A day in Lourdes: UK tour of the relics of St Bernadette
The visit of the relics of St Thérèse in 2009 was a major event in the life of the Church in Britain; the fact that thousands flocked to be close to ‘the little flower’ revealed just how attractive a vision of Christianity her ‘little way of love’ was. I recall the police trying to manage the crowds blocking the streets surrounding the Carmelite priory in Kensington and my attempts to explain to bemused onlookers that the celebrity was a dead French nun who was something of a spiritual superstar.
This autumn a similar tour will take place, of the relics of St Bernadette Soubirous, another French religious sister from the 19th century, who also died of tuberculosis at an early age. Bernadette is famous for having received apparitions of Mary in Lourdes in the French Pyrenees as an illiterate teenager from a destitute family, plagued by ill-health. What stories will be told of Bernadette as her relics are venerated? Her tenacity in affirming the truth of the apparitions in the face of the initial ecclesiastical and judicial opposition, her poverty, and the extent of her illness and suffering in the convent she entered following the apparitions are relatively well known. However, the person of Bernadette herself remains clouded in mystery. While Thérèse left her autobiography ‘The story of a soul’, Abbé René Laurentin, the Marian theologian who established the history of Lourdes and spent many years seeking to understand Bernadette, concluded that the keys to understanding her life and spirituality are silence, simplicity and transparency. He stressed the astonishing nature of her testimony to the eighteen apparitions which she received from 11th February to 16th July in 1858. For
the remaining twenty-five years of Bernadette’s life, however many times she was questioned about the apparitions, she simply repeated the same content, making no commentary on the messages. Similarly, she was so discrete about the secrets revealed to her that few people know of their existence. As Laurentin declared: “Bernadette’s real secret is perhaps, quite simply, simplicity” for “nothing is more hidden than transparency.” ¹
Bernadette’s faith-filled simplicity is perhaps most vividly demonstrated her in concern to accurately transmit the messages of the apparitions, including when she did not understand the words they contained. For example, following the instruction to tell the local priest that “the small young lady” had declared “I am the Immaculate Conception”, Bernadette literally ran to the presbytery repeating the phrase so as not to make an error. This transparency to the messages finds an echo in the physical person of Bernadette, the “small, poor girl” who Laurentin describes as a “humble icon” of the Mother of God who had appeared to Bernadette as a child and not as the “great lady” desired by those who sought to promote the apparitions. Mary, in her Magnificat, proclaimed that God had looked upon her lowliness (Luke 1:48). Bernadette was also very aware of her humble status. When asked why she thought Mary had chosen to appear to her, she replied matter-of-factly that she had been chosen “because she was the most ignorant” and that if Mary had found a more ignorant girl
she would have been chosen instead of her.²
Bernadette’s simple, straightforward and steadfast faithfulness led the priests who first heard her account of the apparitions to eventually conclude that the best proof of their veracity was Bernadette herself.³ We may question to what extent Bernadette’s life is still capable of such witness. However, as the visit of the relics of St Thérèse demonstrated, it is likely that many people will be surprised by just how popular this tour will prove to be.
For information about the tour of the relics of St Bernadette: stbernadette.org.uk
¹ Laurentin, R. (2000) Bernadette Speaks: A life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous in her own words. Boston, Massachusetts:
Pauline Books Media, p. 618.
² Ibid. p. 432
³ Ibid. p. 543, referring to Abbé Peyramale and Abbé Pomain.