Pain and suffering may not be God punishing someone - just look at the life of St Bernadette of Lourdes

'Her painful cancer was God’s way of punishing her because she went against the Church’s teachings and didn’t pray enough!’ wrote one angry young woman in a group email that was forwarded to my email inbox. Judging by the dozens of times the email was passed on and and by the enthusiastic encouragement (‘you are right – suffering like that is God’s way of showing people He is not happy with them’) there was agreement among a group of young people who enjoyed good health as to the mind of God: why He allowed some of their less prayerful friends and acquaintances to get horrible diseases.
The reason the email was sent to me was because many years ago I had been having tests in hospital (it turned out I didn’t have anything) and the sender of the email was ‘concerned’ that God didn’t like me much. Well, He may not. But I think it is arrogant and wrong to presume God’s intentions for a person and pronounce that the reason they have illnesses, poor health or even a disability is because God is chastising them.
A very cursory look at the life of St Bernadette of Lourdes tells us this may not be the case. Bernadette was someone who was highly favoured by God and yet simultaneously she had a life of extreme suffering and pain.
Bernadette was a sickly child, and at the age of 6 she had nasty asthmatic-like symptoms. Her condition was not helped by the fact that by the time she was a teenager her parents were forced to move to a damp single-room hovel. It had been a former jail and this cramped, musty place was known by the locals as ‘the Dungeon’. From a very poor family, in frail health and even though she was a simple girl who people looked down their noses on – Bernadette was still honoured by visits from Our Lady.
February 1858 was bitingly cold and Bernadette was 14. Her mother asked her to collect fuel to be burnt to keep the Soubirous family warm, which meant Bernadette went to the river-side and picked up bits of drift-wood and stray branches from trees. On returning home, she heard a rustle like a sudden gust of wind. Bernadette’s eyes traveled upwards and she saw a golden cloud – from which came an extraordinarily beautiful woman who rested in a small niche in the rock formation.
The Lady was dressed in a white robe and had golden roses adorning her feet – she smiled lovingly at Bernadette and beckoned her to come closer. Bernadette knelt before her and took out her rosary beads. The Lady also had a rosary and to use Bernadette’s own words, ‘the Lady let me pray alone, she passed the beads of the rosary between her fingers, but said nothing, only at the end of each decade did she say the Gloria with me.’ When they had finished offering the Rosary, the Lady vanished.
The following month on March 25 Bernadette was blessed with ‘the Lady’ revealing her true identity to little Bernadette. From her spot in the grotto, she said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. The Mother of God divulged to a peasant girl with bad health that she had been ‘immaculately conceived’: her soul had always been immaculately clean and never had the stain of original sin.
Perhaps when we talk of little Bernadette being ‘highly favoured’ it does not go far enough. The Mother of God appeared to her and effectively told her she had an exemption from original sin so that she would be fit to be the Mother of God.
As I wrote last year, Bernadette had a special vocation in offering prayer and sufferings for sinners.
It might, just might be the case that God gives sufferings to others as He did to Bernadette so that they may offer it up for others. In any case, I think that instead of being quick to rant as to why God may give someone an illness, t’would be better to pray for someone in dire pain.
Were we to start the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes today, we would finish on February 11th, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
PS - February 11th is also the World Day of the Sick, which Pope Francis has said will bind together people of different religions. History has shown that  St Bernadette attracts followers from non-Christian faiths. It was a Jewish author, Franz Victor Werfel who penned the best-selling novel, The Song of Bernadette which was later made into one of the best-loved Catholic movies of all time.  
I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald. To see a full selection of my articles, please see my author archive


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Most saints underwent much suffering during their life here on earth. Does it mean God was punishing them? I think pain is not as we see or rationalize it. Only God knows the reason why (maybe for purification, maybe to serve as inspiration to others, etc.), and trying to interpret things in a worldly manner (like saying "suffering and pain are bad for you"), is unChristianlike. Even Jesus suffered so much from pain in the cross and people even rejected Him (which must have been painful to his mother and to Him too). Does it mean God is not happy with Jesus? In fact God declared that Jesus is His Son, with whom He is pleased.

  2. Dear oh dear. Jesus IS God! Was God angry with Himself and caused Himself pain? Victim souls like Bernadette are given the gift, yes the Gift, of suffering alongside Him. Bernadette will have expiate do the sins of many of us by her suffering. As did little Jacinta of Fatima. If you remember, Jacinta was asked if she was willing to suffer to save souls. She wholeheartedly agreed to do so. None of us can know why God sends suffering. To a particular soul. Just pray for them and hope they pray for you. A seminarian told me that sufferings are "kisses from God" to help us on our way to heaven.


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