The Lady Smiled At Me

By Sister Redempta Twomey SSC

Columban Sister Redempta is Assistant Editor of Far East, the magazine of the Columbans in Ireland and Britain. Pope Benedict XVI will be on pilgrimage in Lourdes from 13 to 15 September.

In the semi-darkness of the confessional, the priest, Fr Romain listened to the little girl. Poor and unlettered, she told him of the strange event that had happened two days previously on the eleventh of February 1858 in the grotto of Massabielle. In the local dialect she said, ‘I saw something white, in the shape of a lady.’ A good man, he listened without showing any interest though he was amazed at the coherence of her story. One detail in particular struck him: as she bent to remove her shoes and stockings to cross the little stream and join her companions in gathering sticks, Bernadette said she heard a noise, ‘like a gust of wind.’ The priest thought of the ‘gust of the wind’ at Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2. Was this too the Holy Spirit? It was then that the child saw ‘something white’ and knelt and prayed the rosary in front of her.

Afterwards there was nothing but the drizzling rain falling on the grey rock. The grotto at the time was a poor, dirty place where one might find sticks and old bones. The little shepherdess had gone there to look for wood for fire in her wretched hovel she called home. But now she sat on a stone, happy and at peace; she wanted to keep silent about the vision, to hold it in her heart. But her little sister Toinette and friend Jeanne Abadie teased it out of her.

And so, the word spread, the people came and little Bernadette faced priest and prosecutor with unwavering calm. The lady asked for a church and processions, she asked that people wash in the water Bernadette had so humiliatingly uncovered. The child faithfully relayed all her requests. But who was this lady?

The parish priest, Fr Dominique Peyramale, gave an ultimatum: ‘If she wants a chapel let her tell you her name.’ When Bernadette asked her, the lady simply smiled. ‘She is having a lot of fun with you,’ the priest said. But he was struck by the huge numbers that went to the grotto, by the fervor and conversion of the people. Who was this woman?

In the morning light of 25 March Bernadette knelt at the grotto and was overcome with joy when the lady appeared. This time she replied, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ Not understanding the words, little Bernadette kept repeating them as she rushed off to the parish house and blurted them out to the priest. He was dumbfounded. Only four years previously the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary had been proclaimed in Rome. But Bernadette would have known nothing of this, nor of the enormity of the revelation given to her. Her joy overflowed when she understood that it was indeed the Virgin Mary who had appeared to her. Lourdes quickly became a place of pilgrimage; today over six million pilgrims come to pray at the grotto, to drink the water, to light candles and walk in processions. This year, the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, is a special Jubilee Year when more pilgrims from all over the world are expected. In this place of prayer and healing the sick are welcomed and many are healed both physically and spiritually. There were three people present when Our Lady first appeared to Bernadette in February 1858. Exactly one hundred and fifty years later over 70,000 pilgrims united in prayer and celebrated the Eucharist by the Grotto.

In celebration of the Jubilee, the facade of the Rosary Basilica has been covered with magnificent mosaics depicting the five Luminous Mysteries or Mysteries of Light of the Rosary. These glowing images by Father Marko I. Rupnik are a marvelous evocation of the gospel. As one pilgrim said, ‘To gaze on them is to pray.’

A new Way of the Cross for the sick lies by the River Gave. The beauty and power of the sculptures lead one to a deeper contemplation of the passion of Christ. Bernadette’s own life was marked by the Passion from her childhood to her death in the convent of Nevers at the age of 35. She herself in her humility and simplicity is the greatest witness of Lourdes. ‘The beautiful young lady smiled at me and we prayed together.’ A century and a half later Lourdes remains impregnated with that smile and that prayer. 


Thanks to Fr Tim Finigan for permission to use photos from his blog:

The official website for the 150th anniversary:
The shrine’s official English-language website is

‘Lourdes is a shrine of Mary, but Mary is the first to point our hearts and minds towards her son Jesus. Mary in her short conversations with Bernadette indicates to us the path towards her son: the path of repentance and penance, the path of prayer and of the Eucharist.’

From the homily notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on 24 May during the International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes 2008. Full text: