It is a long time since I made a pilgrimage to a place of Marian apparitions. I had previously been to Lourdes and Fatima, and was struck by the intensity of people offering their prayers and asking for favours, especially healing from sickness.
Pontmain is less known, but is nearer my home in the direction of Brittany. Its history is set in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War declared by Napoleon III in 1870. Pontmain was then a tiny village of some 500 inhabitants, typical of many places around here in the Mayenne. Two young boys were helping their parents do some work in their barn. When one, Eugène, looked out of the door towards the starry sky, he saw an apparition of a woman wearing a blue gown covered with golden stars, and a black veil under a golden crown. The full story can be seen here.
On the same evening, the Prussian army ceased to advance towards Laval under superior orders. This apparition marked the end of the war. The apparition was quickly approved by the Bishop of Laval and the parish priest of Pontmain. This place is associated with a sign of hope in the midst of war. Quite a few pilgrims from Germany visit the shrine as well as those of us living nearby. Indeed, I heard German spoken by some people around me as I found a place in the church to spend what I hoped would be a quiet moment.
It was Pentecost Sunday and there were about a hundred people on the square in front of the church. There were two bishops in copes and mitres. I noticed how conservatively they were vested. There were many young men in cassocks and religious habits and also a large number of nuns and sisters. There had been the Synod of the Diocese of Laval. There had been a ceremony in the church and they quickly moved to the hall where they would have their meeting and talk business.
My own impression was that there were many people engaged in their prayers for this or that intention, as I was. There were a few strangely dressed people with a behaviour that suggested some degree of fanaticism or crankiness. I was not in clerical dress for the reason of avoiding being noticed and asked the usual questions of what community I belonged to or what I was doing in France being an Anglican. At the same time, the young men in cassocks and religious habits talked in small groups seemingly impervious to any world around them. The cassocks seemed to indicate the Communauté Saint-Martin who are charged with a parish in Laval. These are not traditionalists but conservative mainstream Roman Catholics.
I felt quite alienated from this ecclesiastical world and found it best to have decided to dress casually and anonymously. Going into the shrine church, many people were chatting in groups like in the supermarket, completely oblivious to anyone who might want to pass through the group blocking the way. We were all wearing masks as required by the Covid crisis. What I felt around this community of diocesan Catholics was an invisible wall, them inside and the rest of us hardly even existing. That was just an impression. I talked with no one, recognised no one, and reminded myself that I was not there to meet people but to combine a pilgrimage with an afternoon away from home.
Is there a certain hollowness in this expression of Christianity? Who am I to judge? Am I any different from them? I doubt it, apart from my feeling of alienation from a Church I never really converted to. I surmised that I might feel the same way in Walsingham with a pilgrimage of Church of England people. Yet, Pontmain is much less crowded than Lourdes and Fatima. They are places that concentrate practising Catholics, the curious and those who are seeking help for particular problems, especially health. I went with the idea of sitting somewhere quietly to say Vespers, but there were too many people, too much bustling and too much noise. The breviary stayed in my pocket.
I returned home feeling quite unfulfilled, even though I had expected little. Again it is the question of those who need other people to find spiritual energy, and others who find it within themselves and their solitude with God. Is there any real difference between a place where something miraculous happened in the past and any other place? Historical events do leave their imprint in a place. I found the same thing in reverse with places associated with evil like Dachau concentration camp near Munich or Oradour sur Glane where the SS murdered the entire population of the village. However, here in Pontmain, the beauty and grace of Our Lady seemed to be elusive, almost as if it had “worn away”.