Kieran Fenn fms
Continuing last month’s theme, we look at the question of Marian apparitions or, more precisely, the attitude we take to them.
Some have been recognised by the church and have become important places of pilgrimage. Others have become sites for the celebration of significant events attributed to Mary.
Popular piety regards these sanctuaries as places where people love to pray, where the gospel is preached to great crowds, where the sick are comforted and many conversions take place.
On the other hand, the question of Marian apparitions presents itself with a new urgency with several sites awaiting the church’s definitive and official judgment.
The church’s point of view
We do not attribute the same significance to recognised apparitions such as Lourdes and Fatima as we do to presumed apparitions which the church has not recognised. In the 43 years to 1971, there were 210 apparitions, none of which the church recognised.
For example, two lesser-known apparitions have been reported in Egypt. Our Lady of Zeitoun was a mass Marian apparition that occurred in Cairo over two to three years from 2 April 1968.
The apparitions ended in 1971, with many healings and miracles reported. There were also apparitions witnessed by thousands in Assiut, Egypt, between August 2000 and January 2001.
The Coptic Church approved both of the apparitions but the Roman Church is more cautious.
Extreme prudence is required in light of mysterious or marvellous phenomena and the proliferation of signs and secrets from one apparition or another. Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) clarified the position: ‘It is necessary to know that the approval given by the church … is nothing other than giving permission, after careful examination, to make known a particular revelation for the instruction and welfare of the faithful. Even if approved, one should not, and cannot, assign universal consent.’
Scripture as source
Nothing is to be imposed: apparitions are a sign, rather than a proof and can help some people in their faith. They are neither indispensable nor central to the faith.
No Christian is dispensed from following the gospel, but neither is anyone obliged to believe in Lourdes, Fatima, or Medjugorje. Apparitions must lead back to the gospel, the indispensable source of all preaching on Mary, of all Marian spirituality and of the teaching of tradition.
Today’s fascination with Marian apparitions should prompt us to look for a solid foundation from which to nourish our faith.
Major documents from the magisterium, Vatican II, Paul VI and John Paul II have based their reflections on the Bible. The path then is laid out for us to rediscover Mary by starting with the gospel – the path followed since the beginning of these reflections. Rather than basing everything on the ‘marvellous’, we must return to the gospel and put all our strength into the mission of evangelising.
At Lourdes in 1986 the Archbishop of Tours said: ‘I would like to share a conviction. The best antidote for this appetite for the marvellous and for revelation is the direct and effective participation in the mission of the church. A Christian who studies the teaching of the church … will not be encumbered with new revelations; the gospel and the Creed are enough.’
Mary in the New World
Some apparitions have an appeal that links powerfully into the scriptures. Guadalupe is a favourite.
It all began in Genesis 10, with the table of the nations, all descended through the three sons of Noah.
When Columbus bumped into the Americas (on his flagship the Santa Maria) he never imagined that his new undertaking would affect the world of the Bible in addition to the political, economic, cultural and ethical factors.
The people he ‘found’ were not Asian, which raises the question for literal interpreters of whether the American natives could be considered part of the truly human family, unless the Bible was mistaken.
In 1531 an unexpected factor emerged to help solve the problem. The issue concerned the strange, half-naked beings with coppery skin who communicated in an incomprehensible language and lived in a primitive state. Did these people have authentic human souls? Were they also deserving of Christ’s redemption?
Meanwhile, on the slopes of Tepeyac, near Mexico City, the Indio Juan Diego received a vision of a lady, the virgin of Guadalupe, who left her image imprinted in a mantle as an Indian with dark skin, large eyes and native features.
Clearly the mother of God acknowledged as her children those indigenous people the European community had difficulty accepting as their brothers and sisters.
Six years later, Pope Paul III wrote a solemn letter, Sublimis Deus, declaring ‘the Indians to be real human beings and capable of receiving the Catholic faith … not to be enslaved nor induced to embrace the Catholic faith by means other than the proclamation of the divine word and a holy life’.
So it was that Our Lady of Guadalupe opened the ‘list of nations’ to the Americas and, as did her son, showed her concern for the poor and exploited.
Pope Francis has made this message clear along with his call for improved dialogue between Christian denominations and among the great world religions, particularly Islam.