Feast of the Blessed Sacrament: Bernadette Soubirous' 1st Communion

«For Bernadette, her First Communion was not the whim of an adolescent»

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By Monsignor Jacques Perrier, bishop emeritus of Lourdes

Bernadette Soubirous did not make her First Communion on Sunday, June 22, but on June 3. In 1858, the year of the Apparitions, June 3 was Thursday, Fete-Dieu, as was said then. However, the date itself (June 3 or 22) is less important than the liturgical feast, which took place on a Thursday, as formerly, or on Sunday, as today. And it is worthwhile to speak about it in this series of articles consecrated to the Apparitions of Lourdes.

For two reasons: First Communion played a capital role for Bernadette, in the unfolding of the story, in 1858, at Lourdes. But it also gives to the Apparitions their full Christian meaning, and this concerns the pilgrim of today as it did the one of yesterday.

Since the beginning of the summer of 1857, Bernadette was placed in the family of her nurse at Bartres. Shortly after her arrival, the parish priest left for a “new community” in the Morvan. He was not replaced. Marie Lagues, the nurse, tried hard to teach Bernadette the catechism, but her pedagogical talents were the same as Bernadette’s aptitude to retain the formulas, exact but abstract, of the Catechism: the same means not at all.

Therefore, the prospect of her First Communion grew ever more distant. The situation was blocked. Bernadette unblocked it by asking her parents if she could return to the dungeon. Her father loved her too much to refuse her. So she returned to Lourdes in the first days of January 1858.

At Lourdes, she didn’t have much to eat. It was cold, the whole family was ensconced in a few square meters. But she was able to go back to school, with the Sisters of Nevers. She learned to read and write. Above all, she could prepare for her First Communion.

A few weeks after her return to Lourdes, the time of Apparitions began: February 11, February 14, the fortnight that ended on March 4, March 25, and April 7. When Bernadette went to the Grotto, it was generally in the early morning. Unless kept at the house, she never missed class. Her progress in school was slow: she was already 14, it was late to begin. As for the catechism, abbot Pomian did not have much more success than mother Lagues.

In the spring, the religious authority had not yet pronounced itself on the authenticity of the Apparitions. But Bernadette’s behavior was such that the parish priest, abbot Peyramale, decided: Bernadette will make her First Communion with some other young girls the day of Fete-Dieu, Thursday, June 3. The celebration took place in the oratory of the hospice of Sisters, which also housed the school. The place had been restored recently: the old altar had disappeared a long time ago, but the location was authentic. The place merited pilgrimage.

The day after the feast, the parish priest wrote to the Bishop that in Bernadette “everything develops in her in an astonishing way.” Now abbot Payramale was not a man to be easily astonished. As to Bernadette, she frustrated, as usual, the traps that were, perhaps, innocently set for her: between the Apparitions and her First Communion, when was she the happiest? “These are two things that go together but which cannot be compared. I was very happy in both.” For Bernadette, her First Communion was not the whim of an adolescent, a delay to catch up with. It was the beginning of an intense Eucharistic life. Frequent Communion and the Communion of children were not recommended by Pope Pius X until almost fifty years later. But Bernadette approached the Holy Table as often as she could, that is to say as often as the priests, and later her Superiors, allowed her.

When she went to Communion and during her thanksgiving, her face became as beautiful as at Massabielle. At Nevers, the infirmary where she was often, either as a nurse or as a patient, was very close to the gallery of the chapel. She went there as much as she could. For some time she also had the joy of serving in the sacristy – another way of honoring Christ present in the Eucharist. Bernadette resided as a boarder with the Sisters of Lourdes from 1859 to 1866. There she experienced the triple presence of Christ: his Eucharistic presence; his presence in the poor, the sick, and children, but also his presence in the community of the Sisters. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” These elements were already a seed in Bernadette before the Apparitions. They developed again at Nevers (1866-1879) and they were the motive of her canonization. However, it was really at Lourdes, with the Sisters, that they came to maturity and led Bernadette to enter the Congregation.

Therefore, one must not isolate her First Communion as an anecdotal episode in Bernadette’s life. Neither must it be separated from the Apparitions themselves. They are inscribed in a liturgical framework: Lent, the feast of the Annunciation, Easter Week. They would finish on July 16 with the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, venerated in the parish church. Bernadette wore the scapular.

The Eucharist received before the last Apparition gave its properly Christian dimension to what could not have been a marginal devotion. Two Bishops of Tarbes, after that time, chose as their motto: “To Jesus through Mary.” The first Mass celebrated at Massabielle was at the Grotto. Very soon a fixed altar was placed at the center of the Grotto, between the statue of the Virgin and the source from which living water flowed, as the rock struck by Moses, as from the side of the Crucified pierced by the lance. It is no accident that one of the two most intense times of every day at Lourdes is the Eucharistic procession of the afternoon.

On the liturgical anniversary of her First Communion may Bernadette revive in us a vivid desire and the full meaning of the Eucharist! 

[Translation of the original French by ZENIT]
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