Mary in the Year of Faith 8: Apparitions as accidental truths

Scripture Kieran Fenn fms Christian theology distinguishes between truths that are essential and primary and accidental or secondary truths that take their importance only in relation to more essential truths,…

Mary in the Year of Faith 8: Apparitions as accidental truths Archdiocese of Wellington

Kieran Fenn fms


Kieran Fenn fms

Christian theology distinguishes between truths that are essential and primary and accidental or secondary truths that take their importance only in relation to more essential truths,

The Blessed Virgin may have appeared at a given shrine, but this truth does not have the same importance as the central truth of the Incarnation. The truth of a Marian apparition is an accidental truth to which one can choose to respond on the basis of temperament, taste, background, culture or time.

Public and private

No one has the right to make public revelation out of private revelation. ‘Public’ revelation means those truths revealed to the inspired writers of the New Testament and they have a definite completion date at the death of the last apostle by common theological consent.

Revelations through apparitions of Christ (such as the devotions to the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy), the virgin or saints, simply confirm the faith or spirituality of the individual or confirm for the wider faithful the subject of ‘public’ revelation.

It is dangerous to assume that what happens in human history does not depend on responsible communitarian and social action but on miraculous intervention mediated by Mary. We have no right to make an ideology out of an apparition, nor use it to drown out other voices in the Church, obliterating the very meaning of the word ‘catholic.’

Some apparitions

Apparitions that became famous and universally recognised are Guadalupe, La Salette, Lourdes and Fatima. At Medjugorje in 1981, witness Ivan Dragicevic reiterated the call to daily conversion with five weapons against Satan – prayer with the heart, fasting, reading the Bible, monthly confession and frequent Holy Communion.

Turning to Mary for help and mercy has been a constant in the Church; from the Middle Ages onwards, devotion to Mary has become an even more integral part of Catholic life.

Popular religion is intensely human and emotionally charged, yet tends to be uncritical in accepting propositions of faith. The relationship between the believer and God or Mary tends to be a contractual one. In return for prayer, penance or the fulfilment of a vow, God bestows favours. With a growing enthusiasm for Marian apparitions, it is important to link them with pilgrimages.

For most of history, pilgrimages representing a ‘tear in the veil’ separating heaven and earth were made to the tombs of saints. Often they became a means of nearing God for those who were outside the official channels of access to the holy. Perhaps this still applies today for those who find access to the holy through apparitions rather than through the liturgical channels from which they may feel alienated.

A cautionary note

None of the 210 apparitions reported between 1928 and 1971 has received Church recognition. Even with those apparitions that had received earlier sanction, care must be taken.

La Salette has Mary saying that she gave the people six days to work, reserving  the seventh for herself. This is God’s prerogative rather than Mary’s.
Fatima’s vision of ‘souls falling into hell like leaves from the trees’ can be taken as sending the greater mass of humanity to hell, detracting from the redeeming power of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. No study has ever been done on the social, cultural and psychological conditioning of the visionaries.


On the visit to a shrine, the pilgrim is purified by penance and travel. Magical beliefs can abound at the shrine – in relics, images, and the efficacy of water from sacred springs – but these benefit only the pilgrim who has had a conversion of heart.

An established pilgrimage site operates like any social institution with liturgies and devotional services for an increasingly large group of pilgrim tourists. The literature surrounding Marian apparitions tends to be devotional and apologetic, defending and publicising what the authors believe to be appearances of Mary. Scholarly writings about apparitions are scarce, making the topic a difficult one.

There is no definitive Church teaching about what happens during an apparition. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has written, ‘Even when a “private revelation” has spread to the entire world, as in the case of Our Lady of Lourdes, and has been recognised in the liturgical calendar, the Church does not make mandatory the acceptance of the original story or of the particular forms of piety springing from it.’

Official church approval, limited to comparatively few apparitions, does not mean that the faithful are required to believe in the apparitions or in their historicity.

They are to be respected if they inspire people to deeper faith and consistent social action, and to be judged by their fruits: love, justice, and peace.

Healing tradition

Some apparitions are linked to long traditions of healing shrines; others have offered powerful messages of liberation for the under-privileged and oppressed.

Apparitions are usually experienced by the poor, mostly women, and the young. Could the appearances to women of all ages be an expression of a voice not being heard by the institutional Church forcing its way through the Church’s charismatic dimension? This charismatic feature tends to cause ambivalence towards apparitions in orthodox religion.

Mary often appears as healer and restorer of faith; the claim of miraculous cures at Marian shrines persists. Another constant is Mary pleading with God on our behalf. Last century, at Fatima, she became instrumental in Pius XII’s criticism of communism and the prayers for the conversion of Russia. But where were the prayers against Nazism, or the ravages of unbridled capitalism, a target of Pope Francis?

Source: Coyle, Kathleen Mary in the Christian Tradition, 1998.