A patron saint for the sick

In the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, "Health of the sick" is one of the many titles under which we invoke Our Lady. In 1992, inspired by this title, Pope John Paul II established the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes as the World Day of the Sick.

The story of the apparition of the Blessed Mother to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto of Massabielle on the outskirts of the town of Lourdes is well known. On Feb. 11, 1858, Mary appeared to Bernadette, a sickly 14-year-old girl, the daughter of an impoverished family. On that occasion Mary did not identify herself to Bernadette; she did not even speak. The two said the rosary together silently. Then Our Lady vanished. Bernadette reported she saw a young girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, "dressed in a white robe, girded at the waist with a blue ribbon. She wore upon her head a white veil, which gave just a glimpse of hair. Her feet were bare but covered by the last folds of her robe and a yellow rose was upon each of them. She held on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like the two roses on her feet." Only at the third visit did Mary speak, asking Bernadette to return the grotto for 15 days. In spite of the skepticism of her family, the hostility of the local authorities and the cool reception of the parish clergy, Bernadette returned faithfully to the grotto, and each time she did the crowd that followed her there grew larger.

On Feb. 25, 1858, the ninth apparition, Mary instructed Bernadette to dig in the ground. Using her fingers, Bernadette scratched the surface of the earth until she uncovered a spring. Smeared with dirt and mud, she looked ludicrous. As her relatives hurried her away, one of aunts slapped her for humiliating them.

A few days after Bernadette uncovered the spring Catherine Latapie-Chouat went to the grotto. Some time earlier she had fallen and injured the fingers of one hand so severely that she could not cook or sew for her family. She bathed her paralyzed fingers in the icy water and recovered the use of her fingers immediately. Louis Bouriette, a stonemason, had been blinded in one eye in a mine explosion. Unable to support himself and in almost constant pain from the scar tissue that formed on his eyeball, Bouriette sank into a profound depression. He prayed at the grotto, then bathed his blind eye with water from the spring, and instantly regained his sight. Justin Bouhohorts had been sickly from birth. When he was 18 months old he developed a high fever and fell into a coma. Relatives and neighbors knew the child's end was near, but his mother, Croizine, carried the little boy to the grotto and plunged him into the water. He showed no change, so she took him home, and spent the night praying and wrapping him in warm towels. In the morning Justin regained consciousness and was perfectly well.

Since 1883 there as been a Medical Bureau at Lourdes which uses modern diagnostic techniques to examine people who claim to have been cured at the shrine. Of the many reported cures at Lourdes, the Church, ever cautious when dealing with claims of a miracle, has recognized only 67 as inexplicable by the standards of medical science.

Craughwell is the author of numerous books about the saints, including Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011