Read an Excerpt
A Life with the Saints
During my second year as a Jesuit novice, I wandered into the community television room one Friday evening to see what video was being served up. Television watching was a popular pastime for novices living on a thirty-five-dollar monthly stipend in our novitiate, located in a poor neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts.
In typical Jesuit style, our TV room consisted of fifteen individual recliners lined up in front of a large television, an admittedly strange setup that once prompted my brother-in-law to ask if, besides vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, we took a vow against sofas, too.
“What’s on?” I asked the other novices as I walked into the TV room.
“The Song of Bernadette,” said one, glancing up from the TV.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
Everyone looked up from his recliner, apparently aghast.
“You’re kidding, right?” said another novice. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
I shook my head dumbly.
One thing I realized soon after joining the Jesuits was how little Catholic culture I had grown up with, or at least absorbed. Though both my parents were good Catholics, our family lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood where bar mitzvahs were more common than first Holy Communion parties. My sister and I attended public schools, and the two of us darkened the doors of the parish church only on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
As a boy, then, I was about as likely to join something like the Catholic Youth Organization or become an altar server as I was to join the circus. Cub Scouts, which most of my school friends belonged to, and where we carved miniature racing cars for the Pinewood Derby in September, sliced up pumpkins and made papier-mâché masks in October, made bows and arrows in November, fashioned construction-paper chains for Christmas trees in December, and learned about the local “Indian” lore for the rest of the year, seemed far more interesting than being an altar boy. As far as I knew, altar servers didn’t get to make their own arrowheads.
Later on, as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I was given ample opportunities and several invitations to join the active Newman Club on campus. That organization, named after the English Catholic convert (and later cardinal) John Henry Newman, was founded to nourish the spiritual lives of Catholic students at non-Catholic universities. For thousands of undergraduates, it is an easy way to connect with other like-minded Catholics. (Just recently, I found out that the Newman Club was actually founded at Penn, in 1893.)
But I was more than satisfied with the local parish church, which I attended on (most) Sundays, and I turned up my nose at the Newman Club, since I harbored suspicions that anyone who joined must be some sort of “fanatic.” Thus another excellent opportunity to learn more about my faith was passed by.
A few years ago, as a Jesuit, I returned to Penn to give a brief talk on my vocation journey to, of all groups, graduate students at the Wharton School of Business. One person in the audience asked how often I went to the Newman Club as an undergraduate. Embarrassed, I had to admit, “Never.”
So while the other Jesuits in my novitiate had been raised in families that went to daily Mass, attended novenas, said grace at meals, and knew the difference between the Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart, I was still trying to remember how many sacraments there were.
And while the other novices had attended Catholic grammar schools, high schools, and even colleges, and had studied church history, systematic theology, moral theology, and both Testaments, I was still trying to figure out why confession was now called the sacrament of reconciliation.
Needless to say, I had a lot to learn during the novitiate.
Sometimes I was amazed that the Jesuits had even accepted me. The assistant novice director once asked me, “Are you sure you’re Catholic?”
My ignorance extended not only to weighty theological matters but also to pop culture. In the space of a few months in the novitiate, I had already been teased mercilessly by the other novices for not having seen Going My Way, The Nun’s Story, and The Trouble with Angels. Now I didn’t know The Song of Bernadette. I feared that this was another instance of me not knowing a movie that everyone else had seen by age ten.
“Sit down,” one of the novices said. “You can’t say you’re Catholic and not have seen this movie.”
Based on Franz Werfel’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Song of Bernadette tells the story of the events that occurred in the small French town of Lourdes during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The movie, starring Jennifer Jones as Bernadette and Charles Bickford as her initially doubtful but eventually supportive pastor, has become a perennial Catholic favorite. It was my first introduction to one of the great saints of modern times, a person who has become a model for me in my own life.
At the time, I had little of what one might call a “devotion” to any saint, let alone St. Bernadette. As a boy, I had prayed assiduously before a plastic statue of St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes, who stood atop a dresser in my bedroom. Over the years, I suppose, he put in a good word for me when I wanted to pass a spelling test or do well in Little League tryouts. But later on, I began to see prayer to the saints as somewhat superstitious and even ridiculous.
As a Jesuit novice, however, I was introduced to a new way of seeing the saints: as human beings whose lives I could use as models for my own. This was how my fellow Jesuits approached the saints, not simply as distant heavenly figures upon whom one called for divine favors, but as fellow Christians.
In her marvelous book Friends of God and Prophets, the theologian Elizabeth Johnson speaks of two primary models of the saints: patrons and companions.
Probably the more common model today is the saint as patron, the intercessor who pleads on our behalf before God. This was the model I was using (without knowing it, of course) as I prayed before the statue of St. Jude in my bedroom as a child. As a novice, I was introduced to the second model: the saint as companion—in other words, as one who accompanies us in our lives as Christians, who teaches us how to follow Jesus Christ, and who shows us new ways to be holy.
For me, the most satisfying part of seeing the saints as companions was realizing how different they were, leading lives that often seemed quite the opposite of one another. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, for instance, had dozens of books on hand for his studies, while the poverty-minded Francis of Assisi told his Franciscans never to own even one, lest they become too proud. (If a man has a book, said Francis, then he’ll want a shelf, then a library, and finally someone to bring him his books from his library.) On his road to sanctity, Ignatius of Loyola gave up a soldiering career, while Joan of Arc began one. The French Carmelite nun Thérèse of Lisieux lived within the walls of a cloistered monastery and had little contact with the outside world, while the great Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier traveled to Africa, India, and Japan to spread the gospel.
The saints are not carbon copies of one another.
Each of the saints shows us what it means to be holy in this particular way, as Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, has written. We are meant to follow the path to sanctity in our own way. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” the Trappist Thomas Merton wrote.
These days I see the saints as both patrons and companions. Through their examples, they help me lead a Christian life and trust that God calls me to sanctity through my own life, in my own unique circumstances, and in my own way. And I believe that through their prayers, they help me be a better Christian. So: patrons and companions.
But I knew none of this when I sat down in the novitiate that night to watch The Song of Bernadette. And I certainly knew nothing of the story of Bernadette Soubirous and what happened to her at Lourdes. Yet as moving as the film is, the real story—the story of the young woman who would become a saint, and would become for me a patron and companion—is even more so.
The Story of a Soul
In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, age fourteen, was living in appalling poverty in a small town in southern France. Her father’s milling business had failed, and, desperate for lodgings, the family took up residence in a room that until recently had served as the local jail. (Today it is still called the cachot, the French word for “jail” or “dungeon.”) In this cramped hovel, no more than ten by ten feet square, lived Bernadette’s parents and their four children. The first few pages of Franz Werfel’s novel capture what must have been the misery of Bernadette’s parents, particularly her once-proud father: “What annoys him more than this wretched room is the two barred windows, one larger, one smaller, these two abject squinting eyes turned on the filthy yard of the Cachot where the dunghill of the whole neighborhood stinks to heaven.”
On February 11, Bernadette went with her sister, Toinette, and a friend to fetch some firewood—the family’s poverty prevented Bernadette’s mother from buying wood in the town. Only a few months prior, Bernadette had returned to her family after working as a shepherdess in a nearby town to earn a little money.
The girls’ destination was a grotto on the outskirts of Lourdes at a place called Massabieille (the name means “old rock” in the local patois), on the banks of the fast-flowing Gave River. In her superb study of Bernadette’s apparitions and their consequences, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, the Oxford historian Ruth Harris reminds readers of the unappealing state of the now-famous grotto. From as early as the seventeenth century, the town’s pigs had come to forage at Massabieille, and they eventually took up residence there. Far from the well-tended and even manicured setting that contemporary pilgrims know, the original site, says Harris, was “a marginal and even filthy place.”
While the two other girls crossed the river to gather wood from the opposite bank, Bernadette, a sickly and asthmatic child, lingered. Eventually, she began to remove her stockings, to prepare to wade into the river and join them. As she did so, she heard the sound of a wind, though she saw nothing moving around her. Bending down to remove her other stocking, she looked up again.
This time, the wind swayed a small rosebush in the niche of the grotto, and a “gentle light” emanated from the spot. Bernadette later reported seeing a young girl in that light, dressed in white, smiling at her. (Later interpretations of Bernadette’s testimony, including those in The Song of Bernadette, misrepresent the vision as a mature woman.)
Frightened, Bernadette took a rosary from her pocket and tried to make the sign of the cross. Fear got the better of her, and she found herself unable to do so. But when the young girl made the sign of the cross, Bernadette did the same, and began to pray.
Here is the description of what happened in Bernadette’s own words:
The vision made the Sign of the Cross. Then I tried a second time, and I could. As soon as I made the Sign of the Cross, the fearful shock I felt disappeared. I knelt down and I said my rosary in the presence of the beautiful lady. The vision fingered the beads of her own rosary, but she did not move her lips. When I finished my rosary, she signed for me to approach; but I did not dare. Then she disappeared, just like that.
This would be the first of several apparitions that Bernadette reported. At that first apparition and all the rest, no one with her heard, saw, or experienced anything.
On the way home, Bernadette told her sister what she had seen, swearing her to secrecy. But upon entering their house, Toinette burst out with the news to her mother: “Bernadette saw a white girl in the Grotto of Massabieille!” Her parents, furious at Bernadette’s apparent lies, beat her and forbade her to return.
A few days later, still confused about what had happened at Massabieille, Bernadette told a local priest in the confessional about her vision. Astonished by her composure and the clarity with which she related the story, he asked her permission to speak of it to the pastor, Abbé Dominique Peyramale. According to the exhaustive biography Bernadette of Lourdes, written by the French historian René Laurentin in 1979, all that Peyramale had to say was “We must wait and see.”
Neighbors and friends tried to convince Bernadette’s parents to change their minds about not letting Bernadette return to the grotto. One town notable told her father, sensibly, “A lady with a rosary—that can’t be anything bad.” Eventually her parents relented, and Bernadette returned, this time with a few other children.
Once more the girl in white appeared. Bernadette asked the vision to “stay if she came from God, to leave if not.” Hedging her bets, Bernadette threw holy water in the direction of the apparition, who merely smiled and inclined her head.
Bernadette’s demeanor during the apparition—she was almost deathly pale and immobile throughout—so frightened her companions that they raced to a nearby mill for help. Bernadette’s mother, in obvious distress, ran to the grotto from town. Embarrassed by Bernadette’s actions, she had to be restrained from beating her daughter.
By the time of the third apparition, on February 18, many in Lourdes were taking a keen interest in Bernadette’s tale. Some pressed her to ask the vision who she was. But when Bernadette came to the vision with paper and pen and asked for a name, the vision simply laughed, and spoke for the first time: “Would you have the goodness to come here for fifteen days?”
Bernadette returned, now accompanied by a growing crowd, and the vision continued to appear. After the sixth apparition, on February 21, Bernadette was harshly questioned by the dubious local police commissioner, who tried to ascertain if she was merely pulling a childish prank.
During the investigation, he tried to get her to say that she was seeing the Virgin Mary, but Bernadette persisted in referring to the vision as aqueró (“that thing”). When pressed to elaborate, Bernadette described the vision as wearing “a white robe drawn together with a blue sash, a white veil over her head, and a yellow rose on each foot.”
Reading the actual police transcripts, one discovers the honesty, simplicity, and persistence in Bernadette that would later impress her supporters. “Stalwart,” Ruth Harris calls her.
When the police commissioner was taking notes, he slyly changed the record and read it back to her. “The virgin smiles at me,” he said.
“I didn’t say the virgin,” said Bernadette, correcting him.
For me, this is the most compelling aspect of Bernadette Soubirous. She was wholly uninterested in impressing anyone. She avoided saying, until almost the final apparition, that she was seeing the Virgin Mary (though others in the town claimed this almost from the beginning). She was, despite her family’s poverty, unwilling to profit in any way from her experiences, refusing any and all gifts. In all her testimonies, Bernadette simply told what she saw and what she didn’t see, what she heard and didn’t hear.
In this way Bernadette reminds me of her countrywoman Joan of Arc. In 1431, during her trial before the ecclesiastical judges who questioned her visions of the saints, Joan responded to their doubts. “I have told you often enough that they are St. Margaret and St. Catherine,” she said. “Believe me if you like.”
This, in essence, is what Bernadette said, and continues to say: Here is what I have experienced. Believe me if you like.
On February 25, after the seventh and eighth apparitions, Bernadette returned to the grotto. The assembled crowd saw Bernadette not in an ecstatic state, as in previous visits, but clawing at the ground in the grotto, drinking some muddy water that she had uncovered, and stuffing her mouth with weeds.
Bernadette later explained her actions: “She told me. ‘Go and drink of the spring and wash yourself in it.’ Not seeing any water, I went to the Gave. But she indicated with her finger that I should go under the rock.” The eating of the weeds was an act of penance, said Bernadette, for sinners.
But to onlookers Bernadette was merely scratching at the dirt and eating weeds. They were, predictably, horrified. “She’s nuts!” someone shouted out. Her aunts, who had accompanied her, gave her a sharp smack as they left the grotto.
In the movie The Song of Bernadette, Bernadette’s humiliation (Jennifer Jones looks imploringly at the vision with her face covered in mud) leads to the film’s dramatic high point. After the protagonist and the crowd leave the grotto, a townsman sits down to rest at the site. As the camera focuses on his hand resting on the dry ground, a few drops, then a trickle, and then a little stream flow past.
“Look at it!” he shouts to swelling music.
In reality, as René Laurentin describes it in Bernadette of Lourdes, a small group of townspeople stayed behind to examine the hole Bernadette had begun, and the more they dug, the more pure water gushed forth. But even the movie’s account underlines the significance of the day: Bernadette had uncovered the fountain that would become the focus of later pilgrimages and hope for healings.
Again Bernadette was questioned, and annoyed officials redoubled their efforts to frighten her into recanting. Again, she stuck to her story. Two days later, Bernadette returned to the grotto and drank from the spring. On March 1, a local woman whose fall from a tree had left her with a permanently crippled arm went to the spring and plunged her arm in the water. In a few moments her bent fingers straightened and the arm was healed. It would be the first of many miracles attributed to the spring at Lourdes.
Interest over Bernadette’s vision continued to mount, and at the thirteenth apparition, Bernadette was accompanied by more than fifteen hundred people. After this apparition she raced to Abbé Peyramale to tell him what the vision had said to her: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here.” As René Laurentin notes, the priest was appalled, imagining the opprobrium that would descend on him if he were to authorize a ridiculous request from a poor young girl.
So the practical Peyramale demanded some answers from the vision. “Ask her for a name,” he said bluntly to Bernadette. “And, as an added test, ask her to make the grotto’s wild rosebush flower.”
During the next apparition, Bernadette did just that, but the vision merely smiled. No rosebushes bloomed and no name was given. The priest told her again, “If the lady really wishes that a chapel be built, she must tell us her name and make the rosebush bloom.”
On March 25, the rosebush was still not in bloom, but a name was given. According to Bernadette, the vision clasped her hands and said, “Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou.” Or “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette, whose religious training was rudimentary at best, had no idea what this meant. She kept repeating the phrase over and over, lest she forget it, as she rushed to Abbé Peyramale.
The film’s depiction of her meeting with her pastor corresponds well to what really happened next. Charles Bickford, as Abbé Peyramale, questions Bernadette severely. “The Immaculate Conception. Do you know what that means?” he demands.
Jennifer Jones, as Bernadette, shakes her head.
Her pastor explains (in reality he wrote this in a letter to the bishop) that the name is nonsensical. A few years before, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been proclaimed by the Vatican, holding that the Virgin Mary had been conceived without the stain of original sin. But to say, “I am the Immaculate Conception” was ridiculous, like saying not “I am white,” but “I am whiteness.” Still, both the Hollywood Bernadette and the real one stuck to their stories.
After this came two more apparitions, and by the time of the final one, the police had boarded up the front of the grotto to prevent any gatherings of the faithful. On July 16, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bernadette was forced to view the grotto from across the Gave River. But no matter: “I saw neither the boards nor the Gave,” she said. “It seemed to me that I was in the grotto, no more distant than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin.”
With this final apparition, Bernadette’s life changed once again. Greatly admired, hounded by the faithful, and even pressed to perform miracles in her hometown (she resisted, of course), Bernadette became the object of fascination for increasing numbers of pilgrims. In 1860, partially to escape her growing fame and partially to receive more of a formal education, she entered a small convent school in Lourdes.
But her candor and straightforward attitude remained. In 1861, she was photographed for the first time. Urged by the photographer to adopt the precise pose and expression that she had had during the apparitions, Bernadette protested, “But she isn’t here.”
Five years later, at age twenty-two, Bernadette entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France, hundreds of miles from Lourdes. Before leaving Lourdes, she paid a last visit to her beloved grotto. “My mission in Lourdes is finished,” she said.
Even in the convent, Bernadette was reluctant to discuss her experiences. She told the story of the apparitions only twice to her community, hoping in vain to “hide” herself among her sisters. Always sickly from her childhood asthma, Bernadette was unable to assume many of the tasks of the convent and even found it difficult to pray. “Oh dear,” she said, “I don’t know how to meditate.”
Nonetheless, she was a cheerful person, even in the face of illness, always teasing and laughing with her sisters. In the infirmary one day, she took to embroidery, favoring patterns of small hearts. “If someone tells you that I have no heart,” she joked, “tell them I make them all day long.”
Gradually she weakened from tuberculosis, and increasingly she was confined to her bed. A cancerous tumor was discovered on her leg, and she declined rapidly. On her deathbed, she returned in her mind to Massabieille. “I have told the events,” she told her sister. “Let people abide by what I said the first time. I may have forgotten and so may others. The simpler one writes, the better it will be.”
At her death, Bernadette was thirty-five years old.
For most of her life, Bernadette patiently endured endless questions about her visions, consistently refused gifts, and occasionally faced jealousy from some of her sisters in the convent. Always an obedient person, she tried to do her best in a difficult situation but grew weary of repeating the same details to both the faithful and the doubtful.
When one reads her story, with its details of a poor and hungry childhood, constant demands to answer questions about the apparitions, and even a difficult life in the convent, Bernadette seems at peace only when she is in the grotto.
As Ruth Harris writes, “Like the photographs that tried to capture her during the apparitions, Bernadette obeyed, but seemed to leave her heart somewhere else.”