Saturday, January 7, 2017

Birthday of St. Bernadette

Another French saint born on the Epiphany is Saint Bernadette (1844-1879). During the 1858 apparitions, Our Lady said to fourteen-year-old Bernadette: "I cannot promise to make you happy in this world, only in the next." St. Bernadette had a life of suffering indeed, but it was suffering infused with love. Her childhood was spent in destitution and she was afflicted with a lifetime of bad health. The apparitions intensified her trials. Her spirit was never broken, which is no small victory. As one article says:
What, apart from this bare chronology, can we know about Bernadette Soubirous? One thing is certain: she strove with all her might to fulfill the vocation announced to her by the Virgin at Massabielle-----to do penance, to pray and suffer for sinners. And she did suffer. The Mother Superior at Nevers testified, "It took her an hour to find a bearable position, during which her face changed and she became as if dead. Even when asleep, the faintest movement of her leg made her cry out. Such sharp cries that her companions in the dormitory could not sleep. She shrank to nothing." In fact, she had tuberculosis. Bernadette did not 'enjoy' suffering, though she spoke of it as 'my job'. And she once said, "I pray to St. Bernard, but I do not imitate him. St. Bernard liked suffering, but I avoid it if I can."
Apart from her physical pain, she bore much personal grief. Her mother died early, at forty-one. Her sister Toinette's first child, also named Bernadette, died in February of 1871, to be followed by her father a month later. In fact all five of Toinette's babies died and Bernadette wrote to her: "I like to imagine that dear little group praying in Heaven for us poor exiles on this miserable earth."
Bernadette suffered, too, from the interrogations of religious historians who tried to make her offer elaborate theological explanations for her visions. But she replied, "It is best for people to speak and write very simply. It is more moving to read the Passion than to have it explained."
In the last stages of her final illness, she requested to be left only with the crucifix sent to her by Pope Pius IX. When she became too weak to hold it, she had it fastened to her breast. After her death she was first beatified in 1925 and then canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933.
St. Bernadette suffered greatly at school and later in the convent at the hands of Sister Vauzous, whose jealousy and revulsion for the simple peasant was so great she was unable to contain it. How sad that the saint's greatest tormentor was not a pagan but her own sister in Christ! Too often, we Christians make life miserable for each other; it usually boils down to jealousy, envy and the refusal to forgive. As one biographical account relates:
Acting under the quite unfounded notion that Bernadette's visions and all the attendant publicity might have made the young woman vain or self-important, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous, now novice-mistress at Nevers, was very severe with her former pupil. Although she made life difficult for Bernadette, the little novice met all tests with perfect humility. She cheerfully performed the menial tasks assigned to her, at first in the convent kitchen, although this work must have taxed her strength. Later, when it was noted that her sympathetic manner made her a favorite with sick people, she was appointed assistant infirmarian. Her step and touch were light, and her very presence brought comfort. But during these years, Bernadette was suffering from the chronic disease which was slowly draining her life away. She was finally given work in the sacristy, where cleverness with the needle made her work admired and cherished. She displayed a real gift for design and color in embroidering the sacred vestments. To all tasks she brought a pure grace of spirit and an utter willingness to serve.
Through St. Bernadette's patient endurance many miracles, cures, and conversions occurred. She allowed herself to be an instrument of God, and God used her offering of herself to bring joy and faith to others. We are not all called to suffer in the same degree as a victim soul like Bernadette, but we can each participate in the redemption of the world by uniting our trials with those of Jesus on the cross.

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