At the end of a serpentine road that clings to the hillside it twists along, perched on a slab of land that juts out from the mountain, pilgrims will find the austere Basilica of Our Lady of La Salette. Found high among the French Alps, nine miles from the nearest village, the location is an unlikely spot for a structure of its size. Its raison d’être? The church is a monument to the place where tears flowed from heaven.
On September 19, 1846, two French peasant children, Mélanie Clavet and Maximim Girard, alleged to have seen a “beautiful lady” sitting on a boulder and crying inconsolably. The children were wary to investigate the scene further until the woman beckoned them nearer and told them to have no fear. After conversing with the lady, the children learned the reason for her tears. Much of her family had estranged themselves from her son through blasphemy and the neglect of the Lord’s day.
The crying woman expressed to the children her deep concern for the sparse attendance at Mass. Work and other activities crowded the Sunday calendar, leaving churches empty. Perhaps even worse, instead of raising their lips and minds to God, those who skipped Mass uttered the Lord’s name chiefly in blasphemous ways. These twin neglects created a distance within her cosmic family that divided the Church in heaven from the Church on earth. Before departing, the woman expressed her hope that greater awareness of her concern would once again fill the churches.
Like many Marian apparitions, Mary did not introduce herself by name to the visionaries. The context and the purpose of her message made her identity plain.
Today marks the 175th anniversary of the apparition at La Salette. While overshadowed by later more popular apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima, there is hardly a more relevant message for our Church today. For the first time on record, Gallup reported earlier this year that US church membership fell below half of the adult population. Results show that the decline was steepest among Catholics. According to one measure, Catholic participation in religious services (in-person or online) fell more steeply than Protestants during the pandemic. The number of Catholics attending weekly Mass has yet to reach levels seen in 2019.
Pandemic-inspired church closures aside, former Catholics are abandoning the faith in large numbers. Evidence suggests that ex-Catholics make up a large percentage of the “nones,” an expanding group that identifies with no religious affiliation. This website has commented recently here and elsewhere on the rise of this segment within the Catholic population. New evidence suggests that the phenomenon is not limited to younger generations. Older individuals are leaving the Church as well.
Lengthy church closures may well have exasperated the trend. As Russell Shaw highlighted earlier this year, the pandemic has already accelerated a hollowing out of the American Catholic Church.
The “beautiful lady” on the French mountain encouraged her young audience to spread her message of concern throughout the countryside. The faithfulness of the two children to what they had witnessed sparked a religious enthusiasm in the place where news of the apparition had spread. Perhaps even more than before, 175 years after the apparition, that same message must re-echo throughout this country and beyond.
Much of the “new evangelization” will involve the reversion of former Catholics or uncatechized children of Catholic parents. If you know someone who has strayed from the faith, or never received a proper introduction, consider raising the prospect of their returning to Mass. Merely mentioning that you attend Mass yourself can generate an idea that might blossom into action.
On this anniversary, let us entrust our prayers for the many Catholic absentees to Our Lady of La Salette. Inspired by her maternal care, we can help reconcile the Church’s lost children.
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