Marian Shrines and Apparitions

The La Salette Controversy—Part VII

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 Secrets 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.

Maximin's Declaration

Maximin at 11We have already seen the answers given to the first attacks on La Salette by Fr. James Spencer Northcote. In a subsequent work, Celebrated Sanctuaries of the Madonna, Fr. Northcote answered a few more attacks; in doing so, he shed more light on the so-called "Incident of Ars," as well as on the adult life of the seer, Maximin Giraud:

We must not try our readers' patience, and waste our own time, by enumerating all the objections which have been raised against the history of La Salette by persons more eager to display their ingenuity than to ascertain the truth. There are two or three misstatements, however, made at various times by the infidel press of France, and diligently repeated in our country (England), which are too important to be omitted; if we did not mention them, it might be supposed we were ignorant of them. It was said for example, by the Times (of London), that the whole imposture had been discovered to be the work of an eccentric woman living in the South of France, and that the police were in chase after her, and would soon unravel the plot. But the same journal did not afterwards inform its readers that the person in question, being most indignant at the accusation, insisted on the prosecution of the inquiry, and proved that on the day of the Apparition she was in a distant city, engaged in a lawsuit.

A second misstatement, far more important, concerns the supposed disbelief in the Apparition by the saintly Curé of Ars; it was even rumored that Maximin had retracted his whole statement in the presence of this venerable man. Our readers will find a whole chapter dedicated to the refutation of this story by Dr. Ullathorne, in his valuable work... from which we will now make a few important extracts, slightly condensed, however...

"Certain enthusiasts for the Baron of Richemont... (one of those claiming to be the "lost Dauphin"), got it into their heads that the secrets of La Salette regarded their idol. Three of these gentlemen contrived to draw Maximin to Lyons; there they surrounded him with their own friends… and did all in their power to elicit his secret and connect it with their cause. Under the pretence of enabling him to obtain some light on his vocation, they conducted him to the Curé of Ars. The vicar, or assistant of the Curé, did not at that time believe in the Apparition at La Salette. Soon after Maximin's visit, it began to be rumored that Maximin had made a complete retraction of the whole story to the Curé. Three weeks afterwards he returned to Grenoble, and there underwent a severe examination in the presence of the Bishop, before a commission of clergy and laity. He was tried and urged in every way to induce him to avow this retraction. But he remained firm and intrepid. He protested that he would never avow but what he had always avowed, and what he would avow on the bed of death, that he had seen a beautiful lady, who spoke and disappeared. He maintained that he had given no contradiction to this at Ars, but admitting that not understanding the Curé distinctly, he had repeatedly said yes and no at hazard.

"After this Maximin, unknown to anyone, wrote a letter to one of those gentlemen who had conducted him to Lyons. In it he says, '...They have told you that I belied myself before the Curé of Ars. I think myself all this comes from the vicar, for you know what he said to us at the convent where he took us. For as to me, I assure you that I in no way belied myself, and I am always ready to give my blood to maintain what I saw...' To another friend who questioned him on the same subject, he said that he had not understood the Curé very well. 'He asked me if I had seen the Blessed Virgin. And I answered him that I did not know whether it was the Blessed Virgin. I saw something... a lady.' The friend objected, 'But it is said that you retracted yourself before the vicar...' 'Ah, he said that I had made up a story, and that I had not seen the Blessed Virgin, and as I was not in a very good mood, I said to him – have it so if you will, that I don't tell the truth, and that I didn’t see anything; and then I went away.' This was Maximin's wellknown style of answering, whenever his veracity was called into question.

"But let us turn from Maximin's account of the matter, to the impression created on the mind of the Curé of Ars. Immediately after this affair took place, one of the Marist fathers went expressly to Ars, to inquire into its truth, and the Curé expressed himself in these words: 'I have always believed in La Salette, and believe in it still; I bless medals and images of Our Lady of La Salette. I have distributed a great number of them. And see here whether I do not believe;' and here the Curé approached his bed, and drawing the curtain, showed a large picture of Our Lady of La Salette, framed and hung up at the head of his bed. 'I did not insist further,' wrote this respected Religious to the Bishop of Grenoble, 'for I was convinced that the good Curé had scarcely had anything to do with all that I had heard reported of him.' The good Curé was disconsolate at all that was attributed to him, and gave expression to his feelings to several persons, of whom one wrote on October 20, 1851, to the Abbé Rousselot as follows: 'He told me that he had never said that the event of La Salette had never taken place; only that it was possible that the boy had not well explained himself, or that he himself had not well understood him.'

"After these express and repeated disavowals, both on the part of Maximin himself, and of the saintly Curé, it is hard to believe in the good faith of those who continue to urge this little incident as a conclusive argument against the whole history. As the Bishop of Bellay remarked a few days after it first began to be spoken of, 'It is but a trial and a tempest raised by the devil; the fact will come out of it more brilliant;' and as Maximin said on the same occasion, 'La Salette is now like a flower, which in winter they cover with dirt and dung, but in the summer it springs forth from the earth more beautiful'."

It still remains to answer another... lie on the subject of La Salette. On November 11, 1865, a French journal ventured to say that whereas all the world now believed in the miracle of La Salette, a still more extraordinary miracle had since been wrought; for he who was the witness of the first miracle when a boy, now that he is a man, obstinately refuses to believe what then took place. "It is quite curious," the journal went on to say, "to see him holding his sides with laughter when he happens to come across any of those groups in plaster which represent the Apparition, and himself and his sister (!) as the witnesses. The sister being of a more flexible character, has allowed herself to be enclosed in a convent, where the poor thing devoutly prays that the Apparition might have taken place."

This truly Parisian form of falsehood was reproduced in more sober terms by some of our own journals, which, however, did not again reproduce the French journalist's ungracious retraction of his lie, which he was forced to publish about six weeks later (January 6, 1866). It ran in this wise: "In our number of November 11 last, we published a short article on the shepherd-boy of La Salette. M. Maximin Giraud sees in that article imputations injurious to his character as an honest man and a Catholic. The attack upon the truthfulness of the testimony which he has always given before the magistrates, the judicial and ecclesiastical authorities, and before a multitude of other persons, has especially offended him. We declare, therefore, with the best grace in the world, that we had no malicious intents in his regard, and we have no difficulty in acknowledging that the information we received was incorrect."

Maximin in his thirties.As might have been expected the witty lie had flown further, and penetrated deeper than the retraction could follow, and Maximin found himself pestered by innumerable letters of inquiry. On February 2, therefore, of the same year, being at that time a Pontifical Zouave (a volunteer militia for the defense of the Papal States), he published a short pamphlet, from which we make the following extracts:

"As a Christian, I have long ago laid at the foot of the Cross all personal injuries; but as a witness, I should have deemed myself an apostate, and should have thought that I was drawing down upon myself the curse of Heaven, if I did not protest in favor of my testimony and of my belief in the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette...

"This gentleman wishes to know if I am myself convinced of the immense privilege which I have gratuitously received from the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In order that for the future I may not again be accused of incredulity with regard to the event of La Salette, by such expressions as these: 'It is said—it is asserted—it is reported;' I, the witness of the Apparition of September 19, 1846, an Apparition well known in our day under the title of Our Lady of La Salette—now grown up, having attained to the age of thirty years complete, in full possession of my faculties, free and independent, affirm that, far from refusing to believe what I saw and heard on the Holy Mountain, I am quite ready to give my life in support and defense of the truth of this great event...

"During the course of our life, we, the children of La Salette, have been frequently questioned, and very often contradicted. All the suppositions that have been formed against us up to this day, may be reduced to three:

"1. We have been taken for deceivers, clever enough to invent a story, the different parts of which are marvelously well linked together and support one another in a wonderful manner; bold enough to keep up the imposture in the presence of imposing audiences; fortunate enough to get our story believed.

"2. We have been considered as beings so simple as to be almost idiots; so silly as to let ourselves be employed as the tools of an impostor; so obstinate as to persevere in our foolish conviction.

"3. Finally, many refusing us at once both the credit of genius and of simplicity, have regarded us as the mere stupefied spectators of a natural phenomenon, which we have given out to be a miracle.

"This is all that has been said; in fact nothing more remained that could be said; these same arguments have been reproduced in a thousand different shapes, with developments too long to relate, and too unimportant to examine. It is certainly strange that to explain one problem, they should have had recourse to contradictory explanations; and, what is still more strange, the means whereby they seek to escape from a difficulty, always produce a difficulty still more perplexing. Thus, what would seem more natural than to have met our narrative with the words: 'Children, you are story-tellers.' Nevertheless, just observe to how many questions this gives rise. Why do these children deceive us? What end do they propose to themselves? How have they framed their plot? What success do they venture to promise themselves? Are they ambitious? Do they wish to make themselves a name? Are they avaricious? Do they run after money? Are they depraved, and in search of new pleasures? For people do not tell lies merely for the sake of lying, especially in so grave a matter, and with such unshaken constancy. With what marvelous precocity are not these little children endowed? They thoroughly know the human heart; for they have found out the secret of exciting public curiosity to the highest pitch, by touching upon a question full of burning interest in these days, the question of the supernatural. They have foreseen with surprising sagacity all the objections that could be urged against them. The most searching interrogatories do not frighten them, the most captious expressions do not disconcert them; they escape every snare by means of clear and peremptory answers. Whether confronted or separated, their depositions agree, and mutually complete and corroborate one another, and this even as regards the most unimportant details. Theologians have acknowledged themselves vanquished; lawyers and learned men, at first full of extreme boldness, have soon been afraid that they saw but too clearly. Is this all? No. These little deceitful impostors, gifted with such prodigious skill, are nevertheless so modest that in their own part of the country they let themselves be taken for rough, ignorant peasant children, incapable of receiving instruction, idle and careless, unable to learn their catechism, and forgetting on the road a commission with which they have been charged. Or rather, these little imps, whose hearts are so perverse as to deceive the entire universe, are at the same time such consummate hypocrites that everybody takes them for candid and innocent souls.

"If anyone regards me as an impostor, listen to what I say. If you make me out to be so artful as to invent such a deception, would you have me to be so stupid as to turn it against my own interests? This would be to unite great cunning to extreme stupidity—two things which will not easily be found existing together. If I have run after fortune, glory, and pleasure, it must be acknowledged that I have missed my way. I can say without regret that I have found none of these things. I say yet more: my testimony about this very subject has always been the cause of all my vicissitudes. Why have I not been left among my mountains? My life would have been less disturbed and far happier. Among my countrymen, I should not have had to experience what it costs to live among strangers, and the black bread of my village would not have failed me so often as the more delicate nourishment of great cities. I say yet more: I should now be a rich man if I had had the cowardly complaisance to deny the truth of what I had asserted. What pain could there be in re-establishing the truth, supposing that I had betrayed it, when I could immediately reap the benefit of a widely spread scandal and give my name every publicity? Those who attribute to me so many vices will not imagine that I could be afraid of scandal.

"To conclude. How is it that I am at once so ingenious and so stupid, so audacious and so cowardly, so impious and so scrupulous? Am I then an inexplicable monster, or is it my adversaries' hypothesis that is monstrous? In the latter case, let the hypothesis be abandoned; and in the former, let a miracle be recognized in the moral order at least as astonishing as the one which I am defending.

"Beaten upon this point our adversaries betake themselves to the opposite extreme, and, with a magical power beyond that of any ordinary sorcerer, they forthwith transform us into little idiots, victims of a fraud, of which we afterwards became the advertisers. This, then, is my reply: If our simplicity exposed us to believe error, it did not prevent us from adhering to truth; and if it was so easy to deceive us, why has it been so difficult to undeceive us? The obstinacy in presence of the most distinguished men of the age, with which we are reproached, proves how little we were susceptible of being influenced by others; and if the reasons brought forward by these superior intellects have had no effect upon us, it is because they were very weak as opposed to the event of which we are the witnesses. Why do people, according to the needs of the case, make of us by turns credulous children and minds which cannot be convinced? Are there, then, two beings in us which mutually destroy one another? But, before denying the miracle of La Salette, explain to me, I beg of you, this other miracle in the intellectual order.

"No, people will say, let us cease to injure these innocent children. They fancied they saw something which had no existence; the science of optics affords the truest explanations of many marvels. But what! Melanie and I were then seized at the same instant with the same hallucination; and, strange to say, our ears were deceived as well as our eyes, and heard the same identical words! Must all the laws of nature be thus overturned to prove that nature has not been overturned in one of her laws? This sudden malady, which had had no preliminary symptoms, and has had no subsequent continuance, is as extraordinary as the fact which you refuse to believe.

"Now make your choice and come to what conclusion you please; only, if you do not accept my testimony, I can assure you that you will always find yourself in inextricable difficulties on this subject. This is a case in which you must either rise to the supernatural or fall into the absurd. Recognize the truth of the miracle, and what an act of faith will you not be making in an age which is especially opposed to Divine facts? Try to deny it, and what strange suppositions will you not have to invent in order to support this denial? This is the singular alternative in which I leave my readers."

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