“In a small niche, where the apparitions occurred, a statue of the Virgin is surrounded by the words spoken to Bernadette on March 25, 1858: ‘Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou.‘” “In the Grotto of Massabieille.” James Martin, SJ, My Life With the Saints (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006)
The underground grotto chapel at St. Aloysius in Covington was dear to many before the tragic 1985 fire. Back in 1957 at St. Augustine School in Peaselburg, Sister Mary Joann Pitstick, SND, and music director Andrew Wulfeck produced a pageant about Bernadette. My class got to sing some of the songs. The one about how snide the teenager’s friends were had a lot to say to little girls struggling to be socially accepted.
At the same time, Mouseketeers were of interest, and we all had our favorites, usually Karen and Cubby, Annette and Darlene. Probably more kids favored TV heroes and heroines than became devotees of saints. Annie Oakley was especially important to me. She was the most skilled of any of the characters with the six-shooter. Independent and unmarried, she was close friends with Lofty Craig, her fine sidekick, but no more than that. (The thought occurs of a pilgrimage to the real Annie Oakley’s grave in southern Ohio.)
Eventually, I laid aside toy guns and picked up on five-decade lassos: rosary making was Monseignor Joseph Lubrecht ‘s hobby, and you got one if you went to mass for five consecutive Saturdays. When Bernadette made the sign of the cross in rosary prayer, she began the conversation with the Immaculate Conception that continued through several months and went on to change her life and the lives of millions.
Many Catholics deeply revere stories of Mary appearing, usually to children, women and poor people:
Fatima, La Salette, Guadalupe, Knock, Medjugorje, Falmouth, Kentucky. My cousin Joyce Neff described the thrill of being in on the St. Joe’s Cold Spring and Falmouth events. There were “fire balls” and other sights which very much remind me of the ecstatic experiences during 19th century Shaker meetings. Mark 6:53-56 tells of the crowd’s excitement about Jesus’s extraordinary healing power at Gennesaret.
However, I’ll tell something on myself here. What with all the emphasis on apparition stories in primary grade classrooms, I went through a phase of being downright scared to be upstairs by myself after dark, scared something might appear to me. It never did. The Spirit has manifested in ordinary ways in my life, in the liturgy, in lay and religious communities and solitude, in sacraments, psalms and gospels.
But I can understand that these may not feel as accessible to everyone. Some look for something special. Mark 5:1-20 is about the face-to-face meeting of Jesus and the Geresene man who was possessed by a demon. (The night after I saw the creepy film The Exorcist, I came home and got in bed with my mother. I was 23.)
Bernadette, Joan of Arc and the Shakers saw visions and heard voices. But sometimes hallucinations and “hearing voices” disrupt rather than affirm someone’s life. Today I feel grateful for Jesus’s healing presence, ordinary and extraordinary, at Lourdes and in our homes, through anyone’s friends, families, therapists, nurses and doctors.