Shrines in Europe

Europe has a particularly rich spiritual history and many European countries continue to draw thousands of pilgrims to this day. Most of the popular shrines commemorate contemporary apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrims have come to these shrines from all over the world, hoping for healing or spiritual refreshment, or simply to satisfy their own curiosity.

Ireland

Our Lady of Knock has become a major shrine in the west of Ireland, near Connemara, in County Mayo. In 1859, in the small village of Knock, the Blessed Virgin appeared to fifteen villagers near the local parish church. It was a “silent” apparition: Mary did not speak. The spot has since become a center of Irish Catholicism, and Knock has become so popular that it now has an airport to welcome visitors.

Also in Ireland is a famed natural monument to St. Patrick — Croagh Patrick is a mountain 2,500 feet high a few miles inland from Clew Bay on the west coast in County Mayo. The statue of St. Patrick guards the ascent to the mountain, the most sacred in Ireland.

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Croagh Patrick has been a pilgrimage site since the fifth century, when Patrick spent the forty days of Lent on its peak, praying and fasting. Today, every year on the last Sunday in July, as many as 60,000 people climb the mountain, some in bare feet, many ailing, seeking healing and spiritual growth.

Although the first part of the climb is not that difficult, the second leg can be exhausting, as movement slows and becomes labored. Be prepared:it takes five hours to climb Croagh Patrick, going up and then back down again. At the summit, however, is a magnificent view of the west and a small chapel, which, besides offering an opportunity for prayer, is a welcome refuge on a drizzly or chilly day.

Lourdes, France

This town of 18,000 in southwestern France on the edge of the Pyrenees is the site of one of the most famous shrines in Christendom. Between February and July 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to a young shepherdess, Bernadette Soubirous, who at the time of the first apparition was collecting firewood along the river Gave. One month after that vision, some 20,000 people followed Bernadette to the river, but she was the only one who saw Mary.

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In one of the apparitions, Bernadette was instructed to drink and bathe from a spring that wasn't there. It started flowing the next day. This spring evolved into the miracle baths at Lourdes. There have been more than 5,000 cures reported from these waters, but the Church officiallyrecognizes only sixty-six.

In March, just a month after the apparitions began, Bernadette was asked to have a chapel built to honor the Virgin Mary, who told the girl, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Today the complex at Lourdes attracts several million pilgrims and tourists annually.

Fatima, Portugal

Located in a small town about 100 miles north of Lisbon, this is the second most popular shrine in Europe after Lourdes. Fatima is the site where the Virgin is said to have appeared on May 13, 1917, to three shepherd children: Lucia dos Santos and her two cousins, Francesco and Jacinta Marto.

The three claimed to have seen a woman standing on a cloud in an evergreen tree. Her message directed the faithful to pray for peace (at that time the Great War was being waged in Europe). She asked the children to return on the thirteenth of each month until October.

Word of the vision spread. On October 13 there were an estimated 70,000 people in the field awaiting the apparition. Mary was visible only to the children, but many claimed to witness the “miracle of the sun.” A golden ball of light twirled in the heavens and then plunged toward the earth before rising back to the sky. Those who witnessed this fell on the ground in terror, believing that the world was coming to an end.

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At Fatima, the Virgin Mary is said to have correctly predicted the rise and fall of Communism, as well as World War II. The visions began duringWorld War I, and she told the children that although the current war would end, a worse war would follow.

The apparitions at Fatima are said to be closely associated with “secrets,” which were not to be revealed until specific times. The third secret was supposed to be revealed in 1960, but when Pope John XXIII opened the message containing the secret he read it and quickly resealed it. Every pope since then has read the message, but the contents remained a mystery.

This has led the faithful to believe that the message included information about an apocalyptic event and, especially at the turn of the millennium, many called for the disclosure of the secret. The third secret was finally revealed at Fatima in May of 2000 when Pope John Paul II presided at the beatification ceremony of Francesco and Jacinta (Sr. Lucy was still alive at the time). The third secret, he said, involved the shooting of a bishop dressed in white, which the pope interpreted as the assassination attempt on his own life in 1981 in Rome.

Like Lourdes, the apparitions that occurred at Fatima are viewed as “accredited” by the Roman Catholic Church, but the faithful are not required to believe in the apparitions or the healings associated with them. The last of the three “seers,” Sr. Lucy dos Santos, died on February 13, 2005. She was ninety-seven years old. The case for her canonization has not yet been opened, as the Church generally waits five years after a death to begin the process.

Rome, Italy

St. Peter's Basilica is a magnificent structure, originally constructed as a church to house the tomb of St. Peter, by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The original building was repeatedly damaged by fire and then rebuilt. Then in the sixteenth century Pope Julius II asked the noted architect Bramante to draw up plans for a new basilica.

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After John Paul II survived the assassination attempt at St. Peter's Square, he visited the shrine at Fatima and deposited bullet fragments into the crown of a statue of the Virgin Mary. He credited her with his survival. The assassination attempt occurred on May 13, 1981, the anniversaryof the first apparition at Fatima.

The dome was designed by Michelangelo, who also painted the ceiling. The canopy over the altar is from the later architect and master, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who, in the seventeenth century, also designed the ellipse outside that is St. Peter's Square. The basilica contains the tombs of many popes. All of the buildings in the religious complex are part of Vatican City, an independent state within the city of Rome.

Outside the Vatican there are other “must-see” churches in Rome: the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, and St. Paul's Outside the Walls, where St. Paul of Tarsus is buried.

Figure 17-4: St. Peter's Basilica

Czestochowa, Poland

Our Lady of Czestochowa (pronounced cheshta-HO-va), or the Jasna Gora shrine, is named for the abbey of the Pauline Brothers where it is situated. It is also known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna is not, as some think, of African origin. The icon, probably brought from Byzantium, has never been cleaned or polished.

Czestochowa is an industrial city of about 250,000 in south-central Poland. The Madonna's role in nearby Jasna Gora (Hill of Light) came about in the fourteenth century when Prince Ladislaus Opolszyk was transporting the icon, which historians say is a ninth-century Greek or Greek-Italian work, from the Ukraine to Opala. At Czestochowa he stayed overnight at the Jasna Gora abbey, storing the portrait. In the morning the wagon holding it would not move. Ladislaus took that as a sign it was meant to stay in Czestochowa, and he built a chapel there to display it and a monastery for monks to care for it.

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The icon in Czestochowa is slightly damaged: the Virgin Mary's cheek contains scars, created by bandits. When they attempted to steal the icon, it became so heavy that they could not carry it. In a fit of rage, they slashed the Virgin's cheeks and threw the icon into a ravine.

Our Lady of Czestochowa was declared the Queen of Poland in 1656. It is the nation's principal shrine, which was much loved by Pope John Paul II. On major feast days, as many as 500,000 people make the pilgrimage to Jasna Gora to venerate the icon, and this tradition remained strong even during the Communist and German occupations when religious pilgrimages were extremely risky.

Medjugorje, Herzegovina

On June 24, 1981, in the Croatian mountain village of Medjugorje (med JOO -gaw-ree), the Virgin Mary appeared to six children — and continues to do so. The apparitions have occurred at both the original site and in the village church of St. James. Identifying herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace, she has asked for reconciliation and prayer. She has also said, “I have come to tell the world that God exists.” Many who have visited Medjugorje have experienced healing and spiritual growth.

Ever cautious, the Roman Catholic Church has no formal position on these apparitions, although Pope John Paul II has visited the site, and some bishops have spoken favorably of it. Medjugorje has become so popular that it currently competes with Fatima and Lourdes as a pilgrimage site, despite the ravages of war surrounding it. According to a Wall Street Journal article from November 9, 1992, “The war has enhanced Medjugorje's fame as an oasis of peace and mystery.”

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