Wednesday, April 16, 2014

St. Bernadette of Lourdes: A Life of the Beatitudes

Bernadette, the Little Maiden of Lourdes:
A Life of the Beatitudes

 Humility is the secret of God’s glory.”

– St. Bernadette Soubirous

by Marianna Bartold

In reading the lives of the saints, St. Bernadette once mused, ““I think that they ought to point out the faults the Saints had and indicate the means they employed to correct them. That would be helpful to us. We would learn how to set about it. But all that is mentioned is their revelations or the wonders they performed. They cannot serve our advancement.” [1]

However, her most famous biographer, Abbé Trochu, did not quite agree. “She failed to add that, even so, these imperfect authors are to be commended for raising the pre-eminent qualities of the Saints, and that she found in them examples to imitate. The Church in its infallible decisions was one day to adopt the well-founded verdict of a Superior General of Saint-Gildard: ‘It is my own opinion that during her life Sister Marie-Bernarde [the saint’s name in religious life] put into practice the virtues that constitute sanctity.” [2]

What is sanctity? It is the “state of Christian perfection,” which is the result of a “fervent surrender of one’s self to God and the practice of virtue. It does not require extraordinary works. The Blessed Mother of God, the most holy of mortals, never performed any extraordinary works to excite worldly admiration.  ‘Love is fulfilling of the law.’ ” [3] 

A saint is a person who “fulfills all the demands of the law” (Rom. 13:10) which is accomplished by charity, the virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbors as ourselves. Charity is considered the queen of all virtues, since it is the one virtue that will always exist in Heaven. In the Beatific Vision, souls will no longer possess any need for the other virtues. Charity, however, will remain, since it perfectly unites God and man, just as it perfectly unites man to man. [4]  Those souls who are canonized as saints by the Catholic Church are those who were known to practice all of the virtues to a heroic degree – i.e., heroic virtue.

What is meant by heroic virtue? Pope Benedict XIV, “whose chapters on heroic virtue are classical,” thus describes it: “In order to be heroic, a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations.” The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia comments,  “A heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power [that is] stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties.” [5]
In reading the lives of the saints, time and prayer are needed to assess, study, and contemplate in them the supernatural virtues and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Ghost. In addition, “the Holy Ghost also grants certain extraordinary gifts, which are given only on rare occasions and to selected persons. Such extraordinary graces are granted principally not only for the benefit of the recipient, but of others.” Among these graces are included the gift of visions, of miracles, and of prophecy.

In St. Bernadette – handmaiden of the Lord’s Handmaiden, the Blessed Virgin Mary - we will discover all of these things: the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity); the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude); the seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord), the twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost (charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity) and the extraordinary graces of visions, miracles, and prophecy. Of St. Bernadette’s many virtues and gifts, space will permit that only a few examples can be spotlighted – especially her fortitude and long-suffering.

The Saint’s Early Years
Bernadette Soubirous, the firstborn of her parents, was born about two o’clock in the afternoon, as the bell was ringing for Vespers on Sunday, January 7, 1844 in Lourdes, France, a small market town near the Pyrenees in the country’s southwest.  Her parents had named her Bernarde Marie, but the priest who baptized her kept referring to her and registered the name as Marie Bernarde. Her father reminded the priest that the child’s name was already registered at the Town Hall as Bernarde-Marie, but history shows that the priest never did change the register. Her family, however, considered her first name to be Bernarde, although she was called by the diminutive of Bernadette.

As for the parents, neither had ever gone to school but they were known to be good Catholics who faithfully carried out their religious duties and respectable people of irreproachable integrity. Of the nine children born of the marriage between Louise Castérot and Francois Soubirous, not all lived to adulthood.

In Bernadette’s sixth year, she began to suffer from asthma, which afflicted her until the end of her life. She was small for her age but she was a happy and lovable child with a sweet smile. She easily took to caring for her younger siblings so her parents could work. She, like her parents, received no education.

By her tenth year, 1854, the family was in serious financial straits. For various reasons, their mill was lacking customers and so the father sought odd jobs, as did her mother. Bernadette remained at home, taking care of her younger siblings. (On an important and related note, it was in this same year that Pope Pius IX defined as a dogma the Immaculate Conception.)

In the saint’s 11th year of life, Bernadette became one of many children who were stricken by a cholera epidemic. Since cholera is usually fatal, her recovery truly must have been a miraculous one. In her 12th year, her godmother Aunt Bernarde took her home, where she was fed well but also became nurse-maid to her younger cousins.  Once again, her education was neglected. Her aunt would later say that Bernadette knew the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Credo. However, she had never been taught to read, so her only prayer book was a small Rosary.

By the winter of 1856, Bernadette insisted on returning to her family. By this time, the Soubirous became so impoverished that they were forced to accept the free lodging of a cold, damp room known as Le Cachot (The Dungeon), once used to hold prisoners. Everyone in the town knew the family’s situation, but this “was an age of scant help for the poor. For example, no conference of St. Vincent de Paul was established in Lourdes till 1874 (three years before Bernadette’s death). It was a harsh age when too many of the wealthy, lacking pity because they lacked the Gospel, exploited the labour of the poor; and mothers of large families received only ten sous for a whole day’s work!” [6]
Bernadette’s father found work from day to day with the baker or the horse-and-coach service, while her mother worked in the fields, or gathered wood in the forest and later sold it to buy bread, or did the washing and housework for people in town. Previously, Bernadette and her sister Toinette stayed at home, caring for the younger brothers. Now, however, Toinette at age ten was able to attend school with the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, who had come to Lourdes in 1834.

For her part, the 13 year old Bernadette would often say that books were not meant for her, that the Sisters did not know in which class to put her since she could not read and could hardly scratch out a few letters. There was also her asthma and the fact that she was needed at home. Her only real desire for herself was the reception of her First Holy Communion.

Little Shepherdess of Bartres
Louise Soubirous thought of what seemed to be a good solution. In June of 1857, Bernadette was sent to Bartres, to the household of Marie Lagües, who had been Bernadette’s wet-nurse after Louise suffered an unfortunate accident with a candle. As a baby of 10 months of age, Bernadette was brought to live with the Lagües and there she stayed until her 20th month of life. Considering Marie’s supposed affection for the child, as well as her home’s proximity to church and school, Louise had thought it would be easier for Bernadette to attend school and Catechism at Bartres.

In reality, however, Bernadette again became a nursemaid, this time to her former “foster mother’s” four young children. By August, she was also entrusted with the care of the family’s lambs, and so she became a shepherdess. When school opened in September, she was not sent to class. Instead, she was given the additional care of the sheep.

What this meant was that the young girl worked from sunup to sundown, caring for children in the early morning and spending the rest of the day outside, in good weather or bad, with the sheep and lambs. At first, she was allowed to attend some catechism classes and the Sunday Masses and holy days. However, her inability to read and her legitimate exhaustion made it difficult for her to memorize the catechism.

Bernadette was a responsible worker, she never complained, she asked for nothing, and she gratefully accepted whatever was given to her. This made it easy to treat her as an unpaid servant, working for her bed and board. The true purpose for which she was sent to her former wet-nurse was neglected. A priest, the brother-in-law of Mr. Lagües, did intervene on Bernadette’s behalf, telling his sister’s husband that he was not treating Bernadette as one of the family. The reproach had little effect. Rarely was she seen at catechism, and never was she seen in school.

It was during these solitary days as a shepherdess that Bernadette made a stone altar at the foot of an old chestnut tree, setting on top of it a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There she would kneel, praying the Rosary with a gift given to her by her mother – a set of poor black beads, threaded on plain string.  She would play with the flock of lambs and then, resting, her eyes would fall on the valley; her ears heard the rustling of the trees, the occasional bird song and the other sounds of nature. “God made all that,” she would think to herself. She did not know she was in the very early stages of meditation or that God was already preparing her soul. She was to be another handmaiden of the Immaculate Mother of God.

In early January of 1858, Bernadette’s 14th birthday found her still at the house of the Lagües. Circumstances continued as they had since August – she still helped with the children, she still retained the entire responsibility of the flock, and she still was not receiving any form of proper catechesis and education.

In humility, Bernadette did all that was asked of her, and she did it well - but eventually her ardent longing for her First Holy Communion began to manifest itself. At least three times, she asked to be brought home, through verbal messages given to her visiting Aunt Bernarde, a neighbor from Lourdes who was passing through the area, and the Lagües servant who one day took a trip to Lourdes. For the Soubirous, however, the situation was no better, so their daughter’s entreaties fell on deaf ears. Finally, Bernadette took matters into her own hands.

On a Sunday near the end of January 1858, she requested permission to go to Lourdes. Although given consent, she was instructed by the Lagües to return the very next day. She came back three days later, humbly yet forthrightly explaining, “I must go home. The parish priest is going to have the children prepared for First Communion, and if I go back to Lourdes, I shall make mine.” In this one example, one should easily recognize Bernadette’s fortitude, that “moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” [7]

Within two weeks upon Bernadette’s return to Lourdes, the Queen of Heaven would appear to this poor, neglected, and uneducated child. She was obedient, meek, and conscientious and had never insisted upon anything for herself – until now. Her only longing was a spiritual one, and that was to receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.  Bernadette was humble and set her sight not on material riches but only those of the interior life. At the age of 14 years, her brief life was already one of which Our Lord taught in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [8]

-Continue with St. Bernadette of Lourdes: A Life of the Beatitudes, Part 2

[1]  Trochu, Abbé Francois. St. Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879 [Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1985. Translated and adapted by John Joyce, S.J. First published in France under the same title by Librairier Catholique Emmanuel Vitte, Paris, 1954. English edition copyright 1957 by Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., London. Published by TAN in arrangement with Longman Group Limited, London. Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, June 21, 1957): p. 346.
[2]  Ibid.
[3]   Morrow D.D., Most Rev. Louis LaRavoire, My Catholic Faith: A Manual of Religion [Kansas  City, MO: Sarto House. Third edition published from the 1954 edition by Sarto House]:  p. 85.
[4]  Ibid., p.83.
[5]  BENEDICT XIV, De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, chs. xxxi-xxxviii, in Opera omnia, III (Prato, 1840); DEVINE, Manual of Mystical Theology (London, 1903); SLATER, A Manual of Moral Theology (London, 1908); WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Catholic Theology (London, 1906). Cited by Wilhelm, Joseph. "Heroic Virtue." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 6 Jan. 2014 <>.
[6]  Trochu, op cit., p. 17.
[7]  "Divine Mysteries: The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance," Legion of Mary website <>
 [8] Matt. 5:3, The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims translation. With revisions and footnotes (in the text in italics) by Bishop Richard Challoner, 1749-52. Taken from a hardcopy of the 1899 Edition by the John Murphy Company.

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