On 24 December 496 or 498, Remigius, bishop of Reims -- to which he had been elected when he was 22 and a layman -- baptised King Clovis of the Franks. Clovis began the identifiable history of France after the collapse of the Roman Empire. But also, the Franks were the first of the Germanic tribes that brought about that collapse to convert to catholic Trinitarian Christianity rather than Arian Christianity. This earned France the title "the eldest daughter of the Church".
To-day in the eldest daughter of the Church, about half identify themselves as Catholic, and about 5% attend Mass. Recently the current pope said an outdoor Mass in Paris, in the homily of which he spoke against materialism and commercialism which he saw as creating a new modern idol with consumerism as something of a religion with its own values and mindset replacing Christian ones.
On Saturday, 13 September 2008, he continued to Lourdes, France, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the reports to her local pastor of Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old peasant, that she was having visions of Mary the mother of Jesus, beginning 11 February 1858. There were 18 visions, ending 16 July 1858. In the ninth vision, 25 February, the woman told the girl to go to a spring and drink and bathe in it, but she reports finding only a puddle, the spring starting the next day.
Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the natural border between France and Spain, at the time was a village of about 4000 people, whose local dialect Occitan resembles both French and Spanish. In the area, there had long been legends of people returning from Purgatory, called revenants, and there had for some time been childrens' and other reports in the area on both sides of the border of Marian apparitions, and at the time in nearby Garaison there was a popular pilgrimage centre of Marian devotion arising from supposed apparitions to 12-year-old Angleze de Sagazan in 1515.
While the Catholic Church has determined the visions to be real, a Catholic is not obliged to believe they were real, and nothing doctrinal is based on them. Nonetheless, to-day Lourdes is a major tourism destination, hosting between 5 and 6 million pilgrims annually, and the town of now about 15000 nonetheless has more hotels than anywhere in France other than Paris. Some of the pilgrims come seeking cures in the water of the spring. The current baths for those seeking cures have come a long way since Emile Zola's 1892 description that the waters were so filled with various things coming off the bathers that the miracle is that anyone come out of them alive, being built in 1955 and last updated in 1980. The streets are lined with vendors selling trinkets. Everyone from street vendors to the local economy to corporations makes money off it.
Of the hundred of thousands who have sought cures there, only 67 inexplicable cures have been recognised by the Lourdes Medical Bureau, sanctioned by the Church. One wonders if a physician could practice 150 years with only 67 successful treatments if his practice would continue to attract patients in the hundreds of thousands. The pope said it was not so much a place to go seeking miracles as a place of hope. One wonders, hope for what, hope in what? He drank from the water, and authorised special indulgences regarding observance of the anniversary.
They come by the millions, every year, spending money whether seeking cures or not. A site of whose authenticity is not required for belief of its followers by the church who deems it authentic, which has become a major lucrative tourism industry based solely on the legends, does not seem consistent with a message against commercialism and consumerist values, let alone bolster it. A guy in white, stories of miracles in the background of the whole event while they line up in droves money pouring in, the guy saying it's really not about all that -- sounds like the last time Benny Hinn came to town.
Here's a little better advice for those seeking hope:
Let everyone stay in his own parish. There he will find more than in all the shrines even if they were all rolled into one. In your own parish you find baptism, the sacrament, preaching and your neighbour, and these things are greater than all the saints in heaven, for all of them were made saints by God's word and sacrament. (Martin Luther, from To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation)
A PS -- in her own language, Bernadette's name is Bernadeta, a diminuative from her full name Maria Bernarda Sobiros. She never herself said this was Mary, although she did say the woman called herself the Immaculate Conception, now a familiar phrase but then not, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception having been defined as binding dogma only four years earlier at the time and in a pre-media age not likely something an impoverished uneducated peasant girl would know. She did herself drink the water for her lifelong asthma, with no return of symptoms, although she did not seek such treatment when she contracted tuberculosis, from which she died at age 35 in 1879 on 16 April, now her feast day everywhere but France, where it is celebrated 18 February, date of the third apparition and the first in which the woman spoke. She later said the statue put in the grotto in 1864, now the representation of Our Lady of Lourdes, was nothing like the woman who appeared to her. Her body has been exhumed three times and found to be incorrupt. After the last time, in 1925, a wax mask was made. I think I once viewed the body with the mask, though as this was some forty years ago and in a considerably more confused period of my life, it may have been some other saint, although I am not sure there are that many incorrupt saints viewable in southern France. The high school from which I graduated was named after Lourdes, local pronunciation sometimes adding the final "s" and sometimes not from the French, and the town's name in the local language is Lorda anyway.
And BTW poor old Garaison is still in business though not doing nearly so well, and on the web too! http://www.garaison.com/
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