Stories of decline, church closures and a shortage of priests are a regular feature of Catholic life in our generation. Despite the apparent gloom there is one area where there seems to be new growth: devotion to Our Lady.
Several months ago I wrote about the exciting and encouraging developments that are taking place at our own national shrine at Walsingham.
It seems that Walsingham is not being renewed in isolation. Shrines of Our Lady around the world are experiencing new growth and interest from a fresh generation of pilgrims who are seeking our Lady’s intercession. Here are some of the lesser known shrines where the future looks very hopeful.
The Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, south India
Often referred to as the Lourdes of the East, devotion to Our Lady at Velankanni can be traced back to the mid-16th century. The foundation of the shrine is attributed to three miracles and apparitions of Our Lady and the Child Jesus. The accounts of the apparitions have been handed down by oral tradition and have not received approval of The Holy See.
The original chapel was a simple thatched building which was built by Portuguese sailors as a thanksgiving. The present main church building has a strikingly gothic exterior and is painted brilliant white which ensures that it stands prominently within its surroundings. The Church was granted the status of a minor basilica by Pope John XIII in 1962.
One unique focus of devotion is Our Lady’s pool. Some time during the 16th century, Our Lady with her infant son was reported to have appeared to a Hindu boy carrying milk to a customer’s home. Our Lady asked for milk for her Son. On reaching the customer’s home, the boy apologised for his lateness and explained why he had less milk than when he set off.
On inspection, the man found the milk pot to be full and realised that something miraculous had happened. Wanting to see the place where the apparition occurred, the man asked the boy to show him the place. When they reached the small pond, Our Lady appeared once again.
The place where the apparition took place is called “Matha Kulam” or Our Lady’s Tank and is now situated in its own covering chapel.
The shrine today has many physical similarities to Lourdes, with a large complex of different chapels and shrines for each of the apparitions. While it is little known in the west, The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health attracts over two million pilgrims each year. This number is growing and pilgrims often come from both Catholic and Hindu communities, making the shrine a place of reconciliation between people from the two faiths.
Our Lady of Mercy, Penrose Park, Australia
The highlands of New South Wales seem at first to be an unlikely place for a shrine of Our Lady to be developed. Yet this shrine has proved a very popular destination for pilgrims. The focus of the shrine is an image of Our Lady of Jasna Gora, known as the Black Madonna. The original icon has been in the care of the Pauline Fathers since 1382.
A Pauline Father, Fr Augustine Lazur, arrived in Australia in 1981 and started the foundations of the shrine three years later.
The main devotion now takes place on the 13th day of each month when a special Fatima Day is celebrated. Often pilgrims can number over a thousand for these events. Each year 70,000 pilgrims visit this isolated spot.
From its foundation the shrine has seen significant developments and has grown in size. Adjacent land has been purchased over the last few years and there is now pilgrimage accommodation. The shrine currently has a building appeal to help with welcoming the number of pilgrims which seems to be increasing year on year.
Basilica of Our Lady of the Forsaken, Valencia, Spain
Situated in the Plaza de La Virgen, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Forsaken is little known outside of this region of Spain and yet has had a huge influence upon the city of Valencia. The present shrine was built on the site of a Roman temple and the exterior does not prepare the visitor for the glorious interior, which is a bit of an assault on the senses. The focus of the shrine today is a gothic statue of Our Lady with two children at her feet, which can be rotated by a mechanical device. Our Lady’s statue has a slight forward tilt which has led to her affectionately being known as the hunchback (Geperdeta).
I visited Valencia in February and there was not a time when the shrine was not crowded with people. The west doors of the church have glass squint windows, allowing pilgrims to pray from the street, and it was humbling to see many shoppers and bypasses stopping at these windows to pray as they went about their daily lives.
The main events in the calendar are the festival of Our Virgin of the Forsaken in May and the Fallas festival which surrounds St Joseph’s feast day in March, both of which attract huge crowds.
The shrine has its origins in a hospital for the mentally ill and abandoned children. Today the shrine is a focus for those who feel that they have been abandoned in life as people seek the intercession of the mother who never abandons them.
During the main festival in May, the statue is taken in procession to the cathedral next door. Rose petals fall from balconies above and people line the square and neighbouring streets to venerate the statue as it passes. The shrine is held in wide affection by the city residents and it has even been known for the city’s famous football team to visit the shrine before an important game.
I was impressed, on my visit, to see how integrated the shrine was in the municipal life of the city and its people. Often I have felt that shrines and holy places can become detached from their local communities as they grow in wider popularity. Here is a shrine which is still very much owned and cherished by the local people.
Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, Wisconsin, USA
This is the only apparition shrine in the US. Adele Brise emigrated with her parents from Belgium in 1855. It was in October 1859 that Adele reported seeing a woman clothed in white and standing between two trees. The following Sunday she saw the woman again while walking the long distance to Mass. Returning from Mass she saw the woman again and asked who she was. The woman replied: “I am the Queen of Heaven, who prayed for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.”
A small chapel was constructed by Adele’s father and a local woman donated several acres of land surrounding the site of the apparition. Due to the growing popularity of the site as a place of pilgrimage, a new brick church was built in 1880.
In 1871 a huge fire began in the area and 2,000 people lost their lives. When the wildfire threatened to destroy the chapel, Adele refused to be evacuated and arranged a procession to seek Our Lady’s protection. While the surrounding area was destroyed, the church and grounds were unharmed.
The buildings today date from 1942 and continue to be developed with a growing number of pilgrims each year. The apparitions were recognised in 2010 by the local bishop, which has helped to increase the popularity of this sacred place.
The largest pilgrimage of the year is at the Assumption when many thousands gather for an outdoor Mass and procession. The present Tudor-style church accommodates around 300 pilgrims and there is a small oratory on the lower level which contains a collection of crutches left behind in thanksgiving.
A fairly newly ordained priest has recently been appointed to care for the shrine and he has plans for the future which seem very exciting. He has also written a litany of the Rosary, which has recently been published and is proving popular.
Could it be that Our Lady is calling people to herself at this time for a reason? Our broken world needs a mother more than ever in these rapidly challenging times. I am deeply encouraged by the growth in devotion to Our Lady and her shrines around the world. There are many other examples that could be added to this list, including many of the well-known centres of devotion. Let us give thanks during this May for Our Lady and pray that through her intercession the Church may be renewed.