News Analysis

Why the Vatican has stepped in at Lourdes

Last week was very eventful, especially insofar as the politics of ecclesiastical crisis and scandal are concerned, so it is quite possible readers missed a significant item out of the Vatican, regarding the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. On Thursday, the Holy See put the popular pilgrimage site under the control of a special delegate.

Some media reported the development as a “takeover” of the popular and beloved sanctuary. A few Catholic outlets made much of Pope Francis’s choice for his delegate: Bishop Antoine Hérouard, auxiliary of Lille and president of the European bishops’ social affairs commission, who has expressed concern over the rise of populist and Eurosceptic political movements and described the debate over the Christian roots of Europe as “no longer relevant”.

The story, however, is far more complex than the political leanings of a man appointed to do an apolitical job. It is connected in significant ways with a key facet of the pressing crisis in the Church: how to manage the tension inherent in being in the world – hence the need to practice good stewardship and sometimes face unpleasant realities – without becoming worldly?

Since the miraculous apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a French peasant girl, St Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes has grown into a vast complex that sprawls over more than 50 hectares (123 acres), comprising 22 distinct worship spaces. The most important site within the Lourdes complex is still the grotto where Our Lady appeared to the 14-year-old Bernadette, telling her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The waters of Lourdes, which flow from a spring St Bernadette discovered in the grotto, are renowned for their healing powers. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims seek healing in mind and body at the site each year.

But the shrine has seen a steep drop in the number of organised diocesan pilgrimages over the past decade or so. Even with a fairly significant uptick in “private” pilgrimages, ie individuals, families, or groups not associated with any local Church, the numbers haven’t been what they once were. For several years, the shrine operated at a loss.

Appointed in 2012 to the See of Tarbes and Lourdes, which controls and operates the shrine, Bishop Nicolas Brouwet audited the diocese and the sanctuary, and found a difficult situation. In 2016, the bishop hired Thierry Lucereau – a practising Catholic with two decades’ experience in reorganising and streamlining corporate structures for better business performance – to help restore a measure of stability. Then, in April 2017, Bishop Brouwet brought in Guillaume de Vulpian, a former Renault executive with experience in human resources, to succeed Lucerau in the work of lowering costs and increasing visitors.

According to La Croix International, Vulpian implemented aggressive cost-cutting measures not universally well-received among the staff. He decided not to fill several staff positions that became vacant when employees retired. Those sorts of measures may be necessary, but they are never easy. They sound not unlike those which the Vatican has been implementing over the past several years in the Roman Curia, especially at the former Vatican Radio and in the communications dicastery, where this Vatican-watcher cut his teeth. La Croix International also reported complaints from pilgrimage directors, of an “overly entrepreneurial” attitude at the shrine. A case-in-point adduced by La Croix was the installation of burners which were compatible only with candles purchased in the shrine.

Perhaps more severe than anyone would have liked, those efforts appear to have been successful, in the main. The concern now is that Lourdes not lose its character as a privileged place of healing and spiritual renewal.

Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, explained that the sole motive driving the decision is the twin concern for the spiritual well-being of pilgrims and the flourishing of the shrine. “Pope Francis,” Tornielli wrote last week in an editorial note published at vaticannews.va, “wishes to accentuate the spiritual primacy over the temptation to overemphasize the managerial and financial aspect; and wants to promote ever more the popular devotion that is traditional in sanctuaries.” Tornielli explained that Hérouard’s appointment – which followed a visit to the shrine and sanctuary by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation – is temporary.

Bishop Brouwet welcomed the development, saying: “This nomination is a testament to the Pope’s interest in our sanctuary.” He also clarified that the scope of the delegation is limited to the sanctuary. “During his tenure at the shrine,” Bishop Brouwet wrote in his statement, “Bishop Hérouard will preside over the Lourdes Council and make all the decisions that seem appropriate for the life of the sanctuary. Nothing changes, however, for our diocese.”

Lourdes devotees in particular, and Church-watchers in general, might wonder why the Vatican did not give things more of a chance to settle down in the wake of what were very significant reforms, before charging in and taking control. On the other hand, the Church has hard lessons to learn about letting problems fester.