In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes was favored with 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary while kneeling before her luminous presence in the Grotto of Massabielle. This year marks the 175th anniversary of her birth and the 140th anniversary of her death. In preparation for the historic moment, last year, relics of the young shepherdess were carried on pilgrimage from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes to churches throughout France, Germany and Italy, many of them filled to overflowing with the faithful. The relics are now being venerated at the Lourdes sanctuary by thousands of pilgrims during what has been designated “The Bernadette Year.”

Bernadette continues to inspire millions by her Marian story. It was while she was out gathering sticks near the grotto to burn in the family fireplace that Bernadette first met “the Lady,” as she called her.

Msgr. Xavier d’Arodes de Peyriague, vice rector and head of the international pastoral ministry at the Lourdes sanctuary, articulated more about Bernadette’s relationship with Mary in a recent interview at the sanctuary.

“Our Lady was slowly catechizing her through the cross,” he told the Register, referring to the conversations in which Mary taught Bernadette to pray and to offer penance, which strengthened her for trials ahead. “I do not promise to make you happy in this life,” she said, “but in the next.”

“Just as Our Lady led Bernadette step by step,” explained Msgr. d’Arodes, “so she leads us step by step in the ways of the inner life.” The process, he continued, “is evident when we realize that it took 16 apparitions before Mary revealed her name to Bernadette.”

That day arrived on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, when Bernadette begged the unknown lady for the answer to her oft-repeated request: “Mademoiselle, would you have the willingness to tell me who you are, if you please?” Enrapt in a moment she would never forget, Bernadette then watched as “the Lady” slipped her rosary over her right arm, unfolded her hands and extended them toward the ground, and then folded them at her breast and raised her eyes to heaven and answered, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Unfamiliar with the phrasing, Bernadette repeated the Lady’s words over and over as she ran up the hill to tell her pastor, Abbé Dominique Peyramale. After she blurted out the words, the astonished priest asked, “Do you know what this means?” Seeing her shake her head No, he began to weep, convinced that the apparitions were true and that the Blessed Virgin Mary had confirmed through the young shepherdess the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed four years previous by Pope Pius IX.

From that moment, plans for the construction of a basilica began according to Mary’s repeated directive to Bernadette, “Go, my child, and tell the priests that I wish to have a chapel built here in my honor.” Pilgrims from all over the world began flocking to the grotto to pray and to wash in the waters of the spring that had welled up upon Mary’s instruction to Bernadette, “Go and drink and wash yourself at the spring, and eat the green you will find growing there.” Many of the sick had been cured at this spring.

The faithful continue to flock to the shrine to seek cures. “The sick are the strongest signs of God’s grace in Lourdes,” Msgr. d’Arodes said. “When nonbelievers come here and see the sick, it causes them to look inward and ask, ‘Why are the sick people that come here so happy?’ And then they realize it’s because the sick experience a sense of being loved and cared for — that life is worth living.”

Msgr. d’Arodes understands the needs of the sick due to his own experience of suffering a traumatic head injury as a teenager that left him paralyzed for two and a half years. It was only after recovering and growing in his spiritual life that he realized that the sick are “teachers.”

“Like Bernadette,” he said, “the sick witness to the reality that we must be weak enough to be accessible to God’s grace.”

And Bernadette shows all the faithful how “to follow her example of being close to Our Lady.”

As a pilgrim in Lourdes, I prayed at the grotto, listening as water gushed from the place where Bernadette dug in the ground.

I attended Mass in English in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception each morning and was grateful. Because of Bernadette’s faith, I could pray in the chapel requested by Our Lady. Four times, I followed the same route that Bernadette walked on her way to and from the grotto. I crossed the bridges that she crossed, looking out over the panorama of the Pau River and foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, and prayed at the Church of the Sacred Heart where her baptismal font is still in use. I arrived at the home of Abbé Peyramale, knocking on the same door that Bernadette did.

And, in the stark poverty of the tiny Soubirous family home, I prayed, asking Bernadette for the grace to do as she did and to offer my weakness as a gift to the loving plans of Mary.

Jennifer Sokol writes from Shoreline, Washington.