Virgin Mary

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.”  

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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.

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As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

Liberal Catholics have often rejoiced, and Catholic conservatives have sometimes grumbled, over Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, five years ago.

A Pew Research survey (.pdf here) released in time for the anniversary shows 84 percent of U.S. Catholics over-all have a favorable opinion of Francis -- but 55 percent of Catholic Republicans find him “too liberal” (up from 23 percent in 2015). Yes, it would have been nice to see some survey questions framed in doctrinal terms, rather than this political reference point.

 A new decree on the Virgin Mary reminds reporters going forward that the pontiff does have a traditionalist streak worth remembering, as surely as there’s a perennially interesting feature theme in how Catholicism honors the mother of Jesus Christ and the resulting ecumenical conflict.

Upon endorsement from Francis, the new decree was issued March 3 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Why such convoluted titles at the Vatican?). It states that all church calendars and liturgies will now honor Mary as the “Mother of the Church” the day after Pentecost Sunday, also citing her “divine motherhood” and “intimate union in the work of the Redeemer.”

This is an annual “memorial,” the lowest level of recognition in worship. But higher “solemnities” with obligatory Mass attendance are already on the universal calendar, hailing Mary under the dogmas of her bodily Assumption into heaven (August 15) and her Immaculate Conception free from original sin (December 8). Those provide yearly feature pegs.

Writers who want to develop this aspect of the pope’s personal piety should read a 2015 rundown in the doctrinally conservative National Catholic Register. For instance, twelve hours after the cardinals elected Francis, he quietly visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the icon of Mary as the Protectress of the Romans.

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Can teens study the Bible on non-sectarian terms? This project says ... yes they can

Can teens study the Bible on non-sectarian terms? This project says ... yes they can

Few if any U.S. media noted that Nov. 12–18 was National Bible Week, but the origin of the observance has feature potential for this time next year.

That’s because in 1941 the NBC radio network, with the blessing of President Roosevelt, launched the first Bible Week by devoting a Sunday to on-air readings from the Good Book, something unimaginable in 2018. And as it happened, the chosen date was Dec. 7, so Scripture had to be interspersed with breaking news bulletins on Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack.

Here’s a different bid for biblical penetration of culture, in case your outlet hasn’t covered it yet. Since 2005, the non-profit Essentials in Education (E.I.E.) of New York City has campaigned for U.S. public high schools to offer elective courses on the Bible that are academically valid, fully legal under the U.S. Constitution, and acceptable to believers of any religion –- or none.   

E.I.E. does this with “The Bible and Its Influence,” its innovative and carefully non-sectarian textbook, sold in print and digital formats. The publication (.pdf here) benefits from a notably broad lineup of 40 consultants, with lawyers and public school educators alongside Jewish, “mainline” Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Mormon representatives.

To date, “Influence” has been taught in 640 schools in 44 states (the exceptions are Delaware, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming). Nine states have passed laws that encourage schools to offer such non-sectarian Bible courses (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky, which joined the list in June).

The latest angle, discussed at an Oct. 24 presser, is efforts to go global. There have been discussions with members of parliament in Brazil, Finland and Great Britain;  pilot projects in Canada, Rwanda, South Korea, Taiwan and Communist China; and academic conferences on this concept in Australia, the Philippines and even Hindu-dominated India.

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Religion-beat professionals: Yet another reference work that belongs on your desk

Religion-beat professionals: Yet another reference work that belongs on your desk

Our previous religion-beat Memo puffed “The Study Quran,” a truly path-breaking production.

The Religion Guy now outpoints a  standby that belongs on the desks of journalists who don’t have one of the two earlier editions: “The Catholic Study Bible” (Oxford University Press, available in paperback for US$39.99).

The volume includes the latest (2010) version of the New American Bible, the official English translation used in the U.S. Catholic Church, alongside numerous articles and detailed verse-by-verse commentary from a 20-member team. The new edition adds, for instance, surveys of archaeological finds regarding the Bible, by Ronald Simkins of Creighton University in Omaha (Old Testament) and Dominican Sister Laurie Brink of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union (New Testament).

In addition to keeping this book handy for future reference, newswriters could use it as a hook to analyze trends in Catholic scholarship on the Bible. The book bears the hierarchy’s  declaration that all material “is free from doctrinal and moral error.” Yet a spot check indicates the latest edition continues and somewhat reinforces the secular and liberal Protestant sort of scholarship that influenced the first two editions.

A fascinating in-depth project could compare the Study Bible’s approach with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s conservative declarations from 1905 through the 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council, as indexed right here.   

Among other things, prior commission decrees affirmed Moses as the “substantial” source of the first five Old Testament books; single authorship for Isaiah’s prophecy; the historical veracity of Genesis 1-3, the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of John; and that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written prior to A.D. 70.

Today, those sorts of views are largely confined to conservative Protestant or Orthodox Jewish scholars.

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Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary

Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary

Just in time for Christmas, National Geographic magazine has given us an article “How the Virgin Mary became the world’s most powerful woman” for its December issue. Sounds like a great story, I thought.  Then I saw the splashy graphics mapping Marian sightings around the world and the photos of various Marian devotees. I realized this article wasn’t about Mary, it was about the people who say they’ve seen Mary and those who pray to her. And sure enough, a story that promised so much failed to deliver in a big way.

Here’s how it begins:

It’s apparition time: 5:40 p.m. In a small Roman Catholic chapel in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Medjugorje, Ivan Dragicevic walks down the aisle, kneels in front of the altar, bows his head for a moment, and then, smiling, lifts his gaze heavenward. He begins to whisper, listens intently, whispers again, and doesn’t blink for ten minutes. His daily conversation with the Virgin Mary has begun.

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The Baltimore Sun covers most of the voices in that controversial non-controversial D.C. art exhibit about the Virgin Mary

The Baltimore Sun covers most of the voices in that controversial non-controversial D.C. art exhibit about the Virgin Mary

The current exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is, as described in a weekend Baltimore Sun feature, certainly sounds like an "embarrassment of riches," featuring works by Michelangelo, Durer, Botticelli and Titian. Some of the art has never been in an American exhibit before. As the museum's website notes:

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served through time. This landmark exhibition organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts brings together more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era masterworks from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museums, churches, and private collections in Europe and the United States.
Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

However, there is a problem.

Since the exhibit takes a rather conventional approach and focuses on a specific period of time in art history, it suffers from an shocking lack of elephant dung.

In other words, this exhibit has -- among a elite art critics -- become controversial because it is not causing controversy among (wait for it) religious believers who are, by definition, opposed to modern art. As the Sun report notes:

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