This week the Archbishop of Canterbury became the first Anglican leader to visit the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France. During his three-day visit, he preached a homily at an international Mass and made remarks which critics construed to mean that he accepted the reality of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes and the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which the apparitions communicated.
One critic called the archbishop’s presence a “wholesale compromise” and labeled him a “papal puppet.”
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been invited to the shrine by Jacques Perrier, the Catholic bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes. He was joined by an unprecedented pilgrimage of eight Church of England bishops, about 60 Anglican priests and about 400 Anglican laymen and women, a number of whom are considering converting to Catholicism as a result of the theological turmoil in the Church of England.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, celebrated the international Mass.
Lourdes became the most popular shrine in Europe after St. Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858. In the apparitions Mary told Bernadette to dig for a spring, which many would come to for healing.
The apparition also described herself to Bernadette as the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine concerning Mary’s preservation from original sin. The doctrine has long been believed by Catholics but was also authoritatively proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
Bernadette faced initial skepticism from local Catholic clergy and laymen but was later canonized. Around six million pilgrims, many of whom are ill or dying, visit the Lourdes shrine each year.
Archbishop Williams’ remarks at Lourdes began with a reflection on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as depicted in the Gospel of Luke.
“Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, carrying Jesus in her womb,” the archbishop said. “The Son of God is still invisible – not yet born, not even known about by Elizabeth; yet Elizabeth recognizes Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations, and life stirs in the deep places of her own body. The one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, moves as if to greet the hope that is coming, even though it cannot yet be seen.”
He called Mary “the first missionary” who testifies to the importance of “simply carrying Jesus.”
The Anglican archbishop’s remarks appear to acknowledge the reality of the Lourdes apparitions, reading:
“When Mary came to Bernadette, she came at first as an anonymous figure, a beautiful lady, a mysterious 'thing', not yet identified as the Lord's spotless Mother. And Bernadette – uneducated, uninstructed in doctrine – leapt with joy, recognizing that here was life, here was healing. Remember those accounts of her which speak of her graceful, gliding movements at the Lady's bidding; as if she, like John in Elizabeth's womb, begins to dance to the music of the Incarnate Word who is carried by his Mother. Only bit by bit does Bernadette find the words to let the world know; only bit by bit, we might say, does she discover how to listen to the Lady and echo what she has to tell us.”
Archbishop Williams then cited the example of St. Teresa of Avila and the guidance of the “Orthodox spiritual tradition.”
His concluding remarks again touch on St. Bernadette, reading:
“Bernadette’s neighbors and teachers and parish clergy knew all they thought they needed to know about the Mother of God – and they needed to be surprised by this inarticulate, powerless, marginal teenager who had leapt up in the joy of recognition to meet Mary as her mother, her sister, bearer of her Lord and Redeemer… here today, with Elizabeth and Bernadette, we say, in thankful amazement, 'Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' And we recognize that our heart's desire is met and the very depth of our being stirred into new life.”
The archbishop’s remarks were harshly criticized by Rev. Jeremy Brooks a director of ministry at the Protestant Truth Society, which is a group of Anglicans and nonconformists dedicated to Protestant ideals.
“Lourdes represents everything about Roman Catholicism that the Protestant Reformation ejected, including apparitions, Mariolatry and the veneration of saints,” Rev. Brooks said to the Daily Mail.
“Mariolatry” means the “worship of Mary,” which is sometimes a charge leveled against Catholics by Protestant polemicists.
“The archbishop's simple presence there is a wholesale compromise, and his sermon which included a reference to Mary as ‘the Mother of God’ is a complete denial of Protestant orthodoxy,” Rev. Brooks continued.
“At a time when our country is crying out for clear Biblical leadership, it is nothing short of tragic that our supposedly Protestant archbishop is behaving as little more than a papal puppet,” the clergyman continued.Archbishop Williams’ visit to Lourdes came just one week after Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the Marian shrine.