Saint Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, withstood relentless poverty as a child and later endured unrelenting strictness as a religious sister. One of nine children, Bernadette was born in 1844 to devout Catholic parents in southern France. Her father managed a grain mill which was forced to close when a larger mill opened in the district. The day jobs available were not enough to provide for his family so the older children had to gather berries, wild mushrooms and twigs for kindling which could then be sold in the village. Still, food was so scarce that a villager once saw Bernadette’s brother scrapping the candle wax off the floor of the parish church and eating it to allay his hunger. In desperation the children would occasionally be sent to stay with relatives to guarantee them a meal. The children’s need to work prevented them from going to school and from gaining any formal religious instruction. Consequently Bernadette’s First Communion and Confirmation were regularly postponed until she could complete the required classes. In fact, when the Blessed Mother announced “I am the Immaculate Conception” during the last vision, Bernadette had to inquire from her friends what this meant. The Soubirous family’s piety was exemplary; but the formal knowledge of the faith — as well as a minimum ability to read and write — was indeed lacking.
After much, very much, interrogation by civil officials, clergy, and hierarchy, Bernadette and her visions were gradually accepted as legitimate. The local bishop managed to get her father employed at another grain mill which allowed the children to go full time to a convent school. Although physically diminutive, Bernadette proved smart enough intellectually, learning quickly to read and developing splendid penmanship. Her teenage years at the convent school led her later to embrace the religious sisterhood as her own vocation.
Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity and of Christian Instruction of Nevers in central France. Bernadette worked in the convent infirmary and later in the convent sacristy where her talent for embroidery was put to good use. The mistress of novices and later mother superior during Bernadette’s time at the Nevers convent was Mother Marie-Therese Vauzou. Although Mother Vauzou at first supported Bernadette’s entering the convent and found a certain charm in the young novice, Mother Vauzou either never fully believed Bernadette’s claims about her visions or perhaps Mother Vauzou was fearful that Bernadette’s heavenly favors would turn her head. Either way, Mother Vauzou was a stern superior and a rigorous disciplinarian toward Bernadette during the saint’s fifteen years of convent life. Deficiencies in other sisters that did not draw comment were invariably mentioned when observed in Bernadette. After Bernadette’s death and her growing acceptance as a saint, when questioned about her strictness toward Bernadette, Mother Vauzou remarked, “I would not have changed anything.” Bernadette’s cause for canonization did not begin until after Mother Vauzou’s death in 1907.
St. Bernadette Soubirous experienced very little earthly consolation this side of the grave. Although firm in her Catholic faith, during the first half of her life she daily faced grinding poverty. And even more firm in her Catholic faith, during the second half of her life she daily endured petty harassment. Either due to severe poverty or due to minor provocations, whatever joy and delight Bernadette Soubirous experienced in this world came almost exclusively from the next world. Fingering her beads as a child and a teenager, the young Bernadette found spiritual strength even as her body ached with hunger. Caring for the sick and tending to the altar as Sister Marie-Bernarde, Bernadette again found spiritual strength even as her human sensitivities would have welcomed some affirmation.
Few readers of the RI Catholic will undergo the economic and emotional deprivations that St. Bernadette endured. But her dramatic lessons are instructive for all Catholics. Like Mary in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, each believer must choose “the better portion,” the spiritual dimension, the prayerful refreshment, that comes not from earthly satisfaction but from heavenly considerations.