180 years ago a baby girl, Bernadette was born in a remote town in the Pyrenees. She was raised in the clink. Well, it was no longer used as a lock-up for criminals because it was no longer thought fit for that purpose, but the baby's parents, Francois and Louise Soubirous lived on the edge of destitution and this one-room hovel was all they could afford. Had Dickens, who was in his hey-day at the time, seen the squalor they lived in, he'd have written a novel about them. When the Soubirous held baby Bernadette, little did they know that she would become so famous and yet so persecuted that she would desire to be imprisoned in a cell of her own to get some peace.

Bernadette was the eldest of 9. When she was a toddler she contracted cholera, the disease that dehydrates the body and parches the mouth, but it did not ravage Bernadette's beauty and her eyes looked deep-set while her oval face shone with loveliness of character. She only grew to be 4 '7, more petite even than Joan of Arc. She had few educational prospects and by the time she was 14, she could not read or write or speak French. 

Her mother tongue was Occitan, which has a gravelly tone and is a mix of the dialects of the neighboring nations. But it was in this language that the Mother of God spoke to Bernadette and thus sanctified a speech that snobs spurned. From the 11th of February to the 16th of July 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette for a total of 18 times by the bank of the Gave River. Bernadette was overawed by Our Lady’s radiance, she wore an impeccably white gown and mantle with an azure girdle. Golden roses adorned her bare feet. Bernadette later said that the sculpture done of Our Lady did not do justice to her exquisite beauty. This warrants our reflection, that Our Lady’s loveliness is just so extraordinary.

The local priest pressed Bernadette to find out the Lady’s name, but it was only on the feast of the Annunciation that she declared, “I am the Immaculate Conception”. Only 4 years before Our Lady appeared to Bernadette, the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception had been promulgated. In the little niche in a mountainside Our Lady bared her soul to Bernadette, and with her glittering veil she swept away any lingering doubts as to her sinless soul that had never ever known the fall-out of the fall, but from which the Queen of Heaven wanted to save us. 

Most spectacularly, the visions given Bernadette are a vindication of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Lourdes is a gift to sinful humanity, and a reward to a Church that raised up Pope Pius IX who made it official doctrine that Our Lady had been conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of original sin. Lourdes has become an epicenter of miraculous healings, known for the profound peace and the uplift in soul that pilgrims enjoy there, a source of joy to the faithful who have faith in the intercession of she who was conceived immaculately. Imagine the good things that would happen if everyone from us ordinary folk to the highest echelons of the Church hierarchy did exactly what Our Lady wanted all the time. 

Those of us who feel grief that the Queen of Heaven is oft times ignored or even belittled, need to make Bernadette’s example better known. If only our bishops were more like her! Bernadette had childlike simplicity and docility, her faithfulness meant she sought to do as Our Lady requested regardless of how it cost her and perhaps most importantly she cared nothing for her own reputation that got tarnished at times along the way. Her lack of scrupulosity meant attempts to guilt her into denying the visions were in vain, and her lack of self-pity meant she gave herself wholly to penance for the conversion of sinners. Bernadette was not a sophisticated intellectual - her lack of smarts invited insults from those who seemed to envy her. This was the young girl who the Queen of Heaven picked as her special envoy.

Bernadette’s humility is humbling, she was brought up in an abandoned jail and never felt coerced by the officers when they threatened to lock her up. She said she’d quite enjoy it. Her debilitating asthma never let up, she saw others being miraculously cured, and yet she came to accept that she was not, as Our Lady said, meant to be happy in this life, but in the next. 

Personally, I believe the Mass of Our Lady of Lourdes has tremendous power to melt people's hearts and turn them into her willing subjects a bit like Bernadette. The texts abound in images that inspire sublime meditation so that we may have something akin to how Bernadette felt when she beheld she who is the loveliest and most loving of all women. The Introit has the Immaculate Mother of the Messiah, “descending arrayed as a bride”. The Gradual could also be a description of the apparitions, “Arise, my love, my beautiful one; and come, my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall”. The Communion has us contemplate the Eucharist as a spring which hydrates the soul and makes it fertile, thus calling to mind the blessed water of Lourdes. It is in the Postcommunion where we pray for ourselves as though in this life we are on a perilous voyage and need all the graces of Holy Mass to get to Heaven, in this we are united with all true pilgrims who go to Lourdes to be at the mountain face where Our Lady stood as on the threshold of Heaven, bidding us all to come to her.


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I wrote this column for The Mass of Ages, magazine of The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.


  1. Dear Mary,

    Blessed Feast of the Annunciation to you, too! So very happy to read your new posts - always an inspiration. May the Holy Spirit continue to enlighten as you complete your book on Padre Pio.

    Pax et bonum,

    1. Dear Katherine,

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment, always great to know you are reading my posts. I, too, hope the Holy Spirit will deign to guide me as much as possible so that as many people as possible are brought to Christ through my meager writing.

      Prayers for you and yours, Mary

  2. Dear Mary,
    I always look forward to your posts. Thank you for this beautiful one. God bless you.

    1. Dear Tricia, Thank you very, very much for your encouragement. I'm striving to write as well as I can; it's hard, but perhaps more meritorious because it doesn't come easily. God bless you, too.


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