“The Year of Bernadette”
(Letter, Sr. Mildred Mary Neuzil to Father Paul Leibold, April 12, 1958)
“February 25th I had another of those “experiences” of which you had already heard, Father, many times. Though I had not at that time been thinking of her, she suddenly appeared at my side. This person was none other than St. Bernadette. She did not come as a Sister, but as the little peasant girl who saw “the Lady.”
“I was transported somehow with
her to the
“Then suddenly the figure of Our Lady seemed to dissolve in the light but the brilliant light itself remained. Then I saw a path; at times it seemed to take the form of steps leading upwards from the niche where “the Lady” had been standing. Ever so often as I gazed at this luminous pathway, I caught a glimpse of angels.
“I was anxious to follow the path of light and as I eagerly endeavored to do so, Bernadette held me back. Then I exclaimed, “But I want to go there.” The Saint answered, “No, my sister, it is not yet time for you, but it will be soon.”
Last year, 2008, was the 150th
anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette was born January 7, 1844, one of nine children, five of whom died at birth or shortly after. One brother died at age 10. Mr. Soubirous was a miller who ground wheat into flour for bread. Bernadette was born in his mill to the sound of the grindstones crushing wheat.
How symbolically rich an image for this victim soul who suffered much, like grain crushed for flour and mixed with Him Who is the Bread of Life.
Shortly after her birth the family fell upon hard times and a cousin offered them the lowest, filthiest room in his home, called the “dungeon,” a former prison considered unfit for prisoners because of its dampness. No wonder Bernadette was afflicted with such childhood illnesses: stomach and spleen problems, cholera that left her asthmatic. She was a quiet, docile girl who had difficulty learning because of missed classes due to illness; she was often in class with younger children and was sometimes humiliated and called “stupid.” With respect to the apparitions, many rejected her, at first, and tried to call her feebleminded or fanatic or even insane.
She confided to a friend the secret of her resignation: “When we think God permits this, we don’t complain.” “When we wish for nothing, we always have what we need.” She appeared to be a normal girl, no different than others but pious. Hers was a voluntary and often difficult obedience. She is sometimes referred to as “the most secretive of all the saints” because of her few words and great silence, yet hers was the secret of transparency. Our Lady had given three secrets to Bernadette, asking her to tell them to no one, not even her confessor or the Pope, as they were meant only for her. Many wanted to know them, but she told no one.
She was 14 when the apparitions began February 11th, 1858. There were 18 in all, that ended July of that year. We know the story of repeated questions and attempts from people in position to trick her and to diagnose her as mentally unbalanced, or conniving-- an experience of rejection and suffering so common to other visionaries. Bernadette never changed her story and responded with remarkable candor and sincerity to the endless questions, even with surprising wit.
On the 16th visit, March 25, feast of the Annunciation, Our Lady finally identified herself, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” a term Bernadette could not have known or understood, for it was only four years earlier that Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
At an earlier apparition, a miraculous
spring rose up in the grotto of Massabielle where Our
Lady appeared and had asked for a chapel to be built and that processions be allowed there.
The similarities between
Bernadette and Sr. Mildred are obvious.
Sister Mildred was born to immigrant parents who came to
Sr. Mildred, like Bernadette, was an amiable, docile soul drawn to silence and the religious life. On the outside she was as normal as any other sister, but her interior life was a life of special communion with the Lord which she thought was the norm for all sisters. While Sister Mildred entered the convent at age 14, Bernadette entered the convent at age 22 and remained there until her death at age 35. Sister Mildred died at age 83. Both lives, however, seem to focus on a call to the young.
Bernadette, too frail for
When her apparitions were made known, Sr. Mildred, like Bernadette, was not believed and was termed “crazy” by some who thought such interventions from heaven no longer happen in our sophisticated and enlightened age. Those in authority over Bernadette did not want to believe her at first, and neither did those in authority over Sr. Mildred, because, as Our Lady said, “you are a little one.”
While Bernadette was given the outward and visible signs of Our Lady’s favor in the healing and miraculous spring water, Sr. Mildred was told, other than the signs given to the bishop for his confirmation of the message’s authenticity, that Our Lady would grant, “not miracles of the body, but miracles of the soul.” Our Lady of America was much more interested in our interior lives than our physical lives. Just as Bernadette was a victim soul, so was Sr. Mildred. Recall that beautiful description of Our Lord’s appearance to her with the crown of thorns and a cross, asking her if she would suffer to bring Him to souls. Of course, like Bernadette with Our Lady, Sister Mildred refused Jesus nothing. Our Lord often called Sr. Mildred “the little white dove,” a symbol of innocence and sacrifice. He told her He “was placing her on the altar of sacrifice.” Our Lady told Bernadette she could not “promise her happiness in this life, but only in the next.”
Both of these simple but holy women endured a great deal of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering and were joined to the passion of the Lord in intensely personal ways, a sign not only of God’s favor but of their holiness in surrender to His grace.
To Bernadette Our Lady identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” To Sr. Mildred she is “Our Lady of America,® the Immaculate Virgin,” focusing on both of her singular privileges, her Immaculate Conception and her Perpetual Virginity. While at Lourdes Our Lady asked for a chapel to be built, with Sr. Mildred Our Lady asked only that we finish the National Shrine in Washington, DC, which we were already building to honor her under her unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception, our patronal church which she promised to make a place of special pilgrimage once a statue of her image is enthroned there in a place of honor, after being carried in solemn procession.
Each was given a message to convey to the Church and the world at large, the need for prayer and penance, for a reform of life for our own conversion and for the salvation of souls. Sr. Mildred’s was an even more intense message on the doctrine of the Indwelling Trinity as our source of holiness from within, the most fundamental doctrine of our Faith that is mirrored in the family, in imitation of the simple life of the Holy Family that is paradise on earth.
While Bernadette’s life and
mission was of great import to
Our Lady even gave Youth a special title, “Torchbearers of the Queen.” Our Youth are the future of the world and of the Church. Pope John Paul II, so loved by our young people, called on them never to think they are too young to do God’s work on earth.
The Lady Sr. Mildred saw at
Bernadette’s body was exhumed in 1909, then reburied; exhumed in 1919 and reburied; and exhumed in 1925, incorruptible still. It was then given a place of honor in the convent where she had died. She was canonized, fittingly, in 1933 on December 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception, by Pope Pius XI.
While Bernadette’s mission has been fulfilled and she is called the “patron saint of the poor, the sick and the family,” Sr. Mildred’s is far from over. We know Sister Mildred’s mission was to converge on the renewal of the Christian family and on a return to the interior life through union with the Divine Indwelling Trinity, and to reform our lives and return to Faith and Purity.
For Sr. Mildred the beatification process is just beginning. When her body is exhumed-- as we expect it will be one day-- we believe it, too, will be uncorrupted, perhaps even bearing the signs of the interior stigmata which many suspected she endured during her lifetime. When asked if she would be canonized one day, Sister Mildred humbly replied, “Yes, but not because of me but because of the importance of this message.” The rest of Sr. Mildred’s mission is up to us. Our Lady’s own words, begging us to heed her and to act, says it well.
“Tell the Bishops of
“My daughter, will my children in
(Notes on the life of Bernadette
from Bernadette Speaks, Fr. Rene Laurentin, English translation,
Copyright © Contemplative Sisters of the Indwelling Trinity, 2009