EVEN while the exultant cry of the Magnificat was on her lips, Mary told of her lowliness and humility. The most favoured of God's creatures, she nevertheless .passed her days in the obscurity of a little Galilean town, the wife of a carpenter, and she had given birth to her Son in a stable.
So it was fully in keeping that when she came further to manifest herself she chose a small country place reminiscent of Nazareth in its remoteness and made herself known to a simple peasant girl, so like herself when young, who came 'to gather firewood from the rubbish-dump at Massabielle.
It is easy, today, to be misled ,when we see how gloriously Lourdes is framed in the magnificence of the Pyrenees, while the imposing basilica
erected over the grotto masks what must have been a desolate and rather forbidding spot when Bernadette first went there on that chill day in February, 1858.
But it is cheerless no longer. From that time of the happenings which brought Lourdes to the attention of the world, the grotto has been a centre of comfort and light; and people come in their thousands and tens of thousands from all corners of the earth to seek spiritual refreshment at its spring, and ease from their suffering.
As Bernadette knew it, the town stood well back from the spreading waters of the Gave which were not then channelled by embankments. It was a busy place, providing a market for the produce of the rich farmlands stretching for miles across the surrounding
Its water-mills, powered by tumbling streams emptying into the river, processed the grain brought up its steep alleyways in lumbering carts; and it was in one of these mills, named after the Englishman Boly who had once owned it, that Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844, the eldest child of the miller, Francois Soulairous.
As her young life unfolded so did the family fortunes wane until they were reduced to lodging in stark poverty at a disused jail, the parents and their four children crowded into one small room.
Bernadette had been sickly from birth, and this had held up her schooling, so although she was 14 at the time of the apparitions, she still could not read and had not progressed sufficiently with her Catechism to make her First Communion. . Yet It was to this simple, unlettered girl that Our Lady appeared 18 times between February 11 and July 16, 1858, and It was through her that she made known her wishes and message to the world.
We do not know all that was said to Bernadette at the grotto, for some things she would not disclose. But she was told to drink and wash from the spring which' welled to the surface where the Virgin pointed, and which has flowed copiously ever since. And she was to eat of the grass that was there.
How strange that grass and water, the food of cattle, was the fare offered by the heavenly Lady to her guest! The message she gave was of the need for penance and a request to pray for sinners; and finally when asked her name the Lady replied in the local patois: "I am the Immaculate Conception".
It's a curious tale, received with scepticism at the time by both ecclesiastical and civil authority, and it still makes foolishness to the ears of the worldly-wise; but subsequent developments have authenticated it, for they have shown clearly that the Hand of God has touched this place.
So who goes to Lourdes, and why? Perhaps the French expression tout k monde answers the first part of that question. All the world gatheres at the grotto to seek the balm of its waters and to whisper prayers where Heaven once came so close: rich and poor, grand and lowly, the halt and the healthy, witless and wise.
The catholicity of the Church is made manifest in the babel of tongues and unity of devotion as mankind comes to pay tribute to the Mother of God at the place where briefly she drew aside the veil between earth and heaven.
There, at the rock of Massabielle, they pour out their prayers and ask favours for their loved ones; and there, when their hearts are humble they may come to some understanding of the true meaning of suffering and handicap which seem such disasters in the eyes of the world.
Perhaps there at the grotto for a fleeting instant they may catch an insight into the providence of a loving Creator whose infinite justice and mercy will not be fully worked out until all His creatures are gathered to the Kingdom He has prepared for them and the scales of life are brought into balance at the end of time. The Lady had said to Bernadette: "I du not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next."
Lourdes is famed for its miracles. But do they really happen? There have indeed been cures at the grotto which baffle medical science, but during the whole 120 years of its history those which have survived the severe tests of authentication can be numbered in dozens rather than hundreds.
This should not surprise us. Her sceptical parish priest had suggested to Bernadette that the Lady should be asked to prove herself by making a rosebush at the grotto flower instantly, but when Bernadette passed on the message the Lady had merely smiled. It is spiritual favours that are most readily granted, and the gifts of patience and understanding.
And finally, what of the Lady's statement: "I am the Immaculate Conception"? Mary proclaims herself sinless to a generation which having lost its sense of sin glories in permissiveness. The message is there for us to hear if we would only listen: "I am the Immaculate Conception". To sinners she offered a remedy: Penance, penance, penance. In these licentious times perhaps it needs a miracle of grace to make us listen to those words.