The Roman Catholic Church has officially recognised a shrine in the French Alps where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a young shepherdess - the first such recognition in France for almost 150 years.
But the presence of a government minister drew instant political fire, with the French Left claiming that the country's staunchly secular values were being undermined.
Notre Dame du Laus, which already draws some 120,000 pilgrims each year, was formally acknowledged by the Vatican after three years of research into its credentials by a team of theologians, historians and psychologists.
There have been suggestions it could grow to rival Lourdes, the last place in France to receive the Church's official apparition stamp – in 1862 – and which today struggles to cope with five million pilgrims each year.
About 6,000 Catholics, including more than 20 bishops and cardinals, attended a solemn Mass at the sanctuary of Benôite Rencurel – who was 16 when she first reported seeing the Virgin Mary in 1664.
The shepherdess was described by one observer as the French champion of apparitions, because she saw the Virgin Mary around 2,500 times over 54 years – averaging once a week.
Hordes of pilgrims already go to the site in the hope of salvation or a cure. Most recently, a Belgian woman insisted that she had been miraculously cured of a slipped disc after visiting the shrine.
Church authorities in the southeastern town of Gap had long struggled to convince the Vatican to beatify the shepherdess – a request it refused as recently as 2003.
Jean-Michel di Falco Leandri, the Bishop of Gap, told the gathering: "I recognise the supernatural origin of the apparitions and facts experienced and recounted by Benôite Rencurel, between 1664 and 1718.
"I encourage the faithful to come and pray and to seek spiritual renewal in this sanctuary," he said.
The bishop denied that the official recognition was a marketing ploy on behalf of the Catholic Church.
He said: "You're not obliged to believe in apparitions, even official recognised ones. But if they are a help in your faith and daily life, why reject them?"
However, there was controversy over the presence of Hubert Falco, the secretary of state for territorial development. Mr Falco said he had attended as a private individual and a Catholic, but that he was a believer in the secular state and "open to all religions".
However, the radical Left Party said his presence was an "unacceptable confusion between the values of the republic (including secularism) and religious practices that relate to the private sphere".
Mixing religion with politics is explosive in France. President Nicolas Sarkozy recently caused outrage among defenders of secularism by intimating that France needed more believers.
"A man who believes is a man who hopes," said the president at Saint-Jean de Latran in Rome late last year, when he met the Pope.
The Pope will visit France in September to mark the 150th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions.