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'I am the Immaculate Conception'

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In 1858, a small town in southern France was graced by extraordinary events. In February that year, a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, along with her sister and friend, went to collect bones and wood.  Bernadette removed her socks to cross a stream and when she heard the sound of the wind, she looked up toward a grotto. There, she saw a lady dressed in white. She wore a white veil, blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot. Bernadette made the sign of the cross and prayed the rosary with the lady before she disappeared.

Returning to the grotto, Bernadette again saw the lady, who prayed with Bernadette and smiled when holy water was sprinkled on her. It was only on the third visit, Feb. 18, that the lady spoke to Bernadette, saying, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other." She asked Bernadette to return on 14 separate days.

Bernadette continued to return to the grotto, and Feb. 24 the lady revealed a secret to Bernadette. The next day, the lady shared a message: "Penance. Penance. Penance. Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners."

The day after, with hundreds of people present, the lady told Bernadette to "drink of the spring." Bernadette began to dig in the mud and drink murky water; she also ate bitter herbs found nearby. The crowd thought she was insane. Bernadette said she did it for sinners. After witnessing another apparition Feb. 27, Bernadette was threatened with prison.

In March, more than a thousand people were present during another apparition when, for the first time, a miracle occurred. A woman who had a dislocated arm dipped it in the water of the spring that came from where Bernadette drank muddy water, and her arm and hand regained movement.

On March 2, the lady asked Bernadette to "Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here." The parish priest of Lourdes wanted to know the lady’s name, and he asked for a miracle: that a rose bush flower in the middle of winter. After school March 3, Bernadette went to the grotto. When she saw the lady, she asked for her name, only to receive a smile.

On March 4, with about eight thousand people present, the lady returned. The rose bush did not bloom, but she did reveal her name: "Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou." "I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette did not know this title was assigned to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Four years earlier, in 1854, Pope Pius IX dogmatically declared this a truth of the Catholic faith.

Bernadette witnessed the last apparition July 16. Bernadette was blocked from the grotto, but felt that she was in front of it. She saw the Blessed Virgin one last time, saying, "She was more beautiful than ever."

Dec. 8 is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it is the patronal feast of the United States. It is also a holy day of obligation (waived this year due to COVID-19). As the church celebrates this feast, it is good to ponder these apparitions. This year, Mary’s words, "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other," ring so true. Mary also called for penance, as she has at many other apparition sites through the years. Sin and its effects weigh heavily on the church and each one of us.  We, too, are called to do penance for our sins and those of the whole world.

The Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood. Some people think it refers to Mary conceiving Jesus in her womb. That is the annunciation, celebrated March 25. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary was from the very beginning without the stain of original sin, a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve.

As we ponder the Immaculate Conception, let us draw ever closer to Mary. She brings us ever closer to her Son.

This feast shows us God’s plan fulfilled in Mary and provides an example to us all. God desires that we, too, be immaculate. With Mary’s intercession and motherly guidance, we can follow her example. With God’s grace, we can avoid sin and be holy.

Still today, people go to Lourdes, to visit the grotto at Massabielle, and enter the miraculous springs — and they are healed. It is a long trip. There is also a replica of the Lourdes Grotto at the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Md., and another at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. Both are outside grottos, and worthy of a pilgrimage.

Lienhard is the director of the Catholic Education Center and special consultant for catechetics for the Diocese of Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020