Vatican City, 16 July 1979: Fr. Giussani greets Pope John Paul II at the Grotto of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens. (L'Osservatore Romano photographic services)

Daring to Sing the Song of Bernadette

A re-introduction to our May book of the month: "I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette"
Rev. Andrew Carvill

In May, we are re-proposing The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel as our book of the month. Rev. Andrew Carvill introduces the book.

“You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too - so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.” (Luke 2:35)

These mysterious words that the prophet Simeon spoke to the blessed Virgin introduce the world to the mystery of the Christ event. In the understanding of Fr Giussani, an ‘event’ is an occurrence that is not simply incidental but has the character of an ineluctable sign that compels all who encounter it to take a position in front of it, ultimately for or against — ‘so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’.

In his preface to the work, Werfel says “I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette, although I am not a Catholic but a Jew, and I drew courage for this undertaking from a far older and a far more unconscious vow of mine . . . that I would, in all I wrote, magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man – careless of a period which has turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our human lot”. Franz Werfel’s recounting of the story of St. Bernadette Soubirous fulfilled a vow he made to do so if he survived the war, having been hidden and protected by the people of Lourdes from the Third Reich conquerors of France. It is striking that Werfel’s preface echoes the “Magnificat” of the blessed Virgin, who is the first actor in the event he describes.

In Werfel’s account, different persons and groups of persons act as representatives of the ways in which the event is embraced or rejected. Firstly, the State: the State’s main concern is the maintenance of its own power, or to express it in the State’s own terms, the maintenance of order. In a reflection by Charles Peguy, beloved by Fr Giussani, he tells us that Christ was a good citizen until the day he began his mission, bringing into the world the greatest dis-order the world had ever seen. The State authorities of that time tolerated the Church, just so long as the Church did not disrupt the State’s vision of order. Any supernatural event involving the Christian claim, and gaining a following among the people, was going to be seen by the State as a threat to its power and its order, ultimately because such an event is not under the State’s control. For this reason, the State authorities’ response to the event was to suppress it by silencing its principal witness; by persuasion, by guile, or in the last resort, by force. However, in Werfel’s account, even representatives of the State are not monolithically of this mind.

Closely allied to the State in Werfel’s account is the intelligentsia. The attitude of the majority of the ‘enlightened’ intelligentsia was a flat refusal to admit even the possibility of a supernatural dimension to the Christian event. For them, Christian morality and ‘superstition’ may have a role to play in controlling the ‘ignorant masses’ of the people, but its reality as a supernatural event in history and a fortiori in the present, is a simply intolerable claim. The chief weapon of the intelligentsia in opposing the event of the apparitions is to ridicule them. But, as with the State, in Werfel’s account the intelligentsia has some members whose minds are not closed in this way.

The next, and largest, group who encounter the event are the ordinary people, the Christian faithful (or not-so-faithful) who, following on from Bernadette herself as their noblest representative, are represented in most detail by Bernadette’s family and neighbors. Bernadette’s parents struggle between their love and concern for their daughter and the trouble visited upon her by the reaction of the various authorities to the event of the apparitions. Around Bernadette we encounter a great array of the people, some frivolously skeptical, but many profoundly touched by the witness of Bernadette herself and of the first cures in the miraculous waters of the spring.

Finally, and perhaps most dramatically and critically, we have the encounter of the Church authorities with the event of the apparitions to Bernadette. The chief representative of the Church in Werfel’s presentation is the pastor of the Catholic parish of Lourdes, Dean Peyramale. The Church authorities’ immediate reaction is of extreme caution regarding the reality of the apparitions, manifested by Peyramale in a brusquely hostile skepticism towards Bernadette herself. At an early stage Peyramale, somewhat sarcastically, demands from the apparition a miraculous sign, the form of which was to be dictated by himself (namely the flowering of a wild rose in February). Peyramale’s demand is simply (one might almost say courteously) passed over.

However, it does not go unanswered. The blessed Virgin would give a greater and more mysterious sign than the Dean could have imagined, when the miraculous spring of healing water, flowing ceaselessly to this day, would be opened in the ground by Berandette’s own hands in an act of pure obedience. As the story unfolds, we see Peyramale gradually becoming open to the possibility that Bernadette is the witness to a real event. It is the person of the witness to the event, herself moved by the event, that constitutes the evidence which moves Peyramale from disbelief to belief.

Finally, we have the drama of the confrontation of Mother Marie Thérèse Vauzous with the event and its witness. Vauzous was a religious of the Ladies of Nevers. She was Bernadette’s schoolmistress at the time of the apparitions, her novice mistress at the time of Bernadette’s later entry into religious life, and later a major superior of the order. Vauzous, an austere and devout religious, was consumed with envy that in the belief of most people, eventually affirmed by the highest authority of the Church, a simple peasant girl had been called as witness to apparitions of the blessed Virgin, while Vauzous herself had been granted no calling that seemed to her remotely similar. This led Vauzous to reject, at a deeply emotional level, the veracity of the apparitions, even while religious obedience urged her to accept them.

Once again, as with Dean Peyramale, it was eventually Vauzous’ belated recognition of how the witness to the event had been moved to sanctity by the event that enabled her, under God’s grace, to overcome her envy and come to believe in both. We are told that late in life, troubled by the memory of the coldness and even cruelty she had shown towards the novice Bernadette, Mother Vauzous was recommended by her spiritual director to consider that she had been used by God as an instrument in Bernadette’s sanctification. In ways such as this, human weakness becomes the necessary field of action for God’s mercy. O felix culpa.