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Four Years, Five Words

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by Dan Valenti

Four years provide the first clue to authenticity. Five words provide the second.

Lourdes stands as the definitive Marian apparition, the first in a wave of appearances — alleged and otherwise — that Our Lady has made since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the world got mechanized and, some say, got off track. Their genuineness, obviously, is crucial.

Four Years
Not even four, actually. The first of 18 visitations of "a small, young lady" to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous occurred on Feb. 11, 1858, three years, two months, and three days after Pope Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary, "in the instance of her conception, by a singular privilege granted by God ... was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."

Bernadette, an illiterate French farm girl from a poor family, had never heard of the Immaculate Conception, nor had anyone in her village, as investigators later discovered. Yet, in the 16th appearance and after repeatedly being asked to reveal her name, the "small, young lady" announced, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

This stunned Church authorities. How could Bernadette have known?

On Jan. 18, 1862, Bishop Bertrand Lawrence of Tarbes, the diocese governing Lourdes, issued the results of his official investigative commission. The report noted that the circumstances, taken as a whole, "make it impossible to believe in the theory of an hallucination; the young girl has, then, really seen and heard a being who calls [h]erself the Immaculate Conception."

Five Words
These refer to Mary's answer to Bernadette's persistent question: "What is your name?"

Whenever Bernadette asked this, Mary would simply smile.

The 16th apparition, however, turned out differently. Bernadette later reflected:
I went every day for a fortnight, and each day I asked her who she was, and this petition always made her smile. After a fortnight, I asked her three times consecutively. She always smiled. At last I tried for the fourth time. She stopped smiling.

With her arms down, she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast, she said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

When taken together, Bernadette's ignorance of the Pope's declaration on the Immaculate Conception and Mary's own words provided Church authorities with two cornerstones for declaring the apparitions authentic:

We judge that Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God, did really appear to Bernadette Soubirous on the 11th of February 1858 and on certain subsequent days, eighteen times in all, in the Grotto of Massabieille, near the town of Lourdes.

A loving mother had come to a world gone astray.

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