Does a boom in pilgrimages signal a religious revival? That’s doubtful

Above the northern French town of Lisieux, a vast white basilica rises on a sweeping, tree-lined promontory. In the cavernous Byzantine-style interior, the shrine of St Thérèse of Lisieux is illuminated by a maze of candles, overlooked by columns and vaulted mosaics.

When the cross-shaped basilica was completed in 1954, three decades after the youthful St Thérèse’s canonisation by Pope Pius XI, much of Lisieux still lay in ruins from fighting which followed the nearby D-Day landings.

In the decades since, aided by the canonisation of her parents, Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, originally interred on the Way of the Cross behind the basilica, it’s become a place associated with modern sanctity. Today it is France’s second most popular Catholic sanctuary after Lourdes.

Virtually all of Europe’s Catholic shrines have reported increased visitors over the past two decades. In Portugal, the Marian sanctuary of Fatima drew 1.5 million when Pope Francis visited in May 2017 for the centenary of its apparitions. Over the course of the year it attracted 9.4 million, according to Church figures.

In neighbouring Spain, similar numbers are descending annually on Santiago de Compostela, as the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrimage, explored in a recent BBC series, also gains in popularity. Last year, more than 300,000 people from 150 countries walked the Camino, a hundred times as many as three decades previously, when barely 3,000 attempted the journey. A further 10 per cent increase is forecast for 2018, with three quarters coming from outside Spain. And while Santiago’s administrators accept that not all pilgrims are motivated by Christian belief, they say that many claim some form of Christian conversion on the way.

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