Thanks to two recent developments – the recognition of a miraculous recovery in Lourdes and the new film by Xavier Giannoli -, the Marian apparitions are coming back to the fore. Analysis of a phenomenon as old as Christianity in the chronicle of Alain Cabantous
Almost suddenly, two close facts have been part of our news. On the one hand, the recognition by the Beauvais ordinary of the miraculous healing of Sister Bernadette Moriau, delivered from an incurable illness in July 2008 following a pilgrimage to Lourdes a few months before. On the other, the remarkable release of Xavier Giannoli’s film, The Apparition, where Vincent Lindon plays a talented journalist commissioned by the Vatican to investigate the apparitions of the Virgin in the south-east of France. As if the month of Marie had taken some advance sliding from May to February!
In fact, these two phenomena are apparently fairly commonplace. Since the tenth century, when Mary would have appeared more than 21,000 times, the Roman Church has recognized only fifteen! And, in this area, it was not the 19th century that beat the record despite La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858) or Pontmain (1871), but the 20th century. From Fatima (1917) to the Medjugorje years (since 1981), there would have been four times more appearances than in the previous century. Between 1945 and 1959, the “Lady of all peoples” appeared fifty-six times to a woman from Amsterdam. Same inflation and same ecclesiastical prudence for miraculous healings. In Lourdes alone, between 1858 and 2018, there were more than 7,300 of which 70 (for two thirds of them before 1914) endorsed by the hierarchy.
Faced with this heavy quantitative, the historian obviously does not have to pronounce. However, it has material allowing it to evoke contexts, to underline some constants even if each fact of appearance remains unique. To stick to the last two centuries, it is clear that there is a succession which, between 1830 (the visions-apparitions of Catherine Labouré, rue du Bac) and the end of the 1890s, can make sense. Most of these phenomena take place in a historical environment of “bad times” (Veyziat, 1871). Here is the end of the alliance of the throne and the altar (rue du Bac), there, the foreign occupation after the defeat of 1870 (Pontmain, 1871), later the significant weakening of the positions of Catholicism French. From 1871 to 1896, with the advent and then the assertion of the republic, there are no less than a good fifteen mariophanies. It was also during this very long half-century that the model of “attested apparitions” (J. Boufflet, P. Boutry) took root, in which visionaries played a central role. Most of them are “simple”, young children in priority, some women, generally poor and illiterate. But who hear much better than the clerics the words of the Virgin who speaks in the language of the soil. As if to enhance the particularism of rural and secular circles, marked by “popular” Catholicism. The messages transmitted, immediately or after several visions, are very similar. A call to urgent conversion, to prayer, a Sunday sanctification and the request to build a chapel, favoring what S. Barnay nicely names “country worship”; all accompanied by more or less violent threats. The apparitions which spread in Isère and Drôme between March 1848 and December 1849 are in this respect an apocalyptic and avenging Catholicism. The publicity of the phenomenon, its rapid dissemination through the press remains another originality of the 19th century which will intensify in the 20th century. Even if Fatima with her secrets is considered an appearance of rupture, the social status of the seers, the political recovery, following the late example of the Portuguese dictator Salazar, constitute so many red threads. The religious context can also play a role. Without mentioning here Lourdes and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the warnings of the Marian demonstrations of Garabandal (Spain), of Kerizinen in Brittany, of Freiburg or San Damiano in the 1960s are visibly turned against the reforms of the council of Vatican II and the requests, directed towards a piety “with the old” (recitation of the rosary, fasts, prayers for the holy priests). Hence the election of these sites by fundamentalist circles.
Thus, this manifestation held to be supernatural is never neutral. At the very least, she also invented a possible place of conversion and above all of potential healing. Furthermore, it raises a multitude of questions. Why there ? Why them? Why recognize this appearance and not another? How is the choice of the miraculous among these thousands of sick and sincere believers made? Thanks to God ! : “No Christian is obliged in conscience to believe in an apparition even officially recognized” (Cardinal Roger Etchegaray). And so, happy those who believe without having seen.
J. Boufflet and Ph. Boutry, A sign in the sky, Paris, Grasset, 1997
S. Barnay, Les apparitions de la Vierge, Paris, Le Cerf, 1992.