Apparitions of the Virgin Mary
Within the larger consideration of apparition, a special
place has been given to apparitions of one figure, the Virgin
Mary, believed to be the mother of Jesus whom Christians worship
as the Christ. Apparitions of the Virgin play an important
role in doctrinal development and devotional life of the Roman
Catholic Church, the largest religious organization in the
world, and to a lesser extent are also acknowledged in the Eastern
Orthodox and Coptic Churches. The apparitions of Mary
are also important in terms of the diligent effort made by
Roman Catholic authorities to investigate incidents that are
brought to their attention, often by the attraction of large
crowds to them, and the amount of energy spent on attempting
to verify them. Some of the apparitions stand as among the
most well-documented cases in the parapsychological realm.
In the modern cases of apparitions, especially where initial
approval is given for church members to focus devotion around
a particular apparition, the investigation may continue for
many years, to the very death bed of people claiming to have
had such apparitions to record their final words. Investigation
is also made of associated ‘‘supernatural’’ phenomena such as
the healings at Lourdes, France. While many in the highest levels
of the Roman Catholic Church are eager to report on its
claimed miraculous life, they are just as eager not to be trapped
into offering their support to incidents that might better be explained
by hoaxing, pathology, or other more mundane explanations.
In the Roman Church, apparitions are not part of what the
church considers the deposit of faith and hence, no one is compelled
to believe in them or to follow the devotions they suggest.
However, the church does view them as helpful in encouraging
devotion in general and confirming faith. The church
grants permission for the veneration of Mary in a certain way
andor in a certain place. That permission may be relatively
weak, as a letter from a bishop in whose diocese the apparition
has occurred, or strong, as when the pope visited Fatima on the
50th anniversary of the apparition.
Many of the apparitions during the first centuries of Christianity
were seen as purely personal revelations, but helped bolster
the church’s consideration of Mary and inclusion of her as
an item on its theological agenda. However, over the centuries,
several apparitions introduced a variety of new devotional
practices into the church. The rosary, for example, first became
popular when the Dominicans, following an apparition of Mary
to their founder St. Dominic, began to spread its use in the
twelfth century. Attention to Mary reached a high in the Middle
Ages, but came under heavy attack from Protestant leaders in
the sixteenth century (many considered it idolatry) and from
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that saw most supernaturalism
as mere superstition.
From the eighteenth century one can see documented an attempt
to revive interest in Marian devotion with the call for a
definition of the Immaculate Conception (the belief that the
Virgin Mary was born free of original sin) as official dogma
(teachings). It also saw the publication of several massive works
on Mariology, especially the eminently successful Glories of
Mary (1876) by Alphonsus Liguori, which became one of the
most highly circulated books on Mary in modern times.
Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of
Mary in theology and her place in the devotional life of the
church has increased significantly. In 1854, Pope Leo IX issued
the bull defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Over the next century, there were to be numerous papal encyclicals
on Mary that would culminate in 1950 with Pope Pius
XII’s definition of the Assumption of Mary (that at the end of
her life she was taken body and soul into heaven) as dogma. Integral
to this expansion of theological and devotional interest
in Mary are a set of apparitions that began in 1820. In the last
generation literally hundreds of apparitions of Mary have been
documented, but of these less than 20 have received the approbation
of the church and become part of its ongoing devotional
life.
Mary in the Nineteenth Century
A new era in Marian apparitions began in 1820 in Paris,
France, with a young visionary, Catherine Labouré. A peasant
girl with visionary tendencies, Catherine entered the convent
of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in April of
1820. Soon after settling in, she began to experience visions.
Then, on the evening of July 18th, at around 1130 P.M., she was
awakened by a child who told her to go to the chapel. There
she saw the Virgin. That evening she received only some personal
instructions. But in November she had a vision of the Virgin
surrounded by an oval frame and was told to have a medal
truck in the likeness of what she saw. This medallion, known as
the Miraculous Medal, first appeared two years later but the
wearing of it has now become a popular form of devotion
worldwide.
Fourteen years later, in southern France, on the side of a
mountain called La Salette, Mary appeared to two children,
Maximim Gigaud (age 11) and Melanie Matthieu (age 15). The
pair were tending some cattle when they saw Her. She relayed
to them a message of warning concerning the neglect of attendance
at Mass and the use of Christ’s name in a profane manner.
The continued impiety was destined to lead to crop failures
and then famine, which in fact plagued the region for the
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73
next decade. Mary appeared next to a spring that had dried up.
Several days later, when the villagers finally heard about the
claimed apparition, they went out to the site and found that the
spring was once again flowing.
Possibly the most famous of the modern apparitions occurred
to young Bernadette Souberous, also in France, this
time at the village of Lourdes not far from the Spanish border.
Bernadette was the subject of a series of apparitions beginning
February 11, 1858, just four years after the definition of the
dogma of the Immaculate Conception. She had been sent out
to gather firewood when she wandered close to a grotto of Massabielle.
There she saw the Lady whom she originally described
as something in the shape of a girl. During the ninth apparition
on February 25, she was told to drink and wash with water from
a spot that Mary pointed out to her. People dug around the
spot that soon turned into a heretofore unknown spring. She
would see the Virgin several times more in March and April.
When asked her name, the Lady finally answered, ‘‘I am the
Immaculate Conception.’’
The Virgin told Bernadette that she wanted a chapel built
at the grotto. After a few ups and downs, the report of the bishop
affirming a belief that the Virgin had appeared at Lourdes
was issued in 1862. The place would become known for its healings
and in 1884 a medical bureau was established to keep records
of the miraculous cures. Bernadette was canonized in
1933.
A fourth officially approved apparition also occurred in
France at Pontmain. It was during the closing days of the Franco-Prussian
War in 1871 that Eugené and Joseph Barbadette
(twelve and ten years old respectively) saw the Virgin. Their father,
standing close by, saw nothing. As others gathered, the
adults saw nothing, but two additional children, both female,
immediately saw the apparition. The apparition closed with
what resembled a set of tableux-like scenes of Mary in the same
position as depicted on the Miraculous Medal, and then a red
cross appeared and a white cross. As the priest who had arrived
led the group in their evening prayers, the vision faded.
Twentieth Century Apparitions
The four French apparitions set the stage for what possibly
were the most spectacular of the modern apparitions whose
fame closely rivals that of Lourdes. The apparitions at Fatima,
in central Portugal, began on May 13, 1917, and continued
monthly into October. Here Mary offered the three children to
whom she appeared a vision of hell as the consequences of impiety
and unbelief, and called for reparations and prayers for
the conversion of Russia. What set the apparitions apart, however,
was the fulfilled promise of a miracle to complete the apparitions
on October 13. Tens of thousands of people gathered
at the site of the apparitions though the day was rainy. As the
children were conversing with the Lady, whom none of others
could see, Lucy, one of the children, suddenly cried out, ‘‘Look
at the sun!’’ The clouds parted, and a bright silver disk appeared
and began to rotate. It plunged downward toward the
crowd and its heat dried out clothes soaked in the earlier rain.
A mysterious white substance fell from the sky and after about
30 minutes of the ‘‘sun’’ dancing in the sky, the phenomenon
ended. Not only did everyone see, including some prominent
Freethinkers who had come to ridicule the children, but people
from as far away as 30 miles witnessed it.
Besides the aerial phenomenon of the last day, Mary had
also presented the children with a secret message, as had occurred
at La Salette. While two parts of the secrets of Fatima
would be revealed, the third part has remained unknown to the
public at large, even though the initial indication was that it
would be made public in 1960. It is known that the popes since
John XXIII have read the secret message and there has been
intense speculation as to the content of the secret among the
millions who have adopted the devotion to the Immaculate
Heart of Mary that was called for in 1917.
Since Fatima, two approved apparitions occurred at
Beauraing (1932) and Banneax (1933), Belgium. Also, back in
1879, in the midst of the potato famine, there had been a reported
apparition at Knock, Ireland. Though investigated immediately
afterward and in 1936, approval from the church has
been slow in coming. While pilgrimages to Knock were not forbidden,
the succession of local bishops refused to rule on the
matter of the apparition’s credibility. Beginning in 1954, popes
have honored the devotion of the people and recognized
Knock as a major center of Marian devotion. Finally in 1979,
on the hundredth anniversary of the apparition, Pope John
Paul II himself visited Knock.
And not to be forgotten in the midst of the growth of Marian
devotion in Europe, is the fifteenth-century apparition of Mary
in Guadalupe, Mexico. This apparition centered upon an
amazing image of the Virgin left behind on the cape of Juan
Diego, the young man who saw the Virgin. The image became
the focus of veneration of the Virgin throughout Latin America,
and has during the last half of the twentieth century been
integrated into the Marian devotion that swept through Europe
and North America.
Other Apparitions
The number of apparitions of the Virgin have grown
throughout the twentieth century. Most have had only local effect.
Although a few have been the subject of books, the great
majority have gone unreported except to the most dedicated
of gatherers of Marian data. A few, however, became the objects
of mass gatherings and pilgrimages that forced local bishops to
act. In 1954, for example, Mary Ann van Hoof began to claim
visions of the Virgin at a spot near Necedah, Wisconsin. She
also began to circulate lengthy messages dictated from Mary,
not unlike messages received through what is known as channeling.
Through the late 1950s large crowds gathered at the
site and a shrine was created. For a number of years the leaders
of the shrine negotiated with the bishop of LaCross to approve
the apparitions, but following several unfavorable rulings, he
gave a final statement discounting the apparitions and calling
Roman Catholics to abandon support of the shrine. The core
of shrine supporters, however, reorganized and have continued
as an independent group. A similar course has been followed
by those around Mary Ann Lueken, who has claimed
continuous visits by the Virgin in Bayside, Long Island, New
York.
In Europe, the most prominent of the questionable apparitions
began in the 1960s in Garabandal, Spain, in which solar
phenomena not unlike that in Fatima was reported. However,
the apparitions could not pass the scrutiny of church investigators
and have now been abandoned. The more important apparitions
began in 1981 at Medjugorje, then in Herzegovina.
Since the first day, they have continued daily for almost 20
years and even at the height of fighting in the 1990s from the
breakup of the country, pilgrims continued to flock to the area.
The apparitions have been the source of a barrage of books
supportive of the young people who have been the subject of
Mary’s attention. However, they have also acquired some
strong critics within the church, both scholars and members of
the hierarchy, who have condemned the phenomena. No definitive
ruling has yet occurred.
In the midst of the ongoing debates concerning some of the
recent apparitions, the most spectacular of Mary’s appearances
occurred in Cairo, Egypt, where not only thousands saw her,
but pictures were taken. Investigations have been filed to offer
reasonable alternative mundane explanations. However, Mary
appeared on the roof of a Coptic (not a Roman Catholic) cathedral.
While Roman Catholic scholars have investigated and
written about the sightings, the fact that Mary chose to appear
in a Muslim country in a non-Roman Catholic setting has kept
this apparition from being integrated into the body of material
considered relevant by Western Mariologists.
Apparitions of the Virgin Mary Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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The Meaning of the Apparitions
For conservative Roman Catholics, the apparitions are a
major building block of faith in God’s activity in the world.
They, in effect, prove the existence of the supernatural and
allow participation in it while living in an otherwise secular
world. Many liberal Roman Catholics see in the apparitions a
form of devotion that is quite foreign to the secularized outlook
they have adopted. Critics approach the apparitions in much
the same way as other psychic phenomena, as a threat to the
worldview that they have adopted that has no space for such occurrences.
The most vehement of critics, over the last 200
years, have seen the apparitions as supportive of a return to
pre-scientific superstition. Also critical are conservative Evangelical
Christians who view Roman Catholicism as a distorted
form of Christianity, and attack the apparitions as a counterfeit
supernaturalism. In the middle are people who believe that
such phenomena occur, but do not tie the phenomena to
Roman Catholic theology.
In fact, the Marian apparitions do supply a vast amount of
data for contemporary parapsychology, and the ongoing apparitions
provide an interesting set of data for those concerned
about the phenomenon of channeling. The material channeled
by van Hoof, Lueken, and their peers is structurally like that
from New Age channelers, but its content could not be more
different.
Sources
Connor, Edward. Recent Apparitions of Our Lady. Fresno,
Calif. Academy Guild Publishers, n.d.
Delaney, John J. A Woman Clothed with the Sun Eight Great
Appearances of Our Lady. Garden City, N.Y. Hanover House,
1960.
McClure, Kevin. The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary.
Wellingborough, UK Aquarian Press, 1983.
Sharkey, Don. The Woman Shall Conquer. Kenosha, Wis.
Franciscan Marytown Press, 1976.