Read The Miracle Online

Authors: Irving Wallace

Tags: #Bernadette, #Saint, #1844-1879, #Foreign correspondents, #Women journalists

The Miracle

BOOK: The Miracle
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For Elijah

'They say miracles are past"

—SHAKESPEARE, C.1602

"The Age of Miracles past

The Age of Miracles is forever here"

—THOMAS CARLYLE, 1841

"For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible."

—REV. JOHN LA FAROE, S.J.

THE MIRACLE

The Third Secret

It had been a dark night, gradually graying, the darkness before the dawn, and it was six o'clock in the morning when the small, pretty peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, came down from the hill to the cave gouged out of rock, the grotto of Massabielle. There were already 150 people waiting for her, watching her, waiting for what would happen next.

Bernadette, wearing a white capulet, a patched second-hand dress, and wooden clogs, put a light to her candle, took the rosary from her pocket, and with a smile, bowed toward the vision that she expected to see.

Twelve days earlier, while standing near this spot, she had seen the apparition in the grotto, "a Lady dressed in white" as Bernadette would later recall, a mysterious young Lady wearing "a white dress, a white veil, a blue sash, and a yellow rose on each foot." There had been seven visits by Bernadette to the grotto in those twelve days, and the Lady had appeared before her on six of these occasions, the Lady who would eventually, after fifteen appearances, identify herself as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary.

This dark Tuesday morning of February 23, 1858, was Bcmadette's eighth visit to the grotto. At the grotto, with a smile, she awaited the return of the Lady who would soon identify herself as the Virgin.

Among the 150 persons present, there was at least one cynic, Jean-Baptiste Estrade, a tax official and an important man in the nearby market town of Lourdes.

Estrade had brought his sister, Emmanuelite, and several of her curious women friends to witness the much discussed spectacle. On the way to the grotto he had joked about this superstitious nonsense. "Have you brought your opera glasses?" he had asked his companions. Now, joined with the spectators, he watched the peasant girl on her knees fingering her rosary. Afterward, he would record what he witnessed:

"Whilst she was passing the beads between her fingers she looked up toward the rock as though waiting for something. Suddenly, as in a flash of lightning, an expression of wonder illuminated her face and she seemed to be born into another life. A light shone in her eyes; wonderful smiles played upon her hps; an unutterable grace transfigured her whole being . . . Bernadette was no longer Bernadette; she was one of the privileged beings, the face all glorious with the glory of heaven. . . .

"The ecstasy lasted for an hour; at the end of that time the seer went on her knees from the place where she was praying to just below the wild rose tree hanging from the rock. There, concentrating all her energies as for an act of worship, she kissed the earth and returned still upon her knees to the place which she had just left. A last glow of light lit up her face, then gradually, almost imperceptibly, the transfiguring glory of the ecstasy grew fainter and finally disappeared. The seer continued praying for a few moments longer but it was only the face of the little peasant child which I saw. At last Bernadette got up, went to her mother, and was lost in the crowd."

Climbing the hill toward home with her mother, Bernadette repeated a portion of the conversation that she had just had with the mysterious Lady. During the apparitions, the Lady had confided three secrets to her, and this morning she had revealed the third and last of them.

Shortly after, when the converted cynic, Estrade, had become Bernadette's friend, he had asked her "what the Lady had said to her during the seventh Appearance," and he learned "that three secrets had been entrusted to her but that they concerned nobody but herself. The seer added that she could not reveal these secrets to anyone, not even to her confessor. Inquisitive people have often tried by insinuations, by trickery, or by promises, to get these revelations of the Virgin out of the child. But all attempts failed and Bernadette carried her secrets with her to the grave."

On another occasion, a young lawyer from a nearby town, Charles Madon, dared to bring up the subject once more.

"And your secrets? What are they about?"

"They concern only me."

"If the Pope were to ask you for them, would you tell them to him?"

"No."

Years later, when Bernadette had become a nun in the convent of Saint Gildard—in Nevers, in central France—her harsh and distrusting superior, Mother Marie Theiese Vauzou, the Mistress of Novices, had posed the question about the secrets once more. Bernadette had again refused to reveal the secrets.

"Suppose the Pope required you tell under obedience," Mother Vauzou had demanded.

"I can't see how it could be any concern of his," Bernadette had replied.

After reading this historical report from the Lourdes Commission, Pope John Paul III, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, lowered the pages and chuckled. "But now, suddenly, almost 130 years later, those secrets are the concern of a pope."

"Yes, Your Holiness," said his secretary of state. "Especially the final secret given to Saint Bernadette during the seventh apparition."

They were in the Pope's spacious and ornate private office on the top floor of the Vatican. From his high-backed white satin chair, behind the neat papal desk, Pope John Paul III stared past the gold damask drapes framing the clear recessed windows that overlooked St. Peter's Square. He turned back to the cardinal, his secretary of state, who sat in one of the red satin armchairs across from him.

"And now," said the Pope, "we know all three of Bernadette's secrets. Of that you are certain?"

"No question," said the cardinal. "The full documentation, from the Commission of Lourdes, is in your hands."

"This is absolutely authentic?"

"As you will see, Your Holiness, the first two secrets are minor, and have come to pass, and are of no interest to us. The third secret, the last, as you have agreed, could be momentous. All that remains is for Your Holiness to decide if we should disclose the third secret to the world."

The Pope was thoughtful. "When must I give my decision?"

"By week's end, it is hoped, Your Holiness. The Commission of Lourdes will remain in session until you inform them of the course to take. The Great French National Pilgrimage is to begin in three weeks."

"The commission—" said the Pope. "Does the commission have a recommendation?"

"They have put it entirely in your hands, Your Holiness," said the cardinal. He hesitated. "I happen to have heard from Father Ruland in Lourdes that a few of the clergy and all of the local merchants on the commission favor disclosure. They insist that any announcement will heighten interest in the holy shrine, and that the entire community, in fact the entire world, will benefit from this. The other members of the commission, all clerics, are either against disclosure, or reluctant to have it made, lest Bernadette's secret rebounds and fails to serve the best interests of the Mother Church. But Bishop Peyragne, who heads the commission, told me quite correctly that the final word must be your own."

The Pope nodded, considering the documents before him. "I will study what is here. I will meditate upon this discovery. I will pray for wisdom. Certainly you shall have my decision by week's end, by Friday."

The secretary of state came briskly to his feet. "Very well." Before turning away, he gazed intently at the Holy Father. "If I may inject a comment of my own—"

"Please."

"There is grave risk in this, Your Holiness."

The Pope smiled. A worldly man, he replied cheerfully, "God will know the odds."

When the discovery had been made, and purchased secretly by the church, Bishop Peyragne of Tarbes and Lourdes had seen fit to appoint a commission of inquiry—the Lourdes Commission, the weekly local newspaper L'Essor Bigourdan called it, and reminded readers that this was the second time in the city's modern history that there had been such a board of notables. The editors and readers wondered about the reason for the appointment of such a commission, having been told only that the members were to discuss "a historical discovery of great significance." Speculation ran rampant, but no one outside the commission had even the faintest idea of what was going on.

The first commission of inquiry, appointed by an earlier bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Bertrand-Severe Laurence, in November of 1858, had been constituted with a clear purpose. Its nine members had been selected to investigate the young Bernadette's experience and determine if, indeed, she had received a vision from God. After four years of study, a decision had been arrived at, and the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes had announced it to the world: "We judge that Mary the Immaculate Mother of God, did really appear to Bernadette Soubirous on the 11th February, 1858, and on certain subsequent days, eighteen times in all, in the grotto of Massabielle near the town of Lourdes; that this apparition bears every mark of truth; and that the belief of the faithful is well grounded. . . . We authorize the cult of Our Lady of the Grotto of Lourdes in our diocese."

That had been the verdict of the first Lourdes commission of inquiry in 1862.

Now, so long after, the sixteen members of the second Lourdes commission of inquiry were gathering in a conference room of the Town Hall not to make a decision but to hear the decision made by the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church in Vatican City. After six fruitless weeks of debate, the members had been unable to reach a decision of their own.

Unable to get a majority on one side or the other, the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes had forwarded the findings, and the authentication, to the archbishop in Toulouse, who had advised that in a matter so divisive and controversial, the final decision must be left to His Holiness, the Pope, in Rome.

And now, having been alerted that the Pope would have word for them this very morning, the members of the commission had assembled. While the members were largely religion-minded, the setting -- the conference room of the Town Hall—was secular, a delicate arrangement made by the bishop at the suggestion of Father Ruland, the Lourdes historian, who himself professed to be neutral in the matter to be decided.

Even though their arguments were no longer meaningful, members of the commission were still embattled when the telephone had rung in Mayor Jourdain's next-door office. Father Emery, one of the ten parish priests in Lourdes, was saying, "To make such an announcement presents a danger to the church, to the faithful, to the town. Any failure can invite disillusionment and mockery, and discredit what we stand for. I say let things be as they are." His opposing number across the long table, Jean-Claude Jamet, owner of an important tourist restaurant in Lourdes, was responding as before, "We must make this announcement, and thereby create a revival of interest in religion and also encourage in pilgrims a desire to come here in great number. By making this announcement, we can halt the falling away in faith."

The telephone call in the adjacent office had put a restraint of silence on any further debate. Mayor Jourdain had left the conference room to take the call, then momentarily returned to summon the bishop and Father Ruland.

For the members, the wait had seemed interminable, but in fact it had lasted no longer than two minutes.

Again, the tall, rangy bishop was at the head of the table. In his stark black cassock, he resembled an austere authoritarian figure who had stepped out of an El Greco canvas.

His voice was low and strong, his words clipped and firm.

"The Pope wishes us to arrange to have Bernadette's secret announced to the world—yes, announced to the world—at once. Not to do so. His Holiness remarked, would be a profession of lack of faith. His Holiness added, one assumes jocularly, that he, for one, remains a true believer."

The bishop paused, and glanced about the room. With the decision, disagreement had evaporated. They were all in this together, and excitement was evident.

"That settles it," resimied the bishop. "I shall notify the archbishop in Toulouse to proceed immediately with arrangements for a public announcement by Cardinal Brunet in Paris." He offered a frosty smile. "The crucial eight days, beginning three weeks from now, will be the most momentous and critical in Lourdes" history since that afternoon when Bernadette heard the sound of a gust of wind and saw the Lady in white materialize in the grotto. And, I am certain, the announcement will be momentous and critical for the many people on earth who will hear it and make their way to our beloved Lourdes."

Usually, when Liz Finch drove her second-hand Citroen from the Place de la Concorde up the Champs Elysees in the mad and unruly Parisian traffic, she remained keenly aware of the magnificent structure of the Arc de Triomphe far ahead. The noble Arc was for her the symbol of everything that Paris offered—classical beauty, wonder, excitement, and support and promise for the life she wanted to live here.

The Arc translated her dreams and ambitions into reality. It helped her see herself in tomorrow's Paris: a highly paid and renowned yet literary foreign correspondent, such as the admirable Janet Flanner had been; a sophisticated hostess with an exquisite apartment on the Ile St.-Louis, the envied wife of a mature, wealthy, and handsome French business executive (of worldly intellect and devoted sexuality, who possessed admiration for America and who had brought to the marriage an incredible collection of French primitive art); the mother of two brilliant children, who played in the Luxembourg Gardens under the supervision of a warm and intelligent British nanny. When Liz Finch saw the Arc ahead, she saw beneath its soaring curve this life for herself,

and even the leisure to absorb and charm friends of the international set, each a "Name" in his or her field, during her weekly Sunday salons.

But this morning, possibly for the first time in her three years in Paris, Liz Finch's second self was not fixed on the Arc de Triomphe. Instead, when not concentrating on the insane traffic, she was studying the reflection of herself in the Citroen's not-too-flattering rearview mirror.

BOOK: The Miracle
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