They drink the holy water, light votive candles and pray fervently to
the Madonna for help with life's hardships. Many venerate her like one of
their own goddesses, a view that would be a heresy if a Catholic
theologian tried to defend it.
Rather than turned away, the newcomers are free to join the crowds from
Ireland, Italy, Spain, and other traditionally Catholic countries who
flock to Europe's most popular shrines.
In Fatima, the warm welcome they have received has caused an uproar
among traditionalist Catholics.
No one can say how many non-Catholics worship at shrines where the
Virgin is said to have appeared, but they have become a familiar minority
there over the past five to 10 years.
"There are lots of them," Bishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes told
Reuters during Pope John Paul's visit to the southwestern French "miracle
shrine" on August 14-15.
"Their numbers may be small as a percentage of the 6 million pilgrims
here each year, but they're big in absolute terms."
The sight of some south Asian women in splendid saris mingling with the
European pilgrims is the first hint that reverence for Mary has crossed
Standing near the grotto where she was said to have appeared in 1858,
two women wearing the Hindu red dot or "bindi" on their foreheads said
they prayed daily to the Madonna.
"I come here for peace of mind and heart," said Buvaneswary Palani, a
Hindu from southeastern India who now lives in southern France.
"Gods are the same everywhere," explained her mother Darmavady. "She is
like our mother goddess Mariamman."
MARY, MARIAMMAN, MARYAM
Catholics revere Mary and believe she can intervene with Jesus to help
them, but they do not consider her divine.
Hindu or Buddhist pilgrims could be forgiven for thinking she is,
though, when they see the faithful kneeling in silent prayer before her
statue or admire the huge mosaic of her that looms over the altar at the
The Virgin also resembles goddesses they venerated back home before
moving to Europe.
Tamils in southeastern India and northern Sri Lanka worship a goddess
Mariamman who protects villages and wards off disease.
Among the Buddhists of China, Vietnam and other Asian states, the
"compassionate Saviouress" Kwan Yin offers the maternal love that
Catholics find in Mary.
Although Islam teaches there is no god but Allah, folk traditions in
some Muslim societies have smuggled in a devotion for saints much like
that seen in other religions.
The Koran contains a whole chapter on Mary, far more than the Gospels
have on her. In it, Maryam (her Arabic name) is a virgin and Jesus a great
prophet but neither is divine.
With its mass pilgrimages, devotion to a mother figure and belief in
water with miracle healing powers, Lourdes combines elements familiar to
followers of several other faiths.
"In a globalised age, it's normal that Lourdes attracts them," said
Patrick Theillier, a physician who heads the Medical Bureau which examines
every claim of miracle healing at Lourdes. The bureau has certified only
66 healings as genuine miracles.
FATIMA UNDER FIRE
Perrier saw no theological problem with pilgrims of other faiths
worshipping at a shrine central to Roman Catholicism.
"There are no religious services at the grotto," the bishop explained.
"They have great respect for Mary. They come to drink the water and touch
the rocks. But they don't attend mass here. That would have no meaning for
But the line between hospitality to outsiders and blurring of religious
borders is close, as Portugal's Fatima shrine to the Virgin has learned.
Traditionalist Catholics are up in arms against the shrine's directors
for allegedly being so open to Hindu pilgrims that they let them perform
religious rites there.
"They have sinned against God and given scandal to the faithful,"
thundered the U.S. monthly Catholic Family News. "They allowed Mary to be
worshipped as God by pagan apostates."
Fatima's director, Father Luciano Guerro, issued a statement in late
June denying that a Hindu pilgrim group led by its own priest had somehow
defiled the shrine during a visit in May.
"The priest sang a prayer which lasted a few minutes," he said. "No
gesture was made, no rite was performed, on or off the altar." Guerro also
denied charges that a new church now being built there would be open to
rites from all faiths.
The blurring of religious borders that globalisation has brought to
Marian shrines has also touched the higher levels of Catholic theology,
causing deep concern at the Vatican.
Father Jacques Dupuis, an 80-year-old Belgian Jesuit who spent 20 years
in India, has broken new ground in recent years by arguing that God works
through many faiths to save all believers.
This contradicts the Catholic position that faith in Jesus Christ is
the only way to salvation and even other Christian churches are imperfect
paths to that goal.
Challenging that view earned the respected theologian a secretive
three-year investigation by the Vatican's stern doctrinal chief, Cardinal
The issue calmed in 2001 when Dupuis, under heavy Vatican pressure,
issued a statement saying his writings had contained some doctrinal
ambiguities. But he has not changed his view.
"The Holy Spirit is present in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions," he
said in a lecture in February. "The diverse paths are conducive to
salvation because they have been placed by God Himself."