LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Conference V: April 5th, 2019)
“Thus saith the LORD: In an acceptable time I have heard thee, and in the day of salvation I have helped thee: and I have preserved thee, and given thee to be a covenant of the people, that thou mightest raise up the earth, and possess the inheritances that were destroyed: that thou mightest say to them that are bound: Come forth: and to them that are in darkness: Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be every plain. They shall not hunger, nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor the sun strike them: for He that is merciful to them shall be their shepherd, and at the fountains of waters He shall give them drink. And I will make all My mountains a way, and My paths shall be exalted. Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold these from the north and from the sea, and these from the south country. Give praise, O ye heavens, and rejoice, O earth; ye mountains, give praise with jubilation: because the Lord hath comforted His people, and will have mercy on His poor ones. And Sion said: the Lord hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will not I forget thee, saith the LORD Almighty.”
This reading from the Prophet Isaias is the Epistle Reading for the Mass of Saturday in the Fourth Week in Lent. It is traditionally known as the Sitientes Mass for its Introit Antiphon, also taken from Isaias, Chapter 55:1: “Sitientes, venite ad aquas...All ye that thirst, come to the waters, saith the LORD: and ye that have no money, come, and drink with joy.” It is the final Mass of the Lenten season before crossing over into Passiontide. In the early Church, this Mass was another scrutiny of the Catechumens preparing for Easter Baptism, hence the importance of water imagery: “From the fountains of waters He shall give them drink.”
The sign of the Lourdes water flowing up from the side of the rock becomes therefore ever clearer to us as we place it against the ancient liturgies of the Church’s Easter Catechesis. The Rock is a symbol of Christ, the water flowing from the Rock is the Blood and Water flowing from the piercéd side of Christ: the Blood and Water are the Easter Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: Baptism begins the divine life in our souls, and Holy Eucharist sustains and nourishes it. In effect they are as one. The Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate of Lourdes appears once again on the earth to point us towards Her Divine Son Jesus as the only true Healer of Souls.
After Bernadette had received the revelation of her mysterious Visitor’s identity on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation: “I am the Immaculate Conception”, she was to receive two more. Once on Easter Wednesday, and the other many weeks later on July 16th, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Eighteen Apparitions in all. At that last Apparition, however, Bernadette had her vision while stood across the river from the Grotto. Since June the authorities had barricaded access to the Grotto and made it illegal for anyone to go there.
The Prefects of the Emperor Napoleon III’s France had their mandate to prevent any public disturbance which might threaten to renew the social discontents and revolutionary disorder which had wracked the nation for so many decades.
Ironically, it was the influence from within the Imperial Household which put an end to the sanctions against the Grotto. It happened that at the end of July, 1858, the Governess of the 2 year-old Prince Imperial, Madame Bruat came to Lourdes with her three daughters. The four grandes dames were curious to see this place which was being talked about by the locals and so, ignoring the prohibitions, they went to the barricaded Grotto to have a look and say a prayer. The policeman on duty took down their names. While they were there another man came to have a look. The policeman took down his name too. He turned out to be Louis Veuillot, the editor-in-chief of a widely circulated Catholic newspaper L’Univers.
What was the result? M. Veuillot used his journalistic pen to publicize the account of the Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to a shepherd-girl from the town of Lourdes and stirred up indignation ay the measures being levied against the devout people who simply wanted to pray at this sanctified spot. For her part, the Imperial Governess brought her sympathy back to the Empress Eugénie who interceded with the Emperor on behalf of the Lourdais and their new spontaneous shrine to the Holy Virgin.
It was in October, on the eve of the Feast of the Rosary, that the Minister for Religious Affairs informed the local Bishop that, “free access should be given to the Grotto and that the use of the water from the spring should be permitted” (St. Bernadette, Von Matt/Trochu, pg. 35). In this way, the Massabielle was opened to the people and no further attempt was made to suppress their devotion.
For nearly four years after, Msgr. Laurence, the Bishop of Tarbes conducted an investigation. On January 18th, 1862, he promulgated his positive judgment: “We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, did in actual fact appear to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11th, 1858, and on the days following, to the number of eighteen times” (Von Matt/ Trochu, pg. 40).
On April 4th, 1864, a specially commissioned statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes was dedicated by Bishop Laurence and placed in the Grotto. This was the famous statue of Joseph Fabisch which has influenced all subsequent representations, but which Bernadette strongly disliked because it did not show the Virgin as the beautiful little girl who had appeared to her. “What do you think of it?” she was asked of this statue. “Oh, it’s very beautiful,” Bernadette replied, “but it isn’t Her!” Nonetheless the dedication of the statue was a day of great ceremony: 20,000 people joined the procession with the Bishop from the parish church at Lourdes to the Grotto at the Massabielle. Bernadette, however, was bedridden on that day, too sick to attend.
Two years later, in 1866, Bernadette Soubirous left her home of Lourdes to enter the convent with the Sisters of Charity at Nevers in central France. She was never to return again. She was twenty-two years old.
Bernadette, now Sister Marie-Bernarde, was kept carefully hidden from the world at Nevers. In the summer of 1870, however, a war suddenly erupted between the French Empire and the German Kingdom of Prussia. An overconfident Emperor Napoleon led his army into battle and was crushed by the Prussians and their allies. Napoleon III was taken prisoner with the whole of his army. The Prussians rapidly advanced into France and surrounded Paris, laying siege to the capital. The Second Empire collapsed. Revolution broke out.
As the Prussian army advanced deeper and deeper into France, Bernadette’s convent at Nevers was turned into a military position as the authorities expected the city to come under imminent attack. Cannons were set up on the inner terrace of the Motherhouse and in the noviciate garden.
In this general climate of fear, rumors spread that visionary of Lourdes had been favored with special revelations concerning what was now happening to France. Had Bernadette not received three secrets, which she had never revealed to anyone? Did she not perhaps have some mission to fulfill to the provisional French government in this hour of peril?
Around the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1870, with the Prussians now at the departmental border, Bernadette was put to an official interrogation:
“At the grotto of Lourdes or after...did you get any revelations concerning the future and the destiny of France? Might not the Blessed Virgin have entrusted you with some warning, some threat to France?”
“The Prussians are at our gates; don’t they inspire you with terror?”
“So there should be nothing to fear then?”
“I only fear bad Catholics.”
“Do you fear nothing else?”
“No,” [Bernadette answered firmly], “Nothing.”
(René Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks, English edition 2000, Daughters of St. Paul, pg. 416.)