Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy France's secularism

PARIS — For such a secular country, there are certainly lots of religious symbols to be found in France.  

Indeed, the country and many of its citizens pride themselves on the principle of laicite — French for secularism — but is there really an absence of religion in public life?

Not really. It’s true that Notre Dame, one of the biggest symbols of European Christianity for centuries, has been cordoned off for the past two months after a tragic fire, deemed accidental, destroyed the roof. The cathedral, which will undergo a major renovation, is off limits to tourists. Nonetheless, the towering house of worship remains a symbol of Paris and part of this beautiful city’s skyline. The city’s other churches worth a visit include the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, known as Sacre-Coeur.  

Outside Paris, God’s visibility is even more pronounced. Two very different sites — Lourdes, one of the holiest in the world for Roman Catholics, and the U.S. cemetery at Normandy — have the ability to bring visitors closer to God in very different ways. There are reminders everywhere of the country’s religious past and how that symbolism continues to play a part in the lives of millions, both visitors and residents, who visit them. As a result, it’s not so unusual for tour operators to include packages to visit both sites.  

It is worth noting that this notion of secularism, as it pertains to French government policies, was the result of a law passed in 1905 calling for this strict separation of church and state. While true that religious symbols have been removed from French public life (a possible reason why so many Muslims have found integration so difficult), Lourdes and Normandy may be the two places where this very human law seems to not apply.

First stop on this countrywide pilgrimage is Lourdes. A six-hour train ride (fares range from $134 to $193 roundtrip) from Paris gets you to Lourdes, a southern trip through the French countryside until finally pulling into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. While many take trains into Lourdes to embark on their pilgrimage, many from across Europe (particularly those from neighboring Italy and Spain) board coach buses to get there.

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Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site after a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 11, 1858 through a vision. Soubirous would see Mary another 17 times near a grotto over the course of five months. Unaware she was having a vision, Mary told the girl: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  

Soubirous was told to “drink at the spring and wash there.” Although there was no water at the site, the girl started digging until water appeared from under the ground. From a puddle a spring appeared, one that flows to this day.

Some five million pilgrims from around the world visit Lourdes each year (making it the second most-visited city in France after Paris) and one of the most important sites for Catholics outside of Rome and the Holy Land. The town also has its fair share of tacky souvenirs for sale.

Staying overnight isn’t a problem in Lourdes. So many visitors come to this French town, which only has a population of about 15,000, that one of its most-distinct features are its many hotels. It is second, only to Paris, in all of France when it comes to the number of hotels.

Many claim to be cured from drinking or bathing in the water, although testing has shown it doesn’t possess any special curative properties. Pope Pius XI would go on to canonize Soubirous a saint in 1933, her vision now forever a part of Catholicism. Pilgrims, many clutching rosaries while on their knees, recite this moving prayer near the grotto featuring a large statue of Mary:

Oh ever immaculate Virgin, Mother of Mercy, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comfortess of the Afflicted, you know my wants, my troubles, my sufferings.

Look upon me with mercy. When you appeared in the grotto of Lourdes, you made it a privileged sanctuary where you dispense your favors, and where many sufferers have obtained the cure of their infirmities, both spiritual and corporal. I come, therefore, with unbounded confidence to implore your maternal intercession.  

My loving Mother, obtain my request. I will try to imitate your virtues so that I may one day share your company and bless you in eternity. Amen.

Whether or not one is Roman Catholic, visitors cannot be moved to tears at the site of so many people — many seeking a cure — displaying piety in such a public way. In a world dominated by secular forces, Lourdes really is an example of man’s belief in God and the power of prayer.

The grotto is part of a larger Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, land owned by the Catholic church, which comprises nearly two dozen areas where people can worship. Prepare to do lots of walking and endure the searing midday heat that takes over Rosary Square, a large open area where pilgrims can stop for a rest, if you plan to visit during the summer. 

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While there have been an estimated 7,000 miraculous recoveries connected to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes at the French shrine, the Catholic church, as of last year, only officially recognizes 70 cases. While there are skeptics, Lourdes continues to mystify. It is this marriage of faith and the supernatural that makes it one of the world’s holiest sites.

At the other end of the country, along France’s northern coast, is Normandy. The site — where American soldiers stormed those wind-swept beaches during World War II — recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. The military operation by Allied forces, which began on June 6 when 132,000 men stormed Omaha Beach, resulted in the death of 749 American soldiers and sailors.

What took place at these beaches not only helped the Allies win World War II, it also forever altered the course of history.

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From the French capitol, Normandy can be done as a day trip. Just three hours away by bus (it will cost you upwards of $200, which includes round-trip fare and a tour), the place that brings the biggest chills is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial located in Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach with the English Channel in the distance, contains the graves of 9,380 service members.  

The rows and rows of neatly arranged crosses — and the occasional star of David — are a visible reminder of the sacrifice so many men made nearly eight decades ago in their ultimately successful efforts in defeating Nazism. The winds that sweep across the cemetery, forcing those small American flags planted in the grass to wave, remain a tangible glimpse of that ultimate sacrifice. 

At the center of the cemetery is a small, multi-denominational chapel. Its altar — designed in black and gold marble — has these words etched into them: “I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish.” The stained-glass features a cross and star of David.

In a broadcast message to the troops before they left for Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower said, “The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory.”

In spite of those confident words, Eisenhower would later say:

“If there were nothing else in my life to prove the existence of the presence of an almighty and merciful God… those events of that momentous day did. He further affirmed that faith gives you the courage to make the decisions you must make in a crisis and then the confidence to leave the result to a higher power.”  

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, President Donald Trump read a prayer, originally delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after the invasion, as he joined other world leaders in Portsmouth, England. Trump, in quoting FDR, said:

Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day, have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.

It’s a prayer no French politician would probably ever read aloud. Nonetheless, it is a very powerful reminder that in the United States, where there is separation of church and state, there’s also a great respect for all beliefs and public displays of faith. Despite several contentious Supreme Court battles over the years, many faiths have benefited from the U.S.’s tradition of religious freedom. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy drew criticism more than a decade ago for bringing up religion too often in his speeches.

This year’s anniversary also took place a few days before Pentecost. The day, which is celebrated 50 days after Easter, recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Amid all the carnage and death that once took place in Normandy, both that prayer and Pentecost are a reminder of the forces of good overcoming evil. It’s what makes Normandy such an emotional place and one future generations must visit to understand the sacrifices of the past. For this American visiting France, it remains a solemn reminder that the horrors of war — and the ultimate triumph over evil — are never to be forgotten.