Jennifer Jones (RIP) and St. Bernadette
It's funny how much a movie can influence your spiritual life. Jennifer Jones, who died yesterday at 90, won an Academy Award for her performance as St. Bernadette Soubirous, in the 1943 film "The Song of Bernadette." At the time of its release, Catholic schoolchildren were taken by the busload to see the film--in the middle of the schoolday, one amazed former student told me, still marveling many years later. The power of the movie lies in the way it recreates, more or less accurately, Bernadette's story; Jones captures the real Bernadette's simplicity, candor and another important trait: the quality that Ruth Harris, author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age termed her "stalwart" nature. No one other than Bernadette saw, or would ever see, anything in the Grotto of Massabieille in the small French town of Lourdes in 1858. For her apparent lies about what she saw (originally aquero or "that thing," as Bernadette said in Lourdais, the local patois, but then revealed to her as "the Immaculate Conception") she was beaten by her parents, scorned by townspeople and rejected by her local pastor, the imperious Abbe Peyramale, who threw her out of the rectory. But she persisted in cleaving to her own experience, to what she had seen, to what she believed The scenes in the film between Jennifer Jones and Charles Bickford, as Peyramale, are among the most affecting in the film: with the highly educated pastor seeking to punch holes in her argument. (Above is the scene of her initial encounter with aquero.) Eventually the people of Lourdes believed the 14-year-old girl, and the miracles associated with the shrine began. But the real-life Bernadette and the movie Bernadette nonetheless clung to their humility: despite entreaties she refused to accept any monies or gifts, despite her family's extreme poverty. Those who asked her to bless rosaries were told to go to the priests for that. Jones' singular performance captivates me every time I see it: her Bernadette is luminous, mysterious and, finally, holy. Her artistry makes "The Song of Bernadette" one of those films that, once I see even a few moments, I must watch the whole movie. Rest in Peace, Ms. Jones, you who had a difficult life after the making of that movie, and thank you for introducing so many to a saint. And may you be ushered into heaven by Bernadette Soubirous.