Having completed summer teaching, I finally took a look at Interlibrary Loan items that arrived a few days before campus closure in March. Among them is a narrative about Bernadette Soubirous and the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858. Originally composed in the Vietnamese demotic script Nôm, this narrative was rendered into the modern script as part of a series of Catholic writings from the nineteenth century and earlier.
There is dual authorship to this particular narrative. First is Pierre-Marie Gendreau, the missionary bishop of the Western Tonkin vicariate (in northern Vietnam) from 1892 until his death in 1935. His tenure was notably long even for an era of long tenures among missionary bishops. The second person is Pierre-Marie Lương, whose exact identity I haven’t been able to pinpoint, but who was most likely a priest, either Vietnamese or missionary, at the major seminary in Vĩnh Trị. It was common for missionary priests and bishops to have added a Vietnamese name to their birth name. Gendreau, for example, was known among Vietnamese as Phêrô Maria Đông: Pierre-Marie “East.”
Gendreau is credited for having passed on the story (truyền tử) while Lương for the written narration (thuật). This is the second edition of their account, which was published in 1896. Although there is no indication about the year of the first edition, it must have been after 1873 because Gendreau did not leave France for Vietnam until that year. From a different source, I learned that Gendreau contracted a disease in 1884 and three French doctors thought his case hopeless. Close to death, he received the last rites and asked Bishop Paul Puginier and others to pray a novena of nine Our Father and nine Hail Mary to Our Lady of Lourdes. He then took a vial of an unspecified “miraculous source” and was completely healed. Ordained bishop three years later, he took the motto Maria spes mea: I hope in Mary. He succeeded Puginier as vicar of West Tonkin and, according to the historian Jean Michaud, pursued many of his predecessor’s projects of expansion.
Thus far, I find this account most interesting for its very antagonistic attitude towards the antagonistic reaction against the apparitions on the part of the secular elite and authorities. Broadly speaking, the narrative shows three groups of authorities. First were the police, the magistrates, and other civil authorities, who were entirely skeptical of Bernadette’s claim about the apparitions. Second were người đàn anh, a generic term that connotes people who are superior in age and status: the higher-up, so to speak, in a group or a society. Like the civil authorities, most of the higher-up were dismissive of the claim. There was at least one exception: an educated if “not spiritually active” man who does not dismiss Bernadette’s claim out of hand but wants to examine all evidence. The third group was the clergy, who were very cautious about believing or disbelieving the teenager. Out of over-caution, indeed, the bishop prohibited the clergy and members religious orders from visiting the cave even after hundreds then thousands of people visited it.
The narrative isn’t uncritical of the bishop’s reaction, especially in a later stage of the chronology. After the last of the apparitions, the government stepped up its suppression of believers with arrests and prohibitions. According to the narrative, the bishop was generally hands-off during this period, “letting the magistrates do what they will… without speaking up or doing anything to support the faithful.”
He changed his mind, however, after hearing more and more testimonies about miracles: testimonies that led some of his fellow bishops to travel to Lourdes. They also led him to write a letter to the clergy and the laity in the diocese, saying that he will commence a formal investigation. Believers in the apparitions were very happy to read the letter. (It took another three and a half years, in January 1862, when the bishop formally approved Lourdes as a site of real apparitions deserving of pilgrimage by the faithful.)
The narrative is much harsher on the reaction among the secular authorities. Chapter 6 opens by associating their reaction and obstruction to be the work of the devil. Even though the devil itself is not present at the site,
it encouraged the minions and supporters to work for it. The majority of the [civil] authorities and staff of Lourdes were minions of the devil. They had no respect for God’s religion, or they might show respect but only on the outside. They should have imitated the bishop of the diocese and the clergy of Lourdes, who refrained from believing out of caution. Instead they decided immediately and without any investigation that it was a trick against the uneducated masses and to earn money. They were therefore determined to employ all ways and methods to destroy and bury this matter.
Among such people was a young policeman whose “role is small but whose power is big” due to his zeal for law-and-order and empowerment by his superior. Determined to find Bernadette’s guilt, he employed several different methods, including spying, to locate any evidence. Even worse for the young visionary were the magistrates and governor, who were predisposed to destroy the cave where the apparitions had occurred. Although the governor pretended to listen to the bishop’s feedback and pleas, he sought to subvert and suppress the appeal of the apparitions. Like the policeman, he resorted to a variety of measures. One was arresting Bernadette on the legal basis of mental illness. Another was the confiscation of items brought by pilgrims to the cave. And so on. Last but not least, the higher-up participated directly in the suppressive attempts. The rationale for Bernadette’s arrest, for example, came from two physicians who determined that she was suffering from mental illness and, therefore, should have been taken to a hospital.
There is a lot more about this narrative, one of the longest texts in this series, and I will need to go back to it. At this point, I find the narrative’s emphasis on secular suppression distinct from a few English-language and nineteenth-century narratives that I have read. (Not able to read French, I am curious how they look in comparison to contemporary French versions.) The English narratives certainly note the hostility among the civil authorities in addition the caution and skepticism from the clergy. The Vietnamese account, however, is much more detailed about their terrible character, intention, and action–and a lot more critical of them.
I think the difference could be explained in the context of the local history. Intended for a Vietnamese audience, the account by Gendreau and Lương reflects the experience of anti-Catholic persecution during the nineteenth century on the part of Vietnamese civil authorities and elite. The second edition appeared in the last few years of the century, when anti-Catholic persecution was over thanks mainly to French control of Indochina. But the memories of persecution, especially the anti-Catholic waves led by literati of the Văn Thân Movement from the 1860s to the 1880s, were still fresh among the faithful. This account’s portrayal of the secular elite and authorities is about the Vietnamese almost as much as it is about the French.