by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Each year, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of the Lamb, on the solemnity of All Saints, hold a lottery. It is not like a state lottery through which you can win millions of dollars.
Through the Community of the Lamb lottery, you gain something much more valuable — a new saint friend! Around All Saints Day, the Little Sisters and Brothers place slips of paper with the names of many of their favorite saints in a basket. The Little Sisters and Brothers, as well as their bishop, priest and lay members, draw a saint.
For the entire next year, the goal is to learn more about your particular saint by developing a deeper relationship with the saint, remembering them in prayer, as well as asking for their intercession with the many and varied challenges the next 12 months will bring. This year, I drew St. Bernadette of Soubirous.
Bernadette was the oldest of nine children. Ironically, though she was instrumental in making Lourdes a center for healing for so many, Bernadette experienced poor health her entire life. She contracted cholera at a very young age and suffered from asthma throughout her life.
Bernadette’s family was materially very poor. At the time of the apparitions at Lourdes, her family lived in the basement cells of a former jail. She was not well educated. She was small in stature, less than 5 feet tall. She was a peasant, shepherd girl from an obscure area of France with no influential friends. Bernadette did not possess impressive, charismatic leadership skills.
According to worldly wisdom, she was one of the most unlikely candidates to initiate a major building project or to launch an international healing ministry. After all, she was just an ordinary peasant child.
Yet, Mary chose to reveal herself to Bernadette. From the church’s approved Marian apparitions, it seems that Our Blessed Mother prefers often to choose ordinary children to be her human instruments in conveying her messages to the world.
Mary appears to Bernadette, while she, her sister and childhood friends are gathering wood for fuel to warm the humble Soubirous home. The other children were alarmed to see Bernadette in a trance-like state gazing intently at something they were unable to see. Bernadette tells her companions that she saw a beautiful, petite woman. They are puzzled by Bernadette’s claims.
After a couple days, Mary asks Bernadette to come and visit her daily for two weeks. Initially, Mary did not reveal her identity to Bernadette. After asking the woman several times to identify herself, Our Blessed Mother tells Bernadette that she is the Immaculate Conception. At the time, this was not a common title for Mary. Just a few years prior to the apparitions at Lourdes, Pope Pius IX had declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was conceived without the effects of original sin.
Bernadette experienced considerable opposition. Her claims of Mary’s apparitions were controversial. The townspeople were conflicted with many believing Bernadette was a fraud, while others supported her claims. The civic officials were not happy with the controversy and unrest caused by Bernadette’s claims. Similarly, church officials were skeptical, at least initially, regarding the authenticity of the apparitions. The church wisely takes a very cautious stance about miraculous claims.
At one of Bernadette’s daily visits, Mary instructs Bernadette to dig in the ground where there was just a trickle of a stream and to wash her face and drink from the muddy waters. Many more people become convinced that Bernadette is a fraud — or at best hallucinating. Remarkably, however, the stream of water grows much stronger, and apparent healings begin to occur.
Since 1858, more than 70 authenticated physical healings have happened at Lourdes. These authenticated miracles have gone through rigorous examination by medical and theological experts. There are hundreds more physical healings associated with Lourdes and many thousands of spiritual miracles of grace that pilgrims have experienced.
Ironically, while many were healed physically at Lourdes, Bernadette herself experienced poor health and physical pain her entire life. She became a Sister of Charity, seeking to be out of the limelight. She only lived to age 35, eventually dying from tuberculosis. Interestingly, Bernadette’s body is numbered among the incorruptibles, miraculously not experiencing the normal decay that ensues from death.
While Bernadette seemed to lack human qualities for leadership, she possessed some very important virtues. She had an amazing faith that gave her the strength to speak the truth about the apparitions, even in the face of fierce opposition and when it caused many complications for her life. She also had an incredible humility, never seeking attention for herself.
Bernadette is a particularly excellent saint for our time. When I was an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis, the provincial for a local Carmelite convent was elected mother general for the international community. The motherhouse was in the Netherlands. The new superior general asked a relatively young Carmelite Sister from the St. Louis convent to accompany her to the Netherlands in order to assist with her new responsibilities.
After being in the Netherlands for a relatively brief time, this young Sister was asked by a Dutch bishop to help invigorate youth ministry in the diocese. The practice of the Catholic faith was very tepid in the Netherlands for adults, much less for youth.
This Sister told me she had chosen St. Bernadette as her patron for her youth ministry. When I asked her why Bernadette, she confided because Mary had instructed Bernadette to dig in the dry ground. Bernadette’s obedience to Mary’s request unleashed a vibrant stream of God’s healing love that continues today. This American Carmelite Sister introduced the Life Teen ministry to the Netherlands that is still bearing fruit today.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to cultivate a special friendship with St. Bernadette. I am asking her to intercede for me that the Holy Spirit might open my heart to nurture in my soul the faith, courage and humility that characterized the life of St. Bernadette.
With the increasing secularization of our culture, striving to renew and deepen faith in our society can feel like digging in arid ground. I ask Bernadette to intercede for me that I can remain faithful and resolute in proclaiming the gospel of life in a society where many of the powerful elite consider pregnancy a disease and the killing of innocent children as essential preventive health care.
In a culture that confuses love with using others for sexual pleasure, the soil can feel very dry for fruitful efforts to restore authentic love that seeks to sacrifice for the good of others.
One of the most beautiful features of Lourdes is how the sick are treated with the greatest respect and reverence. Among the thousands of visitors to the shrine, the sick and infirm are the celebrities of Lourdes. It is one place in the world where the sanctity of every human life is celebrated.
You might find St. Bernadette a good spiritual friend as well. Ask her to help you as you strive to follow Jesus faithfully and live your Catholic faith with joy, despite cultural opposition. May we remain humble and obedient to whatever Mary or Jesus asks of us, even to dig in the dry soil of our increasingly unbelieving, secularized culture.