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from issue no. 01 - 2008

The hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Lourdes

That thing has the shape of a young girl”

So Bernadette described to Commissioner Jacomet what she saw in the grotto of Massabielle. Report of the eighteen encounters

by Giovanni Ricciardi

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times in the grotto of Massabielle, close to the town of Lourdes, to fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, over a span of time going from 11 February to the evening of 16 July. These brief references to the report of those days (above all as a help to reliving them in prayer), recall the main facts and some of the words and the testimonies reported in those days by Bernadette herself.

A depiction of the apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette

A depiction of the apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette

Thursday: first apparition
Bernadette left the house with her sister Toinette and their friend Jeanne Baloum to gather a little firewood on common land near the Gave river. Not managing to cross the river without wetting her feet, she had begun to take off her stockings, when, to quote her words, “I heard a noise like as if there had been a blast of wind”. She looked round, but the poplars behind her were not moving. “Then”, she told, “I continued to take off my shoes”. Again a blast of wind. This time she looked in the direction of the grotto, which lit up, and in the light a white smiling figure appeared to Bernadette. “It had a white dress, a veil white as well, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot. Her rosary beads were also yellow. I was amazed. I thought I was making a mistake. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. I still saw the same lady. I put my hand in my pocket and took out my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but I couldn’t bring my hand to my forehead. It fell back. Then I became very frightened and my hand shook. But I didn’t go away. The lady took the rosary she had on her arm and made the sign of the cross; then I also tried to make it and succeeded. As soon as I made the sign of the cross, the great fear that had taken hold of me vanished. I knelt down and I recited my rosary with the beautiful lady. The vision told the beads of her rosary without moving her lips. At the end of the rosary she beckoned me to approach, but I didn’t dare. Then the beautiful lady vanished without warning”.
On the road back Bernadette spoke to her sister and friend of what she had seen, making them promise not to reveal it to anybody, but Toinette told her parents who, that evening, questioned Bernadette and forbade her to go to the grotto again. After this first apparition, around noon, all the others took place in the morning except for the fourteenth and eighteenth that occurred in the evening.

14 February
Sunday: second apparition
It was the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Bernadette said: “I went back to the grotto for the second time the following Sunday. I remember it well because I felt myself urged by an inner force. My mother had forbidden me to go. After high mass, with my other two companions, we went to ask mother again to let me go to the grotto. She was absolutely against it. She was afraid I would fall in the water and not return in time for Vespers. I promised I would. Then she allowed me to go. Before leaving I went to the church with a little bottle to get some holy water. When we reached the place, each of us took out our rosary beads and we knelt down to say the Rosary. I had just finished the first decade of the Rosary when I saw the same lady appear. Immediately I began to throw the holy water on her telling her to remain, if ever she came from God, otherwise to go away. And I was quick to throw the water on her. She smiled at me and bowed her head”.
Bernadette was rapt in ecstasy, her companions could not make her move and ran off scared to get help. Nicolau the miller, with his strength, managed to get her away from there with difficulty. The rumors began to circulate. Her mother was worried and renewed the ban on returning to the grotto.

18 February
Thursday: third apparition
The rich Madame Milhet, driven by curiosity, got from the mother permission to take the child to Massabielle again, and ordered Bernadette to ask the name of the figure that appears to her, putting paper, pen and ink pot in her hand: “Will you have the goodness to write your name?”. Bernadette was thus to hear for the first time the voice of that lady, who replied: “There is no need”. And with amazing kindness asked Bernadette: “Will you have the goodness to come here for fifteen days?”. Bernadette said: “I told her yes. Moreover, she added she did not promise me happiness in this world but in the next. I went back to the grotto for fifteen days. The vision appeared to me every day, with the exception of a Monday and a Friday”.

Friday: fourth apparition
The apparition lasted a quarter of an hour. Bernadette held the candle given her by her godmother, Bernarde Castérot, with whom she went to the grotto with a dozen people. The beautiful lady limited herself to smiling at her in silence and Bernadette answered her with gestures: “She made signs with her hands and head,” said her friend Josèphe Barinque: “It was a pleasure to see her, as if all her life she’d done nothing else but learn to make those greetings. All I could do was look at her”.

20 February
Saturday: fifth apparition
When Bernadette began the Rosary waiting for the white lady to appear, there were thirty people around her. Also that day, 20 February, the vision lasted a quarter of an hour. During the whole Again this time, the first Sunday in Lent, no words, only gestures and smiles. In the afternoon Bernadette was questioned by Commissioner Jacomet, convinced that the story was fake. It was here that she began to use the term Aquerò – which in the dialect of Lourdes means That thing – to refer to what she was seeing: “So, Bernadette, you go every day to Massabielle?”. “Yes, Sir.” “And you see something beautiful?” “Yes, Sir”. “And so, Bernadette, you see the Holy Virgin?”. “I don’t say I’ve seen the Holy Virgin”. “Ah, well. You haven’t seen anything”. “Yes. Something I have seen”. “So, what have you seen?”. “Something white”. “Something or someone?”. “Aquerò/That thing has the shape of a young girl”. “And she didn’t tell you: I am the Holy Virgin?”. “Aquerò didn’t tell me”.

Tuesday: seventh apparition
Obeying the commissioner’s warning, Bernadette’s father forbade her to return to the grotto on Monday. There and then she obeyed, but in the afternoon an irresistible force drove her to Massabielle again. The apparition, however, did not occur. The day after, her parents withdraw their opposition and this time the apparition lasted an hour, before a crowd of a hundred and fifty people. During the ecstasy, Elénoire Pérand, who a year later was to join the nuns of Saint Vincent de Paul, pricked Bernadette with a pin. The girl had no reaction to the pain. Aquerò taught her a prayer just for her, that from then on Bernadette was to say every day of her life, and confided three secrets, that Bernadette said only regard herself.

The Grotto of Lourdes in a photo of 1914

The Grotto of Lourdes in a photo of 1914

Wednesday: eighth apparition
On this day the beautiful lady for the first time had a message for everyone: “Today Aquerò said a new word: Penance! She added: ‘You will pray to God for the conversion of sinners’. And I answered: ‘Yes’. She asked me if it troubled me. I answered no. Then she asked me to go on my knees to the end of the grotto and kiss the ground as a sign of penance for sinners”.

Thursday: ninth apparition
The spring situated at the back of the grotto that today feeds the pools and fountains of Lourdes dates from this day.
In front of five hundred people, Bernadette began to climb on her knees the slight slope that leads to the back of the grotto, kissing the ground. Following the indications of Aquerò, she dug a small hole with her hands and after throwing the water away three times because it was dirty, managed to drink it the fourth time.

Saturday: tenth apparition
This time That thing limited itself to smiling. Bernadette repeated the gestures of two days before: she moved forward kissing the ground, climbed to the back of the grotto and again drank the water gushing out of the earth.

Sunday: eleventh apparition
An official mandate to check the situation records the presence of 1,100 people during the apparition, that took the same form as the previous day. In the afternoon Antonie Clarens asked Bernadette about the “strange” exercises that Aquerò asked her to perform: “The vision has ordered it to me for penance”, she answered, “in the first place for me and then for others”. Clarens asked: “Have you been given some message... or entrusted with some mission?”. “No, not yet”. In the evening some stonemasons from Lourdes went to the grotto and dug at the point where Bernadette stooped to drink. From that moment the water began to gush out limpid and plentiful.

Monday: twelfth apparition
In front of 1,500 people, Bernadette repeated the same gestures of penance. Antoine Dézirat, a young priest, watched from close by: “Bernadette hardly moved her lips when telling her Rosary beads, but from her attitude, the look on her face, one saw that her soul was rapt. Her smile went beyond any expression... Only Bernadette saw the apparition, but everyone had the feeling of its presence... I thought I was in the antechamber of Paradise”. Later, Catherine Latapie, a young pregnant woman with a paralyzed hand, felt herself urged towards the grotto, dipped her hand in the water from the spring and was suddenly healed of her malady. It was to be the first miracle recognized by the Church and attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Tuesday: thirteenth apparition
This is how Bernadette remembered the events of that day: “She told me to go tell the priests to build a chapel there. I went to the parish priest to report it”.
The message was received coldly. The parish priest Peyramale was uncertain. Bernadette insisted that a chapel be built: “a chapel, even the smallest”. “Well”, Peyramale replied, “first let her give her name and make the rose bush of the grotto bloom, then we shall make her the chapel, that will not be the smallest. It will be very large”.

Wednesday: fourteenth apparition
Aquerò did not appear in the morning. She did so in the evening, at 9pm, explaining the reason for the “delay” as follows: “You did not see me this morning, because people had come in order to observe your behavior towards me, which people were not worthy”. Bernadette asked Aquerò her name, but she did not reply, limiting herself to smiling.

Thursday: fifteenth apparition
It was the last of the fifteen days. The apparition re-occurred in the presence of an enormous crowd that awaited a sign clear to all, but was disappointed. At the end of the Rosary recited in the presence of Aquerò, Bernadette broke off twice before making one of those signs of cross that astonished the people present for their beauty and simplicity. Her cousin Jeanne Védère asked her: “Why did you begin three times to make it”. “Aquerò still had not made it. I couldn’t get my hand to my forehead”. “Why were you sometimes happy, sometimes sad?” “I am sad when Aquerò is sad, and I smile when she smiles.”

The Grotto of Lourdes today

The Grotto of Lourdes today

Thursday: sixteenth apparition
An inner force urged Bernadette to return to Massabielle. Aquerò was there again and Bernadette repeated the question that the parish priest had suggested to her: “Miss, would you have the goodness to tell me who you are, please?”. Aquerò continued to smile in silence, but Bernadette insisted this time. Then, raising her eyes to heaven and joining her arms at the height of her breast she replied: “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou/I am the Immaculate Conception”. Bernadette did not grasp the meaning of the words. All the way from the grotto to the house of the parish priest she did nothing but repeat them aloud for fear of forgetting them. The parish priest was stunned. “A lady cannot bear that name! You’re wrong, do you know what it means?” Bernadette limited herself to repeating the syllables as she had heard them. Peyramale knew that the girl, in her ignorance, could not have invented a dogmatic definition. And commotion began to grow in him also.

7 April
Wednesday: seventeenth apparition
This apparition was linked to what is known as the “miracle of the candle”. The flame of the candle that Bernadette was holding in her hands during the vision licked her palms for a quarter of an hour without burning her. Doctor Dozous, observing the phenomenon, abandoned his scepticism and was converted. On this occasion the Holy Virgin renewed the request to build a chapel on that site.

Friday: eighteenth apparition
At sunset, Bernadette was again urged towards the grotto. The Holy Virgin was there, like the first time, for a silent encounter, the last here on earth. “What did she say to you?”, her friends asked. “Nothing”. It was enough to have seen her. And she concluded: “I have never seen her so beautiful”.

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