Columbus Day

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, Spain

Statue of Columbus for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 commemorating his first voyage to America

With the growing unpopularity of Columbus Day (the second Monday of October in the US), this might be the perfect opportunity to review why we celebrate. This statue of Columbus in Barcelona was erected for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 to commemorate his first voyage to America. His statue points seaward from the harbor in Barcelona.

Columbus was Italian, but he sailed under the flag of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They represented the crowns of Castile and Aragon, lands which today make up the northern part of Spain. Modern Barcelona was part of Aragon. Spain itself wouldn’t become a unified country until 1512.

Columbus was seeking a sea route to the East Indies (China and India and the spice islands). Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was charging European traders high fees for those making the dangerous passage to cross by land though the modern day Middle East and Russia or across Egypt to the Red Sea. It was possible but also very treacherous to sail around the horn of Africa. Another sea route would benefit the growing amount of trade between Europe and the East Indies.

At the time of Columbus’s voyage, many educated Europeans thought that the world was round, but they greatly underestimated its size. Columbus believed it was possible to reach the East Indies by sailing west. He first landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, and later would make expeditions to modern day Cuba, Hispaniola Island (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), parts of Central and South America and other islands in the Antilles. Europeans named this part of the world the West Indies, since it obviously wasn’t the East Indies.

Columbus never realized his goal of finding another route to the East Indies, though his efforts and subsequent European exploration conferred great wealth upon Spain, brought French, English, and Dutch explorers to America, and left a lasting impact on the continents of North and South America, which we celebrate by a day named in his honor. The process of European exploration and colonization, which also involved slavery and subjugation of the indigenous peoples, produced many negative effects that continue to be addressed in national and world politics. Thus this heroic icon is taking on a new and fuller meaning of the process by which our world has developed.

The Assumption of Mary

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal - the Assumption of Mary

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal – our destination for the Assumption of Mary

August 15th is the French national holiday for the Assumption of Mary. This religious day is celebrated in many parts of the world by about 1.5 billion Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, as well as by parts of the Anglican Church. The holiday celebrates the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life. For Catholics, it is a day to go to mass. For France, it is a day when almost everything is closed, similar to Christmas.

Yet France is one of the most unreligious countries in the world. In one survey of 2010, about 40% of the participants identified as not believing there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force, about 50% as Christian (almost all Catholic), less than 6% Islamic, and only small percentages of Jewish and other religions. The group identifying as Catholic has dropped from about 80% to 50% since 1985.

An article in Tuesday’s La Figaro showed how large numbers of believers participate in pilgrimages as part of practicing their faith. While destinations like Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain attract large numbers, there are numerous destinations in France that are also attractive. A sizable percentage of French tourism is for reasons of spiritual belief.

The Roman Catholic Church has recognized eleven Marian apparitions (supernatural appearances of Mary), five of which occurred at locations in France in the 19th Century. A line superimposed through these five locations on the map of France produces the shape of an M. One of the locations is in Paris, at a chapel I had never heard of, The Chapel of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse). The La Figaro article said that over 2 million people visit this chapel each year. It’s on rue de Bac near the Bon Marché department store, not far from our apartment. So I set out on a pilgrimage.

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

On rue de Bac near the popular Grande Epicérie de Paris, the specialty food store of the Bon Marché, I found a doorway allowing people to come and go down a long corridor to Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. I walked around trying to photograph the outside of the chapel, but at ground level it is completely hidden from view by other structures.

Once inside I walked past displays and religious coin vending machines, statues, and welcome offices for arriving pilgrims. The chapel was at the end of the hall. A service was in progress. I entered, found a seat in the back, took an inconspicuous photo, and sat through a mass in a language I believe was Korean. I tried to participate, but was hampered by my complete lack of knowledge of Catholic traditions, customs, and liturgy, not to mention the Asian language of the service. People occasionally left something in a basket in the center of the room. I assumed it was an offering, so as I departed I walked up and put in a small donation. Too late I noticed that inside the basket were slips of paper, prayer requests! My bad.

Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary

Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

Outside again, I saw a display explaining the story of the Marian apparition. A young nun, Catherine Labouré, began her service here in 1830 with the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Their motherhouse was at 140 rue de Bac. On the 18th of July and the 27th of November 1830, the Blessed Virgin appeared in the Chapel before Catherine. She asked that a medallion be made to a design that she dictated, adding that, “All who wear this medal will receive great graces.”

It was a time of great unrest in France. The bloody 3 day revolution of July 1830 replaced the constitutional monarchy of the last of the post-revolution Bourbon kings with another conferring the monarchy to Louis Philippe of the Orleans line of the royal family. France was industrializing and becoming more wealthy, but there were few social services and the poor were miserable. The workers were dissatisfied with the status quo. It is the same setting as in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, a novel that above all was about the misery of poor people in France. In 1830, Jean Val Jean, the hero of that story, is living with his adopted daughter Cosette on rue de Plumet (today’s rue Rue Oudinot). This street ends almost exactly at La Chapelle de Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. Uncanny.

Catherine Labouré reported her visions to her priest, who took two years to report this to the archbishop. Eventually a medal referred to as the Miraculous Medal was produced. In the meantime, in 1831, Catherine was sent to Enghien les Bains, to a home for the elderly, north of Paris, where she spent the next 40 years serving these largely poor and miserable residents. The church did not forget her. Following her death in 1876, her body was moved in 1933 to the chapel at rue de Bac and placed under the alter. In July 1947, Pope Pius XII declared her a Saint. It was not until 1950, via this same Pope, that the Assumption of Mary was officially recognized, though it had been part of the teachings of the church for hundreds of years before.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in 1952 said that the Assumption of Mary was the most significant Christian religious event since the Reformation. Finally the church acknowledged a feminine element, allowing Mary to join the three masculine religious figures of Christianity. The realization of this feminine aspect has been slow in arriving, but gradually it is asserting itself, not only in the church, but in secular life as well. Religions adapt to changes in society to offer their adherents a more meaningful view of life, but as you can see, sometimes one must have lots of patience. Bonne fête de l’Assomption!

 

August in Paris

Brenda on deserted rue Cler

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US Embassy Paris

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Champs de Mars in the snow

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Pianist Emil Reinert with two friends

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Visit to the Swedish Club

Site of Nobel’s former Paris house on Avenue Raymond Poincaré

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