On Feb. 11, Catholics celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. We remember that on Feb. 11, 1858, Mary appeared to a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in a cave at Massabielle, just a mile from the French town of Lourdes. Young Bernadette called her simply “the Lady.” In all, “the Lady” appeared to Bernadette 18 times that year. On one occasion, Bernadette asked her who she was; and Mary’s answer was “I am the Immaculate Conception” – or, in French, “Que soy era immaculada councepciou.”
The words were a mystery to the 14-year-old girl, but helped to confirm an important teaching of the Catholic faith. Pope Pius IX had proclaimed this dogma just three years earlier, in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus.
Only four years after the apparitions, in 1862, Pope Pius IX declared them to be “worthy of belief” and authorized the local bishop to permit the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes.
One hundred years after the apparitions at Lourdes, the Pope issued an encyclical titled Le Pelerinage de Lourdes, which remains one of the strongest pronouncements by the Catholic Church on Marian apparitions. In it, Catholics were encouraged to follow Mary’s example of selflessness and charity.
Remarkable about the shrine at Lourdes is that over 60 verified miracles (and probably many more which have not been confirmed by medical experts) have been attributed to the healing waters of Lourdes.
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Just what is the Immaculate Conception? Choose one:
A. Mary was a virgin at the time of Christ’s birth.
B. Jesus was born without sin.
C. Mary was conceived without sin. Like the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, which was beautifully crafted because it held the precious Torah, so Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, since she carried the Christ Child within her womb. Since she was destined to be the Mother of God, she was preserved by God from any stain of original sin, and she remained sinless throughout her life.
If you guessed “C,” you’re right! The Immaculate Conception is one of the four main Marian dogmas.* The other three clear teachings of Catholicism regarding Mary are:
(1) Divine Motherhood. Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos), not just the mother of Christ’s human nature. This teaching was defined by the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) in response to heresies at the time, and is generally accepted by all Christian denominations today.
(2) Perpetual Virginity. The constant tradition of the Church has been that Mary was “ever virgin”—that she bore no children other than Jesus. The Protoevangelium of James (around A.D. 120), written perhaps 60 years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life, supports this tradition. Many Protestants dispute this, referring to Gospel passages about the “brethren of the Lord”; this is refuted and Catholic teaching is explained in a Catholic Answers article by Karl Keating titled “Was Jesus an Only Child?”
(3) The Assumption. According to the Catholic dogma of the Assumption, “Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.” It’s important to distinguish between Ascension and Assumption. Jesus “ascended” into Heaven of his own volition; whereas Mary, a created being, was taken into heaven by God. The dogma of the Assumption is contained implicitly in the divine Revelation.
More details about each of these teachings, and of their basis in Scripture and Tradition, can be found at The Mary Page, at the University of Dayton’s library.
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“For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”
—from “The Song of Bernadette”
Movie by 20th Century Fox, released in 1943
Starring Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford and William Eythe