Lourdes: The Development of a Modern Roman Catholic Shrine from the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw a remarkable ebb and flow of Marian shrines in north-western Europe. Some already established shrines revived but the ones which caught the public eye for both religious and political reasons were new—La Salette 1846, Lourdes 1858, Pontmain 1871 in France, Oostakker 1873 in Belgium and Knock 1879 in Ireland. The Vatican approached these novel cults with typical caution but through a centuries-old process of investigation and control it eventually approved those mentioned above and employed them within its religious mission and its dealings with secular authorities. The creation of pilgrimage shrines and pilgrimage in general was inextricably involved in politics as an exercise of power, therefore—both through political struggles within the Roman Catholic Church and between the Church and the state (see Harris 1999; Eade and Katic 2014).

Lourdes has developed not only as the most popular of these new shrines but one of the most visited places in Europe, rivalling such long- established pilgrimage attractions as Rome, Assisi and Padua. The shrine had rapidly developed after a series of visions experienced by a local shepherdess, Bernadette Soubirous, and claims concerning ‘miraculous’ cures associated with a spring which she uncovered during one of her visions.[1] The massive increase in the numbers of people visiting Lourdes is a post-Second World War phenomenon, however. Between 1866 and 1946 annual visitor numbers averaged a quarter of a million, although in 1883 (the 25th anniversary of Bernadette’s visions) around half a million reportedly arrived. However, after the Second World War the numbers of visitors rapidly increased. In 1949 (a Holy Year) almost two and a half million people came to Lourdes and although annual numbers fluctuated considerably thereafter, numbers continued to increase overall and reached their highest level in 2008—the 150th anniversary of the apparitions—when nine million were recorded. Numbers fell back subsequently and had dropped to 5,800,000 by 2012 (the latest official figure).[2]

Given the obscurity of this small Pyrenean town, such popularity was a formidable achievement and was the result of various factors—not just religious but also more broadly cultural, as well as political and economic. As several fine analyses have shown (see Harris 1999; Kaufman 2005; Claverie 2009), Lourdes’ popularity was driven by the public controversies concerning miraculous healing. Supporters of the shrine and its critics (within the Church as well as among secularist politicians, journalists, intellectuals and doctors) focused on claims by pilgrims that they had been dramatically cured through the spring water which was central to the cult or during the ritual celebrations held there.

Its development during the second half of the nineteenth century was also due to the vigorous efforts of local entrepreneurs, who used the latest technology to promote the destination (see Kaufman 2005) and ensured that Lourdes became linked to the expanding railway network. Other non-religious factors also played a crucial role in encouraging people to visit the town. A wide range of accommodation, cafes, restaurants and shops emerged and during the twentieth century the shrine’s high profile was sustained by the media—initially, film and radio, then television and more recently the internet. The shrine’s developers have also looked beyond France to an international audience and so Lourdes’ fortunes illustrate very clearly the cultural and politico-economic vicissitudes of Europe more generally.

Although visitors still came predominantly from Western Europe, the collapse of the ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1989 enabled Catholics from former socialist countries to visit the shrine much more easily. By 2013 pilgrimages groups from Poland and Slovakia had joined the regular Lourdes calendar, but perhaps the most politically significant pilgrimage from the former Communist Europe was the Croatian military and police pilgrimage, which began in 1992 during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia. The date was significant because Croatia’s break-away from Yugoslavia had only begun a year before and the fight for independence lasted until 1995. However, the European Economic Community (now the European Union) recognized Croatia in 1992, as did the United Nations, so the arrival of this pilgrimage was both a religious and political statement. By 2007 the pilgrimage had grown to around 1800 members and the Croatian government was represented by the Vice-Premier and three ministers. The Croatians sought to cement their relationship not only to the shrine but also to the secular authorities, formally presenting to the

Mayor of Lourdes in 2007 a bust of Aloysius Stepinac, who had been Archbishop of Zagreb between 1937 and 1960 and beatified by John Paul II in 1998 as another victim of a Communist regime.

New pilgrimages from Central and East Europe were very welcome since although Lourdes enjoyed the image of a thriving, international shrine, it was susceptible to wider economic currents like any other destination. The flow of visitors fluctuated with the changing fortunes of the Western European countries which still provided the majority of its visitors—France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Britain, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany and Austria. To offset declines in the traditional sources of visitors the shrine’s promoters had to be as inclusive as possible. Besides attracting Catholics from non-western areas of Europe, Lourdes also sought to reflect the increasing multicultural character of Western European Catholicism shaped by global migration. Visitors from different religious traditions were also welcomed. As early as 1982 a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church had been built near the railway station to serve the growing numbers of migrant workers in Western Europe, that is, a year before John Paul II visited the shrine for the first time. Those outside the Christian tradition, such as Hindus and Buddhists from an increasingly multicultural Western Europe, were also arriving as well as those often described as ‘religious tourists’, for example, those on organized tours from India, S. Korea and Japan, for example.

Yet, most people coming to Lourdes did not belong to organized pilgrimage groups or were closely involved in religious traditions. The massive expansion of visitors after the Second World War was fuelled by small groups and individuals passing through for a few days on holiday. Many were curious spectators, often referred to as ‘tourists’, and shrine officials were increasingly aware of the challenge they presented to the ‘new evangelization’ strategy. In 2012 an investigation was begun by senior officials at the shrine and in February 2014 the new bishop, Mgr Brouwet, who had taken office during 2013, introduced its findings—Au service de la joie des convives: Orientations pour la Sanctuaire de Lourdes (Serving the joy of the guests: Guidelines for the Sanctuary of Lourdes). He began by outlining the shrine’s mission and then moved on to discuss the need for evangelization, drawing on Pope Francis’s desire as expressed in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules’ language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than her self-preservation.[3]

The guidelines report focused on how to improve those coming to Lourdes on organized pilgrimages, but the website where the report could be accessed also included Mgr Brouwet’s discussion of the central challenge facing the shrine—how to engage the vast majority of visitors who did not belong to organized pilgrimage groups:

We know well that the greater number of pilgrims who come are not in pilgrimages organized by a diocese or association, but make their own arrangements. They are individuals, families, groups of friends. They come to Lourdes for one or several days. Their pilgrimage is included within a wider journey: holidays in the Pyrenees, in France or in Europe. Many already know about the Sanctuary. But many come here for the first time and do not know the message of Lourdes. They include those who are baptized but know little about the Christian faith. Some are not Christian, belong to another religion or do not believe in religion. We have a particular responsibility towards these. We must continue to welcome those who come on organized pilgrimages. But we need to reflect on how to welcome in a fresh way those who are arriving on an individual basis, especially those who do not know what to expect and who stay for only a few hours or several days at the Grotto of Massabielle. ... How are we going to meet them and welcome them through respecting their rhythms without being afraid to announce Christ?[4]

The bishop’s questions touched on the crucial issue at the heart of the relationship between parish and pilgrimage—how to ensure that the mobile world of pilgrimage complemented the parish tradition, which supported the territorial structure of the Roman Catholic Church. If Lourdes and other pilgrimage shrines were to contribute to the Church’s ‘new evangelization’ policy, they had to engage those who were not members of parish congregations. Somehow at least some among the millions of people who visited these ‘exceptional places’ had to be drawn into the more mundane life of the parish churches, which still formed the bedrock of institutional Catholicism. The bishop’s exhortation to welcome those, who were not associated with organized pilgrimages, was firmly linked to conversion and transforming the ‘outsider’ into a member of a particular place—the parish in whatever form this may take.[5]

  • [1] The Church sought to emphasize the cult’s association with its teaching concerning the immaculate conception of Mary declared by Pope Pius 1X as a dogmatic article of faith in 1854.
  • [2] These figures are drawn from a table supplied by the Sanctuary to Lauren Moore and included onp. 72 of her Master’s thesis, Le pelerinage a Lourdes, la fin dun cycle? (Pilgrimage to Lourdes, the endof a cycle?), 2014, Universite de Bordeaux Montaigne, see https://u-bordeaux3.academia.edu/LaurenMoore, accessed 20 January 2016.
  • [3] Quoted in Orientation for the Sanctuary of Lourdes: 'Serving the joy of the guests’, p. 9, http://en.lourdes-france.org/event/orientation-for-the-sanctuary-of-lourdes, accessed 21 January 2016.
  • [4] Orientation for the Sanctuary of Lourdes, http://en.lourdes-france.org/event/orientation-for-the-sanctuary-of-lourdes, accessed 21 January 2016.
  • [5] ‘Although the world is rapidly evolving in a digital age, it is still the case that Catholicism, more often than not, takes place in brick and mortar____One cannot go to confession online or be mar
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >