its opinion.

Article 3. -- The Deans of the Diocese shall be the principal correspondents of the Commission. We request them to report to the said Commission:

Firstly, the facts occurring within their respective deanships.

Secondly, the names of persons who may be able to give evidence as to such facts.

Thirdly, the names of persons who may be able to help the Commission.

Fourthly, the names of physicians who have had the care of patients before their cure.

Article 4. -- After taking the above evidence, the Commission may proceed to examinations. Witnesses shall be heard upon oath. When places are to be examined, at least two members of the Commission shall be present together.

Article 5. -- We earnestly recommend the Commission to take into its counsels men versed in science -- medicine, physiology, chemistry, geology, and the rest -- in order to hear their opinion upon the difficulties connected with the subjects upon which they have expert knowledge. The Committee shall neglect nothing that may afford them information and bring them to the truth, whatever it may be.

Article 6. -- The Commission shall be composed of eight members of the Chapter of our Cathedral, the Superiors of our great and lesser Seminaries, the Superior of Missionaries in this Diocese, the Parish Priest of Lourdes, and the Professors of Dogma, of Morals, and of Physical Science in our Seminary. The Professor of Chemistry in our lesser Seminary shall be frequently consulted.

Article 7. -- M. Nogaro, Canon-Archpriest, and Canons Tabarier and Saule are appointed Vice-Presidents. The Commission shall appoint a Secretary and two Vice-Secretaries, chosen from amongst its members.

Article 8. -- The Commission shall begin its labours immediately, and shall meet as often as it shall consider necessary.

Given at Tarbes, at our Episcopal Palace, under our sign, our seal, and the counter-sign of our Secretary, on the twenty-eighth of July, 1858.

BERTRAND, Bishop of Tarbes.

By command:
FOURCADE, Canon Secretary.

Immediately afterwards Monseigneur Laurence received from the Minister of Public Worship the letter published in the preceding chapter. The Bishop replied at once. Some extracts from his letter run as follows:

I shall be glad, Monsieur le Ministre, to know that you are making inquiries, upon the occurrences at Lourdes, of trustworthy persons now staying in the town to see the places, and to hear the reports of the inhabitants and of the child alleged to have seen the vision, such as the Bishops of Montpellier and Soissons, the Archbishop of Auch, M. Vene, inspector of thermal springs, Madame Amiot, M. Louis Veuillot, and others.

The clergy, Monsieur le Ministre, have not maintained up to the present an attitude of complete reserve in regard to the occurrences at the Grotto. The clergy, however, have been admirably prudent; they have never visited the Grotto, so as to give no countenance to the pilgrimage, but they have supported the action of the authorities. None the less have they been accused of favouring superstition. I make no accusation against the chief magistrate of the Department, whose intentions have always been upright, but he certainly has placed an exclusive confidence in his subordinates....

The religious offerings having once been removed from the walls of the Grotto, we expected the visits to diminish by degrees, and a pilgrimage so strangely begun to come to an end. It has not been so. The public alleged, rightly or wrongly, that the water flowing in the Grotto was working miraculous cures; the gathering of crowds grew greater; visitors thronged in from neighbouring Departments. On the eighth of June, the Mayor of Lourdes issued a notice prohibiting access to the Grotto, and giving the interests of religion and motives concerning the public health as his reasons. Although religion was thus put forward without any consultation with the Bishop, the latter made no complaint. He kept silence.

Monseigneur Laurence closes by informing the Minister of the appointment of the Commission. By this attitude of dignity the Bishop of Tarbes constrained those who opposed him at Lourdes to some reticence on their own part. It was impossible, indeed, to retort against a Prelate who bore himself, according to the traditions of the Church, with exceeding prudence, and refused to admit the events of Massabielle as miraculous without the proof of a verdict from persons worthy of faith.

The newspapers of the capital. nevertheless, waged war. The Commission, they averred, was futile, and no real information upon the miracles would ever be gained. They said little or nothing more when the will of Napoleon III made itself felt from Biarritz, and when the way to the Grotto was thus suddenly made free once more. At this precise time the Commission, now in working order, began their task.

On the seventeenth of November their inquiry formally began. For some long months together they sought evidence throughout the neighbourhood, and gathered the testimony of those who had themselves been cured of diseases or who had been direct witnesses of the cure of others. With scrupulous care all the evidence was sifted, and at the end thirty chosen cases were retained as worthy to be reported upon to the Bishop. For him no possibility of doubt remained. The heads of the medical profession, the most conspicuous experts in chemistry, had affixed their signatures to the certificates of cures. Clear evidence had been given that the water of the Grotto contained no curative properties. The Bishop was convinced that authentic miracles had followed a veritable apparition of the Blessed Virgin.

At the end of three months the Commission delivered their report. France anxiously awaited the publication of a document which was either to reassure so many doubts and to open wide the road to the Grotto, or to declare before God that Bernadette was under an hallucination, and that the Blessed Virgin had never manifested herself at the rocks of Massabielle. Monseigneur Laurence, in possession of a report drawn up by men whose truth it was impossible to question, men bound by oath to include none but proved and certain facts, did not even then consider that all measures of precaution had been fulfilled. He withheld the report. He waited, as it were, for a possible counter-proof. During the course of three years the Bishop of Tarbes held his hand, waiting lest retractations might yet be made, and lest anything should lawfully prevent the proclamation awaited by the Catholic world.

Nothing of this happened. And when the long delay, whereby a very scruple of security had been satisfied, had come to an end, the Bishop published a Pastoral Letter, dated the eighteenth of January, 1862, of which the following were the principal passages:

Let thanks be given to the Almighty. In the treasury of His infinite bounties He was reserving for us a new favour. His will is that in the Diocese of Tarbes a new sanctuary should be raised to the glory of Mary. And of what instrument does He make use for the communication of the designs of His mercy? Of the weakest thing He can find on earth a child of fourteen years, Bernadette Soubirous, born at Lourdes of a family in indigence.

The testimony of the young girl offers all the guaranties that could possibly be desired. In the first place her sincerity cannot be doubted. Invariably consistent, in the course of the several examinations to which she was subjected she has persistently maintained the story she told at first, without adding or omitting a single detail. The good faith of Bernadette is beyond question. Let us add that in fact it has never been questioned; her opponents, when any such there have been, have themselves paid her the tribute of this acknowledgment.

But if Bernadette had no intention of deceiving others, did she not deceive herself? Was she not the victim of some delusion? Did she not believe that she saw and heard what in truth she did not see and did not hear? We can hardly think so. The intelligence of the child's answers reveals a quiet mind, a calm imagination, good sense beyond her years. Her religious feeling has never had the character of exaltation; no intellectual disorder, no abnormal condition of the senses, no extravagance of temperament no morbid affectation, has been discovered in the young girl, such as would predispose her to inventions of the imagination. She had her vision not once only, but eighteen times. The first time she had the vision suddenly, when nothing had occurred to prepare her for what was to take place. And during the fortnight when she expected a daily vision, she had none on two days, although she was on the same spot and in the usual circumstances Again, what happened during the Apparitions? A notable change was seen in Bernadette. Her face assumed a new expression, her glance was enkindled, she obviously was looking at things she had never seen before, was hearing things she had not heard before, things whereof she did not always understand the whole signification and yet whereof she kept the remembrance. These combined evidences do not admit the hypothesis of hallucination. The young girl did veritably see and hear a being self-styled the Immaculate Conception. And such a phenomenon not being susceptible of a natural explanation, we are constrained to believe the Apparition to have been supernatural.

The sick made trial of the water of the Grotto, and not without results. Several whose diseases had resisted the most careful treatment suddenly recovered their health. These extraordinary cures were greatly noised abroad. The sick of various nations abroad began to ask for the water of Massabielle when they were unable to go in person to the Grotto. How many sufferers were thus healed, how many families comforted!

These cures were wrought by the use of water devoid of any natural curative properties, according to the rigorous analysis of chemists of ability. Some of the cures occurred instantaneously, others after the second or third trial of the water by drinking or bathing. Furthermore, the cures were permanent. What is the power that produced them? Is it the mere strength of nature in the patient? Science, consulted upon this point, answers in the negative. The cures are the work of God. They are related to the Apparition, it was their starting-point, it inspired the patients with confidence, it is intimately connected with them all. That which comes from God is the truth. Hence the Apparition, which took the name of the Immaculate Conception, which Bernadette both heard and saw, is the Most Holy Virgin! Let us cry aloud, "The finger of God is here!"

For this cause: Having taken counsel with our Venerable Brethren the Dignitaries, Canons, and Chapter of our Cathedral church, and having invoked the Holy Name of God, we declare as follows:

Article 1. -- We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, did in truth appear to Bernadette Soubirous on the eleventh of February, 1858, and on following days to the number of eighteen, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near to the town of Lourdes; that this Apparition bears all the signs of truth, and that the faithful are permitted to believe it as a certainty. We humbly submit our judgment to that of the Sovereign Pontiff, upon whom lies the charge of the government of the Universal Church.

Article 2. -- We authorise in our diocese the cultus of Our Lady of Lourdes. But we forbid the publication of any form of prayer without our authorisation in writing.

Article 3. -- In order to conform to the will of the Holy Virgin, several times announced in the course of the Apparitions, we purpose to build a sanctuary upon the ground of the Grotto, which has become the property of the Bishops of Tarbes.

The Bishop closes with an appeal to the clergy and people, to the schools and confraternities, of his own diocese and of the whole of France.

The Bishop of Tarbes had spoken. Catholics were free thenceforward to kneel with faith before the Grotto where the Blessed Virgin had manifested herself. The Press throughout France had its comments to make upon the Pastoral. These comments varied. Ridicule without measure was the note of some, a solemn thanksgiving of others. The official campaign against Bernadette, however, was closed, to open no more. Those who wished to please the Emperor took the hint and held their peace.

The first care of Monseigneur Laurence was to make the acquisition of the site secure, M. Rouland, Minister of Public Worship, giving his authorisation with something like eagerness. M. Peyramale, who had been the first to trust the good faith of Bernadette, seconded the work of the Bishop. Both asked alms of France and of the Catholic world. Soon the walls of the Basilica were rising from the flanks of the riverside rocks.

On the fourth of April, 1864, Monseigneur Laurence took official possession of the ground, and blessed the statue which was to stand on the precise place of the Apparition. From the festival of that day two persons were absent; the Abbé Peyramale and Bernadette were both sick and absent when the hopes of both -- priest and little girl -- were accomplished at last. On the twenty-sixth of May, 1866, the Crypt was finished. It was consecrated on that day, Whitsun Monday. An altar was raised upon the rock in presence of a throng of all kinds and classes of Catholics. And from that morning until our day, pilgrimages to Lourdes have never ceased.

The year 1872 saw the first of the pilgrimages called "National." It was part of the religious movement of "Expiation" that followed -- as soon as the nation was able to draw breath --the calamities of the War. Every Department of France was represented, and the pilgrims were led by members of the Government, men in public offices, Senators and Representatives from the Chambers of the Legislature. The national prayer, recited before the little shepherdess's Grotto, was as follows:

Mary, Virgin Immaculate, Our Lady of Lourdes, behold thy children at thy feet. We have come from every part of France to remind thee that our people are thy people, and obeying thy voice we protest once more that in thee we place our faith and hope. We come to give thee thanks for thy miraculous manifestations. We come to entreat thee to lead us back to thy dear Son, Our Lord. We come to entreat thee to obtain for our country peace and mercy from God. We promise to become a Christian people once more. We promise to make reparation, publicly and solemnly, for the insults proffered against our most beloved Saviour, Jesus Christ. We attest the faith of France, we prove her confidence! Give us charity, and we shall live! Put an end to the sufferings of our nation. Make France anew, and give us again our unhappy brethren. She is ever the eldest daughter of the Church. She believes, she prays, and thou art her Queen. She is sure now of her salvation, sure that she shall be once more, through thee, the powerful nation and the Catholic nation that once she was. Amen. Amen.

A Day Procession

On the second and third of July, 1876, the official recognition of this new Holy Place in Europe was granted by the Catholic Church. On those days took place the consecration of the Basilica, and the coronation of the statue which stands above its High Altar, by the Papal Nuncio, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, and thirty-five Bishops. Five Bishops went about the church marking its walls with the sacred unction. Sixteen Bishops, gathered in a most majestic circle in the choir, held the relics for the kisses of the faithful. Never, in the history of the Church, had so many of her shepherds met in such an act. The preacher was Monseigneur Mermillod, then exiled and proscribed, who told again, with the fire of his impassioned temperament and brilliant talent, the story of the little shepherdess gathering firewood on the banks of the mountain torrent on the February day of 1858:

On that day, a little girl alone upon her knees. On this, a crowd of many nations, the Princes of the Church, the delegates of the Vicar of Christ. In vain have disbelief and heresy sought to profane these miracles. In vain have they charged the Church with fostering a puerile devotion. No, there is nothing here worthy of that name. The miracle of Lourdes is the affirmation of Christianity integral in its doctrine; of Christianity social in its influence. Our Lady of Lourdes treads under her feet the double error of our times which seeks to strip the Christian religion of the supernatural, and to banish that religion from the social order into the secret place of the individual conscience. More than elsewhere, in France has human action striven to divide God from the order of corporate society. But from this hour France shall take new life.

Her very cradle was in the supernatural. To St. Genevieve, a little shepherdess, it was revealed that Christ and His Mother, on a battlefield, had chosen France for their own. Her preservation was by the supernatural. To Joan of Arc her way of national salvation was entrusted. And by the supernatural is her resurrection to be brought about. Crowds from every corner of France are led to-day by a shepherdess to the foot of the Pyrenees to affirm once again that Christ, the integral Christ of Catholic doctrine, is the soul of France. Does it not seem as though our God were communicating with us through His poor, and showing us how He shall baptise our democracies in the noble sanctities of religion?

Christianity was wounded with the wound of France. But it shall be healed under the inspiration of the Pope and under the influence of pilgrimages. This Basilica of Lourdes is a monument raised up in proof that the world is to be saved supernaturally; to be saved by the supernatural as it is in the Gospel. More than ever, despite sorrow and darkness, shall we walk towards the realisation of the will of God, that our hearts should he one in truth and charity; that the peoples should be one flock within one fold under one shepherd; and that the Basilica of the whole Christian world should arise for the glory of God and the peace of humankind.

Such are our hopes upon this incomparable day. Such is the word of love and faith that rises from the heart of Pius the Ninth, and from the hearts of all his people, at this time when Europe watches with profound disquiet the struggle in the East. Our Lady of Lourdes is our bow set in the cloud; she is the dawn heralding the Sun of Righteousness, about to rise at the close of this century.

So brief a summary gives but little idea of the fervour of the sermon which at such a time and in such a place deeply moved its hearers. Military music accompanied the voices of the people, who, unable to find places in the church, were singing hymns under the Southern sun, Even the neighbouring hills were covered with spectators; and when the Delegate of the Pope, from before the face of the Basilica, gave the Pope's benediction, he gave it to the representatives of the world. There was no night between the first day and the second. Hymns never ceased, and lights were never put out, until daylight gathered the multitude in groups at a hundred altars. The illumination, which did not pale till morning, outlined the Basilica, sparkled by rocks and river-bank, and shone from every house in the town. The Benedictine convent signalled to that of Carmel, and fifty thousand torches were carried by the hands of pilgrims. It was so arranged that these processions should veritably be endless. A river of lights passed from the Grotto to the hills, circled the Basilica with a girdle of stars, crowned the hilltop, scattered itself over the open space below, interlaced the streets of the town, and joined the stream flowing afresh from the place of the Apparition. From the foothills of the Pyrenees great rockets ran up into the sky and showered themselves in colours upon the church and river, gathering together into an immense bouquet, which closed these pious fireworks in a manner worthy of Papal Rome at Easter. It was as though the Pyrenean hilltop had turned into a sudden and beautiful volcano.

The next morning saw the solemn coronation of the statue representing "Our Lady of Lourdes." Thus, after years of deliberation and counsel the Church blessed the soil of Lourdes, and bade her children to gather there as at a place of prayer.

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