Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism

For such a secular country, there are certainly lots of religious symbols to be found in France and religious institutions and activities continue to make news.

The country and many of its citizens do pride themselves on the principle of laicite — French for secularism — but is there really an absence of religion in public life?

Not really. It’s true that Notre Dame, one of the biggest symbols of European Christianity for centuries, has been cordoned off for the past two months after a tragic fire, deemed accidental, destroyed the roof. The cathedral, which will undergo a major renovation, is off limits to tourists. Nonetheless, the towering house of worship remains a symbol of Paris and part of this beautiful city’s skyline. The city’s other churches worth a visit include the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, known as Sacre-Coeur.

Outside Paris, God’s visibility is even more pronounced. Two very different sites — Lourdes, one of the holiest in the world for Roman Catholics, and the U.S. cemetery at Normandy — have the ability to bring visitors closer to God in very different ways. There are reminders everywhere of the country’s religious past and how that symbolism continues to play a part in the lives of millions, both visitors and residents, who visit them. As a result, it’s not so unusual for tour operators to include packages to visit both sites.

It is worth noting that this notion of secularism, as it pertains to French government policies, was the result of a law passed in 1905 calling for this strict separation of church and state. While true that religious symbols have been removed from French public life (a possible reason why so many Muslims have found integration so difficult), Lourdes and Normandy may be the two places where this very human law seems to not apply.

First stop on this countrywide pilgrimage is Lourdes. A six-hour train ride (fares range from $134 to $193 roundtrip) from Paris gets you to Lourdes, a southern trip through the French countryside until finally pulling into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. While many take trains into Lourdes to embark on their pilgrimage, many from across Europe (particularly those from neighboring Italy and Spain) board coach buses to get there.

Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site after a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see the Blessed Virgin Mary on Feb. 11, 1858 through a vision. Soubirous would see Mary another 17 times near a grotto over the course of five months. Unaware she was having a vision, Mary told the girl: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  

Soubirous was told to “drink at the spring and wash there.” Although there was no water at the site, the girl started digging until water appeared from under the ground. From a puddle a spring appeared, one that flows to this day.

Some five million pilgrims from around the world visit Lourdes each year (making it the second most-visited city in France after Paris) and one of the most important sites for Catholics outside of Rome and the Holy Land. The town also has its fair share of tacky souvenirs for sale.

Staying overnight isn’t a problem in Lourdes. So many visitors come to this French town, which only has a population of about 15,000, that one of its most-distinct features are its many hotels. It is second, only to Paris, in all of France when it comes to the number of hotels.

Many claim to be cured from drinking or bathing in the water, although testing has shown it doesn’t possess any special curative properties. Pope Pius XI would go on to canonize Soubirous a saint in 1933, her vision now forever a part of Catholicism. Pilgrims, many clutching rosaries while on their knees, recite this moving prayer near the grotto featuring a large statue of Mary:

Oh ever immaculate Virgin, Mother of Mercy, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comfortess of the Afflicted, you know my wants, my troubles, my sufferings.

Look upon me with mercy. When you appeared in the grotto of Lourdes, you made it a privileged sanctuary where you dispense your favors, and where many sufferers have obtained the cure of their infirmities, both spiritual and corporal. I come, therefore, with unbounded confidence to implore your maternal intercession.  

My loving Mother, obtain my request. I will try to imitate your virtues so that I may one day share your company and bless you in eternity. Amen.

Whether or not one is Roman Catholic, visitors cannot be moved to tears at the site of so many people — many seeking a cure — displaying piety in such a public way. In a world dominated by secular forces, Lourdes really is an example of man’s belief in God and the power of prayer.

Continue reading “Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism,” by Clemente Lisi at Religion Unplugged.

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