Bernadette Soubirous did not make her First Communion on Corpus Christi Sunday, 22nd June, but on 3rd June. In 1858, the year of the Apparitions at Lourdes, 3rd June fell on Thursday, Fete-Dieu as it was called then, i.e. Corpus Christi. However, the date itself is less important than the liturgical feast, which took place on a Thursday, as it formerly used to, or on Sunday (as it does today in most parishes.)
For two reasons, her First Holy Communion played a vitally important role for Bernadette, in the unfolding of the story of the happenings at Lourdes in 1858. But it also gives to the Apparitions their full Christian meaning, and this concerns the pilgrim of today just as it did for 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 no better than Bernadette’s aptitude in retaining the exact but abstract formulas of the Catechism.
Therefore, the prospect of her making her First Communion grew ever more distant. The situation was blocked, but Bernadette was determined to unblock it by asking her parents if she could return home. Her father loved her too much to refuse her request, so she returned to Lourdes in the first days of January 1858.
At Lourdes, she didn’t have much to eat; it was cold, and the whole family was ensconced in just a few square metres. But here she was able to go back to school with the Sisters of Nevers and learn to read and write. Above all, she could prepare for her First Holy Communion.
A few weeks after her return to Lourdes, the time of the Apparitions began, starting on 11th February. 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, 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 behaviour was such that the parish priest, abbot Peyramale, decided to let Bernadette make her First Holy Communion with some other young girls on the day of Fete-Dieu, Thursday, 3rd June. The celebration took place in the oratory of the hospice of the 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 and 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. Bernadette, as usual, frustrated the traps that were (perhaps) innocently set for her. When asked when was she happiest, during the Apparitions or at her First Communion, she replied, “These are two things that go together but which cannot be compared; I was very happy in both.” For Bernadette, making her First Communion at last was not the whim of an adolescent, it was the beginning of an intense life of Eucharistic devotion. Frequent Communion, and earlier reception of it for 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 to do so.
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 a nurse or a patient, was very close to the gallery of the chapel, and she went there as much as she could. For some time she also had the joy of serving in the sacristy – another way of honouring 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 there in their midst.” These elements that were already a seed in Bernadette even before the Apparitions, grew deeper during her time at Nevers (1866-1879) and were the motive of her canonisation. 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, and neither must it be separated from the Apparitions themselves. They are inscribed in a liturgical framework: Lent, the feast of the Annunciation, Easter Week to Corpus Christi, that would end on 16th July on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, venerated in the parish church. Bernadette wore the scapular. The Holy Eucharist she received before the last Apparition, gave its properly Christian dimension to what could not have been a marginal devotion. After that time, two Bishops of Tarbes 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 centre of the Grotto, between the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the source from which living water flowed – as the rock struck by Moses, and 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 afternoon procession of the Blessed Sacrament.
On the liturgical anniversary of her First Holy Communion, may St. Bernadette revive in us a burning desire to receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist!