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.
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.
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!