Story of Bernadette

Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, chose Bernadette to be a channel for the “message” of Lourdes. The video below introduces her story. Between 11th February and 16th July 1858, Mary appeared to Bernadette a number of times, delivering a message which still encourages millions of people to hear Our Lady’s call to pilgrimage today. Click the button below to journey in St Bernadette’s footsteps and explore the eighteen apparitions.

Between 11 February and 16 July 1858, a young girl called Bernadette Soubirous experienced eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the outskirts of Lourdes, now known as the Grotto. In the course of these encounters a miraculous thing took place – a young girl became the friend and confidante of the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apparitions have three phases, each with a different mood. The first seven, when the Lady first reveals herself to Bernadette, are a period of joyful discovery. Then the mood changes and the words, actions and gestures in the following five apparitions are penitential. The focus moves outwards in the last six, starting with the missionary thirteenth apparition.

Much of what happened in these exchanges is hidden: they took place largely in silence, very few words were recorded, and Bernadette maintained her natural reserve during and after the apparitions. And yet, over the course of the five months, we see the growth of an intimate relationship of trust, obedience and love. We are going to ponder all eighteen encounters. There are no specific words recorded from some of the meetings, but we will stay with Bernadette in faith as she fulfills her promise to go to the Grotto each day, remaining with her throughout the whole journey.


First Apparition, 11 February: The joy of first meeting

The first apparition takes place at midday on a cold winter’s day. A fourteen-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, daughter of François and Louise, from a miserably poor family, goes with her sister Toinette and friend Jeanne Abadie to collect wood in the Grotto of Massabielle. She is pious and serious, always carrying her rosary with her and is loved especially by her father.

Bernadette has a vision and it is love at first sight – this heavenly presence is the sweetest, most beautiful person she has ever seen.

I lifted up my eyes in the direction of the Grotto. I saw a lady dressed in white: she had a white dress, a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot, the same colour as the chain of her rosary. When I had seen that, I rubbed my eyes; I thought I was mistaken. I put my hand in my pocket; I found my rosary. I wanted to make a sign of the cross; I could not bring my hand to my forehead: it fell down. The vision made the sign of the cross. Then my hand trembled; I tried to do it and I could. I started to say the rosary; the vision moved the beads of her own, but she did not move her lips. When I had finished my rosary, the vision disappeared all of a sudden. I asked the two others if they had seen anything, they said no. Bernadette, from her first account, written on 28 May 1861

Second Apparition, 14 February: Testing the vision

There is great concern in the Soubirous household when Bernadette recounts her experience. Her mother’s reaction is fear and denial: “Poor me – your eyes have deceived you! All you saw was a white stone.” Her parents forbade her to return to the Grotto, fearing that people would scorn them as a family from the poorest level of Lourdes society drawing attention to itself.

On Sunday, François’s employer persuaded him to allow her to go back.

Bernadette flies down the zig-zag path which leads to Massabielle and is the first to arrive at midday. Scarcely has she completed a second decade of the rosary when she sees the vision again.

Bernadette can now put this vision to the test: this is why she has brought the holy water along.

I started throwing holy water saying to her that if she came from God she was to stay, and if not to go. She started smiling and bowing her head. The more I threw the holy water, the more she smiled and bowed her head, and so seized with terror, I sprinkled her until the bottle ran out. Bernadette

The vision is cut short because one of the girls, Jeanne Abadie, throws a rock from the zig-zag path as a joke. Bernadette is shocked into a deep trance. The girls panic and fetch Antoine Nicolau, the miller, who takes her off.

Bernadette was on her knees, her eyes wide open, facing the niche in the rock, her hands joined, the rosary between her fingers; tears were flowing from her two eyes. She was smiling and had a beautiful face, more beautiful than any I had ever seen. I was troubled and pleased to see her like this, and all day my heart was touched when I thought of her. Antoine Nicolau

Third Apparition, 18 February: The invitation

The Lady speaks for the first time today, pronouncing three important phrases. Each word transforms the course of this short but intense relationship. Her words today lead to Bernadette’s enduring sense of commitment and purpose, which will help her weather many difficulties.

“Would you please have the kindness of writing down your name?” asks Bernadette, on tiptoes, holding up a pen and paper.

“It is not necessary,” replies the Lady, laughing benevolently, and Bernadette joins her in laughter. When she hears the Lady’s “sweet and gentle” voice, she knows that this is not an illusion. “What I have to say does not need to be written down.”

“Would you kindly have the grace to come here for a fortnight?”
Bernadette responds immediately with a promise to do so: “I said yes to her.”
“I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other.”
In many ways, this is the defining apparition. It is Bernadette’s Annunciation.

The first words uttered by the Lady establish her respect for the young girl. Bernadette is illiterate; therefore, the vision will not embarrass her by communicating in writing. Also, there is nothing to write because the Gospel is complete in itself. These apparitions and the message of the Lady are to lead people back to the Gospel and to Jesus.

At that moment, Bernadette gives herself entirely to the Lady. It is a turning point, an eternal bonding, the transformation of a young girl into a messenger of God. When the Lady speaks of happiness, it is one of the highpoints of the apparitions. Bernadette already knows about suffering but now receives a promise of eternal happiness in the other world, God’s Kingdom. Her suffering will intensify over time – through continued ill-health, then through the demands of visitors from all over the world to recount her story, and, finally, through humiliations that she suffers as a nun. But she will never lose the sense that her true happiness came from the other world to which the Lady introduced her on this day.

Fourth Apparition 19 February: Deepening friendship

Bernadette, like Elizabeth greeting Mary at the Visitation, feels total joy at receiving a visit from the mother of her Lord. She is like the lover from the Song of Songs – she just cannot wait to see her “dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock.”

Once again, Bernadette makes the journey in haste. “She is going to break her neck,” thinks Josèphe Barinque, who joins Bernadette for the first time today, and who will be back every day for the entire fortnight. “I would rather miss my work,” she says.

This apparition, and the three which follow – (fifth, sixth and seventh) reflect the joy of a girl who has found her vocation, who knows why she is where she is, and what she has to do. At this stage, there are very few people watching but, later, the growing numbers will pose a challenge.

All the hallmarks of the early apparitions are now in place. Bernadette arrives in the cold damp of the morning carrying a special candle which has been lent to her by Aunt Lucile. She moves to her place in front of the niche and gets on her knees. Then she starts saying her rosary and, within minutes, her face becomes deathly pale. “You would think she was made of wax,” says Germaine Raval. Bernadette gesticulates, inclines her head, and waves her hands.

When asked afterwards what happened, Bernadette says quite simply that the Lady smiled in silence: one looks at the other and smiles, the other looks back and smiles. Two people are in a relationship of mutual love.

The apparition lasts only fifteen minutes.

She greeted [the vision] with her hands and her head: it was a pleasure to see her, as if all her life she had learnt nothing other than how to make these greetings. I could do nothing but watch her. Josèphe Barinque

Fifth Apparition, 20 February: An unforgettable smile

Bernadette faithfully takes her place. One of the great gifts that Bernadette has is the ability to make a deliberate and beautiful sign of the cross. Later on, when she has joined the convent, the nuns will be impressed by this and try to imitate her “…but in vain, and we would then say, ‘It’s clear that Our Lady taught her how to do it.’”

Almost predictably, the Lady appears soon after Bernadette starts saying her rosary. As on the previous day, the apparition lasts for fifteen minutes and, when it is over, a veil of sadness comes over the young visionary’s face.

Some accounts say that Bernadette receives a secret prayer “for her alone” on this day or the next. Bernadette, like Our Lady, has much to ponder in her heart.

There is a touching story about Our Lady’s and Bernadette’s unforgettable smile. In July 1858, le Comte de Bruissard was staying nearby, at Cauterets in the Pyrenees, and he had the opportunity to meet Bernadette and speak to her.

“How did she smile, the Lady?” I asked.
The little shepherdess looked at me with astonishment, then, after a moment of silence she said, “Sir you would have to be in heaven to recreate that smile.”
“Could you not do it for me? I am a doubter and I don’t believe in the apparitions.”
The face of the child grew dark and took on a severe expression. “So, sir, do you think I am a liar?”
I was disarmed. No, Bernadette was not a liar, and I was about to go on my knees to beg forgiveness.
Then she added, “Since you are a sinner, I am going to recreate the smile of the Virgin.”
Since then I have lost my wife and two daughters, but I am not alone in the world. I live with the smile of the Virgin.

Sixth Apparition, 21 February: Facing questions

On this day, Bernadette embodies the Gospel: “When you are handed over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes, because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you” (Matthew 10: 19–20).

The Soubirous party are surprised to find one hundred people waiting at the Grotto, even though they had left earlier than usual in the hope of arriving before any crowds appeared.

Today Bernadette faces questions from three different institutions – the medical profession, the clergy, and the police.

The first test is from Dr Dozous, a doubter who wants to investigate Bernadette during her visionary ecstasy. He finds nothing untoward:

I wanted first to check the circulation of her blood and her rate of breathing, so I took one of her arms and put my fingers on the radial artery. Her pulse was gentle and regular; her breathing easy. There was no sign of nervous excitement.

Bernadette is not bothered by this or by any subsequent medical investigation.

The second examiner is Abbé Pène, one of the clergy of Lourdes, who asks to see Bernadette. She is tired but dutifully answers his questions. What he hears convinces him of her sincerity.

Lastly, after Vespers that evening, Bernadette appears in court to answer Dominique Jacomet, the police commissioner. She stands up to his bullying tactics remarkably well and shows great aplomb when someone says they are going to put her in prison. Her response is, “I am not worried – if they put me in there, they will take me out.” It may be this evening that Bernadette makes one of the most famous statements attributed to her: My job is not to make you believe; my job is to tell you.”

Seventh Apparition, 23 February: Conversion

As this joyful period of discovery ends, we can imagine Bernadette giving a shout of joy like the opening of the Magnificat. Nothing in this, the longest apparition to date, could distract her from her discourse with the Lady. Even when Eléonore Pérard plunges a needle into Bernadette’s shoulder, she does not flinch.

Today the story focuses on a man – Jean-Baptiste Estrade – who became a great witness to the apparitions, wrote three accounts of what happened, and who travelled the length and breadth of France telling the story of his conversion.

He was positioned next to the visionary.

She took out her rosary and started praying. Soon her face seemed to reflect an unknown light: she started staring, her face radiant, full of wonder, delight, and happiness as she looked at the opening in the rock. As I witnessed the transfiguration of this child, all my previous opposition melted away, giving way to an extraordinary feeling which took over, despite myself. I had the certainty, the irresistible intuition that a mysterious being was present … Bernadette was no longer Bernadette; she was an angel from heaven plunged in unspeakable delights … she was afraid, it seemed, to drop her eyelids for one instant lest she lose the enrapturing sight of the marvel she was contemplating (Jean-Baptiste Estrade).

His life was changed forever by what he saw. In what has become a definitive account of the apparitions, published in 1889, he wrote that his hair had now turned grey, that he did not dare think about his iniquities, and asked that, when he appeared before her son, Mary would remember that she had seen him at the Grotto.


Eighth Apparition, 24 February: Penitence, penitence, penitence

Today the mood changes as we move into the penitential phase of the apparitions. It is markedly different. With Bernadette and the eyewitnesses, we are entering into a deeply testing time, of questioning, facing up to life’s realities, experiencing sorrow and being challenged to change. The witnesses, growing in number every day, are deeply moved and pass through a variety of emotions: pity, disgust and, for some, conversion. In this phase, the penitential gestures of Bernadette take on a profoundly evangelical meaning. Bernadette humbles herself at the request of the Lady. She feels an acute sense of sin, reflecting the sadness of the Lady when she asks Bernadette to pray for sinners.

When Bernadette enters into the vision, she goes deathly pale. “My God, she is going to die!” a woman in the crowd cries out. Fanny Nicolau bursts into tears, as do others. At this stage, the crowd of three hundred and fifty people have come to see the spectacle of a sweet fourteen-year-old girl in a visionary trance. They have no idea that they are going to see a profound expression of sorrow and abasement.

Later she explains. The Lady said: “Penitence. Pray to God for the conversion of sinners. Go on your knees and kiss the ground in penitence for sinners.” And then she graciously added: “Would it bother you to do that, Bernadette?”

Bernadette accedes to the Lady’s request, open-hearted and without questioning, just as she had agreed to her invitation to come to the Grotto each day for a fortnight. She gets on her knees and kisses the muddy ground of the cave the locals call "the sty" because of the pigs that shelter there. She discovers the meaning of penitence not through catechesis, but through seeing how sad the Lady’s face is when she talks about sinners. Bernadette’s face, alternating between joy and sorrow, reflects what she hears and sees. For the rest of her life, she will never stop finding occasions to pray for the conversion of sinners.

Ninth Apparition, 25 February: Go and drink at the spring

This is the central apparition, and, during it, the miraculous spring appears.

Bernadette wanders in and out of the Grotto, towards the River Gave and then back again. Her face is sad and perplexed; she is irritated. Eventually, she climbs up the slope in the interior of the Grotto on her knees. She scrabbles in the dirt, making balls of mud, and having done this four times, she cups dirty water in the palm of her hand and drinks it. She rubs the mud on her face and, to cap it all, she grabs a handful of dorine – a wild salad leaf with a bitter taste – and eats it. Her aunt Bernarde is so revolted by her antics that she gives her niece a hard slap – but not before wiping the mud from her face.

Most people leave disgusted or feeling pity for the girl, although some sense that something special is happening.

Later, Bernadette explains that the Lady spoke of water, and that she had wandered back and forth because she could not work out which water the Lady was referring to. The Lady had also asked Bernadette for a second time to pray for the conversion of sinners.

Once again Bernadette demonstrates her complete trust in the Lady.

In these three central days of the eighth, ninth and tenth apparitions, Bernadette re-enacts the humility of God made man. Humility comes from the Latin humus meaning ‘earth’, and here Bernadette is rubbing her face in it. Bernadette is in the mud with us. Of course, we revolt against this. We hate seeing suffering and humiliation and do everything to stop it happening – rightly so. But it is part of the human condition, and Bernadette, like Jesus, is most powerful in simply getting dirty with us.

And then …
And then the marvel takes place.

From this human tragedy life-giving water comes forth in a miraculous spring, just as water flowed from the side of Jesus crucified when he was pierced with a lance. The water of Lourdes, which starts flowing today, is a sign of the outpouring of God’s love and grace in our sinfulness and suffering.

Tenth Apparition, 27 February: A strange sadness

Despite the disgust people had felt on the previous occasion, the crowd has grown to eight hundred people. All the talk in the town is of the water of the spring now flowing in the Grotto.

“There were ten or twelve people per square metre. It’s true that I could only see people’s heads, but I suppose their bodies were there too,” wrote Antoine Clarens, the headmaster of a school in Lourdes, who is here for the first time today.

The prayerfulness surrounding Bernadette is palpable. “As soon as she gets on her knees, there is a general silence, a recollection which is pleasant for the soul,” (Clarens). She directs her eyes up to the niche, kisses the ground, drinks the water from the spring and, once again, when she turns around, her face is muddy and her smile is “strange and unbearable” rather than touching as it had been during the earlier visions. Clarens has to turn his eyes away.

Today, for the third time, the Lady asks Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners, and repeats “Penitence, penitence, penitence.”

She fixed her eyes on the opening which holds the tangle of brambles and for a few moments she prayed, with a candle in her hand. Then she grew pale and smiled and bowed in greeting. She then looked sad as though she were about to cry, but soon smiled again and then bowed once more. That strange sadness which spread over her face for an instant, her smile which defies all description, her strange pallor, the position of her eyes, made her unrecognisable. You would have said she no longer belonged to this world. Antoine Clarens

Eleventh Apparition, 28 February: The crowds imitate Bernadette

This apparition is a turning point. For the first time, the people in the crowds follow the gestures of Bernadette, and appropriate for themselves the message of penitence. The apparitions are about to launch a mass revival of popular religion in France and, aided by the railways, throughout Europe.

It is a grey and rainy day. People bring umbrellas, but others protest so strongly that they have to lower them, and everyone is left standing stoically in the rain. Many a modern-day pilgrim who has attended rainy Grotto masses can identify with the experience.

The crowd grows to over a thousand for the first time, and the penitential theme continues. Bernadette starts with a sign of the cross and says the rosary. For a fourth time, the Lady asks her to pray for the conversion of sinners. Bernadette gets on her knees, humbly obeying the Lady. Suddenly, there is a voice from the crowd. It is Sergeant Callet calling out to people to get on their knees. The entire crowd kneels, prays, and says the rosary while the expression on Bernadette’s face alternates between one of deep joy and one of deep suffering.

The young girl in peasant costume and clogs and the beautiful lady in a white dress and blue sash with roses at her feet are joined through one shared object – the rosary, symbolising their focus on the life and death of Jesus Christ. Lourdes is, above all, about the Gospel leading people into a deeper faith.

Bernadette listens for a few minutes with great attention … going onto her knees, she walks to the foot of the rock, kissing the ground at each step. My sister was on the path that Bernadette was following and said, “Today there is something new.”

“Yes, this is new,” called out the old constable. “This is getting stronger and stronger.” Then he turned to the crowd and cried in a loud voice, “Kiss the ground, all of you.” The crowd obeyed him immediately and kissed the ground, like Bernadette, following her as she did it. The Abbé Pène Memoir

Twelfth Apparition, 1 March: In the antechamber of heaven

Today, for the last apparition of the penitential cycle, the numbers go up again: there are now 1,450 people. Today is the only day when a priest is present – Fr Antoine Dézirat.

Bernadette begins with a sign of the cross, starts praying the rosary, and continues with the penitential gestures including drinking of the now free-flowing water from the spring.

Fr Antoine marvels at what he sees but is also very conscious of the order that priests are not to be there, so he leaves after ten minutes. When he gets back to the seminary to tell people about the day’s events, he is laughed at – one of the loudest laughs is from Fr Sempé who, ten years later, became the first superior of the chaplains of Lourdes!

Her smile was beyond all description. The most skilful artist, the most consummate actor could never reproduce its charm and grace … What struck me was the joy and the sadness on her face. When one of these phenomena was followed by another, it happened in a flash … Bernadette alone saw the apparition, but everyone felt her presence … Respect, silence, recollection reigned all round … Oh! How good it was there. I thought myself half-way to Paradise. Fr Antoine Dézirat

On this day, the first Lourdes miracle recognised by the Church takes place. At three in the morning, Catherine Latapie, who has a withered arm, has an inner calling to go to the water to seek healing. She is nine months pregnant and walks the seven kilometres with two of her children. Somehow, she manages to plunge her arm into the muddy water and, as soon as she takes it out, she feels a great softness come over her. She finds her fingers are now supple. She joins them together in prayer, something she had not been able to do for many years. A miracle. Then she feels labour pains come on and she prays, “Holy Virgin, who has just healed me, let me get back home!” She gives birth fifteen minutes after arriving home.


Thirteenth Apparition, 2 March: Revival

We move now into the final stage of the apparitions. Bernadette no longer does the penitential practices. Mysteriously, the mood changes. This is the missionary phase.

The crowds continue to grow. There is intimacy as Bernadette goes into the Grotto, and the people watching sense that something special is happening. There is evidently a conversation taking place, and Bernadette is pressed to say what was said. Before rushing off to see the priest and pass on the messages, she tells them that the Lady has asked for people to come in procession. This encourages more popular devotion and expectation of a miracle, as well as heightened speculation about what will happen on the final day.

The exact words of the Lady are “Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here and to come here in procession.”

Much has been written about the conversations which take place between Bernadette and Abbé Peyramale following this request. He is dismissive, and terrifying to talk to, but Bernadette is not put off and, by the end of the day, she is delighted and says, “I am very happy. I have done my task.” But the Abbé remains sceptical and refuses to do anything until he knows the Lady’s name.

Today the Lady gives Bernadette a truly remarkable commission. The building of a church and the institution of a procession in Lourdes was, in fact, the rebuilding of the universal Church and mass pilgrimage in Europe. Bernadette overcame the criticism of those who would have liked to dismiss the whole phenomenon as the invention of a hysterical young girl.

As Bernadette follows today’s message and turns outwards, so she is following the great commission given by Jesus before he ascended to the Father: she creates a missionary movement and a gift for the whole world.

Fourteenth Apparition, 3 March: Sacred space

By the time Bernadette goes to the Grotto with her mother at seven o’clock, there are a record number of people there. She starts by saying the rosary although she can barely see the niche and has no room to make her normal gestures. Bernadette is visibly sad because the Lady does not appear. She cries as she leaves the Grotto, as does her mother.

This non-appearance of the Lady is, in fact, an important moment that convinces people of Bernadette’s genuineness. No one who saw her sad face could doubt that she was really expecting to see someone and was bitterly disappointed when that person did not turn up. It is a turning-point for Jean-Marie Cazenave who says: “If the little one was inventing things, she would have said that she saw her today just like on the other days.”

But all is not lost. She goes back after lunch, and the Lady is there, smiling. This is the only time that the Lady is waiting for Bernadette when she arrives at the Grotto. Bernadette asks the Lady for her name, but she does not get a response.

Everyone is expectant, waiting for the big day: the last day of the fortnight.

The next day when I arrived at the Grotto, after having said the Rosary, I asked her name on behalf of the priest, but she only smiled…so he told me that she was making fun of me and I would do well not to return. But I could not stop myself from going. I went there for two weeks and I asked her each time who she was – which always made her smile. Bernadette in an unpublished note dated 1866

Fifteenth Apparition, 4 March: Waiting for a sign

The big day arrives. It is the end of the fortnight. As the sun rises, there is an amazing sight – seven or eight thousand people are waiting patiently, on both sides of the River Gave. At a quarter past seven, a little later than usual, Bernadette arrives. “The visionary arrived surrounded by three or four uncles, two aunts and her father marching at the head and asking the crowd to make way for his daughter.” (Jacomet). Bernadette makes the sign of the cross and starts praying the rosary. The apparition takes place in an atmosphere of prayer and expectation and lasts fifty-two minutes. This is longer than usual and timed very precisely by Jacomet. He counts thirty-four smiles and twenty-four greetings and notes them in his book.

The priest has not organised a procession, despite the request of the Lady, but an amazing thing happens – for the first time a huge crowd of people processes from the Grotto to the Cachot because they want to see and be with Bernadette.

People had decided that there would be a sign on the last day of the fortnight, and they were disappointed when nothing happened. The critics of Bernadette have a field day. The press is full of jubilant articles consigning the Lourdes apparitions to oblivion. Here is what one local paper has to say:

Bernadette again! You will say to us; dear reader, please be patient with us as we are going to give you some details which we hope will be the last. Bernadette had announced that the pretty Lady would express her desires on the last day. What disappointment! How the poor credulous people have been humiliated! (Le Lavedan, 4 March 1858).

But God’s timing is not our timing and, according to Jean-Baptiste Estrade, many people in Lourdes felt that the Lady had not yet spoken her last words.

All souls were caught in profound recollection, men took their hats off very respectfully, women fell to their knees, everyone felt transported at this supreme moment. Jean-Baptiste Estrade

Sixteenth Apparition, 25 March: The Lady reveals herself

For three weeks, Bernadette quietly waits. Early on the feast of the Annunciation, moved by an inner calling and a feeling of joy, she goes to the Grotto. Some people are waiting there, hoping that this special day might bring another vision.

Bernadette says the rosary, the Lady joins her, and then she is invited to go inside the Grotto, to the location of their most intimate exchanges. Bernadette asks four times, “Madam, would you please have the goodness to tell me your name?” Each time the Lady smiles. On the fourth, her face grows serious and she passes the rosary into her right hand. She stretches out her arms towards the earth “with such a simple gesture a majesty shines forth.” Then she joins her hands at the level of her chest, lifts her eyes to the sky and says, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette is overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and a new sense of hope. She now knows the Lady’s name. She has not heard this expression before, as she later testifies to the Commission of Enquiry.

Later, Bernadette was often asked to repeat what the Lady said at this special moment. “I have never seen anything as beautiful as when I asked her how the Holy Virgin was when she said ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’” wrote Joseph Fabisch, sculptor of the statue of Our Lady in the niche of the Grotto, in a letter in 1863.

Bernadette leaves her candle between some rocks in the cavity, as a sign of gratitude, and so lights up the message of the Immaculate Conception.

Meanwhile, Bernadette herself rushes to the priest’s house full of joy. She bursts in. “’I am the Immaculate Conception.’ Aqueró said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’” Peyramale is confused by this title and asks her if she is sure. Bernadette replies yes and says that, in order not to forget the words, she repeated them to herself all the way to his house. Abbé Peyramale feels full of emotion. Quite overcome, he quietly dismisses her. “Go home now, Bernadette,” he says. Left alone, he is deeply moved and knows now that it is indeed the Blessed Virgin has appeared.

Seventeenth Apparition, 7 April: The candle of faith

Candles are an almost universal symbol of faith, and there is no shrine where they have played, and still play, such a significant role as they do in Lourdes. Today, row upon row of candles burn in front of the Grotto, reflecting the prayers of countless pilgrims who light them saying “This candle continues my prayer.” It is a beautiful and moving sight.

Rumours started on 6 April, when Bernadette was seen going to her confessor in the parish church, that she is going back to the Grotto. In order to avoid the crowds, she arrives at the Grotto at 5am.

She begins with a deliberate sign of the cross and starts praying the rosary: today she will say the entire rosary, all three sets of mysteries. Dr Dozous pushes his way to the front of the crowd to stand next to her, saying that he does not come as an enemy, but as a scientific observer. At the second decade Bernadette’s face is transfigured and she enters a time of ecstasy. Dr Dozous watches closely. Bernadette remains on her knees, and puts her hands round the candle, moving them up to protect the flame from the draught. The flame licks her fingers for ten minutes, but the doctor examines her and there is no sign of burns. This ‘miracle of the candle’ convinces Dr Dozous, who was completely cynical about the apparitions up to this point. He will say to Bernadette the next day. “I did not believe, but now I have faith: I am happy that I came to the Grotto.”

Today Bernadette kindles a spark of love, and the flame is going to spread. We are sad now, as we know that the apparitions are coming to an end. But we are also filled with enormous joy, as Bernadette passes on the mission to others who will keep the flame burning.

Bernadette is starting to think about what she will do with her life: not an easy choice for a living saint with all the fame that surrounds her. But her dream is to enter the convent, and this is what she will eventually do, entering the Convent of St Gildard in Nevers in July 1866.

Eighteenth Apparition, 16 July: Bernadette says farewell

On 4 June 1858 Bernadette receives her First Holy Communion. When asked whether communion or the apparitions were more special, she replies, “The two things go together, but cannot be compared. I was very happy in both.”

It is now time for Bernadette to grow smaller and for the miracle of Lourdes to grow bigger, with hundreds of thousands of people coming in pilgrimage, obeying the commands of Our Lady.

But she does say goodbye to the Holy Virgin. On the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she feels the Virgin calling her. This time, to avoid the crowds, she goes by a different route, one which takes her onto the meadow on the other side of the river from the Grotto.

It is evening. The Grotto is boarded up by order of the prefect. Bernadette is disguised and hidden. They light a candle. Bernadette is pale and in ecstasy. She kneels and says the rosary.

This is the last time Bernadette sees Our Lady on this earth.

While there is sadness in this final apparition, Bernadette’s life in the other world of grace and sanctity, that promised to her by Our Lady in the third apparition, is now firmly established.

“Mary never looked more beautiful” says Bernadette after the apparition.
“But how were you able to see at such a distance, and with the barrier?”
“I saw neither the planks of wood, nor the River Gave. It was as if I was in the Grotto, at the same distance as the other times. I only saw the Holy Virgin.”

Through Bernadette, we were offered a new moment of salvation – on her "yes" hung the whole divine plan to bring renewal to the Church. She brings a gift to the Church in the same way as St John the Apostle did. From the Cross, Jesus gave Our Lady to St John, telling him “to make a place in his home for her.” Because of the apparitions in Lourdes, Our Lady is honoured throughout the world – there are churches dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in every corner of the globe.

Epilogue, the setting up of a Commission

On 28 July 1858, less than a month after the final apparition, Bishop Laurence of Tarbès, set up an investigation into the facts of what happened during the events at the Grotto. He said the purpose was to “shed light on the religion and piety of thousands of believers, respond to a public need, fix uncertainties and calm everyone.” He established a commission which called witnesses to testify before them in the parish church in Lourdes. Bernadette appeared on 17 November and once again told everyone what happened, with the same simplicity and lucidity, never embellishing the facts. The commission met witnesses, officials, and Bernadette’s family and friends. They interviewed all those who claimed they had been healed, and, after rigorous examination, named those whom they believed had been miraculously cured. On 7 December 1860, Bernadette again appeared before Bishop Laurence and the twelve members of the commission. When she re-enacted the sixteenth apparition, two tears were seen rolling down the bishop’s cheek and, after the meeting, he said to a vicar general “Did you see that child?” Bishop Laurence waited a year from the closing of the commission before publishing his final decree on 18 January 1862. The decree itself is a moving declaration of faith in what happened.

“We judge that Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, truly appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on 11 February 1858 and on the days that followed, to the number of eighteen times, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes; that this apparition displays all the characteristics of truth, and that the faithful and are justified in believing that it is certain.”

The bishop also authorised the cult of worship of Our Lady of Lourdes and committed to building a church near the Grotto, in accordance with Our Lady’s request.

Never, in the history of the Church, has there been an official decree so soon after a series of supernatural happenings that so clearly states the faithful can trust in the authenticity of these events.

With thanks to Adam  & Josephine Simon for permitting us to include extracts and illustrations from his book ‘Bernadette of Lourdes, Pilgrimage into the heart of Jesus’ (2018). The book with the full text is available from the Pilgrimage Office.