By Father MieczysЕ‚aw Piotrowski TChr,
Love One Another! 1/2003 → Eternal life
Bernadette Soubirous, receiver of numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in 1858, joined a convent novitiate in Nevers in 1866. There she remained until her death on April 16, 1879. Since then, the world has been witnessing a spectacular and continuous miracle. Contrary to the laws of nature, St. Bernadette’s body has been spared both external or internal decomposition, and preserves to this day an amazing freshness and beauty.
Pilgrims at the Chapel of the Convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers
can see the body of St. Bernadette Soubirous for themselves. It
is dressed in a nun’s habit and seems to be sleeping, the
head bent slightly to the left. A rosary entwines the hands which
are joined in a gesture of prayer. The sight of St. Bernadette
lying in a glass coffin evokes surprise and amazement among the
pilgrims. Is this really she? – they ask. Can her body really
have been spared the process of decay? Is this her actual face,
and not just an artificial mask?” In this article I will
attempt to provide substantive answers to these questions, relying
on the scientific study of André Ravier, author of a book
about the phenomenon of St. Bernadette’s body.
News about St. Bernadette’s death traveled quickly. From
Nevers and all parts of France, crowds of people converged on
the convent in order to pay their respects to the future saint.
Her body was exposed for public viewing in the chapel. Since people
kept arriving, the funeral had to be put off until April 19. Bernadette’s
body was laid in a zinc-lined, oak coffin, which was then sealed
with numerous seals in the presence of the town mayor and two
policemen. Witnesses signed their names, certifying the entire
process. By special permission of the mayor’s office, Bernadette’s
body was buried in the convent garden.
The diocese was unable to process the necessary documentation
concerning St. Bernadette until fall of 1909. According to the
regulations of the day, a procedure called a “canonical
examination of the body” had to be performed. This took
place on September 22, 1909. A detailed official report of this
first exhumation can be found among Saint-Gildard convent’s
archives. There we read that at 8:30 a.m. Bishop Gauthey of Nevers,
assisted by members of the diocesan tribunal, entered the convent
chapel. A table displaying an open Holy Bible stood by the door.
Three separate groups of witnesses attended, two physicians, two
bricklayers and two carpenters. After their swearing in, the exhumation
team went to Bernadette’s tomb, opened it, and withdrew
the coffin. The two carpenters prized open the coffin lid amid
great suspense. An amazing sight struck their eyes. The body of
Bernadette had remained perfectly preserved. Her face shone with
virginal beauty. Her eyes were closed, as if she were peacefully
sleeping, the lips were slightly open, the head tilted to the
left. The skin was in perfect condition, still adhering to the
muscles. A rusting rosary entwined the hands. Veins were visible
under the skin. The nails of the fingers and toes were also in
pristine condition. And this state of preservation continues to
the present day! The two physicians undertook a detailed inspection
of the corpse. According to their report, what they saw, once
the habit had been removed and the veil lifted from the head,
was a whole body – elastic and integral in every limb. “In
witness whereof – concluded the report – we have duly
drawn up this present statement, in which all is truthfully recorded”.
It was signed by Dr. C. David, a surgeon, and Dr. A. Jourdan.
After the inspection, the nuns washed the body and re-laid it
in a double zinc-lined coffin. The coffin was closed, sealed and
returned to the vault.
Commenting on the perfect preservation of St. Bernadette’s
body 30 years after her death, Father André Ravier stresses
that the phenomenon is a mystery that admits of no explanation.
Not only had Bernadette suffered from various diseases while she
was alive, but her body had been interred in a damp vault. Her
habit was sopping wet. The rosary and the cross were rusty. Despite
the fact that she had been buried in a place that would normally
accelerate the decomposition of the body, St. Bernadette’s
corpse was entirely intact.
Another inspection of the body took place April 3, 1919, when
the cause for her beatification had began. Those in attendance
were the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, some town
representatives, and members of the church tribunal. Again two
physicians, Dr. Talon and Dr. Comte, performed the examination.
This time, however, they wrote separate reports, without consulting
with one another.
As the original documents show, both reports concurred perfectly,
not only with each other, but also with the earlier reports of
Dr. David and Dr. Jourdan. There was only one minor new development:
patches of mildew on the body. This was probably the result of
the body being washed, following the first exhumation.
In 1923, Pope Pius IX pronounced the authenticity of Bernadette’s
heroic virtues, which opened the road to beatification. A third
and last inspection of the body was now necessary. This took place
on April 18, 1925, i.e. 46 years and two days after Bernadette’s
death. Those attending the third exhumation were the Bishop of
Nevers, the police commissioner, the mayor, and two physicians.
Following their swearing-in, the coffin was brought to the Chapel
of Sainte Hélene and opened. Once again the body was found
to be in a perfect state of preservation. In his final report,
Dr. Comte, who supervised the medical team, observed: “the
body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact (...) it does not appear
to have suffered putrefaction, nor has any decomposition of the
cadaver set in, although this is to be expected and normal after
such a long period in a vault hollowed out of the earth”.
Some time later Dr. Comte published an article in a scientific
journal, in which he stated: “What struck me during this
examination, was of course the state of perfect preservation enjoyed
by the skeleton, the fibrous muscle tissue (still supple and firm),
the ligaments and skin. But what was totally unexpected was the
state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that
this organ, which is basically soft and susceptible to crumbling,
would have decomposed very rapidly or hardened to a chalky consistency.
Yet under the scalpel it proved soft and almost normal in consistency.
I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not
seem to be a natural phenomenon”.
Fragments of the liver, a muscle and two ribs were removed from
Bernadette’s body as relics. The rest of the corpse was
left intact. It remained in the Chapel of Sainte Hélene,
but the doors remained closed and sealed until the day of the
beatification by Pope Pius XI on June 14, 1925. Later, on July
18 of the same year, the body of Blessed Bernadette was laid in
a glass shrine. It rests in the same novitiate hall in which,
after her admission to the convent, she first related her Marian
apparitions to her 300 fellow sisters. On August 3, 1925, the
shrine was moved yet again to a chapel located to the right of
the main altar. It is there to this day.
Those making a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Nevers would do well
to recall that the glass shrine indeed contains the miraculously
preserved body of St. Bernadette Soubirous. These are the very
same face and eyes that witnessed the Virgin Mary’s apparitions
18 times in Lourdes; the very same hands that worked the beads
of the rosary during those apparitions, the same hands that later
dug out the miraculous water-spring of Lourdes; the same lips
that uttered the name of Immaculate Conception to the parish priest;
the same pure heart that worshiped Love with all its might. “Blessed
are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8).
By the sign of her incorrupt body, St. Bernadette is actually
present in spirit. She offers prayers and witnesses to the truth
that all we need in order to be happy is God. She is, as she will
continue to be, a sign calling for the reformation of our souls,
for accepting the joyous truth that God is Love, and that only
His love can lead us from the horror of submission to sin and
death to the joys of eternal life.
Her perfectly preserved body is a sign that human death is actually
the beginning of real life in Eternity, the life that Jesus Christ
offers each of us in the Eucharist. May we never forget that our
life on earth is meant to be a preparation for our meeting with
Christ at the moment of death. May we never close our hearts to
the gift of eternal life through unbelief, immorality and sinful
stubbornness. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for
whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows in
his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who
sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Those living in the darkness of unbelief and sin should remember that the chance to convert, to become a saint, is always present. It is enough to trust in the infinite Mercy of God. At that point a miracle can occur in one’s life. Jesus says this: “You don’t have to go on long pilgrimages, or to perform some ritual or other in order to experience this miracle. All you have to do is approach in faith those who represent me on this earth and tell them of your misery. Then the miracle of God’s mercy will burst forth in all its splendor. Even if the soul should resemble a decaying body, even if in human terms it were impossible to save it, even if everything would seem to be lost – it is not like that in God’s view of things. The miracle of God’s mercy raises the soul completely. Oh, you pitiable ones, who do not make use of this miracle of God’s mercy, in vain you will shout; but it will be too late”. (St. Faustina’s Diary, 710)