Penance at Lourdes and Champion (PART II)

PART TWO: Our Lady to St. Bernadette

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin every year gears up for its patronal feast day on October 9th. This day celebrates the appearance of Our Lady of Good Help to a Belgian immigrant by the name of Adele Brise on October 9th, 1859. In the decades since the apparition, locals have referred to this apparition site as the “Wisconsin Lourdes.” Last June, when the traveling relics of St. Bernadette made a stop at the shrine, its newsletter highlighted the similarities between the visionaries at Lourdes and Champion.

To start, a mere 15 months separates the apparitions to Adele from those of St. Bernadette. Both visionaries were young, illiterate, limited by physical ailments, and impoverished. Both were interrogated by clergy. Yet, part one of this series discussed the more important connection between the two – the message of penance each visionary received. In 1859, Our Lady of Good Help commanded Adele to do penance for herself and on behalf of the unrepentant. Our Lady said, “Make a general confession and offer your Holy Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance my Son will be obliged to punish them.” Adele spent the rest of her life preaching and telling the story of the

At the command of Our Lady, she also labored to catechize the children of the Wisconsin wilderness. A world away in France, Our Lady also asked St. Bernadette to perform acts of penance on behalf of sinners. Our Lady of Lourdes’ emphasis on penance is often overshadowed by the revelation of her identity as the “Immaculate Conception.” Obscuring this message further are the many miracles at the shrine’s healing spring, which overshadow the penitential acts of St. Bernadette that led her to discover the spring in the first place. However, Our Lady took up the theme of penance during five of her 18 appearances at Lourdes, according to renowned French Marian theologian Rene Laurentin in his book Bernadette Speaks.

The first mention of penance took place during the 8th apparition. Witnesses watched in shock as St. Bernadette, in a trance, began to crawl on her knees and lay prostrate on the ground. Later, questioned by the parish priest, Bernadette reported that Our Lady had “uttered a new word: ‘Penance!’” and that she had told Bernadette to “pray to God for the conversion of sinners.” Our Lady also asked Bernadette if she would “get on her knees and kiss the ground as a penance for sinners.” Bernadette replied, “Yes.” The next day, in front of 300 witnesses, Bernadette went into another ecstasy and began crawling on her knees again. One witness heard Bernadette utter the word “penance” three times during her vision. Bernadette would later say that she was repeating the words of Our Lady.

According to Laurentin, what she did next scandalized everyone. Witnesses said she wandered back and forth, as if looking for something. Then, suddenly, she stooped down and began scrapping at the earth. She dug a small hole in the wet ground and took a handful of mud to her mouth. Three times she ate mud and spat it out. The fourth time, she had finally found enough dirty water in the hole to drink it. She drew forth another handful of water and washed her face with it. The last thing she did was eat leaves from a nearby plant. When the apparition ended, Bernadette turned and walked back to the crowd with brown mud streaking her face, which her aunt hastily wiped clean. She was interrogated by numerous people on her strange behavior, and each time, she replied the same way – Our Lady had asked her to drink from a spring (that was not yet visible), wash herself in the same spring, and eat “grass” from a plant. Our Lady asked her to do all these things “for sinners.”

During the 10th and 11th apparitions, Bernadette continued to perform her acts of penance. Now over a thousand people had witnessed her strange behavior at the grotto. When she was questioned about what she was doing, Bernadette replied, “The vision ordered me to do these out of penance, first for myself, then for others.” The last of Bernadette’s apparitions to take up the theme of penance was on March 2nd, 1858. Bernadette conversed with Our Lady in the interior cave of the grotto. As she hurried to leave, through a crowd of over 1,500 people, she ordered them to “go tell the priests that people are to come here in procession.” When Bernadette repeated this request to Abbe Peyramale, the vicar of Lourdes, he went into a rage. Calling her a liar, he ordered her to stay at home. Again, Bernadette brought Our Lady’s request to the vicar on the following day, and he told Bernadette to lead a procession herself if she wanted one.

This here – the procession – is Our Lady’s call to the faithful to perform penance. In past ages, processions were often a form of penance. At first, they were part of important feast day Masses, such as the feasts of Candlemas, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, Corpus Christi, and Ascension. Early records of processions in the Church can be found in letters from St. Ambrose and St. Basil, as far back as 375 AD. At times, the clergy assigned processions to individuals as a means of penance for their sins.

The visionaries at Lourdes and Champion were each rewarded for heeding Our Lady’s commands. Bernadette discovered a healing spring, which continues to be a source of miracles, when she performed penance during the apparitions at Lourdes. Adele and her followers survived the Great Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin when by their faith, surely emboldened by Adele’s preaching, they fled to the apparition chapel and were spared from a terrible death. By embracing the examples of Bernadette and Adele, Catholics today will also reap the rewards of heeding Our Lady’s message of penance. They will experience more of Christ’s peace and joy in their own lives and, by performing works of sacrifice and love on behalf of others, they will convert many souls along the way.

This article is by Theoni Bell, author of The Woman in the Trees which is available from TAN Books.



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