This year is the 160th anniversary of the 18 apparitions at Lourdes, and so I’ve been reading the wonderful biography of St. Bernadette by Fr. Francois Trochu. This biography, taken from many of the documentary sources both for Bernadette’s canonization and for the official approval of the apparitions at Lourdes, calls attention to something that otherwise could be overlooked: St. Bernadette was taught how to make the sign of the Cross by Mary herself. We often don’t think of this as significant, or as a moment of prayer. But it seems that when done properly, the sign of the cross can be profound, majestic, lovely, and the “summary of theology” (summa theologiae).
“During the ecstasy the child also made the sign of the cross from time to time, and, as I said myself on the way back from the grotto, if the sign of the cross is made in heaven, it can only be made in that manner…”
In the presence of the Lady, Bernadette continued her Rosary. When she had finished it, she tried three times to lift her fingers, which held the crucifix, to her forehead, but she could not. ‘But on the next attempt she made a beautiful sign of the cross such as I have never seen anyone else make. I asked her later why she had only been able to make the sign of the cross at the third attempt. She answered: “Because it was only then that the Apparition, having finished running the beads through her fingers, hadherself made the sign of the cross…”
…Neither the Nuns nor her parents failed to notice that a change had come over her during the course of this last amazing month. She had not been favored in vain with heavenly visions and instructions: already people were marveling at her sign of the cross, which summed up the whole of her theology. But having seen the Lady of Massabielle weep over sin and sinners, this little girl, though she did not know her ABC, had understood the great duty of reparation and prayer…
The nuns placed her in front of them during prayers and Mass and noticed nothing out of the ordinary in Bernadette’s piety; and that is easily explained, for the young boarder herself did not like multiplying external signs of devotion. But there was still the lovely sign of the cross which, whether in public or when unobserved, she always made with a sort of majesty. And the Sisters knew from whom the ignorant daughter of miller Soubirous had received her lesson!..
At the boarding school of Sainte-Angele in Oloron the pupils were all assembled in the study hall and Bernadette was asked to say a word to them about her visions. Standing up at the teacher’s desk she began with the sign of the cross. ‘Always make it like this,’ she advised them; ‘that is how the Blessed Virgin made it at the first Apparition…’
That Sunday evening Bernadette was taken along to one of the novices, a compatriot of hers, Sister Emilienne Duboé, aged twenty-five, … even with this companion she began the apostolate of edification that was to continue right to her death. She had noticed that on entering the chapel or starting her prayers Sister Duboé signed herself hurriedly: ‘You make the sign of the cross badly,’ she was not afraid to tell her; ‘you must see to that, for it is important to make it well…’
Mother Marie-Thérèse heard what her other daughters thought about Bernadette. They were edified by the piety and enchanted by the simplicity of their new companion. Her sign of the cross, made slowly with her hand carried well out to the tip of each shoulder, ‘undoubtedly as she had seen the Blessed Virgin make it’, had been a revelation to all of them…