Marian Shrines and Apparitions

The La Salette Controversy—Part IV

There has always been controversy over the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at La Salette on September 19, 1846, and in particular over the secret parts of the message of Our Lady. But that controversy came to a head in 1999, when Abbé Michel Corteville discovered the original letters of the two visionaries, addressed to Pope Pius IX in 1851, which had been buried in the Vatican archives for decades. Critics of the various versions of the Secret of La Salette, published by the seers Melanie Calvat and Maximin Giraud in later years, felt vindicated when they learned that the original versions were quite short. Their triumph was short-lived, however, as Abbé Corteville soon published a thorough and scholarly study of the Apparition and Message of La Salette, which demonstrated that the visionaries intentionally revealed their secrets by degrees—the later versions being logical amplifications of the earlier. The entire story of this controversy, which has been much overshadowed by the controversy over the Third Secret of Fatima, is both fascinating and complex.

Opposition from the French Clergy

A biographer of Melanie Calvat has some amazing things to say about the general opinion of the French clergy concerning the Apparition of La Salette and Melanie herself, during the years following the Apparition:

[In 1860 Melanie] ...returned to Marseille and the Convent of Our Lady of Compassion. There Melanie tried to get her Secret published, as the Blessed Virgin had instructed her. But the Bishop of Marseille reacted just as had the Bishop [Ginoulhiac] of Grenoble. He flew into a fury, scolded and upbraided Melanie, then took the pages on which the Secret was written, crumpled them into a ball and threw them into the fireplace.

As he watched them burn, he said to Melanie, "This is how I will publish your secret!"

Melanie knew then that she would not be able to get the Secret published in France. She said, years later, that if the Apparition of La Salette and its Secret had been accepted by the French clergy, all the miracles that were done at Lourdes would have occurred also at La Salette. Melanie also said that the de-Christianization of France occurred because of the hostility of the bishops towards the appearance of the Blessed Virgin at La Salette…

Pope Leo XIIIPope Leo XIII sent for Melanie [in 1878]. He wanted her to return to France and establish the Rule of the Order of the Mother of God at La Salette.

"Holy Father," said Melanie, "the Bishop [Fava] of Grenoble will not allow me to establish that rule. He has installed his own rule."

The Pope shook his head sadly. He could not exert his will in France. The French bishops were not an obedient lot; it was said that they were on the verge of schism.

As Melanie was leaving the Pope's chambers, one of the cardinals that had been at the interview said to her, "I hope that you have broad shoulders, because when the Secret is published, the whole of France will fall on them."

"I would rather displease the French than Almighty God," replied Melanie.

In the Secret Message the Blessed Virgin complained bitterly about the clergy and religious and the lax and worldly life that they led. Grave evils and dire chastisements were predicted.

The [entire] Secret was finally published in 1879 at Lecce under the Imprimatur of Bishop Zola. The Roman cardinal had been right. A storm of criticism descended upon Melanie. She was accused of lying, of being unbalanced, even crazy, and of being possessed by the devil. From then on, whenever she was in France, the French bishops thwarted her in anything she tried to do.

[In 1892 Melanie] ...was still trying to get the Rule of the Mother of God established. It was a long drawn-out battle between the forces of good—Melanie and her loyal helpers—and the forces of evil, principally represented by the bishops of France. (Mary Alice Dennis, Melanie and the Story of Our Lady of La Salette, pp. 100, 113-4, 117)

Those who are unfamiliar with the history of the Church in France might find the above difficult to believe. Indeed, nearly all the critics of La Salette and the Secret make frequent reference to the opposition of the French clergy. They attempt to paint the seers, particularly Melanie, as disobedient troublemakers. But these critics are not seeing the big picture. They overlook several factors which had placed much of the French clergy at odds with the Papacy and the Church. We will briefly consider three of these factors:

I. The errors of Jansenism

When the Dutch Bishop Jansen died in 1638, he left behind an unpublished work on the doctrine of St. Augustine. While he maintained to his dying breath that he submitted his work loyally to the judgment of the Holy See, those who published and later spread his teachings were not so loyal—and they were mostly French. His work contained many errors against the Church's doctrines concerning grace and free will; some of these were eventually condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653. The more fanatical adherents of these errors rejected the condemnation obstinately. The more moderate tried to muddy the waters and, in so doing, introduced a new error. These tried to claim that the Pope had misunderstood Jansen's work; they then theorized that while a pope is indeed the final judge in matters of faith, he is not so in matters of fact. Specifically they claimed that, in fact, Jansen's work did not contain the errors condemned, if it were understood correctly. This legalistic parsing is clearly erroneous, and contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church.

The Jansenists were a relatively small minority amongst the French bishops and clergy. One would have expected Jansenism to have been vigorously stamped out after its condemnation, especially in light of the fact that many of the French bishops had requested the intervention of Pope Innocent X. But this was not so—it lingered on and on, due to the fact that the Pope's intervention began to be resented. This resentment was due to the influence of the second factor:

II. Gallicanism

It derives its name from a Latin word for France—Gallia. It was of two types—political and theological. To understand political Gallicanism better, it is again necessary to look at the big picture. For centuries the Church had resisted the usurpation of the rights of the Church by secular authorities. Practices such as "lay investiture," by which bishops were chosen by temporal rulers, were condemned by the Church. Later on, the Protestant revolution owed much of its success to political support—especially from rulers who were glad to be rid of their duty to respect the authority of the Church. Over time some Catholic rulers, who were lukewarm in their Faith, began, one might say, to envy their Protestant counterparts. They began again to claim powers which were far beyond their rights, and which encroached upon the rights of the Church and the Papacy. An obvious example of this was King Louis XIV of France. In 1682 he declared that he had the right to receive the revenues of all vacant episcopal sees in France and to decide who should fill those sees—who should become bishops. When Pope Innocent XI strongly opposed this, the King rallied the forces of theology in France to his side—and thus theological Gallicanism, which had been brewing for centuries, came to fruition. At the King's order an assembly of the French clergy issued a declaration on March 19, 1682. The gist of this declaration was that the Pope was not infallible without the consent of the Church, that Ecumenical Councils were superior to the Pope, and that the Pope had no right whatsoever to intervene in the temporal and civil power of kings and sovereigns.

As these matters had not yet been dogmatically defined, the declaration was not, technically speaking, heretical. The Popes did oppose it, however, and the French clergy issued some retractions. But it was no secret that the prevailing sentiment amongst the French was contrary to the Papacy. There were, of course, many exceptions—St. John Eudes, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louis Marie de Montfort and many others loyal to the Papacy lived in France during this period.

Pius VII signs the ConcordatThe problem was further complicated, however, at a much later date. Again, we must try to see the big picture. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1800, he realized that the French Revolution had alienated a great number of the more fervent of French Catholics. He tried to make a sort of peace with the Church, which would restore order, but also favor his liberalistic views. He offered to make a Concordat with Pope Pius VII, restoring some of the rights of the Church in France, while insisting upon some concessions. After much wrangling the Pope agree to some of the concessions and signed the Concordat. Among the concessions were that the number of dioceses in France should be reduced, that future bishops would be nominated by the government for the Pope's approval, and that bishops were to appoint as pastors persons acceptable to the government. In agreeing to these concessions Pope Pius VII may have hoped that Gallican bishops could be removed in this way—for with the concessions, dozens of bishops suddenly found themselves without a diocese to govern. But it had the unfortunate side effect of conceding to the Gallicans the "high moral ground"—the Pope appeared to be caving in to a temporal ruler, who soon showed himself to be a vicious enemy of the Church and of the Papacy. This only strengthened the false opinion of those who held that the Pope had no power or right to do this.

Still another complication can be seen in connection with the Apparition of La Salette and the Secret. Some of those who were thoroughly opposed to political Gallicanism used it as a reason to be "democratic," "republican," or simply "anti-royalist." They saw any movement to restore the "legitimate monarchy" to France as a return to political Gallicanism—once again, they thought of themselves as having the "high moral ground." Thus even those who might be fairly loyal to the Papacy might have been doubtful of the Apparition and the Secret, if they suspected them to be inventions of the royalists, or somewhat influenced by them.

III. Freemasonry

The various facets of Freemasonry are, of course, secret societies. As Pope Leo XIII pointed out in the Encyclical Humanum Genus (1884): "Candidates are generally commanded to promise—nay, with a special oath, to swear—that they will never, to any person, at any time or in any way, make known the members, the passes, or the subjects discussed." Therefore it is almost impossible to determine with certainty how many Freemasons succeeded in infiltrating the ranks of the clergy in France. But given that the French Revolution put Freemasons in power, and that the terms of the Concordat, unfortunately, gave the government a role in the selection of candidates for the French hierarchy, it is not difficult to surmise that at least some of the French clergy—even bishops—were Freemasons. Clearly such persons would not be in favor of the Apparition of La Salette and the Secret.

Bishop Ginoulhiac

Less than one year after formally approving of the Apparition of La Salette, Bishop de Bruillard, then 87 years old, announced his retirement. Louis Napoleon III, who had been in power only half a year, pressed for the nomination of his friend Achille Ginoulhiac to be the next Bishop of Grenoble. Not surprisingly, Ginoulhiac was of a much different stamp than his predecessor. Bishop de Bruillard, as a young priest, had often risked his life giving the Last Sacraments during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). On the other hand, Ginoulhiac was suspected by the Vatican of having Gallican tendencies. He did, however, assure Bishop de Bruillard that he would continue to promote the Apparition and pilgrimages to La Salette. His nomination was then approved, and Ginoulhiac became Bishop of Grenoble on May 7, 1853. He then began acting according to a very recognizable pattern—promoting the Apparition, but frustrating the attempts of the seers to fulfill what they believed was the mission entrusted to them by Our Lady.

Bishop GinoulhiacThe trouble began when Bishop Ginoulhiac, in August of 1853, demanded that the seers divulge their entire Secrets to him. He may have heard rumors that the children had not written their entire Secrets, when they were asked to reveal them to Pope Pius IX in 1851. Melanie and Maximin had once again to struggle with their consciences to obey; their new versions were somewhat longer than the originals—Melanie's significantly longer than Maximin's. The new versions contained statements clearly critical of Napoleon III, which were not in the originals—but Ginoulhiac did not know that. He therefore concluded that the Secrets were inventions of the royalists, and that the seers had to be silenced. He was also infuriated by the reluctance shown by Melanie to reveal her Secret to him.

Melanie, who in 1850 had entered the Convent of the Sisters of Providence in Corenc, a suburb of Grenoble, was unanimously approved by the Sisters to take her vows in October of 1853. But Bishop Ginouhliac would not allow this. Instead, he sent her, in 1854, to the Convent of the Daughters of Charity in Vienne, and then eventually to a cloistered Carmelite Convent in Darlington, England. Critics of La Salette like to accuse Melanie of capriciousness, on account of these changes of residence; but the best evidence is that they were due to the machinations of Bishop Ginoulhiac. He wanted her far away from Grenoble and silenced in a cloister.

Maximin had entered a junior seminary to begin studying for the priesthood when he was only fifteen years old. Historical evidence suggests that he was not a good student, but there is no evidence of any serious misbehavior. He did however like to tell imaginative stories. This was all that Bishop Ginoulhiac needed. So, in May of 1854, he accused Maximin of "deliberate lies" and had him dismissed from the seminary.

At the same time, Bishop Ginoulhiac was striving to please both Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX. In May of 1854, he met with his friend, the Minister of Culture and assured him that the Secrets of La Salette were "inane." Shortly thereafter, however, he was called upon to denounce the publication of a booklet attacking La Salette, and to punish the authors. The irony is that the authors had originally submitted their work to Cardinal de Bonald, who, with the accord of Bishop Ginoulhiac, sent it to the Pope to try to discredit La Salette. When the authors published it without authorization, Bishop Ginoulhiac was placed in the position of having to defend the Apparition.

In November of the same year, Bishop Ginoulhiac sent a pastoral letter to all the clergy of Grenoble. In it he confirmed the devotion to Our Lady of La Salette and condemned the libelous booklet. But he also took the occasion to denounce the "indiscretion" and "conceit" of Maximin, as well as the "attachment to her own opinion" and "singularity" of Melanie.

The following May, at the public coronation of Our Lady of Laus by Cardinal Donnet, the preacher deliberately omitted mention of La Salette as a Marian Shrine. Bishop Ginoulhiac admitted to the Cardinal that he, too, did not believe in La Salette, but was not able to refute the approbation of Bishop de Bruillard. The Cardinal repeated this to others, and eventually Ginoulhiac had to deny the rumor, of which he himself had been the cause.

Bishop Ginoulhiac was imprudent enough to listen to a woman with a dubious reputation as a mystic, Pauline de Nicolay, who was antagonistic to Melanie. This capricious and ill-tempered woman gave herself artificial stigmata with gum arabic, according to the testimony of one of her servants, Angelina (Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In June of 1854, she supplied the catch-phrase that Ginoulhiac needed to get through his dilemma. She wrote in a letter to him, "Poor Melanie… there is in her some illusion, and alas, worse than illusion. Her mission is at an end, while yours is beginning."

This fact is extremely important, because this catch-phrase has been used over and over by the critics of La Salette (and even by some ill-informed promoters), as if it were the verdict of the Church. Bishop Ginoulhiac made use of it at the gathering of pilgrims on the anniversary of the Apparition, September 19, 1855. He declared: "The mission of the children is ended; that of the Church begins. Let them go where they will, let them wander about the world, let them even become bad Christians, let them disown what they have been declaring to the entire world, let them trample under foot all the graces they have received and will receive, all that cannot reflect on the reality of the Apparition, which is certain, canonically proven and will never be seriously shaken." The clear suggestion is that the seers are capriciously wandering about, and on the verge of losing their souls—this, to prevent them from fulfilling their mission.

Bishop Ginoulhiac had apparently sent Melanie to England under false pretenses. Melanie wrote in a letter to Fr. Melin, the curé of Corps, "He told me that I was going to England for some time and that he would recall me soon." Melanie wrote this just after she was sent in September of 1854, so it is very unlikely that she was making this up. As the years went by, Bishop Ginoulhiac saw to it that she would have no more means of communication. Perhaps he knew that she intended to reveal the rest of her Secret in 1858. He even ordered, under penalty of interdict, Melanie's former confessor, Abbé Faure, to turn over to him any letters he may have received from her. Melanie found herself unable to fulfill what she believed was her express mission from Our Lady.

Finally, after much difficulty, she was able to extricate herself from this situation. She sent a manuscript of her full Secret to Pope Pius IX, who dispensed her from her obligations as a Carmelite. This manuscript has never yet been recovered from the Vatican Archives. Melanie returned to France, intent on fulfilling her mission. But for the time being she had to stay away from La Salette and Grenoble:

...[T]he Bishop of Darlington told Melanie that Bishop Ginoulhiac had written him that if she ever returned to France, she would be excommunicated in his diocese. (Mary Alice Dennis, Melanie and the Story of Our Lady of La Salette, p. 98)

In short it may be fairly said that if Melanie and Maximin had to lead "wandering lives," it was due in great part to the machinations of Bishop Ginoulhiac. When Melanie did return to La Salette years later, she found the new Bishop of Grenoble, Mgr. Fava, was of much the same mind as Ginoulhiac. It will come as no great surprise then, that Ginoulhiac, who later became the Archbishop of Lyons, sided with the most bitter opponents of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council in 1870. Along with a number of other malcontents, he left Rome early, rather than take part in the ceremony of the Promulgation of the Dogma.

We close this segment with one more anecdote concerning the troubles caused to the seers by Bishop Ginoulhiac:

Melanie remembered a similar trip (to La Salette) many years ago, when Bishop Ginoulhiac was the Bishop of Grenoble. She was in the stagecoach talking with some pleasant ladies from that city when one said to her, "Did you know that the Shepherdess of La Salette is now crazy?"

"Are you sure?" asked Melanie gently.

"Oh, yes, very sure," the second lady said. "It was Bishop Ginoulhiac himself who told us."

After Melanie had left the stagecoach at Corps, another passenger said to the ladies, "That was the Shepherdess herself whom you were talking to." The good ladies were left in a state of confusion and embarrassment.

Melanie had not lost her mind, but Bishop Ginoulhiac's mind clouded over, and he died insane. (Mary Alice Dennis, Melanie and the Story of Our Lady of La Salette, p. 123)

In each segment of this Series, it will become increasingly clear that the doubters of La Salette consistently contradict the historical facts.

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