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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 8, 2008

February 11 Marks 150th Lourdes Anniversary

“All My Children” Actress Stars
in Newly Released Films on Lourdes

Many teens and adults alike will tune out the upcoming barrage of Catholic media reports about Lourdes, France where a poor and sickly 14-year-old girl reportedly received eighteen apparitions from the Blessed Virgin Mary during the cold, wet spring of 1858. The first apparition occurred on February 11, 1858, a date now recognized worldwide as the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and a worldwide day of prayer for the sick.

Though Lourdes has launched a year–long jubilee (December 8, 2007–December 8, 2008) that will draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims including Pope Benedict XVI, interest in Marian shrines and devotions is not usually on the radar screen for many younger Catholics. Most have heard little about them and the devotions they have inspired. Catholics are not required to believe in apparitions. But “approved” apparitions like Lourdes echo the Gospel and reawaken faith. They draw people into prayer. About five million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year.

Many of your students will immediately recognize Emmy winner and All My Children actress Sidney Penny as Bernadette in two excellent films about Lourdes. Though older and highly acclaimed films, they have only recently been released to the American market. In Bernadette, made in 1987, a youthful Sidney portrayed the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous struggling to convince her family and community that “a lady in white” really did come to speak and pray with her. In The Passion of Bernadette, a sequel released in 1989, she portrayed Bernadette as a self-effacing young nun faced with deteriorating health and the cynical doubts of her religious superior.

Penny’s reflections about playing Bernadette and these two full-length features present an excellent way to tell the Lourdes story and explore its lessons in a teen-friendly way.

Bernadette tells the Lourdes story so well that it is shown each day (in English or French) to pilgrims from all over the world. Penny got the lead after more than 400 young French actresses tried out for the role. Jean Delannoy, one of France’s leading directors, saw something uniquely spiritual in the demeanor and face of the young American, Protestant fifteen-year-old. The film was shot on location in Lourdes in southern France.

“I knew nothing about Bernadette Soubirous before I received the script,” Sidney Penny said years after the film was made. “As I began to learn more about her, I discovered that she was just like so many teenagers - awkward, challenged in her studies, and trying to bear up under the pressures of her family and then later, the pressure the world put on her. I was moved by her honesty and humility and what touched me spiritually was the simple thought that there is a message for each of us, if only we keep our ears open to hear it.”

In fact, messages that Bernadette heard in the visions from the Virgin were for the whole world. In visits to the girl in the rock grotto, she said she wanted people to pray—especially the Rosary—and do penance for sins. Mary also asked that a church be built there, promising that many would find healing in waters from a new spring. Mary had Bernadette dig a small hole with her bare hands until a gurgling trickle of water bubbled up. Overnight, the trickle turned into a gushing stream, producing 14,500 gallons of water a day in modern times. Thousands of cures have been reported at Lourdes but less than one hundred have been declared “inexplicable” by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. In 1862, the local bishop approved the Lourdes apparitions as “worthy of belief.” This judgment authorized devotion and pilgrimages to Lourdes.

Understandably, Sidney Penny was asked to portray an older Bernadette in the 1989 sequel, The Passion of Bernadette. This film tells the story of the little saint’s difficult life and failing health in a convent at Nevers, France. Filming the life of Sister Marie-Bernade in the convent where she lived more than a century ago was a wonderful and inspiring experience, Sidney recalled.

Bernadette’s uncorrupted body lay in state inside a glass coffin in the convent church sanctuary. “Seeing her,” the actress recalled, “was very moving; [she was] so tiny and fragile. It was probably the only time an actor has ever come face to face with the historical figure they were portraying.” Portraying Bernadette, who died at thirty-five and was canonized on December 8, 1933, was inspiring, full of humbling surprises.

One day, when Penny was in costume, wearing a habit like the one Bernadette wore, she met some German pilgrims near the chapel. “The sisters always speak of her [Bernadette] in the present tense,” Sidney explained. “The pilgrims were really absorbed. So when they saw me there, I think they were truly confused and sort of enraptured—and a couple of them, fell on their knees in front of me and asked me to touch their rosaries. And it was so strange because I knew exactly what Bernadette had gone through! I was like, whoa! I can’t bless your rosary. No, you don’t understand. I’m an actress; I’m from California! It was pretty wild!”

Actress Sidney Penny believes that the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has helped the American film industry realize that the people need films that—as she put it—“fuel their souls as well as entertain.” The story of Bernadette has much to tell people today, she believes.

Lesson Plans

1. Use Catholic Encyclopedia or similar internet sources on Lourdes and Bernadette to summarize the message of the Lourdes apparitions.

2. Make sure that students understand that the Church does not require belief in such events even when apparitions are declared “worthy of belief.” Nonetheless, recent popes have all visited and prayed at Lourdes and other places of approved apparitions, especially Guadalupe and Fatima.

3. Show previewed segments of the film Bernadette and open discussion of the film and Bernadette’s claims. This film and The Passion of Bernadette can be ordered through Ignatius Press. Be aware that some viewers have criticized the portrayal of Bernadette as disrespectful and argumentative. Criticism has also been made of the fact that neither the director (Jean Delannoy) nor Bernadette (Sidney Penny) are Catholics. Query students. Do they agree with either of these criticisms?

4. Invite students to share further about places of prayer. Where do they like to pray? Would they want to visit a shrine like Lourdes? Could it be easier to pray where many other people are praying?

5. Provide students with other Lourdes links.
• The interview with actress Sidney Penny about her role in Bernadette
• The interview with Sidney Penny about The Passion of Bernadette. These links are to the Ignatius Press website but the interviews are also available elsewhere on the web.
• A website featuring information about American celebrations of the Lourdes jubilee.

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