Skip to content

Record number of French military baptized at Lourdes

A record number of French armed forces personnel were baptized Saturday during the annual International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Members of the French armed forces are baptized at Lourdes on May 25, 2024. Screenshot from @LeSanctuaireNotreDamedeLourdes YouTube channel.

Nearly 180 catechumens from the four branches of the French military — the Army, Navy, Air and Space Force, and National Gendarmerie — were baptized May 25 in the cavernous Basilica of St. Pius X, the largest church in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

It marked a 50% increase on the year before, when 120 people were baptized.

A further 400 people were confirmed during the May 24-26 pilgrimage that drew 15,000 military personnel from around 40 countries.

Many of the catechumens were baptized by the Vatican’s “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, who presided over the pilgrimage, which is led each year by the French Armed Forces Bishop Antoine de Romanet. 

The Diocese of the French Armed Forces is just one of the beneficiaries of a sharp rise in adult baptisms reported across the country once known as “the eldest daughter of the Church.”

The number of adult baptisms in France has increased by 30%, from 5,463 in 2023 to 7,135 in 2024, the French bishops’ conference reported in March.

The figures are the highest since the bishops’ conference began tabulating the data more than 20 years ago.

Hundreds of people are baptized or received into the Church through the armed forces diocese every year, a mark of the Catholic ethos that permeates the country’s military despite France’s rigorously enforced secularism.

A catechumen from the French armed forces is baptized at Lourdes on May 25, 2024. Screenshot from @LeSanctuaireNotreDamedeLourdes YouTube channel.

One observer has suggested that the French armed forces have “an over-representation of Catholic officers” and “the individual commitment to being an officer seems to correspond fairly frequently to belonging to a Catholic cultural and family environment, with a political commitment to the traditional right.”

Jean-Louis Georgelin, a practicing Catholic, served as France’s Chief of the Defence Staff from 2006 and 2010. He oversaw the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral following the devastating fire in 2019, but died while hiking in August 2023.

The Diocese of the French Armed Forces was founded in 1952, as the country was recovering from the Second World War. Its cathedral is Saint-Louis des Invalides, part of the Les Invalides complex in Paris.

According to the diocese’s website, military chaplaincy in France dates back as far as the 8th century, but was formalized by a law passed in 1880, which affirmed freedom of worship in the armed forces. The state is obliged under French law to guarantee that the country’s military personnel can exercise their right to freedom of worship. 

Catholic chaplains belonging to the armed forces diocese are permitted to wear uniforms, visit bases, and sail on naval vessels. More than 200 chaplains — priests, deacons, and lay men and women — serve a total of around 270,000 French active personnel. They provide pastoral care at defense bases, schools, and hospitals, as well as in theaters of operation.

The Bishop of the Armed Forces is appointed by the pope with the consent of the French government. The bishop is represented by a regional chaplain in each French military region, including overseas territories in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

The international military pilgrimage was launched in 1958 — 100 years after the 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes — with an emphasis on post-war reconciliation between France and neighboring Germany.

Pilgrims at the three-day event, known by its French acronym PMI, include Swiss Guards from the Vatican and a U.S. contingent including Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Each year, U.S. active-duty personnel and veterans attend the pilgrimage through the Warriors to Lourdes program, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Knights of Columbus.

The 2024 Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage took place May 21-27, in conjunction with the 64th annual International Military Pilgrimage.

Pope Francis sent a message to military pilgrims at Lourdes, signed by the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urging participants to be “sentinels of peace.”

“Dear soldiers, the pope invites you to stand up and walk with courage and perseverance,” the May 25 message said. 

“Be military men and women who stand tall and proud to honor your uniform, your motto, and your homeland, but who are also aware that you are part of a single human family, a family that is divided and wounded, but which Christ came to redeem and save through the power of love, not the violence of arms.”

Subscribe now

Comments 9