Emile Zola noted in 1892 about the newly built Lourdes basilica that its effect was “very shimmering but not especially religious”. The aesthetics of the Lourdes complex, with its mix of architectural styles and generous use of electric lights, was only one of many elements of the Marian apparitions that did not sit well with critics. Interestingly it was not only the reactionary politics behind the Marian cult but particularly the modern aspects like the consumerism or use of mass media at Marian apparition sites that were criticized by many liberal and progressive observers as unworthy of a true religious spirit.
But it would be misguided to simply continue the 19th century tradition and label these aspects as aberrations of an otherwise pure religiosity. As Suzanne K. Kaufman has shown, republicans used the controversy around Lourdes to construct a dichotomy between an acceptable private, nostalgic religiosity and its debased modern public forms in order to “relegate its practices to the margins of modern political and economic life”. (80)
The background for this was that the developments at Lourdes and other Marian apparition sites challenged the monopoly of the secular world view for presenting viable visions for modernity and progress. Marian apparitions showed that reactionary values could go very well with modern technology, mass media and the market. The apparitions themselves were also highly political, not only in the sense that they brought existing tensions to the fore as in the case of violent clashes between Catholics and state troops following claims of Marian apparitions during the German Kulturkampf, but innately through the messages conveyed by the seers to the people.
Academia is increasingly taking “strong religion” (Almond et al. 2003) into account, yet the preconceptions about what the term is supposed to designate are strongly influenced by militant Islamism and its scripture based forms of fundamentalism that dominate the news since 9/11. Marian apparitions, however, are not primarily rooted in scripture but distinctively modern. Mary, the mother of God, appears in the here and now with a message tailored to the circumstances of the time, often choosing places undergoing drastic transformation: Fatima called for a bulwark against communism, La Salette summoned to a disciplined Christian life on the brink of the 1848 revolution. The still on-going messages at Medjugorje that started a decade before the Balkan war spread the message of peace as did the apparition of Mary in Kibeho, where one of the major genocides of the Rwandan war took place.
At Lourdes, the Assumptionists realized the political potential of the Marian apparition site when they chose the National Pilgrimage as their key instrument for driving forth their mission of re-Christianizing French society from individual to government. Also, what is overlooked when speaking in derogatory terms about the devotional kitsch associated with Marian apparition shrines is that these mass produced items could powerfully forge and express identity as they served as “a rival set of emblems” (Blackbourn, 1993: 27) to the omnipresent national symbols of allegiance like the Tricolour.
Of course, the status of Marian apparitions is highly contested. Catholics are not obliged to believe in any of the accepted apparitions, and not only rationalists may find it difficult to believe that God sends Mary today to speak on day-to-day politics. Yet one should keep in mind that those who write off Marian apparitions as degenerated forms of religion and hence as imagined have an agenda, too. Religion, politics, modernity and the market do not come in neat boxes, and we should be wary of anyone trying to package these terms according to their needs. Marian apparitions are an underestimated phenomenon of modernity that can shed new light on the contested conceptualisation and construction of religion from the 19th century onwards.
Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World, by Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan. University of Chicago Press, 2003
Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century Germany, by David Blackbourn. Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
Consuming Visions: Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine, by Suzanne K. Kaufman. Cornell University Press, 2005