Today is the glorious feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is also the occasion for the Mother of God revealing in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous, a very poor fourteen-year-old peasant from Lourdes, France, her unique grace as “The Immaculate Conception.” The dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been pronounced by Pope Pius IX four years earlier in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus. This communication to Bernadette was God’s way of affirming the definition to a young girl who, in her simple faith, loved the Blessed Mother but knew nothing about the encyclical. Mary is the very idea of God, conceived in His mind from all eternity, to be effected in time, of the Immaculata. She is “The Woman” of Genesis, who God said, in cursing Satan, would do battle against and crush the “head” of the serpent. She is “The Woman” whom Jesus from His Cross bequeathed to His Church to be its Mother.
Saint Bernadette, at the time of Our Lady’s visitation, believed that the Mother of God was “immaculately conceived,” but the title revealed to her by the Immaculata made the Virgin Mary’s privilege even more singular by identifying Mary as not only “immaculately conceived” but the very Idea of this singular grace, such that the privilege would be her proper name, “the Immaculate One.” This exemption from original sin, and her perpetual fulness of grace was granted to Mary for one reason, and that is because of her most sublime and ineffable vocation as the Mother of God.
Mary is our confidence, our hope. I cannot imagine Faith without Mary. Even to try to imagine such a scenario, having the baptismal virtue of Faith, is impossible. To imagine Jesus, in His passion, without Mary, is impossible, for one who has this freely-given virtue of Faith. And this includes sinners who have lost charity but still believe and still hope. The Faith infused at baptism is a Faith in the Incarnate Savior, a Faith that includes a Theotokos, a God-bearer, whose Fiat made Mother and Son one in mankind’s redemption. Mary is the Co-Remptrix. She earned this vocation at Calvary, where her second Fiat helped to redeem the world through her offering of the passion of her Son. It is as simple and childlike as that. The Douay English translation of the Bible puts Mary’s unique exaltation by God in capital letters “A WOMAN SHALL COMPASS A MAN” (Jeremias 31:22).
There are countless miraculous cures that have been given by the Mother of God at her shrine in Lourdes these past one hundred and fifty-six years. One of the most profound is that recorded by the German Jewish author of the book, The Song of Bernadette, a New York Times best seller in 1942. His name is Franz Victor Werfel, at the time of the writing a well-known novelist, playwright, and poet. I have it on second-hand authority that Werfel converted to the Catholic Faith before he died. A friend of Saint Benedict Center, Joseph Topalian, an Armenian Catholic, received this information from the abbot of a monastery in Austria where Mr. Topalian had studied in his youth. The abbot did not have documentation, but he stated as a fact that Franz Werfel was received into the Church at that monastery before he died in 1945. What follows is Werfel’s moving account of the cure at Lourdes of a twelve-year-old boy, Jules Lacassagne. Reading this beautiful story, written with such pathos by a searching Jew with a good, and a very good heart (Luke 8:15), confirms in my mind the fact of Werfel’s later conversion.
The Song of Bernadette:
“The second case was no less immediate. It concerned another young person of Bordeaux. It was Jules, the twelve-year-old son of an official in the revenue department, Roger Lacassagne. This gentleman affected a martial air and, quite unlike Moreau, could not be accused of any stirrings of a religious instinct. Now, Jules was afflicted by the rare and curious disease popularly known as Saint Vitus’s dance. This affliction is less dangerous on account of the morbid contortions of the limbs than on account of the swelling and progressive closing of the oesophagus which gradually makes almost impossible the intake of solid food. The family physician Nogues and the consultant physician Professor Roquer applied all remedies prescribed in the medical textbooks as well as some that were not. They displayed the opportunistic pragmatism common to all physicians who are unwilling to admit their powerlessness. The boy’s oesophagus closed up more and more. At last the channel left was no thicker than a knitting-needle and admitted even a few drops of milk or soup only with extreme difficulty. Jules Lacassagne had become a mere shadow and seemed doomed to die of starvation. His mother took him to a seaside resort: perhaps the ocean’s energy would help. It did not.
“On the beach whither they carried the boy he found a torn piece of newspaper. Holding it in his feeble hands he read an account of the healing of young Marie Moreau. He pocketed the piece of paper but dared not at first utter his wish. He knew his father’s character and convictions well and was afraid of being laughed at. Not until many days later, when, obviously doomed, he was taken back to Bordeaux, did he hesitantly tell his mother the story of Lourdes and Marie Moreau. Madame Lacassagne besought her husband to set out for Lourdes on that very day. The husband consented without debate. IN THE FACE OF DEATH, UNFAITH IS FAR UNSURER OF ITSELF THAN FAITH. In his own arms Roger Lacassagne carried his son to the grotto. A former army man, he was disinclined to stand for any nonsense. IF MIRACLES CAN HAPPEN, LET THEM! Hence he had brought with him a bag of soft biscuits.
“After Jules, endlessly agonizing, had succeeded in getting down a glassful of the water drop by drop, the absurd father handed him one of the biscuits and gave an order in his military fashion: “Now, then, eat!” And now an absurder thing happened: the boy ate. He bit off a piece, chewed it, and swallowed it like any ordinary mortal. The tall Lacassagne with his grey pompadour turned aside, reeling like a drunken man, and beat his breast and panted: “Jules is eating . . . Jules is eating . . . .” And the people around the grotto burst into tears.
“But Jules kept on eating in silent thoughtfulness and it seemed to many as though the first flush of recovery were even then tingeing his cheeks. Marie Moreau and Jules Lacassagne were but two out of fifteen cases which Bishop Laurence considered as inexplicable by natural processes and as fulfilling his specific demands. He was always guided by the medical evidence recorded immediately prior to the cure and also Monseigneur welcomed most the testimony of physicians either not of the Catholic faith or confessed enemies of all faith…” (Capitals as in original).