A Debate on the Mountain: Our Lady of La Salette
Context on the Debate
In order to illustrate the sound principles which ought to come into play in order to judge the veracity or falsity of private apparitions, we offer our readers, under the form of debate, a free discussion concerning the apparitions of Our Lady of La Salette, France. Our friendly “skirmish” consists of four sections. After giving the context of the apparitions and the topic of debate, an anonymous Advocate will take the side of the opposition. Fr. Dominique Bourmaud will give the defense of the apparitions, before a conclusion summing up the results.
Due to the economy of space, this debate is limited in its scope. It is not concerned with the public text of September 19, 1846. It is not putting into question the secret of Maximin for Pius IX, which concerned mostly his relation with Napoleon III. What is at stake here is the veracity of the apparitions of La Salette taken as a whole. This includes the judgment of the mental and spiritual sanity of the seers, especially Melanie. It also treats the private revelation of Melanie as contained in its definitive form in 1879. This form has been attacked both as to its content and to its diffusion. Regarding the diffusion, indeed, the secret was the object of successive sanctions by the Roman authorities in 1880, 1915, 1922 and 1957. Regarding the content, it must be said that this revelation was written in an apocalyptic and prophetic vein and was susceptible to playing into the hands of Freemasonry against the Catholic Church.
Before we close this introduction and proceed to the debate, we bring up the fact that Traditional Catholics are far from having a uniform opinion regarding the apparition. Some are strongly unfavorable to the private revelation of Melanie, whereas others, like Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who mentions publicly: “Of course, you well know the apparitions of Our Lady at La Salette, where she says that Rome will lose the Faith, that there will be an ‘eclipse’ in Rome; an eclipse, see what Our Lady means by this” (Episcopal Consecrations of June 30, 1988).
Fr. Bourmaud—A Short History of La Salette
A small paddock in the French Alps next to a hamlet called La Salette was the object of much talk in the 19th century. Was it the Blessed Mother who, weeping and dressed in mournful attire with the instruments of the Passion, really appeared to Mélanie Calvat and Maximin Giraud on September 19, 1846?
An enthusiastic wave of approval fell upon this “Sacred Mountain” which received the seal of approval of the local Bishop of Grenoble three years later. Indeed, the only thing divulged at that time to the public was the short Marian message which scolded “the peasants for working on Sunday, to the carriage drivers for swearing and others for going to the butcher shop like dogs during Lent.” There was mention of a famine, and eventually one came to devastate France’s wheat harvest in the 1850s alongside the infamous potato famine in France.
At this juncture, events took a sour turn. The favorable Bishop of Grenoble died and was replaced by one much more suspicious of the apparitions, especially as those who claimed to have seen Our Lady were asked to put to writing a short version of the message she divulged to them in 1851. It was not until 1858 that the apparition allowed one of the seers, Melanie, to reveal the entire Secret of La Salette, which she wrote at different times until the final version was published with the Imprimatur of the Bishop of Lecce, Italy.
The historical context of the alleged apparition is bleak. It was the time of a rabid assault against the Faith (Renan’s blasphemous Life of Jesus was published in 1864 in France) and the Pontifical States in Italy fell. (Napoleon III is mentioned especially in Maximin’s secret to the pope earlier on). Here is an extract of Maximin’s private revelation: “Let the pope not come out of Rome after 1859. Let him distrust Napoleon whose heart is divided and, when he wants to become both pope and emperor, soon God will withdraw from him; he is this eagle which, intent in rising upwards, will fall upon the sword which he wished to use to force nations to elevate him.”
All these versions of Melanie’s secret contain highly suspicious texts which raised more than one eyebrow. For example: “In 1864, Lucifer with a great number of demons will be detached from hell: they will slowly abolish the Faith, including in souls consecrated to God; they will blind them in such a way that, without a special grace, these people will absorb the mindset of these evil angels; several religious houses will totally lose the Faith and will damn many others...Rome will lose the Faith and become the seat of the Antichrist.” Along with this unsettling secret, Melanie also wrote the rule of the Order of the Mother of God, a religious Order which is yet to see the light of day.
At that time, Pius IX and, later on, Leo XIII, showed themselves personally favorable to the apparitions at La Salette and grateful for the secret letters sent to them. Yet, in France’s divided episcopate and in Roman circles, the wind eventually turned against the seers and their alleged private revelations. From then on, it is especially Melanie who was under assault. She was sent into exile in England and made her way into southern Italy where she found powerful allies who saw in her a living saint and a stigmatist. After a long time she finally returned to France, treated by many as a mad woman who should have been committed.
Advocate—Some Concerns about La Salette
As an introduction, allow me to state two things which will color the whole of my response. Firstly, I write primarily as an advocatus diaboli: not someone who is sure of the veracity of the claims either way. Rather, I see enough questions to be raised and answered before a balanced consideration can be reached.
Secondly, I can only emphasize what was printed in Mr. Symonds’s brief catechism. When the Church approves an apparition, it is not a positive approval meaning an imposition of an obligation for the faithful to believe in one or any of them. It simply means that the original message of La Salette, when the Church approved it, was limited to a judgment of nothing against faith and morals at the time.
The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia quotes Pope Benedict XVI on this point: “It is not obligatory nor even possible to give them the assent of Catholic Faith, but only of human faith, in conformity with the dictates of prudence, which presents them to us as probable and worthy of pious belief.”
Let us begin where there is no substantial controversy. In 1846, when Maximin and Melanie, 11 and 14 respectively at the time, first reported their vision, the Church, through the local bishop, went through the normal procedures. While it is true that there was controversy from the beginning—as there seems to be with any private revelation—after several years, the local bishop (Bishop de Bruillard) approved it as worthy of belief.
But there is more to the story. Beyond what was communicated in 1846—the necessity of sanctifying the Lord’s day, the widespread use and tolerance of blasphemy, and the encouragement to pray daily—Our Lady supposedly gave a private revelation to each of the seers. This is precisely where the real controversy begins and where complications arise.
In 1851, five years after the apparition, Bishop de Bruillard asks Maximin and Melanie to commit their secrets to writing so that they might be sent to the Holy Father, who was then Pius IX. Although the secrets were indeed sent to and received by the Holy Father, we have no record of his reaction. Here is a brief quote from Maximin’s secret:
“[T]he Faith will die out in France: three quarters of France will not practice religion anymore, or almost no more...Then, afterward, nations will convert, the Faith will be rekindled everywhere. A great country, now Protestant, in the north of Europe, will be converted; by the support of this country all the other nations of the world will be converted. Before all that arrives, great disorders will arrive in the Church and everywhere. Then, afterward, our Holy Father the pope will be persecuted. His successor will be a pontiff that nobody expects. Then, after, a great peace will come, but it will not last a long time. A monster will come to disturb it. All that I tell you here will arrive in the other century, at the latest in the year 2,000.”
As I write, it is 2019. I leave it to the reader to formulate his own judgment. Melanie’s original private revelation, meaning the one submitted in 1851, is even more specific and dire:
“Paris, this city soiled by all kinds of crimes, will perish infallibly. Marseilles will be destroyed in a little time. When these things arrive, the disorder will be complete on the earth, the world will be given up to its impious passions. The pope will be persecuted from all sides, they will shoot at him, they will want to put him to death, but no one will be able to do it, the Vicar of God will triumph again this time…A great king will go up on the throne, and will reign a few years. Religion will re-flourish and spread all over the world, and there will be a great abundance, the world, glad not to be lacking anything, will fall again into its disorders, will give up God, and will be prone to its criminal passions…Lastly, hell will reign on earth. It will be then that the Antichrist will be born of a Sister, but woe to her! Many will believe in him, because he will claim to have come from Heaven, woe to those who will believe in him! That time is not far away, twice 50 years will not go by.”
What happened to Maximin and Melanie? Maximin died at the age of 39, having tried a vocation and served in the military. He professed his belief in the apparitions until the end, even writing an autobiography defending his account. It is, however, Melanie’s life and actions which primarily concern us.
In 1851, at the age of 20, Melanie took the habit with the Sisters of Providence, where she had boarded for several years. In 1854, the new bishop of Grenoble refused to allow her to be professed; Melanie saw in this political intrigue and changed norms for convents.
In 1855, she moved to a Carmel in England, where she made temporary vows. In 1858, she wrote to the Holy Father, asking permission to reveal her private revelation, pleading that she had been instructed to do so that year. While Pius IX did not do so, he did later dispense Melanie from her vow at the Carmel. She then spent time in a convent in France, then Greece, then France again.
In 1870, she moved to Italy where she knew several friendly bishops. She stayed in Italy until she died in 1904. In 1873, she wrote her new, longer, version of the secret at the request of the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples. In the meantime, she drafted constitutions for two new religious orders connected to La Salette—one for men and another for women. The local bishop refused and several years of appeals followed, eventually leading to a meeting between Melanie and Pope Leo XIII in 1878. The “Melanists,” or devoted followers of Melanie, published a transcript of sorts, claiming the Holy Father was favorable. As it stands, however, Leo XIII made no decision and there is no evidence of a report of the meeting from the side of Rome.
In 1879, she published (for the first time) the secret in toto with the imprimatur of the local bishop in Italy. Creating a storm in France, the matter was referred to Rome. The involvement of Cardinal Caterini, who wrote a letter to the bishop of Troyes in 1880, is a matter of some dispute since it remains unclear whether he acted in his official capacity as Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office or not. Regardless, Melanie’s book would be placed in the Index.
In 1892, Melanie finished writing her autobiography, which she had done under the direction of Fr. Gilbert Combe, a priest drawn to her by his interest in prophecies, especially ones that touched on politics. In 1894, he published another version of Melanie’s secret, along with his own speculation, trying to interpret her prophecies and attaching dates to them. It was, again, put in the Index. It was characters like Fr. Combe (alas, not alone!) that prompted Jacques Maritain later to say: “There was a small number of fanatics who made the Secret of La Salette a partisan affair, and whose aberrant interpretations, and their manner of using prophecies like a railway timetable, could only compromise the cause which they claimed to defend.”
The position of Rome seems clear enough: originally prohibited under Leo XIII and Benedict XV, Pius XI later reaffirmed Rome’s stance on the second secret. Ironically, it was only with the elimination of the Index following the Second Vatican Council that most Catholics could technically read the second secret. (Interestingly, however, Monsignor Bloy, one of his Melanie’s closest defenders, was put up for beatification twice before the Council: in 1936, and 1951. Both times it was refused in part because of his connection with the controversy. In 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “permanently” shut the door on this process.)
Without repeating the bulk of these apocalyptic prophecies again here (all of which are widely available), it must be said that the outlandish or “over-the-top” nature of the private revelatory secrets given to the seers, ostensibly by Our Lady of La Salette, are, as Fr. Bourmaud noted, apocalyptic in tone. They say much of the great travail and woes to come, but very little of the love and compassion Our Lord expresses through His Sacred Heart. While there is a longstanding tradition of Our Lady presenting dire warnings to the faithful, the shaky history surrounding the La Salette secrets and the seers they were entrusted to presents ample room for pause.
Fr. Bourmaud—In Defense of La Salette
So much negativity has surrounded the private revelation and the seers, both from the laity and the Church hierarchy, that it throws a veil of suspicion and serious doubt as to the veracity of the apparitions altogether. Can something be said in Our Lady of La Salette’s defense? It seems so indeed and, although the arguments in favor may not totally wipe away the stain and sting of uneasiness, it may shed some light as to the how and why the seers, particularly Melanie and her secret, were such a sign of contradiction. We shall divide the arguments by bringing up firstly the content, and then touch on the Roman censures of the secret.
Firstly, Fr. Del Magno presented a report largely favorable to the Holy Office.
“The secret is prophetic and we all know that such style resolves in threats which are conditional. Ninive converted and the punishment announced was averted. Hence, if these prophetic statements contain some dogmatic errors and calls to heresy and schism, the Church must publicly condemn them. Otherwise, the Church never got involved and avoided approving their publication according to the just axiom: De futuris contingentibus nulla determinata veritatis—No determination of truth regarding contingent future events... Having read the content of the alleged secret of Melanie, I found nothing against the dogma, the precepts of the Church or the sources of the Faith as received by the Church.”
Secondly, Bishop Zola, the bishop of Lecce who granted the Imprimatur to the secret in 1879, was even more positive.
“By the constitution of Pius IV Dominici Gregis, the bishop should oppose only the publication of books which are either heretical, or suspect of heretical depravity, or which harm morals or piety. Yet, no such things can be imputed to Melanie’s writings, on the contrary. Besides, having had in my hands the manuscript of the secret for a long time, I can testify to the accomplishment of predictions contained in it, and I am willing to swear it before God. Hence, I am convinced of the authenticity of the revelation by the virtues of the happy shepherdess, by the concordant sentiment of several bishops and, especially, by the accomplishment of the prophecies.”
Thirdly, readers may very well wonder why the secret was revealed little by little, and not right away in 1846. Here is how Melanie explained it:
“If the secret had contained the praises of the clergy, be assured that I would not have tarried long to publish it. I am certain that the publication of the secret, as the merciful Blessed Mother Mary gave it to me, will make me many enemies.”
Now let us turn to those who besmirched the private revelations of La Salette.
The first attack against the private revelation was the letter of Cardinal Caterini in 1880. After the publication of the secret in 1879 in Lecce and Lyons, some French leaders led by Bishop Cortet of Troyes opposed it. The congregation of the Index refused to condemn something which dealt only with affirmation of facts and not with doctrine. It diverted the judgment to the Holy Office which was also largely favorable to the secret. Yet, the opposition finally prevailed—although under cover since Leo XIII knew the secret and approved it—and prevented the diffusion of the secret.
As an anecdote, it is said that Caterini’s letter to Cortet said the following: “Let them be withdrawn from the hands of the faithful, but maintain them in the hands of the clergy for their profit.” This would seem to be sufficient proof of the divinity of the message. Needless to say, this line was quickly silenced from the French publications.
Besides this prevention, the secret was published several times and a new Roman commission in 1881 examined the secret by papal order and found it irreproachable. And so, it seems as if the so-called “condemnation” was the work of a Roman faction conniving with 12 French prelates whose tendencies were much more Gallican [those who wished to restrict papal authority], not to say Republican, than Roman.
After the publication of more polemical writings, the Holy Office in 1915 made another decision about La Salette, complaining about the constant discussions relative to the secret: “The Sacred Congregation orders that all faithful, of whichever country, abstain to discuss the topic under any pretext or form.”
However, this decree did not prevent the reading and diffusion of Melanie’s private revelation itself which had been sealed and had the seal of the Imprimatur. It simply sanctioned abusive and non-authorized commentaries, but it did not sanction those submitted to ecclesiastical authorities. This is how Jacques Maritain wrote to Cardinal Billot about it, who, by way of reply, said that the publication of the private revelation was inopportune, but at the same time asked his own opinion on the matter.
Finally, the Holy Office condemned the publication of the booklet The Apparition of the Blessed Virgin edited by the Société Saint-Augustin. Most likely, what prompted this decree was the renewal of the polemics which the earlier decree wished to suppress. But the main reason for Rome’s reaction was probably the surreptitious addition of a letter from Mariavé (Dr. Grémillion) which contained language quite abusive of the authorities. All in all, it seems plausible that the Roman decisions to stall the diffusion of the secret were more prudential and circumstantial than theological.
As a closing note and in order to complete the defense’s plea, it is most interesting to study the portrait of the seer herself. Fr. Laurentin’s book Découverte du Secret de La Salette has a chapter dedicated to prove the psychological and supernatural balance of the seers, and particularly of Melanie persecuted many French ecclesiastics. Was Melanie mentally unstable? Were her stigmata legitimate or not? These remain hotly contested points of debate that are unlikely to be unraveled in the near future.
The ongoing debate over La Salette has wider implications. While many Catholics today, including non-traditionalists, generally accept the possibility of Marian apparitions and private revelation, there are those Catholics who find in them a source of annoyance or embarrassment. For every powerful testimony concerning the rightly famous apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima or the miracles wrought in the borderlands of East and West at the Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine, there are public spectacles like “Our Lady of the Underpass”—a salt stain under a highway bridge in Chicago that was purported to be an image of Our Lady.
The debate over the veracity of any private revelation typically comes down to the content of the message and the character of those who allegedly received the revelation. Taking these points out of order, it should be stated that no man is without sin. Even the greatest saints of the Church struggled with personal flaws, some of which haunted them for the duration of their lives. Nowhere has the Church ever taught that those blessed with receiving private revelations had to be perfect, either before or after. God can use very imperfect instruments to carry out his divine plan. Think, for instance, of Jonah, arguably the most obstinate prophet in Scripture and yet one of Our Lord’s most successful in terms of turning the hearts of those to whom he preached.
As for the content of private revelations such as La Salette, few of us want to think of wrath, turmoil, and judgment, and yet they are all part of the human experience in this postlapsarian world. Yes, God is love, but He is also a Father who corrects His children, especially at the height of their disobedience. Although not all of the private revelations allegedly given by Our Lady of La Salette have come to pass (as far as we can tell), that does not foreclose the possibility that they will. Moreover, perhaps these dire warnings are just that: warnings. Their consequences can still be averted so long as we proceed in the manner God wishes and choose to rely on His mercy rather than our own fickle preferences.
The debate over La Salette and other apparitions and revelations is far from over. No doubt that is a good thing. By reflecting seriously on these potentially miraculous occurrences, our hearts and minds are naturally drawn to God the Father, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Our Blessed Mother, and all the saints. While reasonable minds may disagree about the veracity of this or that miracle or revelation, all of us who hold to the Faith know that God is not an abstraction, some distant “watchmaker” unconcerned with His creation, but rather the One who has made all things shining in His unfathomable love and desires the salvation of all.
In 1846, the village of La Salette consisted of eight or nine scattered hamlets. The population was about 800, principally small farmers with their families and dependents. On the evening of Saturday September 19, 1846, Maximin Giraud and Mélanie Calvat returned from the mountain where they had been tending their cows and reported seeing “a beautiful lady” on Mount Sous-Les Baisses, weeping bitterly. They described her as sitting with her elbows resting on her knees and her face buried in her hands. She was clothed in a white robe studded with pearls; and a gold-colored apron; white shoes with roses about her feet and a high headdress. Around her neck she wore a crucifix suspended from a small chain.
For St. Peter Julian Eymard, La Salette was a place of great religious significance almost from the moment he first heard the reports of what happened there. La Salette was an event that occurred in Fr. Eymard’s lifetime and in his own part of the world. In correspondence with his sisters in December 1846, he observed that some people were making fun of the children’s story. It is clear that Eymard recognized and accepted the miraculous nature of La Salette from the outset, long before the Church had formally investigated the event and before he had ever visited the place.