New Pilgrimage Route in South of France Follows Traditional Path of St. Mary Magdalene

Winding from Camargue to Provence, the 147-mile pilgrimage trail traces the journey of the saint who, according to tradition, sought refuge in the region a few years after the Ascension of Christ.

Sainte Baume Grotto
Sainte Baume Grotto (photo: Disdero / CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval accounts suggest that after the Ascension of Christ, several of his closest companions fled persecution in the Holy Land and spent the rest of their earthly life in the South of France. Among them were Sts. Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, St. Maximinus of Aix and St. Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom is regarded as the patron saint of the region of Provence.

According to tradition, Mary Magdalene reached the coast by boat and landed in a city known today as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. After evangelizing the whole area, in particular the city of Marseille (Massilia), she settled in a grotto nestled in the heart of a nearby mountain, which would become later the Sanctuary of Sainte-Baume, where she dedicated the rest of her life to prayer. Her tomb, considered the “third vault of Christendom” (after the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and St. Peter’s tomb under the Basilica in Rome), is located in Saint-Maximin, at the foot of the Sainte-Baume mountains, and has been kept by the Dominicans for centuries.

It is thus between the Church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (Our Lady of the Sea) in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Saint-Maximin, that this new path of faith stretches. The itinerary of more than 147 miles is made of 10 stages that retrace, in the majestic landscape of Camargue and Provence, the journey of the famous disciple of Christ in these lands.

“Mary Magdalene left tracks everywhere in the region and it is very important to us — for our culture, for our religion,” Renaud Muselier, President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, said in an interview with Catholic radio RCF.

The pilgrimage was inaugurated at the Saint Baume hostelry (in Plan-d’Aups) on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, shortly after the reopening of the Grotto of Saint Mary Magdalene, which had been closed since June 2020 for restoration and safety upgrades. This large-scale project, made necessary by an increasing risk of rockfall on the site, was funded mostly by the national and regional governments and the commune of Plan-d’Aups.

Muselier added that he did everything possible to make sure that the grotto — a crucial step of the pilgrimage — would open quickly so that this Christian and French heritage site wouldn’t be forgotten by the faithful and tourists.

“It is a spiritual diamond,” he said. “When we are lucky enough to have a jewel like that in the heart of a natural park, we must make sure that it is promoted and protected.”

The inaugural Mass of the pilgrimage was celebrated by the vicar general of the Diocese of Marseille, Father Pierre Brunet. During the celebration, Father Brunet welcomed this new initiative as a way to foster a “cultural tourism” that is “clean” and “respectful of nature,” as reported by local newspaper Nice Matin.

“This path of tradition will be a tool of transmission,” he said. “It will allow [the pilgrims] to go from a place to another, from one love to another, giving thanks to Mary Magdalene’s humility.”

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