Something About Mary

On October 29, John Paul II officially demanded further research on the Virgin Mary. In some circles “dogma” has a bad name, of course, but in 2004 the Church will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The latest session of the Pontifical Council for Culture was dedicated entirely to the work of two institutions concerned with Mary—the International Marian Pontifical Academy and the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculata. The Pope has singled out these two academies, specifically charging them “to communicate to the men and women of our time the most authentic meaning and message of this truth of faith.” Protestants have been ruminating on the matter of Mary as well. Last summer, St. Olaf College hosted a major national conference for Lutheran clergy dedicated to rethinking the role of Mary (this, in a Protestant faith not normally noted for its interest in her).

With or without the Pope’s recent proclamation, Mary has been a figure of adoration and controversy since the beginnings of the Christian church. The devout recognize her by dozens of names: The Blessed Virgin, Second Eve, Mother of All the Living, Mother of Life, Morning Star, Mystical New Heaven, Center of Orthodoxy, the all-undefiled Mother of Holiness and Mother of God. Even the Koran mentions her by name (as the mother of the prophet Jesus). Still others refer to her as a mother goddess, a Christianized symbol of more ancient religions dedicated to the feminine.

Recently, Mary’s intrigue has permeated popular culture well beyond the reach of religious boundaries. She has become the subject of innumerable books from every imaginable angle, and she is a recurring theme in everything from women’s studies classes to goddess-worship circles to pop music. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine more often than any other figure, and Pope John Paul II has dedicated his papacy to her, Totus Tuus, “I am wholly yours.”

On top of all that, in the last 30 years Marian apparitions—reports of Mary appearing and communicating with normal, everyday people—have been occurring more frequently than at any time in history. Tracking the number of these incidents is a tricky business, since it all depends on how they are reported and to whom. One Marian researcher has recorded 4 Marian appearances in each year from 1940 to 1960, 8 in 1970, 30 in 1980, and 15 or more from 1990 to the present. Another researcher claims there were more than 300 apparitions in the 20th century. Every scholar has a different take on the issue. But the one thing no one disputes is that reports of Mary’s earthly visitations are skyrocketing.

Why Mary has been making so many appearances lately is a subject of speculation and a lot of uneasiness, especially for the Catholic hierarchy. Many see omens of an apocalypse in these Marian “locutions”; they bode ill for our world, unless we return to God and prayer. That somewhat paranoid, didactic view of Mary should come as no surprise, considering the cataclysmic last century and the air of fear and uncertainty that persists into this one. People seem to be looking for answers. Consider the immense popularity of End Times, the best-selling series of novels based on the book of Revelations; more than 30 million copies have sold to date. Add to that a recent Time/CNN poll showing that a quarter of respondents believe the events of 9/11 were predicted in the Bible, and you get a strong hunch that the American public is nurturing a renewed fascination with God.

Johann Roten, a Marianist priest who directs the Marian Library and International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, puts it this way: “The increase in reports of apparitions may suggest that there is a spiritual hunger today that goes beyond institutional churches. There’s a need for the mystery to be put back in people’s lives. Apparitions may be one of God’s many answers to these needs. Apparitions remind us that Christianity is a religious tradition based on mediation.” Roten describes himself as a “cautious believer” in apparitions. “God is not immediately present, but he gives himself to be understood and shared. He entrusts himself or his message to Mary, who in turn entrusts this same message to the visionary who passes it on to a multitude of people, who in turn share the message with others.” Michael Duricy, who oversees the library’s encyclopedic web site offers another social context for our current interest. “In a western culture that has a history of hostility toward spirituality, people have been repressing something deep in their hearts. That’s going to eventually erupt.”

But why then is the Catholic Church so wary of Marian apparitions, and so hasty to distance itself from those who report them? Appearances of Mary are almost never accepted or approved by the Church, which works diligently to ensure that reporters of apparitions do not proselytize in the name of the Church. There has never been an apparition reported in the U.S. that has been approved, and in the rare cases where a vision does get the seal of authenticity, it comes only after years of wrangling. Reports are investigated and visionaries must be interviewed. Often they are passed off as hoaxes or waved away as delusions. And the predictable truth is that hoaxes do abound and most of them aren’t very difficult to dismiss. For example, an image of the face of Christ on the wall of a church in Guatemala City inspired miraculous healing for two weeks in the 80s, before it was revealed to be a whitewashed poster of Willie Nelson.

According to Kevin Orlin Johnson, author of Apparitions: Mystic Phenomena and What They Mean, the overwhelming majority of people who claim to see apparitions do so expressly to get into the spotlight. The genuine visions come, invariably, “to people who didn’t want them before they happened, who later wish that they hadn’t had them, or who don’t want them at all, ever. The modesty of their conduct contrasts sharply with the posturings of the fakes and the deluded,” says Johnson in an essay for The Rock, a Catholic publication. “The minute you see self-proclaimed visionaries giving interviews to the press, dashing off reams of prophecies for all and sundry, asserting that they’ve seen Mary and that they have an urgent message that can save the world; the minute you see someone even permitting himself to be interviewed on such a matter; certainly as soon as you see a reported visionary routinely blessing people, ‘curing’ pilgrims, or even receiving pilgrims at all—you can safely assume that the person is a fraud or, if you want to be particularly charitable, that the person is deluded, genuinely believing that what he said he saw was real. Either way, it’s not worthy of your attention.”

To be considered constat de supernaturalitate—the event shows all the signs of being an authentic intervention from heaven—an apparition must meet strict criteria. For instance, any message alleged to be from Mary must be in acceptable theological standing with the Church, which is to say it must not contradict the teachings of the hierarchy in any way. Authentic communication from Mary must also promote positive spiritual assets: prayer, conversion, charity.

Seldom are all conditions met, but sometimes they are. Interestingly, those “approved” apparitions often come to children. One of the most widely publicized visitations is still under investigation by the Church; it involves six children who saw Mary beginning in 1981 on a hilltop outside the village of Medjegorje, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. The six visionaries, who were extensively tested and are now adults, claim that they continue to receive messages from the Virgin even now. Most of them insist the messages come on a daily basis—an unprecedented declaration in this rarefied history. Their messages are not unlike those of their predecessors: They urge prayer, conversion, faith, and submission to God. They also claim that Mary says God has “plans” and that new days are ahead of us, and that Medjegorje will be her last visit to the world.

Robert Faricy poses a simple question in his introduction to Janice Connell’s book, The Visions of the Children: The Apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Medjegorje. He writes, “Are people today so spiritually blind that God is drawing very big pictures? Are people today so spiritually deaf that God is shouting at us?” If so, people are hearing the shouts. Since the beginning of the Medjegorje apparitions, more than 20 million pilgrims have traveled to the Bosnian village, including thousands of priests and hundreds of bishops. This, in the midst of the bloodiest, most hate-filled conflict in Europe since World War II. People are looking for something—a sign, guidance, solace, healing, or all of the above. The more you look for Mary the more you find other people who are doing the same. You don’t have to travel to Eastern Europe to discover that.

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