by Father M. Piotrowski
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. Bernadettes 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 nuns habit and seems to be sleeping, the face 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. Bernadettes body.
News about St. Bernadettes 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. Bernadettes 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 mayors office, Bernadettes 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 the convents 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 Bernadettes 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 taut and tense 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. Bernadettes 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 damp. 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. Bernadettes 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 Bernadettes 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 Bernadettes 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 Hélène 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 Bernadettes body as relics. The rest of the corpse was left intact. It remained in the Chapel of Sainte Hélène, 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 Marys 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. (Gal. 7:8)
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 ones life. Jesus says this: You dont 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 Gods 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 Gods view of things. The miracle of Gods mercy raises the soul completely. Oh, you pitiable ones, who do not make use of this miracle of Gods mercy, in vain you will shout; but it will be too late. (St. Faustinas Diary, 710)
Father M. Piotrowski, Society
December 24, 2004
Love One Another Magazine
September, 2003 Pilot Edition
Reprinted with permission.
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