By PETER ANSON Le Grand Retour of Notre-Dame de Boulogne is by far the most remarkable proof of the revival of religion in France: a movement which has affected the nation ever since the Hierarchy, in obedience to Pope Pius XIII, bade the people of France consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on March 28, 1943.
It is a series of journeys throughout the length and breadth of France, from Picardy to Provence, from the Pyrenees to Paris, from Brittany to Burgundy, of a replica of the famous statue of Our Lady of Boulogne.
During the past three years this striking figure of the Mother of God, holding the Divine Child in her arms, and seated in a boat, has "voyaged" through over 50 dioceses, passed through some 7,000 parishes, and has covered more than 50,000 miles ! She is carrying on an intensive " revival movement"; bringing back the Faith to thousands of men and women. How is it done?
First of all, a few words about Our Lady of Boulogne herself. According to a venerable legend, which has been handed down for more than a thousand years, a boat without a crew, oars or sail, drifted on to the shore not far from Boulogne-sur-Mer. Some fishermen examined this boat and discovered that the only thing on board was a small wooden statue of Our Lady.
They placed the statue in a church, and, believing that it had been brought to their coast by angels. treated it with veneration. From the reign of Charlemagne until the French Revolution, the shrine of Notre-Dame de Boulogne was one of the most popular in the whole of France.
ORIGINAL DESTROYED The original statue was destroyed in 1793. It had been carried off to England in 1549, when the troops of Henry VIII captured Boulogne, but was returned to its shrine six years later. Devotion to Our Lady of Boulogne was revived early in the 19th century. A new cathedral was built and a new statue of the Madonna in her boat was placed in the Lady Chapel. The dome of the cathedral can be distinguished far out at sea, and is familiar to all travellers to and from England.
In 1938 a Congress was held at Boulogne-sur-Mar to commemorate the third centenary of the consecration of France to Our Lady by Louis XIII. It was decided to have three replicas made of the statue now venerated, and to have them taken round the departments of Nord and the Pas-de-Calais. Inserted in each statue was a portion of the miraculous Cierge d'Ardentes, preserved in the Cathedral of Arras since the 12th century.
These " voyages " of the Vierge nautortie,re (the Mariner Virgin) attracted such publicity and produced such wonderful spiritual results among the people that the Bishops resolved to extend the movement to other parts of France. So Our Lady of Boulogne act Cut for Le Puy—another famous shrine. In March, 1943, she had reached Lourdes, and it was here that the present " Grand Retail' movement began in earnest.
DRAGGED ON HAND-CART The statue is dragged along the roads in a cart, drawn by four young men or women. At the head of the procession is a man carrying a crucifix. Behind him a girl holds aloft the standard of St. Joan of Arc. A priest leads the singing or recites the Rosary. Many of the pilgrims are walking without shots or stockings, for the " Grand Retour " is above all else a penitential act, undertaken by rich and poor in reparation for their own sins and those of their fellow-countryMen.
Every morning the procession leaves the church where the statue has been enthroned the previous night. It moves on slowly for a distance of about ten to twelve miles daily. Towards evening a halt is made and the statue carried into a cathedral, church or wayside chapel. Then follow devotions and sermons.
Long queues wail at the confessionals. Mass is sung at midnight, and it is worth mentioning that this is usually a Dialogue Mass, with the congregation making the responses and joining in the singing of the Common. If anything has helped to spread the " Liturgical Movement " in France during the past three years, it is the "Grand Retour."