From February through July 1858, a 14-year-old girl from Lourdes, France named Bernadette Soubirous saw apparitions of a woman who Bernadette declared was the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The apparitions all appeared at the grotto of Massabielle near Lourdes, 18 different times, and have become known as "Our Lady of Lourdes." Were they real, or imaginary?
In the years afterward, many sick and injured people have reported experiencing miraculous healing after praying at Lourdes. Millions of pilgrims visit the site every year in search of spiritual renewal and physical healing. Have miracles happened there before? Are they still occurring there?
Bernadette saw the first appearance when she, her sister Toinette, and their friend Jeanne were gathering firewood. She reported that she heard a gust of wind blow, but the trees around her remained still, and then a light appeared in the grotto, along with the image of a young woman dressed in white with a blue belt around her waist and a yellow rose beside each foot. The three children returned to the grotto three days later and sprinkled holy water on the apparition to test whether it was good or evil, and reported that the apparition seemed grateful rather than disturbed by the water.
Starting with the third appearance, Bernadette said, the apparition began delivering messages to her. The central message was: "Pray and do penance for the conversion of the world." A personal message to Bernadette, whose family was very poor, was: “I promise to make you happy not in this world but in the other.”
After Toinette told the girls’ mother about the apparitions, the news quickly spread. Soon, crowds formed to watch Bernadette when she made pilgrimages to the grotto. During the first seven appearances, witnesses reported that Bernadette’s face was radiant with joy. However, Bernadette’s face became deeply sorrowful between appearance eight through 12, said witnesses, and she carried out strange behaviors such as kissing the grotto’s dirty ground and drinking the muddy water there.
Afterward, Bernadette explained that the Virgin Mary had instructed her to “Go to the spring, drink of it and wash yourself there.” Once Bernadette did so, the muddy water gradually became clear, and has remained clear for all the years since that time. Sick and injured people who heard about how the water cleared up started drinking and bathing in it, and some reported being miraculously cured of their illnesses or wounds.
During the apparition’s 13th appearance, said Bernadette, the Virgin Mary told her to ask priests to build a chapel on the site. It was during the 16th appearance that Bernadette, acting on her parish priest’s instructions, asked the apparition to say her name. Bernadette reported that the apparition replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette said she didn’t understand the meaning of those words until priests later explained them to her.
By 1860, the bishop of the local Catholic church said that church investigators who studied the matter concluded that Bernadette did in fact see an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, reports of miraculous medical cures grew, and church officials wanted to properly investigate them to identify genuine miracles versus fraudulent reports. A group of medical doctors began evaluating miracle claims in 1883 and determined that some of the reported healings couldn’t be explained medically.
In 1905, Pope Pius X asked people to set up a formal way to evaluate claims of miraculous healings. So the Lourdes Medical Bureau was established in response to the pope’s request. Comprised of medical doctors from various nations, the bureau operates independently from the Catholic Church and as of 2011 has investigated more than 7,000 claims of miraculous cures. Of those, 67 healings from a wide variety of illnesses and injuries have been officially recognized as miracles by both the bureau’s physicians and the church. The investigative process often takes years for each case, as doctors who specialize in the medical area involved in the particular healing claim thoroughly evaluate it. Cases that are declared miraculous have no known medical explanation. In such cases, the church says that it is reasonable for the faithful to believe that supernatural intervention may have occurred.
Bernadette Soubirous was canonized as a saint in 1933. She is reported to have said of the water from the spring at Lourdes: “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith."
Hollywood portrayed the story of the Lourdes apparitions in the film Song of Bernadette (1943), which won several Academy Awards.
Millions of people make pilgrimages to Lourdes every year to pray for spiritual renewal and physical healing, drink or bathe in the water from its spring (which is provided free of charge), and attend the daily Masses that priests celebrate there from April through October.