A relic from the thigh bone of St Bernadette will go on tour to every diocese of Britain in autumn this year. The Shrine of Lourdes offered to bring the relic, and the bishops of England and Wales accepted. And so, in a reversal of the normal order of things, the object of pilgrimage to the Pyrenees for so many people is coming here. Many people who would normally have visited Lourdes were deterred by the pandemic; now they need simply visit their nearest cathedral. This is a really welcome visit in what we hope will be post-pandemic Britain.
The popularity of the shrine at Lourdes is extraordinary. It is of course associated with miracles of healing in the waters which sprang up where Bernadette dug in the ground at the instruction of the apparition. Yet there is more to its appeal than the recovery of the sick. There are replica Lourdes grottoes in parishes across the country – there is something about this particular apparition of the Virgin to a young peasant girl that captures the imagination. The words of the Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous – “I am the Immaculate Conception” – were mysterious to the young girl, but they helped cement a relatively new dogma of the church in the minds of many of the faithful.
The tour of the relic will probably be scandalous or just weird to secularists, for whom the concept of relics is mildly distasteful; Catholic veneration for the body parts of the saints is incomprehensible to many non-Catholics, but it is a profoundly human impulse. It would be all to the good if the visit could make us think again about the sheer strangeness of the phenomenon of Lourdes. The image of the apparitions in the grotto at Lourdes is in a way misleading; it shows a mature woman appearing to a young girl.
In fact, Bernadette told of a young girl, perhaps 12 years old, appearing to her as a dazzling white figure: someone more mysterious, less aloof than the statue appears. Bernadette was, as Fr Allan White writes in this issue, an utterly insignificant figure, who could not speak proper French but the local dialect, whose father had been in prison and who was about to start gathering wood and bones for burning when she saw the first apparition. There were 18 of them in total, all but one during Lent and Easter. And before Bernadette uncovered the spring, she first had to dig in the mud for its source – she was told to bathe in the spring, which did not yet exist.
St Bernadette has become one of the best beloved Catholic saints and yet another, like the children of Fatima, from a lost group: poor rural peasants – a kind that has almost vanished from France – who had little schooling. Over the history of salvation, God has very often seemed entirely indifferent to our social, educational and intellectual distinctions – we have just celebrated the way that the angels in heaven announced the birth of Christ to shepherds with whom Bernadette might have been at home. If we are snobs, God plainly is not. And the apparitions of the Virgin to a little girl from this background was and remains a corrective to our scale of values.
The relics of the saints are profoundly valuable to us: they close the gap between then and now, between, in this case, the apparitions of 1858 and the radically different circumstances of 2021. St Bernadette’s thigh bone is a way of bringing us physically and spiritually close to the tangible reality of this saint, whose virtues were simplicity and obedience.
Our age is not unique in being sceptical about both relics and belief in their efficacy, and the miracles of Lourdes. The shrine at Lourdes was not very old when the secularist novelist, Emile Zola, visited and treated everything he saw with corrosive scepticism in his subsequent book, which did in fact not do justice to the phenomenon he described. There have been miracles of healing at Lourdes, which Catholics attribute to the intercession of the Virgin and to the mercy of God, and secularists put down to, at best, the power of auto-suggestion. Yet the discarded crutches are there for visitors to see still – the lame walked, as Christ promised.
We must hope that the relic of St Bernadette will be much visited, whether or not it effects miracles of healing. If it restores some hope and self-confidence to a rather battered Church, that in itself will be something of a miracle.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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