In 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (pronounced Soo-Be-ROO) was living with her impoverished parents and three siblings in an abandoned jail cell in the small town of Lourdes in southern France.
In February, while Bernadette, her sister and a friend were gathering firewood near a dilapidated grotto, young Bernadette experienced the first of 17 apparitions.
In the first vision, Bernadette described what she saw as a smiling young girl, dressed in white and bathed in light. In later visions she would describe the vision as a young woman dressed in a white robe, drawn together with a blue sash, with a white veil over her head and a yellow rose on each foot.
In the second to last apparition later that summer the young woman identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception,” a description which made no sense to Bernadette because she had not heard of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed by the church four years earlier.
As the apparitions continued, the crowds grew but no one except Bernadette ever witnessed the visions. For that and other reasons, James Martin writes in “My Life with the Saints,” her experience was difficult for some to believe. Bernadette was punished by her parents, repeatedly interrogated by church and civil authorities, and doubted by many of the faithful.
She never waivered in her testimony about what had happened, and over the years a spring which Bernadette uncovered under a rock near the shrine has become a source of spiritual and physical healing for thousands of pilgrims.
Because of her conviction, Martin writes, Bernadette has become “a symbol of the need to stay true to your own personal vision. … She is a powerful model of fidelity, and a witness to the importance of trusting one’s experience no matter what the consequences.”
She is also, I think, an inspiring example of the way God works through the young, in unexpected and sometimes disconcerting ways. Pope Francis recognized this in his message to youth announcing next year’s synod on youth, faith and discernment.
“Do not be afraid to listen to the Spirit who proposes bold choices,” the pope wrote.
He reassured young people that “the Church … wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith — even your doubts and your criticism,” and he urged them: “Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your bishops.”
Then the pope recalled St. Benedict’s advice to abbots: consult even the young, because “the Lord often reveals what is best to the younger.”
What are the young – our adult children and grandchildren – revealing to us about life, about God, about the faith, about the church? I hope we’re prepared to believe them.
What do you think?
Pray and Reflect
Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:
- On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how much you think the church has to learn from young Catholics. How would you have rated this five years ago?
- Do you worry about young Catholics who seem disconnected from the church? Have you learned anything from them about life, faith or the church? If you had to guess, what do you think the church could learn from our children and grandchildren? What should we be doing to help our children, grandchildren and students “make their voice heard” as the pope says?
- I think young adults can teach us that …
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Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.