Charlie Hegarty Notebook
In fulfilment of a private vow, I went on pilgrimage to Lourdes last December 8, the occasion of the great Marian feast. As with earlier visits, I am always moved by the sight of the old, pale-grey stone buildings surrounding the Domain, erected to care for the masses of sick pilgrims who have flocked to the shrine since 1858, when an untutored 14-yearold girl, Bernadette Soubirous, heard Our Lady declare in the local patois: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” I love this title for its unabashed Catholicity: it combines flesh and spirit, theology and nature, to a supreme degree, thus causing consternation among my non-Catholic acquaintances.
One of these acquaintances, a rather snobbish sceptic, once dismissed Lourdes as “a place for peasants and credulous old ladies”. It is easy to make such generalisations when you have never visited the place. Yes, there are peasants and old ladies aplenty, but who is to say they are credulous? Perhaps they possess that faith which is truly childlike and which is closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than all the scholarship of the scoffers.
Anyway, Lourdes always seems to me to have a generous helping of the AngloIrish bourgeoisie, as well as clerics and religious in all shapes and sizes.
The Lourdes shopkeepers are a race apart. Patient, watchful, waiting to pounce on unwary pilgrims with their plastic, luminous statues of holy water, they know the universal love of kitsch like no one else. My acquaintance, with his exquisite taste, would shudder at their merchandise but I feel St Bernadette (of solid peasant stock herself) would have well understood the ancient instinct for trade and profit.
“Kitsch”, a Yiddish word, also reminds me that the kindly forbears of these same tradespeople once sheltered a hunted Jew from his Nazi pursuers. Franz Werfel, an Austrian writer and poet, was given refuge in Lourdes for several weeks in June 1940 after the fall of France. He, too, made a private promise: “I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette.” The Song of Bernadette, published in 1942, was the result. Werfel admitted that “I exercised my right of creative freedom”, weaving the true facts of Bernadette’s story into a satisfying and readable fiction. His book might have fallen into unmerited obscurity had it not attracted the attention of Hollywood moguls who made it into the very popular film of the same title in 1943, with the actress Jennifer Jones in the title role. She died aged 90 in December last year and her obituaries record a history of depression, attempted suicide and three husbands. Yet in her role as Bernadette she achieved a memorable and soulful performance for which she justly won an Oscar.
Having watched the film on several occasions on the bumpy coach ride from Pau to Lourdes, I am always amused by the smooth Vincent Price who plays the sceptical prosecutor, Dutour. Yet the best lines are spoken by the Abbé Peyramale, played by Charles Bickford. When challenged by Dutour as to the authenticity of the visions, he replies: “For those who have faith, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not have faith, no explanation is possible.” Next time I am upbraided for my peasant-like credulity, this is the answer I shall give. Meanwhile, February 11 was the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Long may she give solace to all who come to pray at the Grotto of Massabielle.