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