A Pilgrim's Approach to the World Day of the Sick

February 11: Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick. These two commemorations have coincided for thirty years now. In 1992 Pope John Paul II chose the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes to be World Day of the Sick. He made his reason for doing so clear when he said: “This day . . . seeks to be ‘a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one's suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding everyone to see in his sick brother or sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind.’”[1]

With these words, John Paul II invites us today to contemplate the encounter between Our Lady and the simple, sick and poverty-stricken Bernadette Soubirous on 11 February 1858. This encounter was an Annunciation of the Gospel, through which Christ was “born” into Lourdes. Within two weeks of February 11, 1858 the miraculous spring of Lourdes was dug from the ground at Massabielle and freely flowing. On the Feast and World Day of the Sick, we should go, like pilgrims, to the Spring of Lourdes with Bernadette. Patron saint of bodily illness, Bernadette will orient us toward Lourdes’s salvific Spring by drawing us near to Our Lady of Lourdes, “The Immaculate Conception.”

Pilgrim Approach

There are many ways for pilgrims to reach Lourdes. In light of John Paul’s World Day of the Sick, I propose we travel via Franz Werfel’s novel, The Song of Bernadette. Written as a prayer of thanksgiving for his escape from the Nazis, Werfel’s novel is a Rosary: 50 chapters, or “Aves,” are prayed with Bernadette before Our Lady. In this way, Werfel’s novel places us alongside Bernadette as she beholds Our Lady, contemplates the Incarnation, and as she digs and drinks of the Spring that is Christ. When we pray with Bernadette, beholding Mary’s immaculate beauty, we experience an annunciation of Christ into our own lives—a Spring gushing up to eternal life.[2]

So let us go now with Werfel to the scene of Bernadette’s annunciation at the Grotto of Massabielle.

First Annunciation

It is 11 February 1858. High in the Pyrenees, it is quite cold, though it is a clear and sunny day in Lourdes, France. Bernadette is sitting at the edge of the Gave river, one sock on, one sock off, preparing to cross through the river’s icy waters. But, as she sits there, one sock on, one sock off, the wind stirs up, though strangely so—without disturbing a single leaf in the whole wood. Nothing moves. Bernadette looks curiously around, her eyes landing on the grotto. She rubs and rubs her eyes, for suddenly in a niche within the rocks, she sees something beautiful:

A very young lady, delicate and dainty, visibly of flesh and blood, short rather than tall . . . [The lady] stands calmly and without touching the side or arch in the narrow oval of the niche. The very young lady’s garb is not at all common . . . her snowhite raiment is so cut as to indicate her delicate waistline . . . Sometimes [her dress] gleams like satin or silk, sometimes it is duller, like some unknown, very delicate ineffably snowy velvet; again it seems like a transparently thin batiste that transmits to its folds every stirring of the limbs . . . Wavy ringlets of her light brown hair escape from under the veil. A quite broad blue girdle lightly knotted under the breast, falls down over the knee. But what a blue! Lovely to the point of pain. Bernadette observes the most striking thing last of all: the young lady’s feet are bare. And the tiny narrow feet give the effect of ivory, almost of alabaster . . . The strangest thing, however, is this: two golden roses are placed about the beginnings of the slender toes of each foot—impossible to tell by what means, nor can one tell of what substance the two roses are, whether of delicate jeweled craftsmanship or of painting in high relief.[3]

Bernadette is enraptured by the Lady’s immaculate beauty as “waves of . . . love-thrilled consoledness roll over her . . . [weaving] a web of relationship between herself and the Lady.” Thus, “there arises and flows back and forth a stream of happiest sympathy, of immemorial unitedness, indeed the awareness of a very special solidarity that stirs the heart’s core.”[4]

This description of Bernadette’s first meeting with Our Lady makes us desire such an annunciation, too. Luckily, Bernadette will show us how to seek it: “Bernadette would like to speak, to burst out in words or even in inarticulate songs . . . She takes her rosary out of her pocket.” “What better thing,” Werfel asks, “can she do?”[5]

What better response than to pray the words of the Annunciation: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. With these words, Bernadette greeted both Our Lady and her Son. And so, in this moment of rapturous beholding, Bernadette teaches us how to see what she saw: Pray the Hail Mary. This Prayer leads to the Spring. And the Lady’s immaculate beauty offers proof: The Lord is here!

Though Bernadette had the rapturous happiness of seeing Our Lady, much of her life was unhappy, filled with the sufferings of poverty and bodily sickness. Born on 7 January 1844, Bernadette was the eldest of Francois and Louise Soubirous’s nine children. At the time of the apparitions, the Soubirous family lived in the town’s ex-jail. A single room for the eleven of them, with stone walls and stone floors, the iron bars still across the windows.

The cold, wet air of the Cachot—a French word meaning “dungeon”—exacerbated Bernadette’s asthma. She often missed school due to illnesses aggravating her asthma. Aged 14 when she met Our Lady, Bernadette could hardly read or write. 

In the years after the apparitions, when Bernadette had become a Sister of Charity in Nevers, she suffered from tuberculosis of the bone and lungs. But we will return to this later. Let’s not get too far from Bernadette’s annunciation. Under Werfel’s pen, Bernadette was about to ask another interesting question, still standing before the niche, one sock on and one sock off.

Our Lady, as we know, is wearing neither sock nor shoe. In Werfel’s telling, Bernadette spends some time contemplating Our Lady’s rose-laden feet. Bernadette thoughts turn our attention to Mary’s immaculateness. To Bernadette, Mary’s feet were the “most striking thing of all.” They were bare, tiny and narrow, giving “the effect of ivory, almost of alabaster.” And so Bernadette wonders, and we with her, “Why? Why did the Lady come on her naked feet to this place?” “Why did she choose Massabielle, of all places, the filthy rock cavern, the place where the high water washes up the bones of beasts, the place of rubble, swine, and snakes, the spot detested by all the world?”[6]

To further emphasize this contrast between the ivory feet and filthy rubble, Werfel tells his readers just how detestable Massabielle was. The novel opens with Francois Soubirous waking just before the church bells tell him it is 6AM. He must rise early and look for work. No longer a miller, Francois is a destitute day laborer, living in an old jail. According to Werfel, Francois finds work that day disposing of hospital refuse. He is instructed to cart it to Massabielle and burn it. The scene is partly as follows:

The hospital janitor has the 3 boxes of refuse ready for carting away. They are not heavy, but stink like the pest itself of all the miseries of the flesh . . . The janitor, knowing in medical matters, issues a warning, “Be careful, Soubirous! The very devil of infection is in that stuff. Take it far out to Massabielle; burn it there and throw the ashes into the Gave!”[7]

Soubirous, we are pointedly told, is sure he sees a human finger amongst the filthy, infectious refuse. And presently, when Soubirous burns the stuff, “There arises an evil-smelling pyramid of blood-soaked cotton, pus-stained bandages, and filthy linen rags . . . The horrible combustible pyramid flares up on the instant . . . white smoke [rising] in a straight line.”[8]

This, this is the place where Mary appeared to Bernadette. This is the place where Mary’s immaculate feet trod—upon the ashes of evil-smelling sacrifices containing the “very devil of infection.” This juxtaposition of beasts’ bones, swine and snakes, with Mary’s tiny, alabaster feet should not be lost on us if we are familiar with the sun-clad woman of the Book of Revelation.

Suddenly, through this biblically-laden contrast, we see this place, Massabielle, as precisely the place these immaculate feet MUST tred. These feet had once carried Christ into the world, and bore him in a place detested and seemingly unfit for any but beasts. The “sacrifice” of Francois Soubirous, its “white smoke rising in a straight line,” and now the presence of the alabaster feet striking at the place of snakes, prepare us to receive Christ, our Spring of divine love, of hope, of life. 

And so Why? Why Massabielle? Because it is precisely in this place that Mary must announce the Gospel to Bernadette if it is truly to be the Gospel. In choosing this place Mary directs Bernadette to her Son as a Spring of healing, indeed, as a Spring gushing up to eternal life. 


The Lady first speaks of the Gospel on 24 February 1858. She speaks to Bernadette about “Penance! Penance! Penance!” and asks her to “Pray to God for sinners.” With this, Mary echoes Christ’s call to repent and believe in the Gospel. The next day, on 25 February, the Lady directs Bernadette to seek for the Spring of miraculous water. Her instructions, however, are not so precise: “Go to the spring yonder and drink and wash yourself.” “Go eat of the plants which you will find yonder!” “Bernadette,” Werfel writes,

Surveyed the grotto for a long time . . . until in a right corner she perceived a place without sand or rubble. A handful of grass grew there and a few miserable herbs . . . Thither Bernadette hastened [sliding on her knees]. She fulfilled the second part of the command by cropping a few blades of grass and herbs and swallowing them . . . The girl stared at the barren bit of earth of which she had just tasted the bitter green. [She] began to scratch up the earth with her bare hands, to burrow into it like a very mole . . . When Bernadette had hollowed out a hole of the breadth and depth of a milk bowl, she came upon muddy earth. The next lumps of earth came easier from the small hollow. She took a deep breath and paused because her work had tired her . . . she dug a little deeper and now the puddle of water . . . seemed lost and seeped into the mud. So nothing was left for Bernadette to do but to take a particularly moist lump of earth and smear it over her face and to take another and seek to choke it down. This effort was so desperate and nauseating that the girl’s mud-smeared face was contorted by strain and disgust. But scarcely had her spasmodic and violent efforts forced the earth down her esophagus when her empty stomach rebelled against this nourishment of the dead, and a frightful urge to vomit shook her.[9]

Misunderstanding this spectacle of penance, the crowd was embarrassed, asking if Bernadette might be mad. But Bernadette echoed Mary: “It is for sinners.” To the amazement of all, clear water flowed the very next day from the hole hollowed out by Bernadette.

During the subsequent apparitions, Bernadette continued to wash in the spring and kiss the ground, and thereby to instruct us in repentance. One week later, on 1 March, the first miracle occurred: the spring’s waters cured Catherine Latapie of a dislocated arm. On March second, the Lady explicitly asked that the faithful come to this Spring in prayer and penance. She instructed Bernadette: “Go and tell the priests that people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.” Preparations for the building of this church began in 1861, and it was dedicated on Pentecost in 1866. Hotels and hospitals were also built to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims who journey to Lourdes to bathe in the waters of the miraculous spring.

The miraculous spring of Lourdes, as astonishing as its miracles are, is but a sign, pointing beyond itself to the Gospel. It is a sign of the healing fruits of repentance and forgiveness, of the penance and prayer requested by Our Lady and taught by Bernadette. Thus, to see the true Spring, signified by the waters of Lourdes, we must continue to look with Bernadette, and to see how she continued to dig and to hollow out a space within herself in which the Spring of living waters might gush up.

Bernadette Suffers: A Second Annunciation

“The Virgin Mary used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put back behind the door again.” In this way, Bernadette spoke about herself and her role at Lourdes of discovering the miraculous spring. Yet, that was not all Bernadette did. She pointed us to the true Spring, signified by that one flowing with healing waters at Lourdes. She did this through her own experience of sickness and suffering.

As mentioned before, in the years after the apparitions at the Lourdes Grotto, Bernadette became fatally ill with tuberculosis of the bone and lungs. Her sufferings were of the kind for which those who are not sick have awe and admiration. During a few days of respite from pain, Bernadette’s fellow Sisters of Charity, asked her if she would go bathe in the miraculous waters of the spring. Bernadette refused. “The Spring,” she said with simple insistence, “is not for me.”[10]

Franz Werfel interestingly describes Bernadette’s sickness in much the same way he described her discovery of the miraculous spring at Lourdes. Werfel wrote in intentionally Christological language,

Bernadette bore a stigma. It was the stigma of her fatal illness. This illness made her who, under the guidance of the Most Blessed Virgin, scratched forth from nothingness the spring of thousandfold healing, the protagonist of all the ailing in the world. Thus after all the miracles of which she had been the instrument, God granted her yet a second grace, the grace of a passion, the grace of the imitation of Christ Himself.[11]

In other words, in this second grace, the Annunciation of 11 February 1858, came to its full fruition, because Christ was fully alive in Bernadette, born into her soul. Werfel continues,

The tumor on Bernadette’s knee was not due to a passing infection. It was and remained the symptom of a mortal illness. Tuberculosis of the bone is one of the slowest as well as one of the most painful mortal ills. Long intervals [of pain] accentuate a final hopelessness. In acute periods, inflammations of the nerves are among the cruel complications. The passion of the girl of Lourdes was to take not seven days, but more than seven years. Seven years are 2,555 days.[12]

He adds,

Her sickness faced Bernadette like a mighty mountain through which she had to dig with her frail hands in order some day to see the light again. For hundreds of days she dug and dug without losing courage, with the tireless intrepidity of a good worker. She was fully employed. No breathing space was granted. Lying down became a special art, and sitting up and every moment in bed and breathing and going to sleep and waking up. She [ardently] devoted herself to being ill . . . She showed no impatience nor ever wished that the end might come sooner.[13]

The comparison is striking. Just as before, Bernadette digs in. She digs and she digs as the Lady leads her, on her immaculate feet, to Christ. Hail Mary, the Lord is with thee! Within the refuse of her own flesh, there is the Spring of living waters. In that place. Her suffering was transformed from within, joined to the sufferings of Christ.[14] And so Bernadette drinks, and drinks deeply. And what does she drink? God’s love. Her suffering is now united to Christ in an act of love and an expression of praise.

An Annunciation of Hope

Yet, Bernadette’s work of praise and thanksgiving—her own unitive and redemptive suffering—is, again like the physical waters of Lourdes, a sign that points beyond itself. Indeed, it is like all the miracles of the Gospels, through which Christ “drew increasingly closer to the world of human suffering,” and through which Christ enacted the truly Good News: “I am here. In your suffering. Because I love you.”[15] Thus, the miracles of Lourdes point to God’s salvific love. As does Bernadette, sick eyes set on those immaculate feet.

Therefore, in order to observe the Spring’s consoling streams, we must stop at the hospital in Lourdes. Werfel depicts the hospital via images and themes lifted from Dante’s Inferno, a place where hope is abandoned. In Werfel’s story, Dr. Dozous leads readers into “The Hell of the Flesh.” We pass by a patient described as having “a death’s-head of the color of raw ham,” without nose or lips. As readers pass by, the nurse is busy plugging this patient’s “nose holes” with “cotton stoppers” so she might take a sip of coffee.[16] 

With this, Werfel recalls the heap of human refuse offered by Francois Soubirous, the place of swine and snakes trod by the Lady’s immaculate feet. Thus, Bernadette shows us that even in this “hell of the flesh,” a Spring is offered—the Spring of Hope. Bernadette has done much more than brush away the dust or dig a spring from the ground!

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between Dr. Dozous and a visitor to his hospital:

“How many can expect healing?” 

“In the course of several decades many have been cured. Nevertheless, indisputably supernatural healings are rare . . . Look at these people. If but one among hundreds or even thousands experiences a miracle and regains sight or motion, the souls of all are immeasurably uplifted. Hope reaches indescribable heights.”[17]

This same hope helped Bernadette dig for 2,555 days! She did not seek healing, but to offer her suffering out of love for Christ. It was in this penitential “digging” that Bernadette becomes a spring of hope for all the sick and suffering. And her streams lead to God’s divine love:

By the favor of incomprehensible powers, Bernadette Soubirous had performed a greater miracle than the discovery of the spring. Without her knowledge, Bernadette communicated to the downtrodden something of that compassionate consolation which flooded her being whenever she saw the lady again. Inexplicably, she transferred to masses of men [and women]. A portion in the heaven of her love . . . The granite had grown porous and strangely light.[18] 

This love, first signified to Bernadette by Mary’s immaculate feet, is now signified to us by Bernadette. Bernadette’s revelation of God’s incarnate, salvific and suffering love gives hope to the hundreds and thousands of malades, daily at Lourdes.

The Immaculate One

We turn one final time with Bernadette to say “Hail, Ave,” to the Lady at Lourdes. We must appear crowd at the sixteenth apparition. That apparition occurred on 25 March 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation. During this apparition Bernadette asked three times for the Lady’s Name.

Her name? “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette, who, if you remember, had not accomplished much schooling due to her illnesses, ran from the Grotto to the home of her parish priest, repeating this name over and over again as she ran because she did not understand it in the least. 

Yet she did. Probably better than anyone else. She understood what it meant to call Mary “The Immaculate Conception” when she saw those tiny, alabaster feet step into the niche at Massabielle, with its swine and snakes and human refuse. It meant Hope. It meant Love. It meant Life. It meant the Spring of Salvation was about to be poured into her own heart. She recognized what she saw and experienced when she prayed, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

And still today, the spring flows through Bernadette. She sees all in the light of Mary’s immaculate radiance and God’s love. She announces the fact of the Gospel—here and now, gushing up within you.

[2] Cf John 4.

[3] Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 55-59.

[4] Ibid., 56.

[5] Ibid., 59.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid., 11-12.

[8] Ibid., 16. 

[9] Ibid., 227-229.

[10] Ibid., 522.

[11] Ibid., 517.

[12] Ibid., 518.

[13] Ibid.

[14] cf. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, 1984.

[15] Ibid., 4.16.

[16] Werfel, 539.

[17] Ibid., 537.

[18] Ibid., 253-254.

Featured Image: Stained glass window depicting St. Bernadette from the Saint-Aloyse church in Strasbourg, PD.


Catherine Cavadini

Catherine Cavadini, Ph.D. is the assistant chair of the Department of Theology and director of the M.A. in Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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