Lourdes

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

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.”  

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others. …

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New York Times isn't sure what to make of Pope Francis and Medjugorje

The New York Times isn't sure what to make of Pope Francis and Medjugorje

It’s been 25 years since I visited Medjugorje, the village in Bosnia and Herzegovina where six teenagers claimed the Virgin Mary began appearing to them daily. Marian appearances aren’t uncommon; look at the devotion around places like Fatima and Lourdes. But these teenagers, ages 10-16, had a late 20th century take on Mary’s purported sayings; threats of worldwide cataclysms and a sign that would appear on a local mountain.

Despite a number of hardships in the early years, they stuck to their story. I’d been following this phenomenon for several years when in May 1990, a Roman Catholic group invited me to accompany them to the site for an article I published to the Houston Post. 

Not being Catholic, there were some aspects, such as the constant praying of the Rosary by seemingly everyone there, that didn’t appeal. Of course I noticed the souvenir shops (of which there were only a few at that point) and how much they were charging for a simple Mary statue. Then again, pilgrims were tramping all over their tiny roads, vineyards and tobacco fields, making a normal life fairly difficult. Were I a local, I’d have opened up a shop and B&B too.

And then nearly 10 years to the day the apparitions began, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, sparking a war that ravaged that part of the world. Thus, some of Mary’s purported prophecies of war were fulfilled, at least in the short term. Which is why I was interested to see the New York Times’ story about the site now that the Vatican is poised to make a ruling on the authenticity of the apparitions.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Holy scandal! Is sipping holy water really dangerous?

I yield to all of you who sent me the link to that strange ABC News “Good Morning America” report about the dangers of sipping holy water! Let’s talk about that story a bit and, trust me, there isn’t much to talk about.

Please respect our Commenting Policy