New French shrine 'could rival Lourdes'
By Henry Samuel in Paris
Last updated: 2:00 AM BST 05/05/2008
The Roman Catholic Church has officially recognised a shrine
in the French Alps where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared
to a young shepherdess - the first such recognition in France
for almost 150 years.
But the presence of a government minister drew instant political
fire, with the French Left claiming that the country's staunchly
secular values were being undermined.
Notre Dame du Laus, which already draws some 120,000 pilgrims
each year, was formally acknowledged by the Vatican after three
years of research into its credentials by a team of theologians,
historians and psychologists.
There have been suggestions it could grow to rival Lourdes,
the last place in France to receive the Church's official apparition
stamp - in 1862 - and which today struggles to cope with five
million pilgrims each year.
6,000 Catholics, including more than 20 bishops and cardinals,
attended a solemn Mass at the sanctuary of Benôite Rencurel
- who was 16 when she first reported seeing the Virgin Mary
The shepherdess was described by one observer as the French
champion of apparitions, because she saw the Virgin Mary around
2,500 times over 54 years - averaging once a week.
Hordes of pilgrims already go to the site in the hope of salvation
or a cure. Most recently, a Belgian woman insisted that she
had been miraculously cured of a slipped disc after visiting
Church authorities in the southeastern town of Gap had long
struggled to convince the Vatican to beatify the shepherdess
- a request it refused as recently as 2003.
Jean-Michel di Falco Leandri, the Bishop of Gap, told the gathering:
"I recognise the supernatural origin of the apparitions
and facts experienced and recounted by Benôite Rencurel,
between 1664 and 1718.
"I encourage the faithful to come and pray and to seek
spiritual renewal in this sanctuary," he said.
The bishop denied that the official recognition was a marketing
ploy on behalf of the Catholic Church.
He said: "You're not obliged to believe in apparitions,
even official recognised ones. But if they are a help in your
faith and daily life, why reject them?"
However, there was controversy over the presence of Hubert
Falco, the secretary of state for territorial development. Mr
Falco said he had attended as a private individual and a Catholic,
but that he was a believer in the secular state and "open
to all religions".
However, the radical Left Party said his presence was an "unacceptable
confusion between the values of the republic (including secularism)
and religious practices that relate to the private sphere".
Mixing religion with politics is explosive in France. President
Nicolas Sarkozy recently caused outrage among defenders of secularism
by intimating that France needed more believers.
"A man who believes is a man who hopes," said the
president at Saint-Jean de Latran in Rome late last year, when
he met the Pope.
The Pope will visit France in September to mark
the 150th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions.