By Penny Silvers
Of the fifteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary officially confirmed by the Holy See through the world, fully one third have occurred in France. The history of Marian apparitions in France begins in 1208. Until her last appearance in 1871, Mary appeared in turn to a Spanish friar in the south of France, a teenage shepherdess in the French Alps, two cloistered nuns in Paris, two young cowherds in the Alps, a simple girl in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a group of villagers in the path of an advancing Prussian army.
The Apparition of the Rosary
Our Lady first appeared to religious founder Dominic Guzman in 1208 in the Church of Prouille, in Languedoc, France, considered the “cradle of the Dominicans.” Legend has it that Saint Dominic received the Rosary there, which became the tool of the Dominicans in battling the Albigensian heresy, rife in that area.
1664: The Visions of a Teenage Shepherdess
Mary did not appear again until more than 450 years later, this time in the small Alpine village of Laus. It was in May of 1664, while tending her sheep and praying the Rosary, that the 17 year old shepherdess Benôite Rencurel first beheld a lady in dazzling white, carrying a child. When she naively invited the Lady to share her hard bread, the Lady ‘smiled silently and disappeared into a cave.’
For the next few months, the Lady appeared to Benôite each day. The Lady’s message was to ‘pray continuously for sinners.’ She revealed her name as ‘Mary — Reconciler and Refuge of Sinners.’ She instructed Benôite to go to the ancient Chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Recontre (‘Our Lady of Good Encounter’) where a sweet perfume would be emanating from the oil in the sanctuary lamp. This oil, the Lady said, would work miracles for those who received the anointing with faith.
In 1665, Benôite’s diocese recognized her apparitions. Construction of a small chapel was begun for Eucharistic Adoration and to receive penitents. Four years later, Benôite began seeing apparitions of the Suffering Christ; for ten years the visions told her that she would become a victim soul participating in his Passion. For two decades following, she suffered various illnesses. She died at 71, continually visited by Our Lady.
In May of 2008, the Holy See announced its official recognition of the apparitions. The shrine at Laus is under the care of the Community of St. John, who are dedicated to the Sacrament of Confession. For anyone who wishes, healing oil is available from the sanctuary lamp for a small offering via the Sanctuary website. A cause for sainthood has been opened for Benôite .
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1830: The Miraculous Medal and Paris in Flames
Almost 120 years later, Our Lady appeared to the young novice Catherine Labouré in the Daughters of Charity chapel on Rue de Bac in Paris. The year 1830 was a dangerous one for France. Paris was in turmoil, as the July Revolution had unseated one monarch and set adrift unemployed, angry workers manning more than 4000 barricades throughout the city.
Catherine‘s three apparitions led to the popular devotion of the Miraculous Medal. In the second of these, Mary appeared atop a globe with rays of light radiating from her hands. Framing Mary in the shape of an oval were the words, “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” In Catherine‘s vision, the reverse side showed the letter ‘M’ surmounted by a cross, below two Hearts. The Sacred Heart was crowned with thorns; the Immaculate Heart was encircled with roses and pierced by a sword.
Catherine reported that Our Lady had instructed her to have a medal created from the vision, promising abounding graces to all who would wear it confidently. Two years later, a massive cholera epidemic struck, which claimed the lives of 20,000 Parisians. The Sisters distributed the ‘miraculous’ medal; soon healings were reported as well as protection from the disease.
Mary’s medal also set in motion some amazing events. Eight years after the epidemic, the Rue de Bac Chapel once again became the site of apparitions. The Blessed Mother appeared again, this time to Sister Justine Busqueyburu, entrusting her with the Green Scapular of her Immaculate Heart for the conversion of sinners, in particular those who have no faith.
Two years after this, an atheistic French banker from a prominent Jewish family, Alphonse Ratisbonne, famously converted to Catholicism. Ratisbonne visited Rome on holiday where by his own account he was wearing the Miraculous Medal as a kind of joke when he visited the famous baroque church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte on January 20, 1842.
It was there that Mary appeared to Ratisbonne, converting him on the spot.
“He was quite unable to explain how he had passed from the right side of the church to opposite lateral altar… All he knew was, that he had found himself suddenly on his knees, and prostrate close to this altar. At first he had been enabled to see clearly the Queen of Heaven, in all the splendor of her immaculate beauty; but he could not sustain the radiance of that divine light. Thrice he had tried to gaze once more on the Mother of Mercy; thrice he been unable to raise his eyes beyond her blessed hands, from which there flowed, in luminous rays, a torrent of graces.”
Alphonse Ratisbonne became a Jesuit priest and later founded the religious congregation of Fathers and Sisters of Zion in Jerusalem. Catherine Labouré died more than thirty years later, still a cloistered nun in her Paris convent. Her remains were found to be incorrupt in 1933; she was canonized in 1947 by Pope Pius XII.
1846: Our Lady of La Salette
Several days’ hard travel south of Paris in the Rhône-Alps, Our Lady appeared to two poor cow herds — Melanie Mathieu, 15, and Maximin Giraud, 11. Neither could read or write, nor had they had any religious instruction.
In the 1840s, France was plunged in political turmoil. The practice of religion had waned; conflict, disease and famine sparked emigration. In the fields near the hamlet of La Salette, the two visionaries reported seeing a dazzling globe of light, which opened to reveal a beautiful, weeping Lady seated on a rock. She wore a golden crown, a dress of light, slippers edged with roses, and a golden crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck with a pair of pincers on one side and a hammer on the other.
She spoke to them in French and then in their Occitan dialect. With great sorrow, she told of her long work of staying the arm of her Son’s punishment for the irreligion of people. Specifically, she mentioned the offense of working on Sundays and blasphemous language. She warned of the coming of crop blight and famine punishments if her message was not heeded.
To each of the children, she imparted a secret which the other did not hear, asked them to say their prayers, and bid them to make her message known to people. The Lady of Light faded gradually, the globe of light drawing smaller and smaller, rising up in the air until it could no longer be seen.
During the days following the apparition the children were obliged to tell their story multiple times under rigorous questioning, and were brought to the scene repeatedly. On one trip, interrogators broke off a piece of the rock on which Our Lady sat. A spring burst forth; subsequent miraculous healings were attributed to the water.
Pilgrimages to the site began in spite of severe opposition from the authorities. Through all questioning and amid threats that they should recant, the two visionaries maintained consistency with their stories. In 1846, there was crop failure followed in 1847 by a severe famine in Europe claiming the lives of approximately one million people, 100,000 in France alone.
After four years and two sets of enquiry, the Bishop of Grenoble approved the devotion to Our Lady of La Salette. In 1851, Pope Pius IX confirmed this.
Controversy followed the visionaries for the rest of their lives. Their secrets were also published. Maximin’s spoke of the loss of faith in France, the Church moving into darkness, and the rise of the Anti-Christ. Melanie’s secret included the loss of faith in Rome and a coming persecution of the Pope, priests, and religious.
Our Lady’s universal message was to conversion, penance, and prayer. Her title at La Salette is “Reconciler of Sinners”.
At the foot of the Pyrenees, ‘a small young lady’ appeared to 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous in a series of visions over the course of five months from February to July. Calling herself ‘the Immaculate Conception,’ the ‘lady’ called for penitence and conversion of sinners and requested that a shrine be built in the garbage dump where the apparitions took place.
Bernadette, the asthmatic child of the town’s poorest family, immediately became a local object of skeptical regard. Persevering in spite of derision and suspicion, Bernadette learned obedience in what Pope Pius XII called in La Pelerinage de Lourdes, the “School of Mary”. Through her submission to the Lady’s bidding, a healing spring came forth, from which multiple miracles have been confirmed.
Bernadette relayed to her Curè the Lady’s request to build a chapel over the grotto. While he initially rebuffed her, after a while it was precisely Bernadette’s poorly-educated state which served to point to the supernatural.
“I am the Immaculate Conception” the lady had said, according to Bernadette. How could a girl in her station of life know that four years earlier the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been promulgated by Pope Pius IX? She was not even aware of what the word “conception” meant.
In any event, the local authorities wanted to stop the crowds from visiting the unauthorized site. They sought a condemnation from the Bishop, who ordered an investigative commission. Four years later, the apparitions were declared authentic, and in 1876, the Basilica over the grotto was consecrated.
Through the Lourdes apparitions, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception became a matter of ordinary discussion and helped to spread an understanding of Divine Logic in preserving Mary from the stain of sin.
Bernadette died in a convent, hidden from the world, 21 years after the last apparition. Her body has remained internally incorrupt, but it is not without blemish; during her third exhumation in 1925, light wax coverings were placed on her face and hands before she was moved to a crystal reliquary that year. For Catholics, the incorrupt Saints bring us to contemplate how Divine illumination can elevate a human being to such a high state of sanctity that the very cells which should have returned to dust remain in a state of preservation.
1871: Pontmain in the Path of the Prussian Army
By 1871, France had been devastated by the Franco-Prussian War. Fully three quarters of France lay under the heel of Prussian occupation.
On the starry night of January 17th, in the tiny village of Pontmain, Brittany, Cesar Barbadette and his two sons Joseph and Eugène, aged ten and twelve were finishing up their tasks in the barn. Eugene looked out the window and saw an area free of stars over their neighbor’s house. Suddenly, he saw Our Lady smiling at him. Joseph also saw Our Lady; later as a priest he would recount what he had seen:
She was young and tall of stature, clad in a garment of deep blue, … Her dress was covered with brilliant gold stars. The sleeves were ample and long. She wore slippers of the same blue as the dress, ornamented with gold bows. On the head was a black veil half covering the forehead, concealing the hair and ears, and falling over the shoulders. Above this was a crown resembling a diadem, higher in front than elsewhere, and widening out at the sides. A red line encircled the crown at the middle. Her hands were small and extended toward us as in the ‘miraculous medal.’ Her face had the most exquisite delicacy and a smile of ineffable sweetness. The eyes, of unutterable tenderness, were fixed on us. Like a true mother, she seemed happier in looking at us than we in contemplating
Pontmain stained glass
Although their parents saw only three stars in a triangle, the religious sisters of the parochial school and the parish priest were called over. Two girls, Françoise Richer and Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, aged nine and eleven, also saw the Lady.
The villagers – by now about 60 adults and children – began to pray the Rosary. As they prayed, the visionaries reported that they saw the vision undergo a change. First, the stars on Our Lady’s garment multiplied until her blue garment was almost completely gold. Then with each subsequent prayer, letters appeared to spell out the messages on a banner unfurled at her feet: “But please pray, my children,” “God will soon hear your prayers,” and “My Son is waiting for you”.
As they sang “Mother of Hope”, a favorite regional hymn, Our Lady laughed and joined in. During the singing of “My Sweet Jesus,” a red cross with a Corpus appeared on Mary’s breast and her smile faded to grief. As the villagers sang “Ave Maris Stella” however, the crucifix disappeared, her smile returned, and a white veil covered her, ending the apparition at 9 o’clock. The apparition had lasted for three hours.
That evening, the Prussian troops in sight of Laval stopped at half-past five o’clock, about the time when the Apparition first appeared above Pontmain, just a few miles away. General Von Schmidt, about to move on the city of Laval towards Pontmain, had received orders from his Commander not to take the city.
Schmidt is reported to have said on the morning of the 18th: “We cannot go farther. Yonder, in the direction of Brittany, there is an invisible ‘Madonna‘ barring the way.”
The little village of Pontmain is proof that the earnest prayers of even the smallest parish can effect a turn in history. A year later, on the Feast of the Purification on February 2nd, Pontmain was approved as authentic and confirmed by Pope Pius XI with a Mass and Office in 1872. In 1932, Pope Pius XII granted that the Mother of Hope, the title given to the Apparition, be solemnly honored with a golden crown. Today, pilgrims visit the Basilica of Pontmain as a sign of hope in the midst of war.
Throughout her twenty centuries of Christianity, France has honored the Mother of God in glorious cathedrals and sublime chant. It is also true that in the 800 years since the Dominicans first did battle with the Albigensians, France has been a battleground for the Faith.
In appearing to the young, the lowly and the poor in the past eight centuries, Our Lady has graced France in a special way. Her apparitions, admonitions and gifts have given to the world devotions by which ordinary men and women can attain sanctity: to Jesus through Mary.