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Meaning, manner of Mary's apparitions support devotion

Published: May 20, 2006   

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary, immediately after the Annunciation, sets off to visit Elizabeth (1:39-56) to proclaim God's goodness and mercy, and to assist Elizabeth. Through the centuries, and particularly in the past 150 years, many appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to people around the world have been authenticated or approved by the Catholic Church; others have proven not to be of supernatural origin.

A look at Marian apparitions
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"When we ask "why" Mary would come to earth from heaven and communicate in miraculous ways, the answer is the same as Mary's visitation of Elizabeth -- to proclaim the goodness and mercy of God, and to render some service to God's people, the Church and the world. Often this service is by way of a warning that humans are treading the path of sin and to point out the way of goodness and conversion for salvation.

Related terms

"Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia," explains some of the terminology associated with heavenly appearances on earth.

Apparition: The name given to various kinds of supernatural visions of heavenly beings and is frequently applied to the visions associated with Mary.

Private revelation: This comes from a vision and communication from Mary or other heavenly beings. "Revelation" is the body of truths found in the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition of the Church. "Private revelations" are not dogmas of faith and are open for selective acceptance and devotion of the faithful.

Messages: Often in an apparition, a message is given to the seer (the person who beholds the vision). It may be a warning about the need for prayer and penance to avert a coming war or disaster. After apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, Our Lady of Fatima told Sister Lucia de Santos that a pope would be shot. This prophecy was verified on May 13, 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot in Rome.

Messages may also include a request that a church be built to honor Mary at the apparition site with the promise of blessing to all who come to pray there. For example, the basilicas in Lourdes, France, and Guadalupe, Mexico, were built in response to Mary's request and are visited by millions of pilgrims annually.

Studying Marian apparitions

Countless Marian apparitions have been reported. According to an International Marian Research Institute study at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college in Ohio, there were 386 reported Marian apparitions in the 20th century alone. Of these, the Church made no decision on 299, a negative decision on 79 and approved only eight.

The Church exercises great caution when it investigates alleged apparitions. The process of inquiry is similar to that of canonization. The local bishop becomes the first and primary authority, the gatekeeper who investigates and decides as to the veracity or falsity of a reported supernatural vision. A team of qualified experts in the spiritual and natural fields assists the bishop in interviewing apparition witnesses. Medical doctors, for instance, evaluate the physical and mental health of the seers, and any other persons who may claim miraculous cures connected with the apparition sites.

In all cases, the test of time is applied to the discernment process. Many questions are asked such as: Do the seers remain steadfast in the faith? Do the seers withstand opposition? Do they give proof of sanctity of life expected of someone graced with a visit from the Mother of God? Are prophecies fulfilled?

What apparitions signify

Faith does not reside solely in private revelations and apparitions, even those approved by Church authority. Apparitions are an aide in nourishing faith in the basic tenets of Catholicism -- the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Eucharist.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops in their 1973 pastoral letter, "Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith," called authenticated appearances of Mary "providential happenings which serve as reminders of basic Christian themes: prayer, penance and the necessity of the sacraments."

They thereby set the bar for Marian devotion based on approved apparitions, which can add to and deepen the spiritual life of believers, taking them further into the revealed mysteries of faith.

Marian pilgrimages

Many of the faithful have visited Marian apparition sites through the years. While the purpose of making this pilgrimage may be to honor God through Mary, those who go on journey to such holy sites find it easier to devote themselves to prayer and works of mercy.

Bishop Emeritus Andrew J. McDonald said he has gone on at least a dozen pilgrimages to Marian apparition sites, including Lourdes, Fatima, the Miraculous Medal Chapel on Rue de Bac in Paris and Knock, Ireland.

"A pilgrimage is a deeply moving experience," he said. "There is always a personal grace attached to the journey."

Bishop McDonald, who is now the chaplain of St. Joseph's Home for the Elderly in Palatine, Ill., said, "Lourdes is the most prayerful place in the world."

Although there are many instances of cures associated with Lourdes, "the greatest grace may be the use by thousands of pilgrims of the sacrament of confession," the bishop said.

"A pilgrimage isn't a tour," said Greg Wolfe, diocesan finance director. He coordinated Bishop McDonald's pilgrimages and went on several himself.

"We did see historic sites," Wolfe said, "but from beginning to end, the pilgrimage is a prayerful experience. We prayed on the bus and assisted at Mass every day, even in airports and hotel rooms. The full meaning of the pilgrimage became clear to many persons after returning, when we got together to share experiences, photos and feelings about the journey."

In May 2000, Brother Joseph Heath, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey accompanied Father Gregory Pilcher, OSB, pastor of Holy Redeemer Church in El Dorado, on a private pilgrimage to Lourdes.

"It was my first pilgrimage and I expected to see overt displays of tears, shouts and intense emotional outcries there," Brother Joseph said. "What I witnessed among fellow pilgrims, even the very sick, was a powerful calm, joy, contentment, even celebration of our solidarity together."

He said the defining personal benefit of his pilgrimage was "a strengthening commitment to my monastic vocation and a more profound, enlivening understanding of my Catholic faith."

Msgr. Scott Friend, diocesan vocations director, said he has made many pilgrimages, including some to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

A spirit of sacrifice is integral to making the pilgrimage to the shrine for many, who will walk for days to reach it, he said.

"As the people of God, we walk to God's house where Mary comes to listen to us, to attend to our aches and pains. Always, we experience on pilgrimage and after, the hospitality of Mary, God's ambassador and our mother," Msgr. Friend said. "Her presence is not complicated. It is simple."

A look at Marian apparitions

The following are among the most recognized apparitions of Mary that have Church approval for devotion of the faithful:

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico (1531): The Blessed Mother appeared four times to Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Christianity, on a hillside outside Mexico City. She proclaimed herself "the Mother of the true God who gives life" and left her image as a young indigenous pregnant woman on Juan Diego's tilma (or mantle). Pope John Paul visited the Basilica of Guadalupe several times and canonized St. Juan Diego in 2002.

Our Lady of Lourdes, France (1858): Just four years after the proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Virgin appeared in the grotto of Massabielle to a young shepherdess, Bernadette Soubirous. Our Lady told Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception." She asked that a basilica be built on the spot, and prayer be offered for the conversion of sinners. St. Bernadette was canonized in 1933; her body is incorrupt.

Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal (1917): Three children, Lucia de Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto, reported apparitions of an angel while watching their sheep, and later saw the Blessed Virgin six times between May and October. Mary identified herself as "Our Lady of the Rosary," and asked for prayer and penance and the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart. Francisco and Jacinta died young and have been beatified by the Church. Lucia became a Carmelite nun and died in 2005. Pope John Paul II placed the bullet that wounded him in 1981 in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal in thanksgiving for his life being spared through Mary's intercession.

The following lesser-known apparitions also have Church approval for devotion:

Miraculous Medal (Paris, 1830);
Our Lady of La Salette (La Salette, France, 1846);
Our Lady of Knock (Knock, Ireland, 1879);
Our Lady of Hope (Pontmain, France, 1871);
Our Lady of the Poor (Beauraing, Belgium, 1932-33); and
Immaculate Virgin and Mother of God (Banneux, Belgium, 1933)

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