Some of the Church’s most popular, post-Scriptural miracles involve apparitions, defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an appearance to people on earth of a heavenly being — Christ, Mary, an angel or a saint.”
“Apparitions affect huge populations of people for generations, still with the purpose of revealing God to us and increasing our faith,” said Jeff Hines, director of the Diocese of Little Rock’s Faith Formation Office. “Popular devotions that have grown up around these miracles bring many to faith in Jesus who would not otherwise have been drawn to him. Today, when people are drawn to the devotion for Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lourdes and others, they are drawn to Christ, who has the power to transform their lives. The images from these apparitions, often found in unlikely places outside of churches, are a lifeline of faith for many who reach out to God in their time of need.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.org offers several examples of the faithful seeing apparitions.
One of the Church’s most moving apparitions happened to one of its favorite saints. In 1205, St. Francis of Assisi was praying in the church of San Damiano when he reported seeing the image of Jesus on the crucifix come alive and say to him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my Church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
He drew a following of men and women and founded the Franciscans for men; the Poor Clares, with St. Clare of Assisi, for women; and Third Order Franciscans, a confraternity composed of laity. When Pope Fancis was elected, he took the name of the man from Assisi as a guide for his papacy.
St. Teresa of Avila reported seeing Jesus in bodily form for two years, beginning in 1559. Her writings about her experiences became popular during the Counter-Reformation. She founded the Order of the Discalced Carmelites with St. John of the Cross in 1562. In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church for her writing and teachings on prayer.
St. Faustina Kowalska began having visions and conversations with Jesus which she wrote about in her diary. On Sunday, Feb. 22, 1931, Jesus appeared to her wearing a white alb with red and blue rays emanating from his heart. The experiences resulted in a devotion to Jesus’ Divine Mercy. Divine Mercy Sunday is now officially celebrated on the Second Sunday of Easter.
Visions of St. Mary have also had an indelible impact on the Church.
After the discovery of the Americas, St. Juan Diego saw Mary early in the morning on Dec. 9, 1531. She asked that a church be built at the site, but the local bishop did not believe his story. Three days later, he saw her again. She told him to collect roses in his cloak and bring them to the bishop. When he did, an image of Mary miraculously appeared, confirming his story and causing many to convert to the faith. Today, the cloak is on display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
From Feb. 11 to July 16, 1858, Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, and instructed the 14-year-old to pray for the conversion of sinners, revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception and instructed her to dig a hole where a spring would erupt. The water that flowed was given to the sick to drink and resulted in hundreds of miracle cures. Today, nearly six million people make the pilgrimage to Lourdes annually to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and partake in the healing waters.
During World War I, Mary visited three children in Fátima, Portugal, where she asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and pray the rosary daily to bring peace to the world through her Immaculate Heart. On Oct. 13, 1917, after word of her visits spread, approximately 70,000 people witnessed “the Miracle of the Sun,” in which the star emitted multicolored light in the sky.
Currently, Mary is said to have appeared to six people in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, since June 24, 1981. She has made five main requests — to pray the entire rosary daily, to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to attend Mass as often as possible, to go to confession at least monthly and to read the Bible daily. Pilgrims have experienced conversions, visions, rosaries turning to a gold color and astronomical phenomena like the Miracle of the Sun.
The reported visions in Medjugorje are not without controversy. The Church has not verified the apparitions, and some have expressed concerns about their authenticity, including the local bishop. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI set up a commission to study the authenticity of the apparitions. In 2017, Pope Francis said that the matter should be studied in more depth.
While apparitions have drawn millions of people closer to the Church over the centuries, Father Andrew Hart, JCL, adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Little Rock Tribunal and theological consultant to Arkansas Catholic, said they are considered private revelations, which are not fundamental to the faith, and it is acceptable if people have doubts about them.
“Things that might have been revealed to different saints through history, after the death of the last apostle, those can be helpful for us and remind us of the central mysteries of our faith, but they're not communicating anything new that's essential to us for our salvation,” he said. “So even generally accepted apparitions like Our Lady of Lourdes or Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of Fatima or Jesus appearing to Faustina with Divine Mercy, technically speaking, no Catholic has to believe them in the same way that we must believe in the Incarnation or the Trinity or the Eucharist. Private revelations can help us, but they shouldn’t take the place of our belief in the central mysteries of our salvation revealed by God.”
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