The convent of the Daughters of Charity at Rue du Bac, 140 in Paris was darkened the night of July 18th, 1830, when suddenly one of the postulants was awakened by a child’s voice. “Sister, Sister, Sister Catherine!” the voice called. The young woman sat up, rubbed her eyes, and pushed aside the net curtain that hung around her bed. There, standing in front of her, was a small boy of about five or six years of age. Dressed all in white, he seemed to glow with some sort of interior light. “Come!” he urged. “The Blessed Virgin awaits you!”1
Imagine for a moment that you were the one awakened that night. What would you have done? Would you have decided that you were just imagining things, rolled over, and gone back to sleep? Or would you, like St. Catherine Labouré, have obediently gotten out of bed and followed the small boy down the long corridors to the chapel where the Blessed Virgin Mary was waiting to speak with you?
The story of the appearance of Our Blessed Mother to St. Catherine Labouré (and the institution of the “Miraculous Medal”) is familiar to many of us today. But other Marian apparitions – at places such as Lourdes, Fátima, and Guadalupe – have become even more widely known. And while we often think of apparitions as historical events – things that happened long ago – what many of us don’t realize is that the number of Marian apparitions has increased dramatically during the past 50 years. They have become – as the future Pope Benedict XVI once remarked – “one of the signs of our times.”2 Fr. René Laurentin, who is a French theologian and authority on Marian apparitions, agreed with this observation. He observed, “Since 1966, and especially after 1981 (the beginning of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje) reports of apparitions are frequent, “numerous and even disturbing.”3 But what exactly are apparitions? And why does Fr. Laurentin suggest that these kinds of reports might be disturbing?
What is an apparition?
First of all, it’s helpful to distinguish between what we mean when we speak of ‘visions’ and ‘apparitions’. Although these two words are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. A vision has a spiritual nature, while an apparition is physical. Apparitions always involve the sense of sight, although other senses may be involved as well. ‘Visionaries’ see a physical manifestation of Mary. They often also hear messages from the Mother of God, and the senses of touch, taste, and smell may be involved as well.4
Why might so many reports of apparitions be disturbing?
Apparitions are wonderful gifts that are meant to inspire people – to support us in our faith and help us draw closer to God. So it might seem confusing to suggest that such reports might also be disturbing. But in today’s high-tech culture, ‘eye-witness’ accounts of alleged apparitions are transmitted so rapidly around the world that it can be tempting to accept them as authentic even before the Church has an opportunity to undertake an investigation. Frequently, alleged apparitions are “joined with claims of supernatural messages and with weeping statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of saints.”5
But not everything that appears to be miraculous is from God. It is the responsibility of the local Bishop to investigate the authenticity of all such reports, and it takes time to carefully study and examine all the facts of each case. In regard to the most recent apparition approved – that of Our Lady of Laus (1664-1718) – the Church did not hand down a definitive decision until May 5, 2008, almost 300 years after the apparitions took place!
Of course, it doesn’t always take that long, but the time of waiting for a decision can be a source of tension. Fr. Laurentin notes that, “Genuine apparitions have a prophetic function and a tone of urgency, [and so] it is often difficult for the Church to maintain the cautious pace that careful judgment or discernment requires. ‘The word of ecclesiastical authority will appear very pale to those who have seen’ the Blessed Virgin or others from heaven.”6 There is an immediate danger, he believes, that ‘seers risk setting themselves up as a parallel and competitive magisterium’ because they have seen.”7
An additional concern is that the multiplication of apparitions has resulted at times in disunity within the local church. “One of the criteria that a vision comes from God is that it does not divide the Church, but remains in charity, order, and obedience,”8 explained Fr. Laurentin. In the Lineamenta9 of the Synod of Bishops for the 1997 Special Assembly for America, it was noted that, “Within the Church community, the multiplication of supposed ‘apparitions’ or ‘visions’ is sowing confusion and reveals a certain lack of a solid basis to the faith and Christian life among Her members. On the other hand,” the document continued, “these negative aspects, in their own way, reveal a certain thirst for spiritual things which, if they are properly channeled, can be the point of departure for a conversion to faith in Christ.”10
What do we know about Marian apparitions?
But what do we know about the visits from our Blessed Mother that have received the approval of the Church? And when did she first begin to appear?
When did Our Blessed Mother first begin to appear?
The first apparitions of Our Blessed Mother were reported in the East in the earliest centuries. According to ancient Christian tradition, ‘Our Lady of the Pillar’ appeared to the apostle St. James the Greater (in Spain) around 40 A.D. Legends claim that she also appeared to the apostles at Ephesus (c. 48), to St. Thomas in India, and to St. John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos (81). But the first recorded Marian apparition was to St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neo Caeserea (around 231). During that apparition, Mary clarified theological issues surrounding the Holy Trinity that had become a matter of controversy in the early Church.11
Who does the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to?
Since then, many other saints, founders of religious orders, and a number of Popes have also received visits from our Blessed Mother. But Mary prefers to appear to the young, to the simple, and to the poor. The three children at Fátima (1917) were 7, 9, and 11 years of age when Mary appeared to them. St. Bernadette (Lourdes, 1858) was 14, and the four children at Pontmain (1871) ranged in age between 9 and 12. St. Catherine Labouré was a simple, uneducated country girl who was only 24 years old when Mary appeared to her at Rue du Bac.
But in recent times, Mary has appeared to many different kinds of people: to children, to adolescents and adults, to men and women – to those who are single as well as those who are married.12 In fact, at Knock, Ireland (1879), everyone who came to view Mary’s apparition was able to see her!
Does Mary always speak the same language?
Each apparition has its own unique characteristics, and Mary always adapts her language and appearance for the sake of those she has chosen as visionaries. At Guadalupe (1531), Mary spoke to St. Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his native dialect. But at Lourdes, she spoke in the native French dialect. (St. Bernadette would later describe Mary’s voice as soft, mysterious, and musical.) At Kibeho, Rwanda (1981-89), Mary spoke in Kinyarwanda, the language of the Rwandan people. But at Knock, Mary didn’t speak at all!
What does Mary look like?
Everyone who has seen Mary seems to agree that it is impossible to adequately describe her beauty. When a small girl once asked St. Bernadette of Lourdes if the Blessed Virgin was truly beautiful, Bernadette replied, “Oh, so beautiful that when one sees her once, he longs to die to see her again!”13 Other visionaries have spoken of a ‘shining figure’, of Mary’s youth and striking beauty, and of her smiling, gentle manner.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then Mary knows how to attract our minds and hearts. At Guadalupe, she appeared as a beautiful, Aztec maiden. She had dark black hair, dark eyes, and small, delicate hands. Her facial features “were delicate and beautiful, Indian in character but universal in appeal.”14 ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ wore a dark turquoise mantle and a pink robe, and the brooch at her throat had a black cross on it – the symbol used by the Franciscan friars when they arrived in Mexico with the conquistadors at the beginning of the century. Her posture was one of “humility and prayer.”15 When the Aztecs viewed the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “they could see and ‘read’ that this new maiden was more powerful than any and all of their pagan gods. … She was of heaven, and represented heaven’s power.”16 The impact of her apparition and the image she miraculously imprinted on St. Juan Diego’s tilma was so great that within six years, six million Aztecs had converted to Catholicism.
Does Mary always dress the same way?
Mary often appears dressed in white, although at Pontmain, she wore a dark blue dress with stars, a black veil with a golden crown, and blue shoes with gold buckles. On another occasion (San Nicolás, 1983-1990), Our Lady wore a blue gown and a veil. Mary wore white slippers with pearls and gold buckles on her feet at La Salette, but at Kibeho, she was barefoot. At times (as at Pontmain), she has worn a crown (La Salette – 1846, Knock, Fátima), but at Rue du Bac, her hair was braided and held in place by a piece of lace.
Mary has sometimes appeared holding the Child Jesus (Laus, San Nicolás) or with a rosary (Lourdes, Banneux – 1933, and San Nicolás) in her hands. At La Salette, she wore a cross. Other symbolic images have added significance to her visits: at Rue du Bac she held a gold ball surmounted by a cross and stood on a green snake coiled over a white sphere.
But no matter how she looks visibly, interiorly, Mary’s heart is always overflowing with motherly love for us. When Our Lady of Akita (1973-81) began to weep and exhibited the stigmata, an angel told Sister Agnes (the visionary), “Do not be so surprised to see the Blessed Virgin weeping. She weeps because she wishes the conversion of the greatest number. She desires that souls be consecrated to Jesus and to the Father by her intercession.”17 Mary also wept bitterly at Rue du Bac and La Salette as she prophesied the evil and tragedies that would soon come to pass in France. She only wants our happiness – to see every one of her children in heaven one day with her Son.
How long do apparitions normally last? Can anyone see her?
Some apparitions have been very brief (Betania, Venezuela, 1984), but others can last for hours (Rue du Bac) or even days at a time (Kibeho). They sometimes occur frequently over a short period of time (at Betania, there were seven apparitions in one day), or they may stretch out over a number of years (Kibeho). In some cases, Mary only appeared once (La Salette).
The Virgin sometimes chooses to appear specifically to certain individuals (Lourdes, Rue du Bac), but at other times she has been visible to large numbers of people (Knock, Betania). Even more mysterious, at Fátima, Francisco could see the apparition of Mary but he could not hear her words. (Our Blessed Mother asked Lucia and Jacinta to share her messages with him.) Similarly, at Beauraing (1932-33), not all of the children saw Mary each time or heard all of her words during the apparitions.
How do we know that it is really Mary?
Mary has identified herself by different titles, such as the ‘Immaculate Conception’ (Lourdes), ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’ (Fátima), ‘Reconciler of People and Nations’ (Betania), ‘Virgin of the Poor’ (Banneux) and ‘Mother of the Word’ (Kibeho). At Pontmain, a large white banner unrolled in the sky with a message that appeared letter by letter. As the children spelled out the words, “My Son allows himself to be touched,” the crowd erupted with joy, certain that it was the Blessed Mother herself who had come to comfort them.
Perhaps the most beautiful mark of Mary’s delicate charity is the precious gifts she leaves behind after each visit. At Lourdes, La Salette, Banneux, and Betania, it was healing springs of water. At Rue du Bac, it was the Miraculous Medal. And after every apparition, miraculous cures have been associated with her appearances.
Why does Mary come?
Although we may be amazed by these miraculous healings, Mary does not come in order to create a spectacle or to attract attention to herself. She continues to visit us because she is our Mother. Her only desire is to point the way to Jesus, to help lead us to her Son. In an interview at Fátima, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) said: “To all curious people, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not act in order to create a sensation or to instigate fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential. … Mary’s purpose ‘is, through these simple ones, to call the world back to simplicity, that is, to the essentials: conversion, prayer, and the sacraments.”18
In Those Who Saw Her, Odell writes, “Mary has continually re-entered the doors to our sphere for reasons that only heaven knows. The goals of the Mother of God must perfectly match the will of God. And yet, it seems clear enough that apparitions intended for many on this side of the door repeatedly show the same purposes. Many historians of Marian apparitions believe that her goals flow from purposes like those on this list from Father Laurentin:
- to manifest the hidden presence of God;
- to renew community life;
- to convert hearts;
- to reawaken and stimulate faith; and
- to renew hope and dynamism in the Church.”19
Not only does Mary come to convert individual hearts and souls, but she also wants to revitalize our communities and the Church.20
What does Mary want to tell us?
Some of Mary’s messages are intended only for individuals. For example, at Beauraing, each of the five children received a private message that they weren’t supposed to tell anyone else. Other messages are meant for certain groups of people. The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe helped the Aztec Indians to reconcile their emerging Christian faith with that of the conquering Spaniards. In a similar way, the message of Our Lady of Pontmain was meant as an encouragement for the suffering French people. “But pray, my children. God will hear you in a little while,” Mary wrote on a banner in the sky.21
The message of Fátima, on the other hand, was prophetic and apocalyptic in nature; it was meant for the entire world. Mary foretold the coming of World War II, the rise of the Soviet Union, the persecution of the Church, and the eventual conversion of Russia. At Kibeho, she said, “When I show myself to someone and talk to them, I want to turn to the whole world. If I am now turning to the parish of Kibeho, it does not mean I am concerned only for Kibeho or for the Diocese of Butare, or for Rwanda, or for the whole of Africa. I am concerned with and am turning to the whole world.”22
But no matter where she has appeared, a recurrent theme of her messages is the importance of praying the Rosary each day. Mary asks us to pray for peace, for the conversion of sinners, to repent of our sins, and to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At Akita, Japan, her message took on a tone of even greater urgency. “If men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity,” she said. “It will be a punishment greater than a deluge, such as one has never seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead. The only arms which will remain for you will be the Rosary and the Sign left by my Son. Each day recite the prayers of the Rosary. With the Rosary, pray for the pope, the bishops, and the priests. … Pray very much the prayers of the Rosary. I alone am able still to save you from the calamities which approach. Those who place their confidence in me will be saved.”23 Our Blessed Mother expressed a similar urgency at Kibeho, “Do not lose time in doing good. There is not much time left. Jesus will come.”24
Perhaps you might find these messages repetitive. But when we don’t listen to our mothers, isn’t this exactly what they do? Remind us again and again until they get our attention? The role of visionaries is to simply share Mary’s messages with the people for whom they are directed, and they have done this in ways that reflect their own distinctive cultures. For example, at Kibeho, the seven visionaries “expressed the messages they received in unique ways, but almost always using the colourful media of song, dance, and gestures. Music was the second language of their culture. Often the young people would also communicate with their hands or by walking rhythmically.”25
What about the visionaries? How has ‘seeing Mary’ impacted their lives?
We sometimes think that only saintly people are chosen as visionaries of apparitions, but this is not always the case. Mary doesn’t always choose faith-filled people to be her messengers. The children who saw Mary at La Salette barely even knew how to say the ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father’!
Many experienced great suffering because they were chosen for this great privilege, and some wished that they had just kept it all to themselves. Visionaries have been ridiculed, interrogated, threatened, and even thrown into prison! But each time someone has seen our Blessed Mother, they have undergone a profound conversion. While it’s true they have not all found happiness in this life, the peace and joy they experienced in the moments they spent with the Blessed Virgin left an indelible mark on their hearts. Some died young, while others lived to a great age. Some entered religious life, while others found their vocations as lay people. Some did find peace and happiness, but others struggled to find their place in the world. But without exception, all were transformed and became devoted to Our Blessed Mother. It is a beautiful reminder that God can use whomever He wishes – whenever He wishes – in order to bring about His Divine Plan.
– Sharon van der Sloot
Have you wondered how the Church decides whether to approve an apparition? Or why a decision about Medjugorje hasn’t been announced yet? In Part II, “But was that really Mary?” we’ll discuss how the Church investigates alleged apparitions, and what criteria it uses to determine whether or not an apparition is from God.
1 Cf. Catherine M. Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2010), 68.
2 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vitterio Messori, trans. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 111.
3 Fr. René Laurentin – at the 12th International Mariological Congress in Czestochowa, Poland in August, 1996. Quoted in “Discernment of Apparition Claims,” The Miracle Hunter; available from http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/discernment/index.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.
4 Cf. Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 22.
5 Activities of the Holy See, 1996. Quoted in “What about apparitions yesterday and today?”; The Marian Library, International Marion Research Institute, University of Dayton; available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq/yq66.html; Internet; accessed 16 March 2015.
6 Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 31.
8 Ibid., 33.
9 A Lineamenta is a working document written in preparation for a General Assembly of the Bishops.
10 Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for America, Lineamenta, “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America,” 33. Available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_01081996_usa-lineam_en.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.
11 Cf. “Early Apparitions (40-999 A.D.),” The Miracle Hunter; available from http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/apparitions_0040-0999.html; Internet; accessed 23 March 2015.
12 Fr. Johann G. Roten, “Basics on Apparitions,” About Mary (International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton); available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/apparitions.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.
13 Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 10.
14 Ibid., 46.
15 Ibid., 50.
17 Ibid., 205.
18 “Discernment of Apparition Claims,” The Miracle Hunter, available from
http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/discernment/index.html; Internet; accessed 23 March 2015.
19 Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 24.
20 Cf. Ibid.
21 Ibid., 123.
22 Ibid., 236.
23 Ibid., 200-201.
24 Ibid., 234.