Under the shades of blue of the stained-glass windows, the faithful of Notre-Dame-de-Pontmain meet almost in small groups in the basilica, this Sunday, January 17. The mass, which opens the jubilee of 150 years of the apparition of the Virgin to children in this village in North Mayenne, was to bring together nearly 4,000 people, both in the sanctuary, in the church and the rooms parish.
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In preparation since 2018, this year of celebration dedicated to Mary is opening in a singular way, while the rate of coronavirus contamination is on the rise in the department. Pilgrim’s sticks do not strike the ground, souvenir shops are neglected and families do not pray side by side, but separated by careful markings. In total, only 373 people are allowed to come simultaneously to the basilica and the small parish church, due to sanitary standards.
A reduced program
“We have been preparing for this event for three years, and nothing is going as planned”, sighs Father Renaud Saliba, rector of the sanctuary. And for good reason: after the government announced a new curfew at 6 p.m. across the country, the program of festivities in honor of Notre-Dame-de-Pontmain was turned upside down. The Marian vigil, supposed to bring together the faithful at an evening evening, had already been postponed to 5 pm, before being canceled. The story of the apparition of the Virgin to the inhabitants of Pontmain in 1871, read by childish voices, is no longer relevant either. And the arrival of the Italian cardinal Mgr Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State at the Vatican, at the high mass on Sunday, could not be done.
Some pilgrims, however, were not discouraged, like Claire, a student who came from Vannes on foot despite a cold pouring rain. “We do not receive pilgrims this weekend”, warns the hotel reception manager when Claire is about to enter this Saturday evening. The young woman will therefore have to find refuge elsewhere, and no doubt take advantage of the many withdrawals at the start of the week in the hotels in Pontmain. “Until Monday or Tuesday, we hoped to welcome 800 people, explains Anne-Elisabeth Veyrières, responsible for youth ministry in the diocese of Laval. The prefecture asked us not to open the parish halls to the public, and we had to lower the gauge. “
However, to ensure compliance with the standard, solutions were found upstream. For example, this television broadcast of the Sunday Mass by the KTO channel. Or those tokens at the entrance that the faithful must take to be counted.
This time, the pilgrims did not come from the four corners of France or from abroad but from Mayenne, sometimes from neighboring Normandy and Brittany. “We did everything to dissuade people from coming, continues Father Renaud Saliba. Masses in honor of Notre-Dame-de-Pontmain are celebrated this Sunday in all the parishes of the department. “
On the morning of Sunday mass, the faithful flock, however, from 6 am, in front of the doors of the two places of worship in Pontamine. At 8:30 a.m., in the small parish church, all the tokens that participants have to take at the entrance are already distributed, although the service begins two hours later. Some families even pray on their knees on the asphalt, in front of the basilica, immense and proud in the middle of the small houses with blue roofs of the Mayenne village.
The pilgrims look a bit disappointed, but some discreetly savor this more intimate atmosphere than in previous years. “Basically, this is perhaps what Marie wanted, a more modest celebration, on a village scale”, smiles an old lady.
A year of jubilee
On January 17, 1871, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, children from Pontmain testified to an apparition of the Virgin Mary, later recognized by the Church. For its 150 years, celebrations will take place all year round at the shrine.
Sunday January 17th. Opening mass of the jubilee, presided over by Bishop Celestino Migliore, new apostolic nuncio in France
Thursday May 13. Great pilgrimage of the Ascension.
Sunday 23 May. Feast of Pentecost and closing of the diocesan synod of Laval.
Wednesday June 9. Children’s jubilee.
Sunday August 15th. Feast of the Assumption.
Sunday October 17th. Celebration of the anniversary of the consecration of the basilica.
Sunday 12 December. Sunday of forgiveness with penitential celebration and individual absolution.
Sunday January 16, 2022. Closing of the jubilee year.