150 Years After the Marian Apparitions at Lourdes
Salvatore M. Perrela, O.S.M.
Mary's self-definition confirms Immaculate Conception
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes, a Jubilee Year began 8 December 2007 and will conclude this year on the same date, which is also the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The following contribution seeks to convey the strong significance for today's Church and world of the Virgin's self-identification to Bernadette Soubirous: "Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou" [I am the Immaculate Conception].
The historical context of the message
If the 19th century began with a look into the past, then by its end it was moving towards openness to the present that also applied to Marian devotion. Various factors contributed to the devotion's development, including specific historical events such as the Definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Marian apparitions at Lourdes (1858). The 19th century has been remembered in contrasting ways, as a century "wonderful", 'stupid", "brilliant", "decadent" and "regenerative". Certainly it was a significant time, not devoid of interests, of notable controversial social, cultural, ecclesial and theological "oscillations".
From a Mariological-Marian perspective, rather, one still asks today whether the 19th century was a time of sentimental and cultural mediocrity or a mystically and creatively fruitful century.
The debate among scholars remains unresolved. The limitations of theological reflection and of spirituality which are not fully substantiated by Scripture and Church Tradition — of a superabundant and decadent Marian piety — were largely compensated for by the work of reputed theologians such as Newman, Scheeben, Nicolas and others.
It should not be forgotten that St. Teresa of Lisieux (1873-1897), proclaimed Doctor of the Church by John Paul II in 1997, had little esteem or love for the kind of "Mariology" that tended to unilaterally exaggerate the Virgin's glories and privileges to the extent of her appearing strange and distant to believers.
Teresa was a woman without any special biblical, theological or cultural resources. By indicating that, according to the Gospel, the true greatness of the Immaculate Mother of Jesus consists in her conscious and proclaimed "littleness", she showed the way to an unprecedented and ever new Christianity in a time of vain sentiment and a fleeting system of ideologies.
Teresa Martin lived her relationship with Mary in the most austere and essential of ways: that of grace.
"All is grace" she said, showing that the only possibility on this path of not suffocating from the prevalent "Marian mediocrity" was to turn, incapable of finding any footholds in Marian devotionalism, to the only reliable resource — one's own inner riches.
St. Bernadette Soubirous (1844-79), the eldest child of a very poor family that lived in the Cachot — a former municipal prison made available by a charitable relative — was so unlearned that she could only speak the dialect of the Bigorre: it was actually in this language that the Immaculate Virgin gave Bernadette her message.
Bernadette, who had cholera and suffered from asthma, helped out in the family, did not attend school regularly and had been held back in catechism classes. Thus she was a poor person with no belongings, no power and no knowledge.
Yet, with a strong, tender, simple and charitable faith, she was bound and extremely devoted to the heavenly Mother. In short, she was, as very few are, open to Mystery.
Providence was to use her as a herald, in the sign of Mary Immaculate, of an evangelical message: conversion, prayer and penance.
By the time the apparition at Lourdes was recognized by the Church and initiatives to promote its devotion were increasing, Bernadette responded to a Sister, who had imprudently reprimanded her for not participating actively, that her task consisted precisely in being unwell and inert. Passivity (as the absence of action), frailty and marginality became metaphors of the spirit of the most prestigious apparition of the century.
The 18 apparitions of Mary at Lourdes that occurred between 11 February and 16 July 1858 created and still create particularly contrasting reactions, and not only among the faithful.
The Church usually declares that approved manifestations are neither in opposition to the faith nor to morality. Rather, they are grounds for adhering to [faith and morality] with a prudent acknowledgement of truth which still allows for a certain margin of criticism.
They add nothing to the Christian Revelation, which ended with the death of the last Apostle and they are addressed to all people of good will.
"The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation", Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger remarked when he was Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery that watches over the orthodoxy of the faith, "is thus its orientation to Christ himself. When one drifts away from him, when a private revelation claims autonomy or even seeks to pass as another or better design of salvation more important than the Gospel, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit.
"This does not exclude the possibility that a private revelation may highlight new aspects, bringing out new forms of piety or deepening and extending old ones".
What followed was that Lourdes, aside from being a privileged place of adoration and devotion of Jesus in the Eucharist, directed the fervent piety of millions of pilgrims towards the sensitive features of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes.
In addition, in the service of the ill and the outcast of this world, Lourdes has reached out to the lowly and disadvantaged with the love of God and of the Virgin. The Gospel of conversion and love is the true message emerging from the ascertained Marian apparitions at Lourdes.
"The miraculous events at Lourdes are not a privileged case", said historian Roger Aubert. "One might say, in fact, that God was pleased to react against the positive rationalism of the epoch by multiplying the interventions of the supernatural.
"Around the time of the Curé of Ars and Don Bosco, the miracles being worked were no less great than those of the ancient times of Ozanam and Montalembert, whose works served to restore honour to their epoch.
"Even in the lives of the most humble heroes of holiness — poor religious, heroic curates, the founders of hospitals and orphanages — the same sensitive testimony to supernatural action is noted".
The Virgin Mary and Maximilian Kolbe
The Virgin's self-revelation to Bernadette prompted pastors and theologians to search themselves. Among these Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), a martyr of charity and an apostle of Mary Immaculate, deserves a special place.
St. Maximilian, in order to explain the message of identification that the Virgin revealed at the Grotto of Massabielle, places Yahweh's self-definition on Mount Horeb on a parallel with those of the Virgin to Bernadette: "Revealing his true name to Moses, God said, 'I am who am' (Ex 3:14) — since God exists from eternity, he exists always.
His essence is existence without limits, whether of time or of any other dimension whatsoever. All that exists apart from God is not existence but has existence — has received it. Hence the Immaculate also began to exist in time.
In regards to the juxtaposition of the Virgin at Lourdes to the self-definition of God on Horeb, one must realize that there are two types of difficulty to overcome: one is philological and concerns the etymology of Yahweh, and the other is exegetical and theological, concerning the meaning of the biblical passage in its context and, at the same time, the significance of the Old Testament theophany as a whole.
In fact, the name Yahweh has been etymologically explained by its links to various Hebrew roots, but it seems highly likely that it is an archaic form of the verb "to be".
In regards to the meaning of theophanic revelation, on the other hand, interpretations vary.
It is possible, first of all, that with the words, "I am he who is", "I am that which I am", God meant to show the impossibility of giving an adequate definition of God, and this would then mean a refusal of revealing his proper name.
In this sense, the name Yahweh ("He is") would not be the definition of God; however, the name always did bring to mind for the Israelites the kindness, generosity and power of God towards his People.
Translated into Christian thought this interpretation would then respond to God's transcendence, to express that for which there are no adequate words.
Tradition, nevertheless, after the example of the Seventy, preferred to use the expression Ehyeh asher ehyeh as meaning "I am the One who is", "I am who I am"; the name "Yahweh" (He is).
[The name] God, as later theology and philosophy affirmed, at least suggests the unlimited existence of God as opposed to the "nothingness" of the gods.
Fr. Kolbe affirmed that similar to God, at Lourdes the Virgin gave a definition of herself: "The Holy Mother, when Bernadette asked her name, answered: 'I am the Immaculate Conception!'. This is the definition of Mary Immaculate" (Conferences, 225).
If Mary, like God in the Old Testament and then Jesus in the New, uses the determinative "I", it means that she desires to identify herself and to say that this name is hers; it is her name.
This means that such a name is pregnant with God, with his sanctifying, purifying and fully redemptive action. It also means that her conception, "in flesh and in blood" (parental conception) is not a conception stained by original sin but rather one that, regarding the law of original sin, is exceptional in comparison with that of other children of Adam and Eve.
It ensures that the Virgin's self-identification at Lourdes is nothing other than her own given "name", the first gift made her by God, through a unique grace and privilege with a view to the fulfilment of the event of Christ the Redeemer, that is: the Immaculate Conception.
In analyzing the terms "conception" and "immaculate" Fr. Maximilian seeks to give a response and consistency to the fundamental question: Who are you Immaculate Conception?
"Not God, for he has no beginning; not an angel created directly from nothing; not Adam, shaped from the dust of the earth, not Eve, taken from Adam; and not even the Incarnate Word, which has already existed since eternity and was 'conceived' rather than being a 'conception'.
"Prior to their conception, children of Eve did not exist, so they would do better to better call themselves 'conception'; yet, you differ even from them because they are conceptions contaminated by original sin whereas you are the one and only Immaculate Conception".
Fr. Maximilian frequently asked himself this question, wondering at the same time: "Who will understand it perfectly?... What does "Immaculate" mean?".
He said on various occasions that "Immaculate" is the one who is in contact with the Infinite", the one who enables us to be "completely and exclusively consecrated to Jesus Christ", who "works for the benefit of souls".
To avoid all misunderstandings, Fr. Kolbe emphasized that the Immaculate Virgin is only a "creature" (genus creaturale); the most special creature in respect to all others, she is "immaculate" (differentia specifica) and became such through the synergetic sovereign will and action of the Trinity, who made her his "Masterpiece".
In addition, the Virgin Immaculate, the fruit of divine love and thus "Full of grace" (Lk 1:28), is "therefore creature of God, property of God, in the likeness of God and daughter of God, in the most perfect way that is possible for a human being".
Mary, as the Immaculate Conception, was therefore desired and actuated by God (un eodemque decreto) in time, in the history of humanity (conception), as the most perfect likeness of the essence of God possible for a pure creature (immaculate).
Thus, the foundations in the Scotist doctrine becomes evident: Mary is thought of in her perfection for all eternity, which is why there can be no contact, no contamination with original sin; she is, by her vocation, gift and essence, the All Fair.
From Mary's gift of sublime redemption, from her appearance in history, delineates the unique relationship between the Trinity and the Virgin, and in Jesus and in her, between the Trinity and the whole of humanity; the Mother of Jesus was and constantly is, as no other human being, sub umbra Trinitatis.
Her being under the aegis of the Trinity did and does entail for her and in her a unique diversity in comparison with God's other sons and daughters, of whom she always remains a most tender sister, friend and mother.
The Immaculate Virgin, paradigm of a "new humanity", is the ideal realization of the human heart's good aspirations, especially the desire for total freedom; for absolute and unbigoted purity; for beauty transfigured and infinite.
The Full of Grace, Stefano De Fiores says, "is beautiful because she is loved by God, has responded with courage and fidelity, and has fought the dragon with meekness: virgineo pede contrivit. The militant Christian of the Gospel must do likewise".
A wonder of grace, of apostolate, of witness to the Gospel of charity and of holiness, all are accomplished under the banner of the Woman of Heaven, Mary, Mother of Our Lord.
The Marian apparitions to the little shepherd girl Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes four years after the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception were, moreover, like a further confirmation of the prominent role that the "simple", the "pure of heart", had played in the infinite story of God and those he holds dear.
Weekly Edition in English
20 August 2008, page 9
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