January 31, 1999

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


January 31, 1999
Saint John Bosco

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 18: 3). To His disciples, who were brimming with human ambition, Our Lord gave a child as a model. In order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, it is necessary to become like little children: innocent of all vices including the worst of all, pride. Humility is one of the fundamental bases of Christian life.

Contemplating the ladder that appeared to Jacob during his sleep, and on which he envisioned angels going up and coming down, Saint Benedict explained: "By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder thus set up is our life in this world, which the Lord raises up to Heaven if our heart is humbled" (Rule, chap. 7).

Saint Augustine asserted: "If you ask me what is the essential thing in the religion and the discipline of Jesus Christ, I will answer: first, humility, again humility and finally humility" (Letter 118: 22). And, commenting on these words of the Gospel: Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your souls (Mt 11: 28-29), he presents Jesus to us as the model and the source from which we can draw humility: "Take up My yoke and learn from Me not to create all creatures visible and invisible, not to astonish the world by miracles nor to raise the dead, but learn from Me that I am meek and humble of heart. The higher you wish to raise up a building, the deeper it is necessary to sink the foundation  But if it is a matter of raising a building to Heaven, use all care in digging the foundations. What foundations? Learn from Him that He is meek and humble of heart. Build in yourself this foundation of humility and you shall arrive at the crown of charity" (Sermon 69).

Inexpressible Beauty

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face once said: "Humility is truth." Indeed, humility consists of recognizing total truth, and first of all, our condition as creatures dependent upon the Creator. Here is a concrete example of humility which Providence has raised up in order to serve as a model for us.

On Sunday, January 7, 1844, at the Boly mill, in Lourdes, a little girl came into the world, into an extremely poor but profoundly Christian family; they would name her Bernadette. She would be the oldest of nine children. From the age of six, she was subject to asthmatic attacks that would cause her to suffer her life through. Mr. Soubirous, her father, worked hard; but poverty led the family to seek refuge in a one-room hovel, called "the dungeon." Bernadette kept "house" and took care of her brothers and sisters. They all loved one another so much and prayed so well that misery did not stand in the way of family happiness.

February 11, 1858. It was very cold in the "dungeon." With some friends, Bernadette went to look for dead wood at the grotto of Massabielle on the banks of the Gave River. Suddenly, she saw an extraordinarily beautiful Lady in the hollow of the rock. Her body, which appeared to be as real as that of each and every one of ours, did not differ from that of an ordinary person except in its inexpressible beauty. She was of average height and seemed quite young. The rounded curve of her face showed celestial grace and her blue eyes expressed a smoothness which seemed to melt the heart of whomever would look into them. Her lips breathed divine goodness and meekness. Gripped with a supernatural fear but filled with joy, Bernadette dared not approach; she recited her Rosary with the Lady. The apparition ceased: Bernadette came out of her ecstasy and, pressed by her companions, she let slip out what she had wanted to keep all to herself.

Upon hearing about the event, Madame Soubirous feared it was an illusion and forbade her daughter to return to the rock of Massabielle. But on Sunday the fourteenth, she gave in to Bernadette's girlfriends. Soon after arriving at the grotto, the visionary announced: "There she is"; then, approaching, she sprinkled holy water saying: "If you come on behalf of God, stay; if not, go away!" Bernadette would retell: "The Lady began to smile, and the more holy water I sprinkled, the more she smiled."

On February 18, the Lady said to Bernadette: "Do you wish to do me the favor of coming here for the next fifteen days?" Beaming with joy, the little girl accepted and the Lady quickly responded: "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next." On the 21st, there was a huge crowd that Bernadette had to pass through in order to get to the grotto. The Lady looked into the distance, with a sad face; then she spoke to Bernadette, "Pray to God for sinners." On the 24th, Bernadette was in tears and could only repeat to the crowd the instructions of the Lady, which she summarized in one word: "Penance! Penance! Penance!"

"Go drink at the fountain"

On the 25th, Bernadette went on her knees to the center of the grotto where the Lady was waiting. "Go drink at the fountain and wash yourself," the Lady told her. Bernadette scratched her fingers into the pile of sand. From the depths of the rock, a spring had found its way to Bernadette's hand. The child took the first mouthful of this still muddy water, and then moistened her face. The spring would soon become an inexhaustible fountain, the divine instrument of numerous and amazing cures.

On March 25, the radiant visitor of the grotto delivered her secret: "I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette ran and repeated these words, which she did not understand, to the parish priest. Amazed, he then believed in the reality of the apparitions. He cried out: "It is the Blessed Virgin!" Just four years before Pope Pius IX had infallibly proclaimed that the Virgin Mary had been conceived without sin.

The last apparition of the Blessed Virgin occurred on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. "I had never seen her look so beautiful," Bernadette said. After that, extensive investigations led the Bishop of Tarbes to solemnly pronounce, "We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, has actually appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, on the 11th of February and the following days, for a total number of eighteen times."

During these apparitions, the Blessed Virgin revealed to Bernadette that she would become a nun. Eight years later, after having long hesitated on the choice of a religious community, the visionary of Lourdes, now 22 years old, entered the Sisters of Charity and Christian Education of Nevers: "I have come here to hide myself," was how she expressed it.

"Go away, it's too soon!"

The mistress of novices at the Convent of Nevers was Mother Marie-Thérèse Vauzou. Having remained something of a great lady under the veil, she was zealous for the sanctification of her sisters, but had her own ideas about their progress. She wanted them to be humble and confident, and would not permit their souls to harbor secrets from her. Bernadette, to whom the Blessed Virgin had confided several secrets not to be told to anyone, hardly seemed open to her Superior. In her eyes, the visionary of Lourdes was an ordinary young woman and it was important to form her to the religious life. One could not ignore the extraordinary favors that she had received, but it was necessary to fortify her against the temptations of pride.

In the novitiate the young sister was occupied at odd jobs, sometimes in the sacristy, sometimes in the infirmary. She always wore her peaceful smile, but her face betrayed fatigue. Indeed, she had more courage than health. Asthma weighed her down and she suffered from stomachaches and headaches. Soon she was bedridden, and, on October 25, she was in dire straits. Following the pressing advice of her confessor, she asked to make her religious Profession. The bishop, Monsignor Forcade, gave the required authorization, and himself came to the bedside of the dying woman to receive her perpetual vows. Soon after the ceremony, Bernadette's health unexpectedly returned. She said with a bit of regret, "I am doing better; the Good Lord did not want me; I went to the door and He said to me: `Go back, it's too soon!' " She would survive yet another 12 years.

"Humble inside, humiliated outside"

A fervent and devoted novice, Sister Marie-Bernard humbly blended in among her companions. At the end of the novitiate, Monsignor Forcade bestowed upon each of the young sisters the work they would be called on to perform. Each received the charge that was intended for them, but Bernadette was omitted from the list. The bishop asked, "And what about Sister Marie-Bernard?" The Superior answered, "Your Excellency, she is good for nothing."-"Is that true, Sister Marie-Bernard, that you are good for nothing?" The humble sister answered, "It is true."-"Well then, my poor child, what are we to do with you?" The Superior intervened, "Your Excellency, if you wish, we could keep her out of charity at the Mother House and use her in some way at the infirmary, if only for cleaning and making tea. Since she is always sick, that would really be the right place for her." The bishop acquiesced but raised the tenor of the debate: "I give you the job of prayer," he told the little Sister. Faced with this public humiliation, painfully felt, Bernadette remembered the instructions of the Blessed Virgin: "To suffer for the eternal salvation of poor sinners," and her profound joy did not leave her. Later she would write in her diary: "O my soul, be the faithful imitator of Jesus, He who is so meek and humble of heart. A person who is only humble of heart will be glorified; what will be the crown of those who are humble inside and humiliated outside, who have imitated the humility of the Saviour to its full extent?"

After having enjoyed numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Bernadette could have taken advantage of this privilege in order to put herself forward. On the contrary, she had given an example of profound humility, which constitutes a lesson that is particularly important for our times. Indeed people today are often jealous of a poorly understood freedom; they claim total independence of anything and everything, even of their Creator, and thus fall into self-idolatry: "The root of the first idolatry," said the late Cardinal Balland, Archbishop of Lyon, "is the adoration of oneself and of one's freedom, a freedom that considers itself beyond all external conditions and norms-a form that is without doubt the most up-to-date of the idolatry that has always existed-,adoration of oneself that certainly cuts us off from others, from the world, and makes us tacit accomplices in the dehumanization of our society" (February 17, 1998).

"The human being is not the universal measure"

Pope John Paul II observes that modern man "is so engaged in the task of building the earthly city that he has lost view of or has willingly excluded the `city of God.' God is left out of his horizon in life" (October 11, 1985). Such an attitude has serious consequences. The Holy Father also says, "Voices are increasing who foresee in the total moral and religious autonomy of man, and in a society which becomes more and more secular, a step towards failure and towards increasing chaos. Even by its nature, the human being is neither the beginning nor the end. The human being is not the universal measure! He must admit that above him there is a tangible being: God, his creator, his Father and his judge. [We must be disposed] to submit to Him in all areas of our existence" (May 4, 1987).

Such was the perspective of Saint Benedict for whom our entire life must be spent in view of God, as he asserted with respect to the first step of humility: "Let a man consider that God is always looking at him from Heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels" (Rule, chap. 7).

Thus, humility is a source of union with God and of confidence in His paternal presence. It disposes one to prayer, which obtains for us graces that we need in order to accomplish our salvation. "Humility is the foundation of prayer  It is the disposition to receive freely the gift of prayer" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559). In fact, the very humble life of Saint Bernadette was a life of prayer. But it was also a life marked by great courage because, contrary to popular opinion, humility is not the virtue of cowards or of those who lack character. Rather, it reveals an uncommon strength of the soul. Thus, some years after her profession, Saint Bernadette added to her job of "prayer" which she judged quite superior to others, another job, no less elevated and profitable. While she was bedridden in a corner of the infirmary, she was visited by a Superior: "What are you doing there, lazy little thing?"-"But, my dear Mother, I am doing my job."-"And what is your job?"-"To be sick."

Sister Marie-Bernard suffered in her body: tuberculosis had begun its slow and destructive work. With the other sisters, she also suffered poverty which went even to destitution and even sometimes to a lack of bread. But besides the physical suffering there was the moral test, no less difficult to bear. The coldness that Mother Marie-Thérèse felt it her duty to show her was for Bernadette a deep pain that would endure a full ten years. Mother recognized the exemplary religious fervor of Bernadette; but, not noticing anything extraordinary in this "visionary," she held an unfavorable opinion on the facts of Massabielle. This troublesome situation led a novice to reflect: "What luck not to be Bernadette!" But, speaking of Mother Marie-Thérèse, Sister Marie-Bernard would declare with perfect sincerity: "I owe her a lot of gratitude for the good she has done to my soul."

A place in the Divine Heart

Bernadette wrote, "My divine Spouse has given me an attraction to the humble and hidden life, and He often told me that my heart would not stop until it had sacrificed everything for Him. And to help me decide, He often inspires me with the thought that, after all, at death, my only consolation would come from Jesus, and Jesus Crucified. Him alone, faithful friend, will I take between my icy fingers to my tomb. O folly of follies, to attach myself to something other than Him." To a woman, who had just lost her husband and her two children, she counseled recourse to the Sacred Heart: "God tests those whom He loves," she wrote. "Thus, you have a very particular right to a place in His Divine Heart; it is only there that you will find true and solid consolation. It is He Himself that invites us by these sweet words: `O, all of you who suffer and are troubled, come to Me; I will help and console you.' " Tuberculosis was gaining ground on her poor exhausted body: a tumor became evident on her knee, which swelled and became very painful. She noted in her diary: "I have completely lost the use of my legs; I have to undergo the humiliation of being carried." Beginning in October, 1878, the tumor produced unrelenting pain. Bernadette only found strength in Jesus and, out of love for Him, she even came to "love" suffering: "With my Christ, I am happier on my bed than a queen on her throne," she wrote to a Sister that had sent her a picture of Jesus Crucified. Thus she echoed these words of Saint Paul: I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church (Col 1: 24). United with the mystery of the suffering of Christ, she truly participated in the Redemption and the sanctification of souls. Due to this, Bernadette is a light for our age where the unbridled search for pleasure is often taken as a rule of life.

Ordinarily, Sister Marie-Bernard supported her right leg on a chair, out of bed, on account of the tumor. A cavity in the bone, similar to the worst of toothaches, caused mute complaints in her. She never became impatient, but there was always the same breathless, halting whimper, that of a will that is heroically struggling. She said, "When one is in bed, during a time of great suffering, it is necessary to remain motionless like Our Lord on the Cross." She was not always able to accomplish it: " Pay no attention to my contortions, it's nothing!" and, holding her Crucifix: "I am like Him." During long nights, she recited the Rosary: "I am happy during my sleepless hours to unite myself with Jesus in the Host. A glance at this image (depicting a monstrance) gives me the strength to immolate myself, when I feel more the isolation and the suffering." Her great happiness was to associate herself in thought to the Masses that were being celebrated at that moment, in this or that part of the world. In her moments of respite, she made herself useful to the community by embroidery, drawing, painting, etc.

The 19th of March, 1879, the feast of Saint Joseph: "What grace have you asked of Him, Sister Marie-Bernard?"-"The grace of a good death!" she answered.

March 28: she received the last rites. Her martyrdom would stretch out another three weeks. "Heaven, Heaven," she murmured  "It is said that there are saints who don't go directly there because they did not desire it enough. For me, that will not be the case."

They told her, "Remember the promise of the Blessed Virgin: Heaven is at the end." She answered weakly, "Yes, but the end is a long time coming  I have been ground like a grain of wheat "

"I'm in a hurry to go see Her again"

During the night of April 14th to 15th, the devil tried to make her despair. She called: "Jesus!" Then she cried out: "Begone, Satan!" The chaplain asked her: "Do you wish to make the sacrifice of your life?" "What sacrifice? It is not a sacrifice to leave this poor life in which one goes through so many difficulties to belong to God!  Oh! How right the Imitation of Jesus Christ is when it teaches that one must not wait until the last moment to serve God!  At such a moment one is capable of so little!"

The morning of April 16 was very painful. Sister Marie-Bernard was suffocating. "I am going to ask the Immaculate Mother to bring you consolation," Mother Eleonore told her. "No, not consolation, but strength and patience  I have seen Her," she went on, looking at the statue of the Blessed Virgin, "I have seen Her!  Oh! She was beautiful and I'm in a hurry to go see Her again!"

A little before three o'clock in the afternoon, she was subject to interior sufferings. The Sister in attendance slowly recited the "Hail Mary." At the words: "Holy Mary " Bernadette joined the Sister who let her continue alone  Humble and confident to the end, Sister Marie-Bernard said twice: "Holy Mary, Mother of God! Pray for me poor sinner  poor sinner " Soon after, she expired, still pressing the crucifix against her heart. She was 35 years old. The Blessed Virgin had promised her that she would die young. The time for her reward had arrived.

Bernadette Soubirous was canonized by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933. Even today crowds from every country of the world come to the grotto of Lourdes: much suffering, many people in prayer and many miracles are to be seen there. What one does not see, but which is sensed to be very close by, are the splendors of Heaven, that other world where Saint Bernadette is forever infinitely happy and intercedes for us while drawing us to God.

We entrust to Our Lady of Lourdes and to Saint Joseph, through the intercession of Saint Bernadette, your bodily and spiritual needs, as well as those of persons dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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