Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Glorious Appearings

I was going to try to have this written by the 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, since that would have been fitting. But then I got sick. So you get it today, the feast of St. John of the Cross.

Throughout the history of the Church, and beyond, when we examine the biblical record, people from all walks of life have recounted stories of "apparitions" from heaven. That is, they have described how a spiritual being has manifested to them with a message of some sort, either for them, personally, or for the whole world. We recall that God Himself would appear to Adam and Eve, and that He Himself gave them their sentence and the hope of their redemption after the Fall (Genesis 3). He and two angels appeared in the form of men to Abraham (Genesis 18). Jacob wrestled with an apparition (Genesis 32:23-33). God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and to all of Israel as a pillar of cloud above the Ark of the Covenant. Angels, too, often manifested to people, bearing messages. We remember particularly the Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary that she would bear Jesus and be His Mother, and the angelic choirs that told the shepherds about Jesus' birth.

Occasionally, it was not God or His angels who did the appearing, but other faithful servants of His. Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus during His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). On the other hand, Satan and his demons can also appear to people, so as to lead them astray. St. Paul warns us that he can even appear as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:24). We must, therefore, not automatically assume that, because someone has claimed to have visions of God or His Saints, that they are legitimate, for the claimant could be deceiving or deceived.

What, then, are we to think about the historical claims (that is, the ones not in the Bible) of Jesus or Mary or other saints appearing with messages from God? Since the Bible records countless legitimate cases of this happening, it would be unwise to simply dismiss these claims. However, since Satan can use such means to deceive, we must be on our guard to properly discern the truth.

The official stance of the Catholic Church towards the reality of apparitions is that they fall under the category of "Private Revelation." That means, such apparitions will never be able to alter the essential truths of the Scripture or Tradition, and, in fact, must be judged according to Public Revelation. Indeed, if a contradiction is determined between the alleged apparition and the Church's deposit of faith, the apparition is deemed fraudulent and unworthy of belief. But even in cases where the apparition seems all true and good, and receives the approval of the Church, that approval always comes in the form of a "negative approbation"--that is, the Church declares such an apparition to be "worthy of all belief", but it never forces anyone to believe in the apparition. Provided we do not refuse to believe in, say, Our Lady's appearances to St. Bernadette in Lourdes out of contempt, we are not sinning or in any other way "less Catholic" for not believing.

And yet, the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin that have been approved (there are 12 so far) do make very compelling cases for their credibility. The person or people to whom our Lady appears are almost always children, usually unlearned (and a few that would probably be considered as having learning disabilities today). Many times, Mary would speak to them in the official language of their country, while they only spoke a particular dialect (such as when the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette, speaking French, which Bernadette knew only a little, as she spoke the Patois dialect). Yet, upon gruelling questioning from parents, other townsfolk, civil and religious authorities, some sympathetic, but most of whom were downright hostile, the children's stories never wavered. In fact, for as long as any of the visionaries lived, their stories would never change, even in the smallest detail, even when trick questions and deliberate attempts to confuse them were made.

And then, of course, there were the miracles. I won't go through all twelve approved accounts, primarily because that would just make this article too long, and, secondarily, because I am not so familiar with them. But I will highlight three particular examples: The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in Mexico, in 1531; the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette in France, in 1858; and the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherd children in Portugal, in 1917.

Our Lady of Guadalupe
In 1531, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a native Mexican convert to Catholicism, on the barren hill of Tepeyac, in what is now Mexico City. She instructed Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she desired a church to be built on that location. When Juan Diego delivered the message, the bishop, rightfully, was sceptical, and told Juan to ask for a sign from the Lady to prove her identity. Juan Diego did as the bishop requested, and when he encountered the Blessed Virgin three days later (on December 12th), she told him to go to a particular barren spot on the top of the hill, where, she said, he would find flowers growing, despite being winter. Juan Diego did find flowers growing--Castillian roses, to be specific, flowers not indigenous to Mexico! He gathered them up in his tilma (a traditional peasant's garment), and took them to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened up his tilma, letting the flowers fall to the ground, the image of the Virgin remained on the tilma! The bishop began the construction of a church, and within 10 years, nine million native Mexicans had converted to Christianity! The image is still kept today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, despite the fact that normal tilmas, having been made from cactus plants, would have disintegrated after 20 years or so. The image is unfaded, and has been authenticated by scientists as having no natural explanation. It has even the elements, rigourous testing, and even an ammonia spill in the 70's, from which it apparently repaired itself with no outside help!

Our Lady of Lourdes
In February of 1858, St. Bernadette Soubirou, her sister, and a friend, were out gathering firewood when Bernadette wandered into the hollow of a rock at Massabielle, the town of Lourdes' dump. There, she fell into an ecstasy, and saw an apparition of "a beautiful lady" all dressed in while, with a blue sash around her waist, gold roses on her feet, and holding a rosary, which she invited Bernadette to pray with her. Eighteen times over the course of the next five months, Bernadette continued to visit the grotto, talking with the woman whom she knew only as "the Beautiful Lady." On one such visit, the Lady asked her to drink from a nearby spring--only, there was no spring nearby. The Lady indicated a patch of dirt inside the grotto, so Bernadette obediently knelt down and scratched at the ground for a bit. Immediately, water began to bubble forth (even though the ground there had been perfectly dry previously. The spring at Lourdes still exists and continues to pour fourth around 30 to 40 Litres per minute. While chemical analyses of the water has shown that it is typical, potable water, many people have been healed from drinking it or bathing in it, beginning with Catherine Latapie, on March 1st, 1858. The walls of the shrine at Lourdes are lined with discarded crutches from those who have claimed to be healed.

The Beautiful Lady told St. Bernadette to ask the local priest to build a church in her honour, but the priest refused unless Bernadette could determine the name of her mystical visitor. Having received no response to her previous questions about the Lady's name, Bernadette nevertheless went back to her and asked again. This time, the Lady responded by saying, "Je suis l'immaculée conception"--"I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette had no idea what this term meant--the doctrine itself had only been promulgated four years earlier--but the title more than convinced the religious authorities, who agreed to build the church. The local bishop declared the apparitions worthy of belief in 1864.

Our Lady of Fatima
On May 13th, 1917, Lucia Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were tending sheep when a woman which Lucia described as being "brighter than the sun" appeared to them. The Lady would continue to appear, imploring the children to pray the rosary for peace, and to do penance for the conversion of sinners. Over the course of the next six months, the Lady would come again on the 13th of each month. Despite harsh treatment from authorities. Lucia and the others were even thrown into prison, despite being so young, so as to be forced to miss the August 13th apparition. While at first the children were upset, the other prisoners consoled them. After a little while, though, the children actually led the other locked up criminals in praying the Rosary! After their release from prison, Our Lady came to meet them on the 19th of August.

Our Lady had promised a miracle to the children on the date of the last Apparition, October 13th, in order that all might believe. On that day, nearly 100,000 people showed up to see the promised miracle--and they were not disappointed. Senhor Avelino de Almeida of O Século (Portugal's most influential newspaper, which was pro-government in policy and avowedly anti-clerical), had just the day before written an article sneering at the credulous peasants, "whom the miraculous still attracts, seduces, bewitches, consoles, and fortifies." Yet, he himself, as a journalist, came to witness the last apparition, and faithfully recounted what he saw: "Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws - the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people."

Witnesses reported that the sun shone out brilliantly, on what had been up to that point a cloud-darkened day. It whirled like a gigantic fire-wheel, sending out streamers of green, red, orange, and purple which lit up the faces of the multitude. Then, gyrating madly, it plunged precipitately before returning to its original position in a zigzag pattern. Senhor Almeida could only say of it that it was "unique and incredible if one had not been a witness to it."

These brief overviews hardly do justice to the stories they relate, and I would urge you to investigate them more completely, for they are signs of God's continued presence in our world, of His miraculous power, and of our need for ongoing conversion to Him. While, again, the Church does not require belief in these apparitions, in light of the evidence one must seriously ask themselves why they would not. On the other hand, however, we must always be ready and willing to test the spirits. If an apparition contradicts revealed truths, we must disregard it--no matter how good or true it feels. And we must be obedient to the Church. If it declares an apparition to be unworthy of belief, we must not believe in it. We can never set a particular religious experience over and above the Church itself.

The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary serve to further demonstrate her motherly work of mediation, calling us back to her Son. In nothing is this more clear than in the prayer that she told the three children at Fatima to add to the Rosary: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy."

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Kane Augustus said...


I would be very intereted in reading your understanding of the merciful character of God, and how that mercifulness squares with continued earthly suffering, and Hell.

Seems like a random response to your article, I know. But I just thought I'd throw in.

Gregory said...

Hey Kane,
Sounds good. I'll try to work through that in a cohesive manner and put something up, either here or at Doubting Thomist.

Anonymous said...

Hello,nice post thanks for sharing?. I just joined and I am going to catch up by reading for a while. I hope I can join in soon.