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The Angel of Lourdes

St Bernadette of Soubirous suffered from ill health for much of her life. The Angel of Lourdes has much to teach us about how to endure suffering or hardship

Bernadette Soubirous was born on 7 January 1844, and baptised at the local parish church, St Pierre’s, on 9 January, her parents’ wedding anniversary. The eldest of nine children, Bernadette was a sickly child. She contracted cholera, had problems with her stomach and spleen, and suffered severe asthma. On 11 February 1858, aged 14, Bernadette saw the first of eighteen visions of Our Lady.

Bernadette’s family had fallen on hard times, she was out collecting fire wood with her sisters when Our Lady first appeared to her. On 18 February the Marian apparition asked Bernadette to return to the grotto every day for a fortnight. During that Holy Fortnight, on 24 February 1858, Bernadette, at the request of the vision, kissed the muddy ground of the grotto, drank the muddy water and ate some of the grass that grew there. Days later the grotto was no longer muddy; clear water flowed in which people started to have miraculous healing experiences. From the time of the first apparitions until now, 69 miraculous cures of Lourdes have been recognised by the Church.

Bernadette had a difficult life. As well as financial hardship and the initial criticism and disbelief regarding the visions she had at Lourdes, she experienced poor health. The Marian Apparition did not promise she could make Bernadette happy in this world, ‘only in the next’. February 11 is the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, it is also the day set aside each year as The World Day of the Sick.

As Catholics we have all had times when we, like Bernadette, have had our faith challenged. Many of us will have experienced the disbelief of others and indeed, at times, ourselves. Even John the Baptist, while in prison, questioned his faith, ‘When the men reached Jesus they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to expect someone else?’’
(Luke 7:20).

The biggest challenge to our faith is the problem of suffering. Christ himself was asked why God allowed suffering: ‘As he went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?’ ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered, ‘he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him’’ (John 9: 1-3).

Indeed, God is revealed in the love and support of those who help others who are suffering, in whatever way they can. During his visit to the UK in May 1982, Pope John Paul II said, during a ceremony to anoint the sick at Southwark Cathedral, ‘As Veronica ministered to Christ on his way to Calvary, so Christians have accepted the care of those in pain and sorrow as privileged opportunities to minister to Christ himself. I commend and bless all those who work for the sick in hospitals, residential homes and centres of care for the dying. I would like to say to you doctors, nurses, chaplains and all other hospital staff: Yours is a noble vocation. Remember it is Christ to whom you minister in the sufferings of your brothers and sisters.’

We don’t understand why there is suffering in the world, but we know that not even Christ was spared this. What we are promised is not that our physical and mental suffering will be taken away, but that Christ will walk our way of the cross with us, as we walk with him. At Southwark Cathedral Pope John Paul II said, ‘I want you to know how I have looked forward to this meeting with you, especially with those of you who are sick, disabled or infirm. I myself have had a share in suffering and I have known the physical weakness that comes with injury and sickness. It is precisely because I have experienced suffering that I am able to affirm with ever greater conviction what Saint Paul says: ‘Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8: 38-39)’. Bernadette’s attitude to her own suffering is further food for thought.

From 1866 to 1879 Bernadette lived a religious life in a convent in Nevers. Now called Sister Marie Bernard, she lived the simple life of a nun, eschewing the fame and attention that would have accompanied any worldly life. In the convent that she joined, Bernadette said, ‘I am getting on with my job.’ Asked what her job was, she replied, wryly, ‘Living as somebody who is ill’. She prayed, ‘Lord, I do not ask that I never be afflicted, but only that you never abandon me in affliction’. It is a beautiful prayer, which runs counter to our culture of ‘Why me? What have I done to deserve this?’ Indeed, in his address in May 1982 at Southwark Cathedral, Pope John Paul II said, ‘Sickness and suffering seem to contradict all that is worthy, all that is desired by man.’ He went on, ‘And yet no disease, no injury, no infirmity can ever deprive you of your dignity as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ’.

We all of us face challenges of one kind or another, but as Mother Teresa famously said, ‘I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle, I just wish he wouldn’t trust me so much’. We might not want to handle certain challenges, but with God’s help, we can handle them.

During her time as a nun, Bernadette frequently suffered from ill health, but her humility, obedience and cheerful attitude adhered her to the other sisters, and young novices often gained much inspiration from spending time with her. For several months prior to her death Bernadette was unable to take active part in convent life, for long periods she was confined to her bed. When asked why she didn’t go to Lourdes for healing, she replied ‘It is not for me.’

As we remember The World Day of the Sick, consider these words of Pope John Paul II from his address at Southwark Cathedral, ‘Today I make an urgent plea to this nation. Do not neglect your sick and elderly. Do not turn away from the handicapped and the dying. Do not push them to the margins of society. For, if you do, you will fail to understand that they represent an important truth. The sick, the elderly, the handicapped and the dying teach us that weakness is a creative part of human living, and that suffering can be embraced with no loss of dignity. Without the presence of these people in your midst you might be tempted to think of health, strength and power as the only important values to be pursued in life. But the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ are to be seen in the weakness of those who share his sufferings.’

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