For millions of Catholics worldwide, the ultimate pilgrimage goal is a visit to Lourdes, France—specifically the Grotto of Massabielle, where the Blessed Virgin Mary first presented herself before the poor and sickly Bernadette Soubirous on February 11, 1858 (and 17 times thereafter). The faithful believe that drinking from the grotto’s spring water can heal them from their ailments.
In celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes this February 11, here are a few things you might not know about the day and event observed by devoted followers of Mama Mary:
“Nothing other than divine intervention.”
After a thorough investigation and interviews with Bernadette, Bishop of Tarbes Bertrand-Sévère Laurence approved the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes on January 18,1862, saying in a mandate:
“We are inspired by the Commission comprising wise, holy, learned and experienced priests who questioned the child, studied the facts, examined everything and weighed all the evidence. We have also called on science, and we remain convinced that the Apparitions are supernatural and divine, and that by consequence, what Soubirous saw was the Most Blessed Virgin. Our convictions are based on the testimony of Soubirous, but above all on the things that have happened, things which can be nothing other than divine intervention.”
Bernadette, the eldest child of a miller and laundress, was collecting firewood with her sister Toinette and friend Jeanne Abadie when she experienced her first encounter with the Lady by the Grotto. “Something white in the shape of a girl,” described the 14-year-old of what she saw, “a pretty young girl with a rosary over her arm.” A vision in a white robe with a blue sash tied around her waist, this girl (“uo petito damizelo,” or “a tiny lady,” to quote Bernadette’s words) was cloaked in a white veil and had a yellow rose in each foot.
In 1864, sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch came up with his interpretation of what the girl saw—a much taller and older version of the Lady sculpted in Carrara marble. The statue has since been placed in a niche in the Grotto of Massabielle. “Profoundly disappointed” was how Bernadette (who was canonized in December 1933 by Pope Pius XI) was said to have felt about his interpretation. Nevertheless, Fabisch’s version is a famous and oft-copied one. Statues of his Lady of Lourdes come in various sizes and appear in gardens, homes, churches, and on the personal altars of Catholics.
“The secret ingredient.”
The practice of drinking from the spring water by the grotto was based on the instruction of the Lady to Bernadette on February 25, 1858: to “drink at the spring and wash in it.” In a test conducted by t M. Latour de Trie, a chemist commissioned by Lourdesmayor Anselme Lacade, the water of Lourdes was deemed potable and contained oxygen, azote, carbonic acid, carbonates of lime and magnesia; a trace of carbonate of iron; alkaline carbonate or silicate; chlorides of potassium and sodium; and traces of sulphathes of potassium and soda, ammonia, and iodine.
What then is the secret ingredient in the water of Lourdes that has cured countless devotees of their various illnesses?
“The secret ingredient, in this case, is not ‘nothing,’ as science would say, but ‘Faith,’” wrote Fr. Joseph Rodrigues in his story for aleteia. “Faith is the secret ingredient, as St. Bernadette is said to have remarked, ‘One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.’”