by Lourdes Policarpio
In the year 1858, Lourdes in France was a poor but charming town, far from the sophistication we associate with Paris, maybe because of its great distance from it. Lourdes is already close to the border with Spain. Nestled at the foot of the great Pyrenees mountain range and with the Gave River winding beside it, it was a perfect setting for an extraordinary encounter between a beautiful lady and a simple peasant girl.
The story goes that, on February 11, 1858, 14-year old Bernadette was trying to cross the Gave River to join her two companions when a beautiful young lady, standing inside the grotto nearby, appeared to her and asked her to come everyday for two weeks. Bernadette obeyed despite much opposition from her family and authorities.
At first, the things the beautiful lady wanted her to do seemed simple enough: pray the Rosary, do penance, eat the grass nearby, and drink from a fountain. The last instruction was a puzzle at first; she had to dig the ground and to her surprise, water sprung forth and eventually, a flowing spring!
But during the thirteenth apparition, the Lady asked more: Bernadette was to tell the parish priest to have a chapel built there and ask the crowds to come in procession. To approach the parish priest, the timid Bernadette had to muster a lot of courage. The response of Fr. Peyramale was conventional. He told Bernadette the lady was making a fool of her. He also demanded to know the Lady's name and insisted on proof: to see the rose-bush down at the grotto bloom in the middle of winter. Was he perhaps reminiscent of Juan Diego and the apparitions in Guadalupe? (Our Lady had asked Juan Diego to gather roses at the top of the mountain during winter.)
It is to be noted that after thirteen apparitions, Bernadette still did not know who the beautiful Lady was. While you may conclude that it could have been safe for the townsfolk to assume that it was the Blessed Mother, they really could not be sure. As a matter of fact, one prominent lady thought it could be the gentle spirit of her deceased friend, Elisa Latapie, who was President of the Lourdes branch of the Children of Mary. One reason she thought that was because Bernadette's description of the beautiful lady's dress jibed with the traditional uniform of their organization.
Thus, on the fourteenth apparition on March 3, after saying the Rosary, Bernadette asked the Lady, on behalf of Fr. Peyramale, what her name was. Her only answer was a very sweet smile. On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, Our Lady finally revealed who she was. In Bernadette's words:
I asked her three times who she was. She just kept smiling. I tentatively asked her once again. This time she raised her eyes to Heaven, brought her hands together as to pray and said "I am the Immaculate Conception".
The Immaculate Conception! What a name! Definitely not the way names are like Marie, Francois, or Antoinette! Bernadette definitely did not realize that the “Immaculate Conception” was a dogma declared by Pope Pius IX four years earlier! So that she would not forget the name “Immaculate Conception”, Bernadette told Fr. Peyramale she kept on repeating it. This time, Fr. Peyramale was convinced! He was touched by Bernadette's simplicity and humility. The Lady had revealed herself and as Fr. Peyramale was to say later: “The rose-bush didn't bloom, but water did indeed spring forth”.
Indeed, the water from the spring in Lourdes has sprung forth in abundance bringing physical and spiritual healing to millions around the world. The little town has become a great pilgrimage destination.
At the time the Blessed Mother said those words “I am the Immaculate Conception” in Lourdes, Bernadette did not understand one word of it! And yet as the fame of the apparitions grew, thousands in the countryside quoted the words “I am the Immaculate Conception” and tried to fathom its meaning. The dogma pronounced by the Holy Father, reinforced by the Virgin herself at Lourdes, came to the masses in a more interesting fashion. How much Lourdes contributed to the interest in and understanding of the dogma!
Let us reflect on the beauty of our Immaculate Mother using her own words to Fr. Stefano Gobbi, founder of the Marian Movement of Priests, on Dec. 8, 1978:
I am the Immaculate Conception! My beloved children, I am your Mother, all fair. Today, the Most Holy Trinity causes its most pure light to be reflected in me so that, through me, all paradise, with the choir of angels and saints, clay sing to God his very greatest glory.
Truly, she is the Immaculata: God's own masterpiece, without blemish and without stain, our all-beautiful Heavenly Mother. Ave Maria!
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