Sociological forces that turned Lourdes into a national and continental phenomenon

The Happening at Lourdes: The Sociology of the Grotto
By Alan Neame
Simon and Schuster, 1967, 323 pp.

5 Stars

I recently submitted a post about the alleged Marian apparitions at the Massabielle Grotto in Lourdes, France in 1858 (see here), which prompted me to check our local library system to see if they had any books on the topic and found this fifty-two-year-old gem. Don’t let the age of the book dissuade you. Its revelations are still quite pertinent.

Author, Alan Neame, takes a very skeptical view of the Lourdes apparitions. Some of the cogent points include:

  • Fourteen-year-old Lourdes visionary, Bernadette Soubirous, had been thoroughly indoctrinated into Catholic Mariolatry and was quite familiar with the Marian myths that originated in the nearby towns of Bétharram and La Sallete, where Mary had allegedly appeared to two children just twelve years previous in 1846. The peasant folk of the French Pyranees region were steeped in religious superstition/cultism to a degree that would be shocking to a 21st century observer.
  • Devotees of the Lourdes cult often cite Bernadette’s claim that the apparition referred to herself as the “Immaculate Conception” during its sixteenth appearance as a proof of authenticity. Pope Pius IX had declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary as dogma only four years before in 1854 and they argue that Bernadette, an illiterate, could not possibly have learned of this dogma prior to the alleged visitation. The author points out that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception had been declared a Holy Day of Obligation one-hundred-and-fifty-years previous in 1708 by pope Clement XI and that all Catholics, especially those steeped in Mariolatry like the Soubirous family, were intimately aware of the doctrine.
  • French Catholic conservatives/traditionalists seized upon the Lourdes apparitions as a symbol of resistance to the militant secular state and the ongoing national political upheaval. The French National Pilgrimages (FNP) to Lourdes, which began in 1872, would become a rallying event for French political and religious conservatism. The rise of Lourdes as a national and European shrine coincided with the fall of the Papal States to the forces of Italian unification. Catholic conservatives from all across Europe would make the journey to Lourdes in symbolic support of the papacy and Roman Catholic traditionalism.
  • Interestingly, Bernadette Soubirous and all of the other Marian visionaries had contrasting versions of the apparition’s physical features and clothing.
  • After the apparitions were accepted as authentic by the church, the local parish priest, Dominique Peyramale, fought with the diocese to retain control of the grotto site. The apparition site eventually came under diocesan control and then the control of the French Catholic church. Credulous Lourdes devotees are oblivious to the “behind-the-scenes” ecclesiastical infighting among clerics over control of the apparition site that Neame examines with a good amount of detail.

Most evangelicals have no idea of just how popular pilgrimage destinations like Lourdes once were in Catholic-majority countries. In the small city (population: 13,946), there are still 200 souvenir shops and the second-highest number of hotel rooms in France after Paris. But the number of pilgrims has declined steeply in recent years. Lourdes used to boast of six million pilgrims per year only a decade ago, but the number is now half that.

“The Happening at Lourdes: The Sociology of the Grotto” is a revealing examination of the rampant cultic devotion to Mary that gripped Southwest France at the time of Bernadette’s alleged visions and of the forces that turned the Massabielle Grotto into a beloved symbol of religious and political traditionalism and conservatism in France and beyond. For anyone interested in the “back story” behind this “Mecca” of Marian cultism, this book is quite illuminating. Highly recommended.

This old aerial photo shows the massive railroad facilities that were installed at Lourdes to handle the 16,000 pilgrims who descended upon the humble town daily. Those are all passenger trains. The grandiose Marian shrine complex (123 acres) in the distance is circled in yellow.

39 thoughts on “Sociological forces that turned Lourdes into a national and continental phenomenon

  1. Thanks, Tom, for this post. I always admire your research skills. I had a lady give me a tiny bottle of Lourdes water that she had ordered over the internet. Then I read somewhere else, that Lourdes was no longer allowed to sell water like this, something about hygienic reasons. The alleged Lourdes water was in a tiny bottle with a cap shaped like a Rosebud, and elaborately packaged. Thanks for sharing this info. Wonder where that water had actually come from.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Once again, Tom, excellent researching skills. I have removed my stash of Catholic sacramentals that I had all over the house. Blessed salt, blessed candles, blessed icons, and even a small statue of St. Joseph that I was going to bury if we ever decided to sell our house. What was I thinking ? I kept my rosary beads, because they are made of Swarovsky crystal beads, but I no longer pray to Mary.

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      2. Thanks, Sally. Your comments brought back memories. I had stored my Catholic mementos in a small keepsake box – first communion and confirmation certificates, a mass missal given to us at first communion, infant baptism certificate, etc. These were all somehow very important to me although I went long periods without attending mass and I never went to confession again after confirmation in 5th grade. After I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior at the age of 27, I knew I didn’t need those things anymore and that they were even contrary to my faith in Christ, but I still found it very hard to part with them. Such is our weak flesh.

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      3. Yes, Tom, I completely understand. I have certificates too and will hold on to those. My husband and I have a framed cerficate from Pope John Paul II as a blessing for our 30th wedding anniversary. As you said, the Catholic Church appeals to our senses. I do miss having candles at church though. As Baptists we were told that candles were forbidden since they were mezmerizing, and would distract us from taking adequate study notes on the pastor’s sermons.
        Another church I attended decided that candles could be used, but they were paraffin candles, not the pure beeswax candles lit at Mass. When the paraffin wax candles were lit, they produced visible smoke, and some people would cough. And then I remember when a young priest used insence too liberally, and several people exited the sanctuary, coughing loudly.
        It is understandable that non- Christians would be confused by all of this. 🤗

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      4. I think the Lord encourages and helps us to let go of these kinds of “treasures” over time, each individual according to the leading of the Holy Spirit and obedience to His Word.

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      5. Yes, Tom, I agree. I do miss having candles at church though. But there is a store on the island here that sells pure beeswax candles, and I still enjoy those. Jesus is the light in the darkness. 🤗

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    1. Thanks, sister! It was a fascinating read. The author is a former-Catholic and an agnostic, but he reveals so much behind-the-scenes truth about the Lourdes phenomenon that it’s well worth the time and effort. Another good resource that examines the Marian apparitions from an evangelical perspective is the book, “Messages from Heaven” by Jim Tetlow.

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      1. Yes and Amen! We were caught in these lies and errors and would have followed them to the grave and to a Christ-less eternity if the Lord had not opened our eyes.

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      2. Yes!!! As I started to note things and I thought the freedom list could never end! Lol! Freedom in and through Christ Jesus covers multitudes upon multitudes!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic book! Better than I expected for its investigative fact findings. While reading this book I spent some time googling images of the grandiose shrine complex at Lourdes, i.e. the “Domain.” Just incredibly idolatrous.

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  2. I wonder how Romanist apologists spin these gems from Pope Gregory the Great.

    Gregory the Great (Gregory I c. 540-603) commenting on John 8:52: It’s as if in venerating Abraham and the prophets they [i.e. the Jews] were placing them ahead even of Truth himself. We are shown that those who do not know God venerate his servants erroneously. See Dom David Hurst, trans., Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, Homily 16 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990), p. 116.

    Gregory the Great: Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images [lat.: imaginum adoratores], broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration [lat.: ne quid manufactum adorari posset]; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. & MPL 77:1027-1028)

    Gregory the Great: For indeed it had been reported to us that, inflamed with inconsiderate zeal, you had broken images of saints, as though under the plea that they ought not to be adored . And indeed in that you forbade them to be adored, we altogether praise you [lat.: Et quidem quia eas adorari vetuisses, omnino laudavimus]; but we blame you for having broken them. Say, brother, what priest has ever been heard of as doing what you have done? If nothing else, should not even this thought have restrained you, so as not to despise other brethren, supposing yourself only to be holy and wise? For to adore a picture is one thing, but to learn through the story of a picture what is to be adored is another. For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read. […] And if any one should wish to make images, by no means prohibit him, but by all means forbid the adoration of images. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. & MPL 77:1128-1130)

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    1. Thanks for these references. Catholic apologist David Anders would respond that popes are not infallible in everything they say, but only those teachings they declare to be dogma, to be held by the entire church. Anders would say Gregory’s statements were his personal viewpoints and not binding on Catholics. He’s gotten a lot of practice with this brand of sophistry lately because of Francis’ heterodox reforms.


      1. That would be a splendid example of David Anders exercising private judgement on a Pope. I guess David Anders will become his own Pope!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, the “advantage” of having an allegedly infallible pope incapable of leading the church into error falls apart when conservative Catholic talk radio hosts feel they must judge which papal pronouncements must be obeyed and which must be ignored.


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