By Antonio Gaspari
ROME, FEB. 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- To mark the 150th anniversary of Mary's apparitions in Lourdes, renowned Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli interviewed Father René Laurentin, perhaps the foremost expert on Our Lady's appearances to Bernadette Soubirous.
The book-interview resulting from Tornielli's dialogue with Father Laurentin is called "Lourdes, inchiesta sul mistero a 150 anni dalle apparizioni" (Lourdes: An Investigation of the Mystery 150 Years After the Apparitions), and is published in Italian by Ediciones ART.
In the volume, the French theologian recounts what happened in Lourdes between February and July, 1858, and the happenings that characterized the life of St. Bernadette, including her vocation to religious life, and the experience of suffering and illness that marked her even as a child.
ZENIT spoke with Tornielli, who said he was impressed by Father Laurentin, "the priest who, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, now a half century ago, on the request of the Bishop of Tarbes et Lourdes, Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas, searched for, analyzed and published all the available documents about the happenings of 1858."
According to Tornielli, Father Laurentin "has been the protagonist in an unprecedented investigation. Because of this, his person, and above all, his writings will remain an irreplaceable point of reference for anyone who wants to approach the mystery of Lourdes."
Il Giornale's Vatican reporter also said he was impressed by the amount of criticism against St. Bernadette in an attempt to deny the "Lourdes phenomenon."
Tornielli explained to ZENIT that "if was not easy for Lourdes to affirm itself in 19th-century France, homeland of anticlericalism. From the beginning, the apparitions were at the center of attacks, criticism and attempts to disprove them."
In the book, Father Laurentin tells how, after the first apparitions, there were those who said the "beautiful lady" who Bernadette saw was in reality the attractive spouse of the local pharmacist who had a clandestine meeting in the grotto with an official of the cavalry. The lady, the report claimed, pretended to be the Virgin to confuse the girl who had caught her in adultery.
The woman, who according to the tale had chosen a dirty and cold grotto for her meeting that Feb. 11, was in reality at home in bed, because she had just two days before given birth to her fifth child. She would herself deny the allegations and denounced those who had slandered her reputation.
Tornielli notes how even the well-known author Émile Zola tried to portray "poor Bernadette as a miserable victim of hysterics and malnutrition."
Zola, who arrived in Lourdes in 1892, was present at two instantaneous cures, which he relates in his novel "Lourdes," nevertheless claiming that the "two people who experienced the miracle died shortly thereafter, and thus the supposed cure had been brief and above all illusory."
"Unfortunately," Tornielli related, "one of the cured women did not give up and continued protesting in the newspapers, saying that she was just as alive and healthy as the author. In the effort to discredit Lourdes, Zola went to the extent of going to see her to offer her money in exchange for her silence. Miserable stories, over which history, the truth, has triumphed."