Celebrated Sanctuaries of the Madonna—Part I

First in a Series

In previous Issues we have presented The Life of Mary in the Gospels, a series of lectures given by Fr. James Spencer Northcote. In this Issue we begin a new series, condensed from a book written by Fr. Northcote prior to 1868 on various famous Sanctuaries of Our Lady. In his usual apologetic style, the presence of which he downplays in the following Introduction, Fr. Northcote succeeds in defending the honor of Our Blessed Mother and the truth of the Catholic Faith against the wily criticism of many Protestants.

Introduction—What is a Sanctuary?

Early in the fifth century—probably A.D. 404—the congregation of the faithful in a town on the coast of Africa were much disturbed by the rumor of a scandal in the episcopal palace. The details of the story were imperfectly known, and of course variously told; but the distress of the little flock was so great that at last the Bishop published a Pastoral Letter on the subject. In this Pastoral he lamented that there should be any necessity for an episcopal exhortation on occasions like the present; he urged that the distinct prophecies of our Blessed Lord ought to have prepared men's minds for such exhibitions of human weakness and malice; nevertheless, he confessed that they were trials dangerous to the weak, painful to all, and that therefore he would gladly have spared his flock the knowledge of what had happened, if this had been possible. Now, however, that false reports were afloat, it was better that they should know the facts, which were briefly these:

A priest of his household, named Boniface, had brought a grave charge of immorality against another inmate of the house, who was not yet a priest, but desirous of becoming one. The charge was denied, and met by a counter-charge; nevertheless, the Bishop had a strong impression that it was true. But, being unable to prove it, he determined to take no further action until something should happen either to justify or to dispel his suspicions. The accused person, however, was not so patient; he was very urgent with the Bishop that he should ordain him, or, if he would not do it himself, that he would at least give him letters commendatory to some other diocese. The Bishop would not be persuaded to do either of these things. "Then let Boniface be suspended or deposed," was the rejoinder; "if the suspicion of evil which attaches to me is a legitimate impediment to my receiving Holy Orders, it ought with equal justice to hinder my accuser from exercising the functions of those Orders, seeing that the same charge is pending over him also."

Shrine of St. Felix of NolaBoniface was willing to submit even to this cruel privation rather than disturb the peace of the Church. But the Bishop would not have it so. "I chose, therefore," he says, "a certain middle course; to wit, that both parties should bind themselves to go to a sanctuary (ad locum sanctum), where the terrible operations of God are wont more readily to manifest an unsound and guilty conscience, and to force sinners to confession, either by some visible judgment or by the apprehension of it. I know, indeed," he proceeds, "that God is everywhere, and that He Who created all things is not contained or confined in any single place; I know too, that He must be worshipped by those who would worship Him aright, in spirit and in truth; that so, hearing in secret, He may also justify and reward in secret. Nevertheless, it is seen and known by all men that He does set a difference between one place and another, though none can penetrate His counsel and explain why it is that miracles of this kind are wrought in one place and not in another. The sanctity of the place where the body of St. Felix of Nola (image at left) lies buried is abundantly notorious. To this place, then, I have directed those two persons to go, and I have made this selection, because I could more easily and with greater accuracy get letters from thence telling me anything that may happen to either of them by the Divine interposition. For I remember, when I was at Milan, there was a shrine (memoria) of certain saints there, at which demons were forced to declare themselves in a most wonderful and terrible way; and I knew the case of a thief who had gone there with the intention of clearing himself from a charge by perjury, but was, on the contrary, compelled to confess his guilt, and make restitution of what he had stolen. Has Africa, then, no bodies of saints? And yet we never hear of such things happening here. For just as, according to the Apostle, 'not all have the gifts of healing, nor all the discerning of spirits' (1 Cor. 12), so He Who divideth to every man severally as He will, has not willed that things of this kind should be done at all the shrines of the saints.

"Although, therefore, I was unwilling cruelly and uselessly to distress you by communicating to you what was so grievous a burden to my own heart, yet God has willed it otherwise; and perhaps for this reason, that you may labor with me in prayer that He vouchsafe to make manifest what is known to Himself in this matter, but concealed from us."

Finally, the Bishop adds that, although he had not furnished Boniface with letters commendatory for his journey, this was only because Boniface in his humility was anxious that, where they were both unknown along the road, they might be treated alike. On the other hand, he says, "I have not dared to erase his name from the Clergy List, lest I should seem to offer an insult to the Divine Power under Whose examination the cause is now pending."

I need hardly say that the writer of this interesting Pastoral was the great St. Augustine, and I think there will be found in it a fitting introduction and a sufficient apology for the following pages. It is quite clear that the Christian religion, as known and practiced by the wisest and best in the beginning of the fifth century, contained, as an integral portion of itself, a special devotion towards certain Sanctuaries; that St. Augustine and his flock believed that it was the will of God to honor His saints by making more frequent or more wonderful manifestations of his presence in these places than in others, and that they did not hesitate to make this belief a practical rule of conduct in delicate and difficult circumstances. No wonder, therefore, that the Church of the eighteenth century condemned as rash, mischievous, and contrary to the pious customs of the faithful (Bulla ‘Auctorem Fidei’, prop. 70), that declaration of the (false) Synod of Pistoia which condemned all special cultus of one image of a saint in preference to another. Whereas orthodox theologians lay it down (St. Petrus Canisius de BMV, pars iv, sect. 2, c. 24), as confessed by all doctors and placed beyond dispute, that God sets this mark of difference upon certain holy places according to His own hidden counsel, the reasons whereof we cannot understand, whilst yet we daily experience its blessed results.

St. Augustine

The narratives which are collected in this volume presuppose, and are intended to illustrate and promote, the same belief. It has been no part, therefore, of its general design, to enter upon a critical examination of their exact historical truth. Numerous remarks, indeed, bearing upon this point, have been introduced here and there, as opportunity seemed to offer; but the historical evidence has not been presented at any length, nor its accuracy examined in detail, excepting only in two or three instances. The most important of these is the Sanctuary of La Salette; and the reason for this selection is obvious. Its rise and growth belong to our own times; there are here no old traditions whose origin is lost in the darkness of antiquity; no ravages of fire and sword have destroyed the records of any intermediate period; but the whole history lies open before us from the beginning to end, all contained within the narrow compass of a few years. The thing has grown up, we might almost say, under our own eyes; even the newspapers of the day, both English and foreign, gave publicity to the main outlines of the history from the very first, so that we have an opportunity of studying with the most minute exactness this rare phenomenon, the creation of a new sanctuary or place of pilgrimage. And this seemed to be an opportunity too valuable to be lost, since Protestant controversialists would have us believe that it is a matter which can be summed up in half a dozen words. Some idle tale of a dream, or vision, or miraculous cure, is first invented (they suppose) by a designing priest, or imagined by some weak-brained enthusiast; then the ignorant and superstitious people instantly believe it; the bishops and clergy move heaven and earth to encourage their credulity; and behold, the whole thing is done. Born in obscurity and nurtured by priestcraft, the tale is forced into a sickly maturity, and begets a sanctuary and a pilgrimage, only by means of the most jealous vigilance and fostering care of its clerical guardians, who tenderly shelter it from every breath of opposition until the time for inquiry is past; and if in future ages some diligent antiquarian, about to write the history of the Church, should seek to investigate the first origin of the narrative so intimately connected with its foundation, he will find no written documents that can assist him in his research, but only the uncertain voice of tradition...

To correct this false and mischievous impression the history of La Salette has been told at some length; so also has the history of the Holy House of Loreto, and the evidence regarding the numerous pictures in Rome which attracted so much attention towards the close of the last century. The histories of the other Sanctuaries have been written with less reference to the objections of critics; and if this variety in the mode of treatment of different parts of the same volume be felt as an inconsistency and a defect, yet perhaps it may also be found to have some compensating advantages. To the great mass of the Protestant public, I am afraid it matters little in what style such narratives are written; their supernatural character is accepted as conclusive evidence against their truth. "We are sure," such persons say, "that the story must needs be false, because we are satisfied on a priori grounds that it cannot possibly be true." In whatever style, therefore, the story is told, their criticism is already prepared. If it is told in the simple legendary style of earlier ages, the writer is set down as a medieval dreamer, who lives in a charmed circle, mistakes visions for realities, and treats all the ordinary occurrences and accidents of life, as surrounded by mystery and marvel. If, on the other hand, an attempt is made to sift and arrange the evidence, to weigh arguments and allege proofs, immediately we are reminded that modern stories of miraculous events have not the naïve simplicity of the ancient ones. They seem to endeavor to get too many details in order to prove their truth. "La Salette," it has been said, "may in some measure be classed with the tales of Caesarius; but the latter tells his stories as if he believes them, and in that he gives a lesson that may not be disadvantageous at the present time" (Gentlemen’s Magazine, Jan. 1854, p. 16).

Of course neither the style nor the matter of the following pages can find favor with critics of this stamp. I hope, however, that Catholics may read them with interest and profit. It is but too natural to the hearts of all of us to set limits on the modes and times of God's interference with the system of the world we live in, to think that it "belongs only to those days of wonder when heaven and earth are confounded, as when His feet stood formerly on the Mount of Olives, and when all nations shall behold Him at the crack of doom." Such narratives as are here told may serve at least to startle us out of this practical unbelief. May they also enkindle in some hearts a more tender love and devotion towards Our Blessed and Immaculate Mother, a firmer confidence in Her power, and a more lively sense of Her ever-present help to deliver us from all dangers.

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