Although inhabited by a people deeply rooted in the history of France, the city of Lourdes was totally unaware and unprepared for the world-shaking happenings for which it was selected by the Divine Will. This Divine Will chose one of the ugliest quarters of Lourdes, and from its inhabitants the poorest of the poor. The Soubirous family lived in the miserable cell of a former prison, because Francis Soubirous, a day laborer, could hardly earn the money to sustain his family. It has been noted that one of the Soubirous children was once seen eating the wax dripping from the candles in a church to appease his hunger. And Francis Soubirous was accused of having stolen a sack of flour, though the charge was never substantiated or proven.

The grotto of Massabielle was a deserted wild spot where all day the swine would stray, a most wretched place, sometimes filled with snakes and rubble. This Massabielle was chosen by the Holy Virgin as the place of her appearance to Bernadette Soubirous, the fourteen-year-old, hard-working daughter of the day-laborer. While Bernadette's parents worked she looked after the home and her sisters and brothers, and went out every day to gather wood for the fire. It was on February 11, 1858, when Bernadette with her little sister and a friend were going to gather fagots on the banks of the Gave near the grotto Massabielle, that suddenly Bernadette was drawn toward the grotto which at that moment was filled with a bright cloud. The girl looked toward it and saw a beautiful young woman, who smiled at her.... The Lady asked Bernadette to return to the grotto for fifteen days and promised Bernadette happiness not in this world, but in the next.

Most of the conversation between Our Lady and Bernadette during the following apparitions was never made known, but the message conveyed was of prayer and penance. At the sixth apparition Our Lady's face was sad and sorrowful as she looked over the crowd that had gathered and she said, "Pray for sinners." Later Our Lady cried out, "Penance! Penance! Penance!" Our Lady also directed Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel on that spot. Met with scornful disbelief, Bernadette was ordered to find out the Lady's name. She humbly made her request over and over. Finally one day Bernadette reported, "The Lady was standing above the rose-tree, in a position very similar to that shown in the miraculous medal. At my third request her face became very serious and she seemed to bow down in an attitude of humility. Then she joined her hands and raised them to her breast. . . She looked up to heaven. . . then slowly opening her hands and leaning forward towards me, she said to me in a voice vibrating with emotion, I am the Immaculate Conception. Bernadette kept repeating these unfamiliar words all the way home, and hurried to tell the priest, only to be met with further scorn. During the ninth apparition Our Lady asked an act of faith and abandonment when she directed Bernadette to "go and wash and drink in the spring." As there was no spring, Bernadette looked helplessly about and asked the Lady again. Then she climbed to the back of the cave and dug down for some time; the water gushed forth. This "miraculous spring" was soon to become famous bringing healing to thousands. But an incredulous world decried what was called the outbreak of superstitious hysteria and finally the grotto was closed. It was ten years before the Church confirmed that these were true apparitions of the Blessed Virgin. Napoleon III, Emperor of France, also had to be convinced of its authenticity before he would order its reopening.

Bernadette entered the austere Convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers and remained a simple, balanced human being, the obedient servant. While the fame of Lourdes increased from day to day, Bernadette bore another sign of being chosen: she was subjected to almost superhuman afflictions. Stricken with tuberculosis of the bone her life faded away in obscurity. She refused to be taken to the miraculous well: "The spring is not for me. . . ." Bernadette died in 1879 at the age of 35. She was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933. Her body lies incorrupt in the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, Nevers, France.

To date the miraculous cures performed at Lourdes are innumerable. Millions have visited the shrine and other millions over the world have recourse to Our Lady, asking aid and intercession in their physical and spiritual ills. The message of Lourdes to mankind is: Penance and Love. The Queen of Heaven's intercession created one of the most powerful centers of real Love in Lourdes: love of God and of the neighbor who is a sufferer.

Adapted from Zsolt Aradi, The Threefold Miracle, and Stephen Breen, Recent Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.