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Marian Apparitions: Truth or Trouble?

by Jennifer Dierker

There are two main types of revelation in Church history: public and private. Public revelation is that which Christ revealed and taught in His ministry on Earth, culminating in the Apostolic writings of the Bible, and thus is complete. Private revelation, including apparitions and visions, such as the apparition of Mary at Fatima, is usually received by an individual or select group for the good of all followers. As a rule, private revelation must not attempt to change or alter public revelation. In addition, private revelation does not belong to the deposit of faith, and Catholics are not bound to accept it. To change public revelation because of private revelation would in essence be altering the word of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it like this:

Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations" (CCC 67).

Apparitions are a hot topic these days. Debates about them on Christian forums tend to be heated and personal. In addition to being discussed, reports of apparitions are still common. Today there are hundreds of people across the world proclaiming to be visionaries. In Massachusetts, she speaks to a gentleman in his garage, in Ohio she visits a woman one night a year in September, and in Louisiana she appears under the title of Our Lady of the Bayou. These are just a few examples in the United States. Worldwide there are even more, including the often-debated Marian apparitions at Medjugore in the former Yugoslavia. All of these are considered private revelations; most are unapproved, some are even condemned by the Catholic Church. This article attempts to briefly explore what Catholics are expected to believe about private revelation, and to put apparitions in perspective for the faithful, postmodern Catholic.

The earliest recorded Marian apparition was in AD 352 to an elderly couple in Rome. The story goes like this: On a hot August night, Mary appeared requesting a shrine to be built on one of the city's celebrated hills. The following morning, the city awoke to find snow covering the Esquiline Hill. Hence, St. Mary Major, "Church of St. Mary of the Snow" can be found on this hill today. This church is considered to be one of the largest and most important churches dedicated to the Blessed Mother in the Western Church. Since this initial apparition, the number of reported ones has only grown.

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Nevertheless, history recognizes a select few as having a worldwide influence on Catholic devotion and piety, rather than just a local following. For example, in the 13th century, legend says that St. Dominic received the Rosary from Mary as a way to fight sin and heresy. However, the first recorded and widely celebrated apparition was in 1531 to a poor farmer by the name of Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico. The miracle connected with this apparition is the image which appeared on Juan Diego's poncho. Mary requested that he carry roses to the local bishop, and as he unfurled his poncho, an image of the virgin appeared on the cloth. Curiously, this image portrays Mary as an Aztec Princess, complete with symbols of royalty, virginity, power, and humility. This is different from her usual portrayal as a European female. To the average Mexican peasant's eye, the images symbolized what could not be conveyed across the language barrier. At a time when the Protestant Reformation was sweeping Europe, the Blessed Mother's apparition is credited with bringing about 8 million people to the Catholic Church. In a similar manner as in Guadalupe, Mary has been recorded appearing all over the world in the style and dress of the native peoples of the visited region. Her appearance in La Vang, Vietnam in 1798 is one such example.

Other major apparitions have occurred since. In the 19th century we see three apparitions in France: the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and the apparitions at LaSalette and Lourdes. In 1879 she is recorded appearing with St. Joseph and St John the Apostle in Knock, Ireland. In 1917, she appeared in Fatima, Portugal where she is recorded as predicting World War II, as well as the rise of communism and its persecution of the Catholic Church. These are just a few of the most well-known and approved Marian apparitions. Each, like Guadalupe, has its own miracles, healings, and conversion stories that helped bolster its claim to fame.

In the last eight centuries Marian apparitions have been a large source of Catholic personal devotions. For example, the rosary, miraculous medal, various scapulars, and first Saturday devotions all have their roots in these Church-approved apparitions. While they help augment many a Catholic's spiritual life, there is no Church document that states that Catholics must follow these devotions in order to enter Heaven. As a matter of fact, there isn't enough time in one day to cover all the devotions which have developed from approved apparitions, both Marian and others.

As Catholics we can live perfectly healthy spiritual lives without paying tribute to Marian apparitions. In fact, many fine Catholics take little interest in apparitions and other forms of private revelation, finding spiritual completion other ways. Many find great comfort in believing that Mary would appear in our own day and age and take an interest in our spiritual well-being. These individuals find their spiritual life is greatly enhanced by the addition of apparition-derived devotions. Some readers, especially non-Catholics, may object to appearances of Mary specifically, and the devotions to Mary that have followed. For both non-Catholics and Catholics who do not understand the fuss about apparitions, we must look at this interest in terms of relationships. With the knowledge gained by having a relationship with the family members of a friend, we learn more about our friend. This relationship, and the knowledge it provides, adds a depth and dimension that strengthens any true friendship. Thus it follows that in knowing Mary, Christ's mother, we deepen our relationship with, and knowledge of, Christ as our brother. By meditating on the life of Mary, the one hailed as "full of grace," we also gain insight into a human life who possessed the virtues that we strive for. I myself find great comfort in praying the rosary, but balance it with praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

However, despite their good, private apparitions can detract from our path to knowing God, by placing too much emphasis on someone other than Christ. Sometimes, the emphasis is so placed on Mary, that there is little devotion to Christ. Christ must always remain the focus of any devotion. This is a danger present not just in apparitions, but whenever we place our faith in something or someone besides God. In any Church-approved apparition, Mary has always come to bring us closer to her Son, not herself. At the Cross, Christ gave Mary to the care of the Apostle John. This is symbolic of Christ giving Mary to us as our mother. As our mother, she desires to come to the aid of her children. It would be difficult to believe that she would come to contradict her Son, His work, or His teaching given to the Church. As we have trusted the Church to transmit and interpret the public revelations of Apostolic times, so must we trust the Church to validate the private revelations given to our brothers and sisters in faith. If the local Bishop, a valid successor to the Apostles, is reluctant to approve an apparition, we too must look with a critical eye on the apparition in question. One of the best questions we can ask is, "does it contradict the Bible's teachings?" Another thing to examine is the actions of the visionaries and visitors to the apparition site. Even if we feel strongly about a place, whether because we have visited it or the activities have played a strong part in our own conversion, we still must consent to the Church's ruling on it. We must always remember that private revelation, no matter how personally meaningful, can never trump the public revelation guarded by the Church. Personally, I have found it helpful to read the reports given by the Church officials on the apparitions in question. They see and pick up things I may not have noticed, and about which I know little. The Church takes its role in validating apparitions seriously, and as faithful Catholics, we must trust their authority in these matters.

Here are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to determine if an apparition has become too personal for you, and may cause you to lose sight of Christ and his Teachings as taught by the Church. For instance:

1. What is the weight of private revelation in your life? Do you know more about the Catholic faith from apparitions than from reading the Bible and the catechism?
2. Do you define your Catholic faith almost entirely based on apparitions? If someone asks you about the Catholic faith, does it boil down to apparitions for you?
3. Do you focus all or most of your prayer time towards Mary? Do your Marian devotions lead you to a closer relationship with Christ?

In conclusion, apparitions and their devotions can be very good spiritual tools, and have helped many become closer to Christ. However, for others, apparitions have become a source of distraction from their walk with Christ, leading them to challenge Church authority, because of a private and personal opinion of an apparition. In the end, Catholics are not required to accept the veracity of apparitions, nor are we required to employ apparition-derived devotions. All-in-all, private revelation cannot trump Pubic Revelation. In my opinion, the best thing anyone can do who is excited about revelation, is to start by reading the first historically significant one: God to Abraham in the Book of Genesis.

Sources and Further Reading
On Mary: "Blessed Virgin Mary" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
Hail Mary Prayer
On the Message at Fatima: The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on Fatima
Visions and Apparitions: "Visions and Apparitions" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
The Church and Private Revelation: Church Approval of Apparitions
Rosary: "Rosary" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
General: Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
Catholic Source Book
The Catechism if the Catholic Church

Check out:
A Brief Catechism on Mary
Ancient and Future Catholics