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Exclusive: Lourdes bishop hopes to make decision on Rupnik mosaics by spring

Bishop Jean-Marc Micas of Tarbes and Lourdes. / Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Lourdes, France, Feb 5, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The bishop of Lourdes says that he has received a “pile of letters” from Catholics all over the world as he considers whether to remove the shrine’s mosaics by alleged abuser Father Marko Rupnik.

Bishop Jean-Marc Micas of Tarbes and Lourdes told CNA that he hopes to make a decision by this spring. The bishop formed a special commission last year to determine the future of the Rupnik mosaics.

“This occupies my mind, my prayer, and my heart every day, especially when I meet victims of abuse,” Micas said.

In an interview at the bishop’s residence in Lourdes, Micas acknowledged that, for him, this is a “very, very difficult decision to make.”

“But I have to make it,” he added.

Mosaics by alleged abuser Father Marko Rupnik are displayed at the shrine in Lourdes, France. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Since forming the commission, Micas has met with victims of abuse, heard from sacred art specialists, and consulted with experts from across France who make up the commission.

“And we’ve received letters, letters, a pile of letters — people very angry because the mosaics are still there and other people who were very angry at the idea we could remove them,” he said.

The bishop shared how he was inspired to form the commission after a conversation he had with a woman from England who had served as a volunteer in Lourdes for many years, aiding the sick who come to wash in the baths seeking healing. 

“She told me … ‘I met many, many women who come to Lourdes in order to ask for special healing after abuse. And they come to the Immaculate Conception to be cured, to be healed, to find consolation.’”

The woman went on to describe how the architecture of Lourdes’ Basilica of the Immaculate Conception with its grand entrance of two large curving ramps on either side of “Rosary Square” was meant to convey “‘the arms of the Immaculate Conception embracing her children.’”

“‘And now, for me, for them, the arms are not the arms of the Immaculate Conception. They are the arms of Father Rupnik.’”

Mosaics by alleged abuser Father Marko Rupnik are displayed at the shrine in Lourdes, France. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

This encounter left an impression on the bishop and the rector of the Lourdes sanctuary, and shortly thereafter Micas decided to form the commission on Rupnik’s mosaics in March 2023.

Approaching the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes with its soaring spires, it is hard to miss the 21st-century addition by Rupnik’s mosaic school, Centro Aletti, to the facade of the lower basilica. Rupnik’s wide-eyed figures are set against bright gold backdrops in a marked contrast with the shrine’s neo-Gothic stone facade.

The original basilica was built at the request of the Virgin Mary during the 13th apparition to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the Lourdes’ Grotto in 1858: “Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here and that people should come in procession.”

The Rupnik mosaics, added in 2008, depict the luminous mysteries of the rosary with the “Wedding Feast at Cana” in the center. Rupnik’s signature red dot decorates one of the arched panels above the entrance.

Mosaics by alleged abuser Father Marko Rupnik are displayed at the shrine in Lourdes, France. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Rupnik, a priest and artist, has been accused of spiritual, psychological, and sexual abuse of religious sisters. He was removed from the Jesuits last June, and the Vatican has announced that Rupnik will face a canonical process over the abuse allegations after Pope Francis decided to waive the statute of limitations on the claims.

The priest’s prolific art career that followed his alleged abuse has created a problem for many shrines and Catholic churches across Europe and North America. Rupnik’s workshop has accounted for projects for more than 200 liturgical spaces around the world, including Fatima, the Vatican, the John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C., and the tomb of St. Padre Pio. 

Some have argued that to remove Rupnik’s art would be a manifestation of “cancel culture” and point to the work of Renaissance artists with scandalous personal lives. Others highlight the allegations that the accused priest convinced religious sisters to commit sins with him by persuading them that sinful acts would worship God and ask if his sacred art might likewise be imbued with and communicate “a false Gospel.”

For Lourdes, the problem is felt acutely as the Marian shrine is known throughout the world as a place of healing and consolation, and in this unique role should be a privileged place for abuse victims seeking healing. The French bishops have underscored this by gathering in Lourdes to pray and fast for victims of abuse.

Bishop Micas is aware that many other Catholic shrines and churches that also contain Rupnik’s mosaics may be looking to Lourdes to see what he decides.

“I very often say that the decision we will make here is made for Lourdes and only for Lourdes,” he said.

“It cannot be extended to any other place where there are mosaics of Rupnik’s because Lourdes is Lourdes and it is for weak people, sick people, special people. And we have to serve the message of Lourdes, whatever the cost.”

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