The Sign of the Cross Is More Powerful Than You Imagine, Says St. Bernadette
Not everyone leaves Lourdes cured — but nobody leaves empty-handed.
Catholics often make the Sign of the Cross. We make the familiar motion of our childhood or entry into the Church by repeating the words at the holy water font, before and after prayer, or passing by a cemetery.
Over time, this gesture can become habitual. Soon, our hand motions can quicken into a circular gesture, more like a symbol of eternity than the Cross that gets us there. The Sign of the Cross is not just what we do before and after a prayer — it is a prayer! St. Bernadette said that if we were to pray this prayer well, we could go to Heaven.
In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous encountered the Immaculate Conception herself in the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France. Each apparition always began and ended with the Sign of the Cross.
Bernadette saw Our Lady for the first time on a cold and rainy Thursday, the week before Lent. The very first thing they did was to pray the Sign of the Cross together. Bernadette knew when “the most beautiful lady” raised her rosary beads to touch the crucifix to her forehead that she was thinking of the God who created them. Bernadette followed her holy example in her thoughtful motions of prayer. Together, they invoked God the Father. Slowly and meditatively, they together called on God the Son and then, God the Holy Spirit. Through this prayerful blessing, they both entered into the embrace of the Blessed Trinity.
When Bernadette was later asked how she could make such a beautiful Sign of the Cross, she answered that she was only trying to do the same as the “most beautiful lady.”
In total, there were 18 apparitions. The first two heavenly encounters took place in silence. The late Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that we need quiet for prayer. This can be challenging in our current world of bedazzling technological distractions. Combined with our shortened attention spans, silence can become elusive. Contrary to our complex lifestyles, slow and silent mindful prayer might be a simple solution to spiritually offset our frazzling pace. Our prayers are heard. In silence, we are better able to listen for a spiritual response.
During the 13th heavenly encounter, Our Lady asked for a chapel to be built and for people to come in procession. Lourdes is the only approved Marian apparition where she specifically requested for us to process in that particular place. As requested, thousands go to the Grotto daily in procession. Although Lourdes is obviously a Marian shrine, it is a Christocentric sanctuary. In this holy place, prayers are heard and answered. God is discovered and deeply encountered.
Throughout the apparitions, miracles occurred in biblical-like cures. Seventy of the more than 7,800 healings claimed have been officially recognized as miracles by the Catholic Church. Lourdes is like the Gospels brought into our own time. Miracles occur, but not only physical healings. There are many different kinds of miraculous blessings at Lourdes. Comparable to the paralytic who picked up his stretcher and was forgiven of his sins (Mark 2:8), miraculous gifts are continually given and granted. Not everyone leaves Lourdes cured — but nobody leaves empty-handed. Conversions, reversions, spiritual, mental and physical wounds are healed at Lourdes — every day.
After a four-year investigation by the Church, in 1862 the Bishop proclaimed that the apparitions were valid and that Lourdes was a holy place worthy of pilgrimage. The requested chapel was built. When it was consecrated on May 19, 1866, Bernadette was present. All of the young ladies in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary were wearing their white dresses with the blue sashes. Everyone wanted to know which one of the young ladies was Bernadette Soubirous of the apparition. Who was the girl who saw the Immaculate Conception in the Grotto?
Bernadette innocently revealed herself by making the most reverent Sign of the Cross. People were moved to tears by her reverence. It was said they could see the reflection of Heaven in Bernadette’s face.
Eight years after the apparitions, Bernadette entered religious life in Nevers. She lived a life of prayer, especially favoring the Rosary. She continued her prayer as if she speaking to the “most beautiful lady” in the Grotto. Bernadette personalized her prayers: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, Bernadette, a poor sinner.” We can do the same. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for: my son, my wife, my mother, my cancer, a new wheelchair, a place to live …), please pray for me now and at the hour of my death, whenever I need your intercession the most. Amen.
There is still much to be gleaned from the simple girl of the Grotto, the Immaculate Conception and the Gospel Message of Lourdes. We learn to begin everything we do with this simple meditation on the Blessed Trinity and to pray with all of our heart, slowly and reverently. The humble spirituality of Bernadette and the Gospel message of the apparitions of prayer, penance and procession are timely and relevant today and forever.
Nearing the end of her short life, Bernadette, making the Sign of the Cross, said if we pray this one prayer well, we can go to Heaven, calling on the Blessed Trinity. On the Feast of St. Bernadette, let us pray the simple prayer of the Sign of the Cross well, with all of our hearts, slowly and amply, like the “most beautiful lady” of the Grotto.
Marlene Watkins is the author of Everyday Miracles of Lourdes: Twenty Extraordinary Experiences Along the Way to the Grotto.