The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. Pontmain part 2

AT the beginning of this account we have seen the Apparition of Pontmain appearing as against two backgrounds, one of history and one of prayer.

We will resume the lines of these backgrounds, dealing first with the historic one.

As has been said, the Prussians, already in the Mayenne, were preparing to march on Laval. They were even in sight of the town, their leader, General Schmidt, having been ordered to take it. Indeed, so sure did the German general feel of success, that he had already fixed the sum to be levied on the conquered town at 3,000,000 francs.

The capital of the Mayenne, at this juncture, was not altogether without defence. The remnant of the army of Le Mans, under General Chanzy, was within it preparing to repel an attack. But while chiefs were heroic and prepared for any effort, the soldiers under them were weakened and discouraged by defeat and privation. Moreover, the town was unprotected by forts. In short, the taking of Laval by the enemy seemed certain.

On the evening of the ever-memorable January 17th, 1871, the Commander of the Prussian forces, having taken up his quarters at the archiepiscopal palace of Le Mans, said to Mgr. Pillion, bishop of that diocese: "By this time my troops are at Laval." He was reckoning according to human foresight.

On that same evening the Prussian troops in sight of Laval stopped suddenly, and were never to take an onward step. They stopped at half-past five o'clock, about the time when the Apparition first appeared above Pontmain, a few miles off. The diary of the German staff records the fact as follows : "On the i8th, the column of Alvensleben, in the possession of about a hundred prisoners, abandoning the posts of observation at La Chapelle-Rainsouin, Soulge-le-Bruant, and Bazougers, took up its quarters behind the Vaiges."

On this January 19th, therefore, the Retreat of the Vaiges commenced, though the surrounding country was not at once cleared of Prussian soldiery ; nor did Laval feel certain of its fate until two or three days later.

It would have been as difficult for the Germans as for the French to explain this sudden change of tactics on the part of the German leader. Words attributed to General Schmidt on the occasion, and cited by each of the historians of the Apparition of Pontmain, as well as by the Semaine Religicuse of Laval, have their significance. The Prussian general is reported to have said on the morning of the 18th : " We cannot go farther. Yonder, in the direction of Brittany, there is an invisible Madonna barring the way."

This sudden and inexplicable stopping of the German forces in sight of Laval, and their as inexplicable retirement the following morning, meant, together with the saving of Brittany, the turning back of the tide of conquering soldiery from that part of France. The war was practically at an end. Twelve days later the armistice was signed at Versailles.

We are not obliged to see in these facts other than coincidences — but we may be allowed to look upon these coincidences as providential.

Having limned the historic background to the Apparition at Pontmain, we will take up the still broader lines belonging to the background of prayer. We have seen how the movement of prayer for France had become more intense during the terrible month of January, and how it had become especially intense in the threatened provinces of Brittany and Maine.

At Saint-Brieux, a town not far from Pontmain, and now connected with it by more than one religious tie, on the evening of January 17th, at between five and six o'clock, a vow to Heaven was made, having for object the speedy deliverance of France from the invader. Fervent prayer in connection with the circumstance continued until nine o'clock.

The capital was not behindhand in the crusade for forcing Heaven's hand in the national emergency. With the consent of, and even at the wish of, the Archbishop of Paris, January 17th had been fixed as the day for the beginning of a novena at the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires to obtain the cessation of hostilities. At the eleventh hour, changing his mind as to the date, Mgr. Darboy sent word to say that he wished the nine days' prayer to begin three days' later, that is on the 2Oth. In order not to disappoint the people, as matters had gone so far, it was arranged with the Archbishop or with one of his vicars-general that the three days preceding the 2Oth should be employed in a solemn Triduum preparatory to the novena. This Triduum, therefore, commenced on the evening of January 17th. On this occasion the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires was full. The priest in the pulpit was Abbe Laurent Amodru, sub-director of the Archconfraternity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. His theme, as was to be expected, was the then calamitous state of France. Numbers of those who listened to him had faces pinched through want: distress and tension of mind were the lot of all. Suddenly changing his subject, as if obeying some secret impulse, the preacher exclaimed : " We will now all implore the Blessed Virgin's assistance ; and we will not leave this temple consecrated to her glory without having solemnly promised her a silver ex voto, which shall tell to future generations how on this evening, between eight and nine o'clock, a whole people, prostrate at her feet was saved, by her."

The impulse that had led the preacher to speak thus seemed to have embraced in its action those who listened. All were thrilled, carried away, and a prey to strong emotion. The project concerning the ex voto was responded to at once, numbers insisting on contributing towards it their mite there and then. This was when famine was more than threatening the population of Paris.

In the assembly that had listened to Abbe Amodru's words, hope had revived, and even some thing like joy was felt.

It was about a quarter before nine o'clock as the congregation was leaving the church. Someone in the crowd then said : " The Blessed Virgin cannot be insensible to such an act of faith as this. In a week's time we shall have peace." These words, which proved to be prophetic, expressed the thoughts of many. He to whom they were addressed was one holding an important position under government, no other than M. Martel, Controleur des Monnaies. This gentleman went home and at once began a letter to Abbe Laurent Amodru. He was already at the task as the clock struck nine. In the letter he penned the following passage : " We have, thanks to you and to Notre-Dame des Victoires, waited, with a degree of calmness equalling our resignation, the hour marked by Providence for the deliverance of our unhappy country. That hour has struck this evening. Something tells me so.— MARTEL, Controleur des Monnaies"

He who thus wrote had never heard of Pontmain. It is probable that no one in the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires that evening had ever heard of it. Yet, just as the congregation, with new-born hope at heart, had been leaving the privileged Paris shrine, a little crowd, entranced and awe-stricken by the celestial drama at which they had been assisting, had been rising from their knees at Pontmain.

Twelve days later, and on the closing day of the novena at Notre-Dame des Victoires, according to the date fixed by Mgr. Darboy, the armistice be tween France and Germany was signed at Versailles.

The words "Divine coincidence," already used in the course of this narrative, find their application here. Time has brought into full light the facts just related. We may say concerning them what Pius IX. said concerning devotion to Notre-Dame des Victoires at a previous period of its history, " The finger of God is here."

Concerning the symbolic character of the Appari tion of Pontmain, about which much has been written, we will draw attention to the fact of the crosses.

These, four in number, the red one and the two white ones, and the ensanguined crucifix, as seen by the children at different moments, offer a wide field for interpretation. The Apparition on the Alpine mountain twenty-five years before had appeared to Melanie and Maximin with a crucifix on her breast, and the prophetic message then put forth had said that the woes it predicted were as nothing compared with what would happen were France not to turn from the error of her ways. A quarter of a century later, France had not turned from the error of her ways ; her desecration of the Sunday had in no way ceased ; so that, crushed and despoiled beneath the heel of the Germans, she seemed to those with the message of La Salette in their minds to be paying a debt to retributive justice.

In short, the message of La Salette seemed to be having, in part, its fulfilment.

An impression to this effect was prevalent among the terror-stricken populations of Normandy, Brittany, Maine and Anjou, and especially after the battle of Le Mans.

"It is the secret of La Salette that is break ing upon us ! " said the religious-minded peasants of La Vendee. Certain houses were marked on the outside by a cross, accompanied by the invocation : " Our Lady of La Salette, withhold your Son's arm ! "

To those whose views were coloured by such a way of thinking, it must be admitted that certain facts belonging to this period seemed to afford reason for belief that the God of armies was punishing the French people. To cite but a single instance, from August, 1870, to the end of January, 1871, defeat after defeat happened to France on a Sunday, as if in punishment of that Sunday profanation in the past which Pius IX. had not hesitated to denounce as the French nation's mortal sin.

There is a close connection of ideas between the Apparition of Pontmain and that of La Salette.

The cross and signs of woe and penance enter into the symbolic teaching of each ; yet the leading-import of the message of each differs. The Dies irce, by Mount Gargas seems to die upon the ear as one listens to the words of celestial hope that breathe over the world from Pontmain.

RUMOURS of the Apparition at Pontmain quickly sped, and people began flocking to the spot from various parts. They went to see and to pray. One of the earliest visitors there was General de Charette, who, three months before, had so heroically defended the banner of the Sacred Heart on the blood-stained field of Loigny. He went in company with one or two other Pontifical Zouaves, and wrote in the visitor's book : " I believe."

Mgr. Wicart, Bishop of Laval, lost no time in appointing an Ecclesiastical Commission to enquire into the great event that was said to have taken place at Pontmain. This body began its work the following March. The four voyants were then subjected to the strictest examination, and with the result that in their united testimony no weak point could be discovered. The persons who had seen and heard them on the memorable evening of January 17th were also examined.

The examining body, composed entirely of priests, was, after weighing evidence, unanimous in opinion concerning the reality of the Apparition.

The Bishop of Laval, though sharing the views of these ecclesiastics, instead of pronouncing doctrin-ally at once, appointed a second Ecclesiastical Commission to enquire into the same matter.

This body began its work the following Novem ber, and at the bishop's palace at Laval, instead of at Pontmain, two of its members being M. Sebaux, about to become Bishop of Angouleme, and M. Sauve, soon to be Rector of the Catholic University of Angers.

The result of the labours of the second commis sion was then submitted to a third one, whose especial task was to deal with all questions to which the subject might give rise from the triple point of view of sound theology, philosophic certainty, and judicial form.

Recourse was then had to a fourth commission, one composed entirely of medical men, who, sitting at the bishop's palace and beneath the bishop's eye, were called upon to judge the matter from a purely physiological and medical point of view. The unanimous conclusion of these men of science was that the children's vision of January lyth, 1871, wa's to be explained by no hallucination or optical delusion, nor by any morbid state of the brain.

These children had admirably borne the ordeal to which they had been subjected. It has been said on this subject that their testimony was as a block

of granite on which no impression could be made in the way of breaking or splitting.

It was now for the Bishop of Laval to speak formally, which he did in a pastoral letter dated the following February.

But Pontmain had not waited until then in order to become a site of pilgrimage. Pilgrims had been flocking thither the previous summer, sometimes as many as a thousand at a time.

Mgr. Wicart's pastoral letter, which, with the document that followed it, was ordered to be read in all the churches and chapels of the diocese of Laval on Sunday, February 2nd, 1872, dealt with the details of the event of Pontmain and with the canonical enquiries to which that event had given rise.

Then followed the bishop's profession of faith in the Apparition. " Considering," he says, " that it shows in itself and its attendant circumstances the characteristics of a Divine and supernatural fact, we declare as follows :—

" ARTICLE I.—We consider that the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God, really appeared on January i/th, 1871, to Eugene Barbedette, Joseph Barbedette, Francoise Richer, and Jeanne-Marie Lebosse in the hamlet of Pontmain. In all humility and obedience, we submit this our decision to the judgment of the Holy and Apostolic See.

"ARTICLE II. —We authorise in our diocese devotion to the Blessed Virgin under the title of that of Notre-Dame c£ Esperance de Pontmain.

" ARTICLE III.—We expressly reserve to our selves the right of approving all formula? of prayers and hymns and all books bearing upon the Apparition.

"ARTICLE IV.—In answer to wishes expressed to us on all sides, we have conceived the plan of erecting a sanctuary in honour of Mary on the spot above which the Apparition appeared."

The sanctuary designated in the bishop's pastoral was to take the proportions of a magnificent church, subscriptions for which began coming in at once.

The foundation stone of the new building was laid in June, 1873, the ceremony being the occasion of religious celebrations which lasted five days.

That year—1873—saw upwards of 100,000 pilgrims and visitors to Pontmain. It saw also the death of Abbe Guerin, the much-esteemed parish priest of the favoured spot.

The spiritual direction of the parish, with its increasing requirements, then passed into the hands of four members of the congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the number of whom has increased with time, and who from then till now have never ceased carrying on an admirable apostolate for the good of souls, and for the glory of Her of whose shrine they are the zealous and devoted guardians.

Three years afterwards, Mgr. Wicart, resigning through age and infirmity his spiritual functions, was succeeded in the bishopric of Laval by Mgr. Le Hardy du Marais, who took possession of his See in October, 1876, and shortly afterwards paid a visit to Pontmain.

On the occasion of this visit, the prelate told the people gathered round him that, after the Franco-German war and the Commune, he had gone on a pilgrimage to La Salette, and that there, communing with her who, a quarter of a century before, had foretold the evils that were to befall France, he had heard, as it were, an interior voice telling him to go to Pontmain. He added that, at the time, he was far from imagining that he would ever go there in the quality of bishop of the diocese.

Mgr. Le Hardy du Marais raised the Confraternity of prayer for children, which had been established by his predecessor in connection with the fact of the Apparition, into one for persons of all ages, and gave it the title of that of Notre-Dame d'Esperance (Our Lady of Hope) of Pontmain.

Shortly afterwards, at the feet of the Holy Father, he obtained for the new association certain im portant favours, one of which was that Pius IX. almost immediately raised it to the dignity of an Archconfraternity. "There it is," said His Holi ness, in reply to a remark from Mgr. Le Hardy, and pointing at the same time to a silver statue of Notre-Dame de Pontmain, which had been presented to him the year before by the diocese of Laval. " Every day/' continued the Pontiff, "I pray to her whom it represents. She is my stay and my strength."

Meanwhile, the memorial church at Pontmain was growing to stately proportions, a portion of it being ready to be opened for public worship.

The solemn blessing of the new building took place June 26th, 1876.

Ten bishops, as well as other church dignitaries, took part in the ceremony.

On this occasion, Mgr. Freppel, Bishop of Angers, in the open air and before avast multitude, preached one of his most eloquent sermons.

Taking for his text the Psalmist's words, Ex ore infantium et lactentium perfecisti laudem propter inimicos tuos, he said : " If, in the course of ages, the words of the king-prophet have had their fulfilment, they are especially being fulfilled in the times in which we live. During the last thirty years, childhood seems to be the chosen organ for Divine communications. It was to two little cow herds in the Alps that the Mother of Mercy spoke those solemn words of warning, to which a quarter of a century of subsequent scourges and calamities serve as one of the most luminous and terrible of commentaries.

" A little less than twelve years later, in a grotto of the Pyrenees, we see the Immaculate Virgin making choice of a poor little peasant girl (Bernadette Soubirous) to be the instrument of one of the greatest religious movements ever known.

" A few years later, at the darkest moment of our national calamities, here, above the spot on which we are assembled, the Queen of Heaven appeared to four little children, and through them conveyed a message to our country. Thus, three times in less than half a century, at La Salette, at Lourdes, and at Pontmain, God has been pleased to perfect praise by the mouths of infants. It is precisely this that disconcerts human wisdom. At the sight of such humble instruments chosen for such great designs, pride and false science revolt. Should not such privileges be reserved for the great ones of the earth? is asked. Alas, the vanity of human judgments ! The weaker the means God employs, the more is His all-powerfulness shown forth.

"This truth was in the apostle's mind when he said: ' Infirma mundi elegit Deus ut confundat fortia."

"The marvel that took place above this spot is to me no matter for astonishment. It receives striking confirmation from events of which we are witnesses ; from the majestic building before us, which has risen to its present stage as if by magic ; from the number of pilgrims who come here from surrounding parts ; from the spiritual and temporal favours granted by Heaven to visitors at this shrine, and from the honours rendered to Notre-Dame de Pontmain after the most scrupulous examination of the circumstances of the Apparition on the part of the diocesan authorities. These facts are so many signs showing us that we are in presence of an authentic manifestation of Divine power."

The remembrance of this week's religious rejoicings lingered long in the minds of the people of Pontmain.

Bishop Freppel, in his masterly discourse, had alluded to the favours, spiritual and temporal, which Divine mercy had granted to prayer in connection with the new shrine. This response on Heaven's part was to continue.

Before stopping to consider a few of these signal favours, we will go on tracing in its leading lines the progress of the building that was to tell in stone to future ages the history of the Apparition of 1871.

Nearly fourteen years had to pass before the church was sufficiently advanced to admit of its towers being begun. The laying of the first stones of these towers in 1891 was the occasion of another imposing religious ceremony, drawing together ecclesiastical notabilities from different parts. The towers rose tall, slender, graceful, and crowning an edifice of purest Gothic.

Five years more and we are on October 11th, 1896, another memorable date in the annals of Pontmain. That day, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apparition, was to be celebrated as a silver jubilee. Moreover, on this occasion, a peal of twenty-five bells, one of the finest in France, belonging to the commemorative church, by this time raised to the dignity of a Roman basilica, were to receive their liturgical consecration.

The bells, decked in robes of ceremony, stood waiting. Some were in lace and some in cloth of gold. Some were named after French provinces, as the " Normandie," the "Maine" and the "Anjou" ; and some after towns, as the " Marseillaise" the " Rouennaise" and the " Bordelaise" The great bell, or bourdon, was the "France"

At the ceremony of the morning, which comprised the liturgical blessing of the bells, the beautiful church was full from end to end, the scene of splendour it presented being heightened by the effect of its stained glass windows, representing the different phases of the Apparition.

When the bells had been solemnly blessed, they made their voices heard. The bourdon chimed Te Deum Laudamus, te Dominum confitemur. The " Immaculee" sang sweetly with her voice of metal, Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Deus Sabaoth! The "Bretagne" as the voice of Brittany, sang triumphantly, Tu Rex gloriae Christe. The Henriette-Odette-Marguerite, in the name of Paris, said Dexteram Dei sedes in gloria Patris. And so with the remainder of the twenty-five bells and their respective tasks.

These notes, grand and sweet enough to seem a revival of the bell-music of the middle ages, echoed through the vale of Pontmain and over the surrounding forest land of Normandy, Brittany, and Maine.

Two years later there was another important religious ceremonial at Pontmain, the occasion being the promulgation of the Papal Brief changing the title of the Archconfraternity there estab lished, from that of Notre-Dame d'Esperance to that of Notre-Dame de la Priere (Our Lady of Prayer). The association was then enriched with fresh indulgences.

In the last year of the nineteenth century, the basilica of Pontmain, with its spires looking at a distance like lace in stone, was the scene of another important ceremony. On October i5th, 1900, its liturgical consecration took place at the hands of Mgr. Geay, Bishop of Laval, assisted by Mgr. Leroy, Bishop of Alinda, and Mgr. Meunier, Bishop of Evreux.

From - The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century (1904) by Bernard St John