Saint Bernadette is remembered as the young girl who saw the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes. Vilified for her claims, Bernadette was resolute, and slowly showed her detractors what it meant to be a recipient of God's Grace. Father Steve Grunow explores the life of this unlikely messenger, and her depiction in the classic film "The Song of Bernadette," today on the Word on Fire blog.
Monday, April 16th was the feast of St. Bernadette Soubirous, whose name in religious life was Sister Mary Bernard. Saint Bernadette is popularly known as the visionary of the shrine at Lourdes. Both the saint and the shrine are held with affection and in esteem by Catholics, and Lourdes remains one of the most visited pilgrimage destinations in the world.
The shrine is situated in the then-little known town in the Pyrenees where Saint Bernadette claimed to have seen the Mother of God. Adding to the already hallowed grounds is a spring of water reputed to have healing properties and facilitate spiritual conversion.
Lourdes, therefore, known as a place of miracles.
The story of Bernadette and of Lourdes is one of Catholicism’s well- and often-told tales. In this respect, both the saint and the shrine are known through a mixture of history and legend, fact and fiction. The discernment of one from the other as they pertain to Bernadette and Lourdes is in itself a literary genre.
In this regard, Ruth Harris’s distillation of the events and personalities that gave rise to Lourdes as a unique cultural phenomenon in her 1999 book, “Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age,” is worthy of note. And in terms of piecing together conflicting accounts and disparate testimonies, it represents an insightful and magisterial effort. Predecessors to Harris include no less a man of letters than Emile Zola, whose attempt at a critique and debunking of the phenomenon would give most pious Catholics the shudders.
Franz Werfel wrote his novel, “The Song of Bernadette,” as a tribute to the saint and the shrine that he credited as providing him a sanctuary and place of refuge during the Second World War. The work is largely a response to Zola’s denunciations. Werfel’s novel would become the basis for a 1943 film that is itself, like Lourdes, an enduring point of reference in which the story of Bernadette and her visions is remembered and told.
Bernadette’s visions took place in 1858 at an outcropping of rock known as the Grotto of Massabielle. Around the same time, the spring credited with healing powers was discovered at the site of the apparitions. The saint did not immediately claim that what she had seen in the Grotto was the Mother of God, instead she referred to the strange sight as “aquero” or “that one.”
The vision, Bernadette reported, identified herself as the Immaculate Conception after the young girl inquired. The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Faith that asserts that the Mother of God was conceived in the womb of her own mother without Original Sin.
Original Sin is, according to the Catholic Faith, the condition of humanity that inheres in all human nature as a result of a primordial resistance to God that is described in the opening chapters of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. The consequences of Original Sin include a propensity to choose what is contrary to God’s purposes, an inclination that sets in motion the travails that are associated with human wickedness.
Because this predicament inheres in human nature itself, it is present from the very beginning our lives; the Mother of God and her Son being the singular exceptions. I know many people balk at the idea of Original Sin, pronouncing it as cruel. But as I have grown older in the Faith, I have come to understand that Original Sin is really an expression of the Church’s realism about the world, and an acknowledgement that nature alone cannot explain the whole of who we are.
Original Sin is always meant to be interpreted through the tremendous overture of God's Grace, which is called the Paschal Mystery. The mystery of Christ's passage into our sin, and his identification with sinners on the cross, simultaneously reveals the reality of original sin and the startling Grace by which God acts to deliver us from its consequences.
Bernadette discerned that her vision of the Immaculate Conception had set her on a path that would take her away from the provincial life into which she had been born. She accepted a vocation to religious life, conforming her will to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Sister of Charity of Nevers.
Increasingly uncomfortable with the renown that she was afforded by the world, the anonymity of religious life enabled Bernadette to disappear into the mission of the Church. The convent proved to be the crucible through which the visionary Bernadette became a saint. After all, it is not heavenly visions that suffice to make any of us holy. What is required is a death to self through which a higher purpose can be achieved with our lives, a purpose that always exceeds what our narrowly conceived goals imagine as possible.
Bernadette died in 1879 and was canonized in 1933.
The 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette” is the lens through which many Catholics have learned the story of Lourdes. Actress Jennifer Jones earned an Academy Award for her presentation of the seer, and her performance is one of the highlights of the film. Evidently older and much more polished than the historical Bernadette was during the time of the apparitions, one wonders from the demeanor that Jones affects if we are to believe that Bernadette was herself a kind of apparition.
The impression left by Jones’s performance is that Bernadette was a kind of still point in the midst of a storm—the eye of a hurricane. Jones plays Bernadette as an unflappable “contra mundum" ("against the world"). She almost levitates, floating from scene to scene, until she is barely distinguishable in her ethereal bearing from the Heavenly Lady she claimed to have seen.
In the end, when the saint and Our Lady are juxtaposed in the room where Bernadette lay dying, the audience is left to wonder whether the vision that they have been privileged to see in the movie is not so much Our Lady, but Bernadette herself.
It’s the opposition that arises from Bernadette’s claims that drive the film’s plot. Family, friends, Church, state—all call her into the dock and demand an explanation and recantation. Bernadette remains unmoved by appeals or threats. She knows what she saw, even if others could not see it. Is it her innocence or audacity that finally persuades?
The opposition is finally distilled into two characters, one played by Vincent Price, who is an embodiment of Zola’s impassioned rationalism and skepticism. In the end, he finds himself as lonely in his persistent falsification of the visions as Bernadette is in her plaintive appeals that the visions are true. Surrounded by the piety of the masses, a piety he despises, this prophet of modernity’s construal of religion as delusion and hysteria is finally driven to his knees by the sheer weight of the prayers of the faithful. His last appeal is to Bernadette herself; the irony being that she alone is the one who best understands him in the loneliness of his predicament.
But perhaps more memorable than either Jones’s or Price’s performances is that of Gladys Cooper as Bernadette’s indomitable nemesis, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous. It is clear from the beginning of the film that both the saint and the Sister have met in each other their match. Sister Vauzous is dicing apart Bernadette’s claims with her own razor of faith-based skepticism, which at times she seems to be wielding with sadistic delight.
Pushed to her absolute limit by Bernadette’s demeanor, Vauzous confronts the girl, and the elder nun’s subsequent conversion is one of the great moments in cinema. Bernadette extends to her antagonist an offer of grace that has been for years cutting her to the bone, and ends up cutting into the rough hide of Vauzous’ heart and letting God’s Grace to finally make its way in.
For me, this scene reveals the story beneath of the song of Bernadette, which is not simply about the personality of the saint or the establishment of a world-renowned shrine, but about the relationship of nature and grace and the human response to both. It is about the contrast between the Immaculate Conception and Original Sin, and how the breakthrough of a divine grace that looks like the mysterious and uninvited “Aquero” will be received by a fallen world.
Grace can be likened to Bernadette and the Lady, who are both in their own way a “contra mundum.” The world is so desperate to be healed of its Original Sin, but this same Original Sin makes us afraid of the consequences of the cure. It means a change to a status quo that we treasure as being familiar. There is an unknown quality to God’s Grace that in our narrowness we conceive as being a threat.
Both the rationalist and the religious can respond in similar ways to such an offer, insisting that Grace, when it comes, conforms to our precise expectations. Of course, it never does.
Grace always comes as a surprise, welcome or unwelcome, like Bernadette’s vision in the Grotto of Lourdes.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
(The following is a clip from the film "The Song of Bernadette" in which Sister Marie Therese Vauzous confronts Bernadette and makes a startling discovery.)