Wait, what? I thought it was a Catholic country. With all the life-sized crucifixes on country roads, Virgin-and-Child statues in centre ville, nation-wide annual festivals dedicated to St. Vincent, the patron saint of wine-growers, and Lyon’s million euro Fete des Lumieres honoring Mary on her December 8th feast day, I’d say I have reason to be confused.
And yet, ask any French person and he will say — and I quote — “since ze revolution we ‘ave been laique. It ees very impohtant to us to be secular because of what ‘appened during ze revolution.”
Um, the Revolution was over two-hundred years ago. I’m not sure that’s a valid explanation anymore. In fact, isn’t that kind of like saying “because I got sick at church once, I decided never to go back?”
Anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that there are dozens of signs that prove that religion, if not faith, is alive in France. Maybe there is no mention of God in public schools, but his presence is much more obvious in public places here than anywhere in the U.S.
Since some friends and I just got back from a day trip to Lyon on Wednesday, I’ll return to the example of the Fete des Lumieres. Check out the official tourism poster advertising the festival of lights in places as varied as metro stations and shop windows to bar walls and church doors. It features the face of a statue of the Virgin Mary with the simple words “Merci Marie” written under the date of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Since 1852 the tradition in Lyon has been to light balconies with candles in gratitude to Mary for sparing Lyon from the plague of 1643. This tradition grew into an amazing light festival that now lasts four days, with different shows in every major square of the city.
The focal point, however, remains on the impressive basilica at the top of the hill overlooking Lyon. Dedicated to Notre Dame de Fourviere, during the festival it boasts a giant illuminated sign that reads “Merci Marie.”
Something in me rejoiced when I saw that sign from as far away as Place Bellecour. As a Catholic, I feel connected to the tradition, to the Catholics who even before the plague have been honoring Mary in this country on this day, in celebration of her conception (and not, as is commonly supposed, Jesus’) in her mother’s womb.
Where else in the world do we celebrate this feast day with such pomp and circumstance?
Nowhere. I am sure of it.
In many ways, France is a secular country. Since the Revolution her people have resisted being labeled Catholic, to the point of — I can admit the reality — disconnecting altogether from the true meaning of festivals such as this one. Among the thousands and thousands of people who flocked to Lyon this week I am sure only a small number of them paid intentional tribute to Mary.
But while people were enjoying the light shows in the town, no one could deny the meaning of the words on the hill. Clear as day they stood out against the night. Merci Marie. Thank you Mary.
I know I wasn’t the only one who rejoiced.