Saint Bernadette is in Leeds today, not Lourdes. At least relics of Bernadette are in that Yorkshire town. Her kneecaps are there, among other bones and a strand of hair. But there is no paramilitary involvement here. This is the travelling show of holy relics brought from place to place so that the Catholic faithful may see and be near to and honour. I am not impressed.
I have been fortunate enough to go to Lourdes many times, with the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, as a chaplain to a group, and those Easter week trips stay happily in my memory. Reading the story of the apparitions of 1858, I became very impressed with Bernadette the young girl visionary. Through all the commotion of the time, at the time and subsequently, Bernadette behaved admirably, and I find her witness to be both credible and praiseworthy. I think she was a really lovely person. I have often invoked her name in my prayers.
Her body lies incorrupt in the convent in Namur where she died at the early age of 35 years. But it has been a practice of the Church to take bits of bodies and encase them in glass as holy relics to be brought near to the faithful for veneration, and that is why Bernadette’s kneecaps are to be found in Leeds today. I wish they weren’t there.
I wish they had been left where they belong, in her body. Surely it is enough for us to read her story, to have her photograph, to pray for her intercession, without having to parade her bones around the world. Knowing the very strong common sense attitude that Bernadette showed when she lived in this world I think she would rebuke us for parading her bones like this.
In earlier times people used to go to Jerusalem to walk the holy road to Calvary that Jesus walked. Then someone got the great idea for people who cannot afford to make such journeys, to bring the Via Crucis to ourselves and so we placed the Stations of the Cross around the walls of our own churches.
In the same way paintings and photographs and films of Lourdes can help us to be united in spirit with Our Lady of the apparitions. We can even go there by live camera to see the grotto and join in the devotions. I think Bernadette would approve of that. As for her bones, let them rest in peace.
5 October 2022