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An Unplanned Pilgrimage
Jim Brennan
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013
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Chances are, as many American Catholics associate Notre Dame with a university in South Bend, Indiana, as they do with Our Lady. Some may even wonder why a cathedral in Paris was named after a football team with a fighting leprechaun as a mascot. Fewer still are likely to be familiar with the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France. Admittedly, I was one of those in the dark until an inadvertent discovery on a recent vacation.

Our adventure started out as planned, with a few days in Paris, visiting many of the popular attractions including the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and Luxembourg Gardens. When we arrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, it was immediately apparent why it is the most visited site in the city, even outranking the Eiffel Tower. Simply observing the 14th-century cathedral’s twin 228-foot towers—sculpted portals that portray scriptural themes and stained-glass artistry—makes it impossible to imagine a more magnificent structure anywhere on earth. And we hadn’t yet left Paris.

An Unexpected Find
We escaped the City of Light before our credit cards exceeded their limit and drove to Lyon for a two-day stopover, unaware of what was in store for us. Though Lyon is the second-largest city in France, it is much more manageable to sightsee. The neighborhood of Veiux (“Old”) Lyon dates back to the medieval and Renaissance era, with narrow cobblestone streets that snake up a steep hill where the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière sits atop, watching over the city.

Around 1870, the bishop of Lyon vowed to build the basilica if the city was spared by the Prussians, who had taken over Paris and were progressing south to Lyon. Their halt and retreat were attributed by the Church to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Construction of the basilica began in 1872 and took 12 years. Mary had previously been credited with saving the city from the endemic cholera sweeping Europe in 1823. Each year on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, residents pay tribute to the Virgin Mary with the lighting of candles throughout the city in what is referred to as the Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of Lights.

The basilica does not compare in size or stature to the cathedral in Paris, but its intimacy is mesmerizing. The structure has four main towers and a bell tower at the apse end, topped with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary. The basilica is made up of two churches: the ornate upper church dedicated to Mary and the lower, simpler church dedicated to her husband, Joseph. Outside the church is a large patio with spectacular views overlooking the city. On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.

Intricate mosaics and art depicting Church history include scenes from the Council of Ephesus declaring Mary the Mother of God in 431, Joan of Arc hearing messages from Mary and rallying the French against the English at the Siege of Orleans in 1429, and Louis XIII offering the crown of France to the Virgin Mary. Rather than a crucifix above the altar, which we’ve been accustomed to seeing throughout our lives, stands a striking statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. My wife, Joanne, and I agreed it was the most Mary-centric church we’d ever entered.

We went downstairs to explore the chapel dedicated to Joseph. As soon as we got to the bottom of the winding marble stairway, we were struck by a large painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa. After 30 years in the home where we raised our children, we had recently moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and adopted the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa as our new church. We had no idea our transformational journey had just begun.

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