The Religious Significance of "The Song of Bernadette"

by Diane Evans

The 1942 film "The Song of Bernadette" was adapted from a historical novel written by the Jewish writer, Franz Werfel, while hiding in Lourdes from the Gestapo. He vowed that if he survived the war and escaped to America, he would write Bernadette's story. Werfel took liberties blending fact with fiction as he crafted the novel. The story describes how a peasant girl dealt with divine visions and the consequences. As the film began, these words rolled across the screen, "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible."

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The Visions

During six months in 1858, a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, witnessed 18 visions of the Virgin Mary. One afternoon she discovered a cave outside Lourdes that was lit from within by a mysterious blue light source. Venturing inside, she found a beautiful lady standing in a globe of light holding a pearl rosary. When the story came out, Bernadette's family did not believe her, but neighbors thought the girl was too innocent to make up the story.

The Church and Civil Authorities

Because no one else saw the visions, some members of the Catholic school found her story incredulous, especially the nuns, including the abusive Sister Vauzous, and the cleric, Abbe Perramale. Toward the end of Bernadette's life, Sister Vauzous revealed that she was jealous that the girl had been chosen for the visitations rather than herself, a life-long devoted nun. She confessed and begged forgiveness. Bernadette faced relentless, ruthless interrogation and ridicule from the authorities, especially Perramale, for it was the practice of the clergy to discourage religious visionaries: The person might be unbalanced or delusional. However, Bernadette presented a different situation because other people in the village soon began seeing the visions at the grotto for themselves. The girl stood her ground and returned to the cave several times to visit the lady. At one point, the lady instructed her to drink and wash at a nonexistent spring. However, Bernadette believed the spring must exist nearby. She dug a hole and found wet sand and flowing water that exhibited miraculous healing qualities.

The Miracles at Lourdes

When Bernadette claimed that the lady revealed herself as "the Immaculate Conception," the civil authorities attempted to have Bernadette certified as insane. However, Abbe Peyramale, a one-time detractor, turned face and became her staunchest ally. He requested a formal investigation to determine if the girl was a fraud or insane. The Bishop of Tarbes proposed a test for Bernadette's lady. He had the cave closed and refused to allow the church to investigate the visions unless the emperor ordered it. When the emperor's infant son became ill, the Empress obtained a bottle of the miracle water. The child drank the water and was healed. His father opened the grotto. During the following years, many people visited the site and found healing.

Saint Bernadette

Although Bernadette wanted a simple married life, Abbe Peyramale discouraged it. When she joined Saint Gidard Convent as a nun, Bernadette expressed her disappointment to the Virgin Mary. "O my Mother, in your heart I placed all my anguish of my heart and it is there that I gain strength and courage." After her diagnosis of terminal bone tuberculosis, Bernadette resigned herself to a painful death. No explanation was given for her failure to seek healing from the waters at Lourdes. The story affirms the values of courage, humility and faith in the presence of suffering.

About the Author

Diane Evans is a retired civil engineer who has worked as a freelance writer/illustrator since 1988. She writes for various online publications, and also authors nonfiction and fiction for children’s and adult publications. Her education includes a B.S. in biology and an M.S. in biochemistry from Vanderbilt University, as well as a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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