At the time of Bernadette, the Grotto was a dirty, obscure, humid and cold place. There was a huge contrast between this dark, humid Grotto and the presence of the Virgin Mary, the “Immaculate Conception”. This reminds us of the Gospel: the encounter between the richness of God and the poverty of Man. Christ came to look for those who are lost. God comes to tell us that He loves us: This is essentially the “Message of Lourdes”…and God loves us just as we are.
During the third apparition, on 18th February, the Virgin spoke for the first time: “what I have to say to you does not have to be written down”. This means that Mary wished to communicate with Bernadette in a loving heart to heart way. From the very start, Bernadette was invited to open the depths of her heart to this message of Love.
Bernadette was overwhelmed by the second statement of the Virgin Mary: “Would you be so kind as to come here for fifteen days?” It is the first time that Bernadette was addressed in a formal way. She felt she was respected and loved, as a person in her own right. We are all worthy of respect in the eyes of God, because He loves each one of us.
The third statement of the Virgin was: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other.” When Jesus, in the Gospel, invites us to discover the Kingdom of Heaven, He invites us to discover the “another world” within our world as it is. Wherever there is love, God is present.
In spite of her poverty, her illness and her lack of education, Bernadette was always deeply happy. That is the Kingdom of God, the world of true Love. During the first seven apparitions, Bernadette’s face always radiated joy, happiness and light. However between the eight and twelfth apparitions, everything changed: Bernadette’s face became harsh, sad, and sorrowful, and above all she performed incomprehensible gestures… She moved on her knees to the back of the Grotto. She kissed the dirty repulsive ground of the Grotto. She ate some bitter plants. She scraped the ground three times trying to drink the muddy water at the back of the Grotto. She tried to drink a little and then throwing it away, she took mud in her hands and smeared it on her face. Then the young girl turned to the crowd. They all said: “She’s mad!” During these four Apparitions, Bernadette performed the same gestures. What did all this mean? Nobody understood! Nonetheless, here we are at the heart of the “Message of Lourdes”.
These actions are biblical actions. Bernadette acts out the Incarnation, the Passion and the death of Christ. Moving on her knees to the back of the Grotto: this action recalls the Incarnation, God humbles himself to become human. Eating bitter herbs at the back of the Grotto recalls the Jewish tradition found in the ancient texts. Smearing her face with mud: when the prophet Isaiah speaks to us about Christ, he depicts Him as “the suffering servant”.
During the ninth apparition, “the Lady” asked Bernadette to scrape the soil, saying to her: “Go to the spring, drink of it and wash yourself there”. By these actions, the mystery of the heart of Jesus is revealed for us: “A soldier pierced his heart with his lance and there immediately flowed out blood and water.” The herbs and the mud represent the heart of man wounded by sin. However, in the deepest recesses of that heart, there lies the very life of God signified by the Spring. Bernadette is asked: “Did the ‘Lady’ say anything to you?” She replied: “Yes, from time to time, She said: “Penance, penance, penance. Pray for sinners”. By “Penance”, one must understand “conversion”. For the Church, conversion consists of turning one’s heart towards God and towards our brothers and sisters, as Christ taught us.
During the thirteenth Apparition, Mary said to Bernadette: “Go, tell the priests and that people should come here in procession and to build a chapel here.” “Come here in procession” means accompanying our brothers and sisters in this life. “Build a chapel here.” In Lourdes, chapels were built to accommodate the crowds of pilgrims. The chapel is the “Church” that we ought to build where we are.
On 25th March 1858, the day of the sixteenth apparition, Bernadette asked the “Lady” her name. The “Lady” replied in the local dialect: “Que soy era ImmaculadaCounceptiou”, which means “I am the Immaculate Conception”. The Immaculate Conception is “Mary conceived without sin, by the merits of the Cross of Christ” (definition of the dogma promulgated in 1854). Bernadette went to see the Parish priest straight away to give him the name of the “Lady”. He then realized it was the Mother of God who was appearing in the Grotto. Later, Mgr Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes, authenticated this revelation.
The message is signed when the Lady gives her name after three weeks of apparitions and then three weeks of silence from 4 to 25th March. The 25 March is the day of the Annunciation, when Jesus is “conceived” in Mary’s womb. The Lady of the Grotto tells us her vocation: She is the mother of Jesus, her whole being is directed towards conceiving the Son of God, and She is entirely devoted to Him. For this reason, She is Immaculate, wholly inhabited by God. In this way, the Church and every Christian should allow themselves to be inhabited by God in order to become immaculate, wholly forgiven and pardoned so that they may, in turn, become witnesses of God.
The rock, the light, the water, the crowds, the sicks and the helpers are signs of Lourdes.
Touching the rock represents the embrace of God, solid as a rock. Throughout history, grottos have always served as natural shelters and have stimulated man’s imagination. Here in Massabielle, as in Bethlehem and in the tomb of Gethsemane, the rock of the Grotto has also sheltered the supernatural. Without any education, Bernadette instinctively understood. “It was my heaven”, she said concerning this Grotto. Facing this rocky mass, you too are invited to pass inside; see how the rock is smooth, polished by the touch of billions of loving caresses. As you pass through, take time to look at the ever-flowing spring, at the rear left.
Near the Grotto, millions of candles continuously burn since 25th February 1858. That day, Bernadette arrived at the Grotto with a blessed candle which she held, still burning, in her hand until the end of the apparition. Before she left, the Virgin Mary asked her to leave the candle burning in the Grotto. Since then, the candles offered by the pilgrims remain alight day and night. Each year, 700 tons of candles burn for you and those who cannot come. This sign of the light is omnipresent in sacred history. Pilgrims to Lourdes express their hope in a tangible way by carrying a candle in the procession.
“Go and drink at the Spring and wash yourself there”, this is what the Virgin Mary asked of Bernadette Soubirous on 25th February 1858. Lourdes water is not holy water. It is normal water. It has no thermal virtue or specific property. Lourdes water from the Spring became popular because of the miracles associated with it. The people who are cured either apply it or drink it. Bernadette Soubirous herself said: “This water is being taken as medicine… One must have faith, one must pray: this water would no virtue without faith!”
The water of Lourdes is also the sign of another water: that of baptism.
For over 150 years, the crowds come to Lourdes from all corners of the earth. During the first apparition on 11th February 1858, Bernadette was only accompanied by her sister Toinette and a friend Jeanne Abadie. After only a few weeks, Lourdes gained the reputation of the “city of miracles”. Hundreds and then thousands of the curious flocked from the surrounding countryside. After the official recognition of the Apparitions by the Church in 1862, the first local pilgrimages were organized. The reputation of Lourdes assumed an international dimension in the first years of the XXth century. However, it was only after the Second World War that the statistics show a sharp increase…From April to October, each Wednesday and Sunday at 9.30am, an international Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of Saint Pius X. International Masses adapted for young people also take place in the Sanctuary during the months of July and August.
What is particularly striking to the casual visitor is the number of sick and disabled people present in the Sanctuary. All those traumatised by life may find a certain degree of comfort in Lourdes. Officially, 80,000 sick and disabled people from many countries come to Lourdes each year. Despite their wounds or disabilities, they feel they are in a haven of peace and joy. The first cures of Lourdes occurred during the Apparitions. At the time, the sheer sight of the Sick moved people to offer their help spontaneously. They became the men and women Hospitaliers. The cure of the body cannot conceal the cure of the heart. The Sick and the so-called able-bodied meet and pray together in front of the Grotto of the Apparitions before the Virgin Mary.