The terrible coach crash in the Alps a few days ago, in which nearly 30 Polish Catholics were killed on their way back from a pilgrimage to La Salette , directed public attention momentarily to a Marian shrine that's long been overshadowed by the better-known and more accessible vision sites at Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and Fatima, in central Portugal.
La Salette first came to notice a little more than 150 years ago, in September 1846, when two illiterate peasant children, 15-year-old Melanie Mathieu and Maximin Giraud, 11, reported a remarkable vision they claimed to have experienced while herding cattle on a bleak mountainside some 6,000 feet above sea level. According to one early account, set down by the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, some eight years after the events they described, the children had just woken from a lunchtime nap when Melanie
saw a brightness like the sun... it was far more brilliant, but it had not the same bright colour. And I said to Maximin, 'Come quick, and see the bright light down there,' and Maximin came down saying, 'Where is it?', I pointed to it near the little spring, and he stopped when he saw it. Then we saw a lady in the bright light; she was sitting with her head in her hands. We were afraid; I let my stick fall. Then Maximin said, 'Keep your stick; if it does anything I will give it a good knock.' Then the lady rose up, crossed her arms, and said to us, 'Come near, my children, be not afraid. I am here to tell you great news.' Then we crossed the little stream, and she advanced to the place where we had been sleeping. She was between us both. She said to us weeping all the time that she spoke (I clearly saw the tears falling):
If my people will not submit, I shall be forced to let go the hand of my Son. It is so strong, so heavy, that I can no longer withhold it.
For how long a time do I suffer for you! If I would not have my Son abandon you, I am compelled to pray to Him without ceasing. And as to you, you take no heed of it.
However much you pray, however much you do, you will never recompense the pains I have taken for you.
Six days I have given you to labour, the seventh I have kept for myself, and they will not give it to me. It is this which makes the hand of my Son so heavy. Those who drive the carts cannot swear without introducing the name of my Son. These are the two things which make the hand of my Son so heavy. If the harvest is spoilt, it is all on your account. I gave you warning last year in the potatoes but you did not heed it. On the contrary, when you found the potatoes spoilt, you swore, you took the name of my Son in vain. They will continue to decay, so that by Christmas there will be none left."
Among the many interesting details in Melanie's account is the observation that the figure had spoken to them thus far in French. The children, neither of whom had any education, found some of her language difficult to understand, and at this point the "lady" interrupted herself to observe: "Ah, my children, you do not understand. I will say it in a different way." She then continued her address in the local patois, predicting the failure of that year's wheat crop, followed by severe famine and an epidemic among children under the age of seven. 'The walnuts will become bad, the grapes will rot,' she added, before gliding off across the field "on the tips of the grass" and fading from sight leaving "nothing but a brightness in the air."
I first read about La Salette more than two decades years ago in Kevin McClure's The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary, and remember being struck by how impressed that sceptical investigator had been by the evidence marshalled for the reality of the visions. The 1846 grape and potato crops in the district, for instance, did fail, though it's far from clear whether the "Lady's" predictions were set down, or even widely disseminated, before this disaster occurred. There was also an epidemic of cholera among young children in the district shortly after the vision supposedly occurred.
There have been some interesting developments in the La Salette case since McClure wrote, not least the rediscovery, in the fabled Vatican archives, of the original text of two "secrets" purportedly imparted to the Melanie and Maximin in 1846. The former had, supposedly, already been published, in a pamphlet authorised by the child witness herself and printed in Lecce, Italy, in 1879, but Maximin's secret had never been put into print and there has long been a good deal of controversy concerning the 1879 version of Melanie's secret, hardly surprisingly, since it predicted that Rome would "lose the faith and become the seat of the anti-Christ". The Vatican itself took pains to distinguish between the "approved" revelation of 1846, sent to Rome in 1851, and the 33-paragraph version published in Italy, which was swiftly placed on the church's fabled Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its list of prohibited books.
The "original" secrets of La Salette were published by Father Rene Laurentin, a noted expert on Marian visions who has also written extensively on the Medjugorje visions of the 1980s, in Decouverte du Secret de La Salette in 2002. Laurentin's text was co-written by the actual discoverer of the secrets, Michel Courteville, author of a hard-to-find but much more extensive work on the same subject privately published as La Grande Nouvelle des Bergers de la Salette a year earlier. According to the authors, there are actually eight versions of the La Salette secrets, five written by Melanie and three by Maximin, which became gradually more critical of the established church and more apocalyptic over the years. (For one of the later versions, go here.)
Naturally Laurentin's and Courteville's views are vigorously resisted by Catholic orthodoxy. It's an interesting debate and one that readers of French may find it worthwhile to follow. Plenty of partisan websites tackle the subject with a fair absence of restraint.
There's an interesting discussion, by the way, of the reasons why Lourdes, rather than La Salette, became the chief French Marian shrine (despite the latter's primacy and decade-long head-start over its rival) in Ruth Harris's excellent study Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. According to Harris,
"both apparitions occurred in poor, upland frontier regions with messages delivered in the semi-wilderness to obscure, poverty-stricken children... both diverged from earlier patterns by the conveying of 'scecrets', Bernadette was told three at an unspecified moment during the apparition cycle and never revealed them, while her counterparts at La Salette tantalized the Catholic world by refusing to divulge their confidences to anyone but the Pope.
"The differences, however, were as important as the similarities. The lady of La Salette was large and material, not petite and girlish [as she was at Lourdes]. The girl at the Grotto was gentle and joyful, and only sometimes sad, while the lady at La Salette wept bitterly for humanity. At La Salette she spoke at length in an apocalyptic tone, while at Lourdes the presence mixed an unadorned message of hope and penitence with hope and simple devotion."
It helped, of course, that Bernadette became a nun and, eventually, a saint, while Melanie, the girl visionary of La Salette, led an unfulfilled existence until her death in 1904, a life that included a short, implausible spell as a Carmelite initiate in Darlington, while Maximin became a chronic drifter.