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Apparitions in the Marian Age
As her spiritual children, Mary has been with us all since her first all-giving fiat (Luke 1:38). Even in modern times she continues to appear to us in order to console, warn, and convert souls to Christ.
Reported appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary date back to the first century A.D., yet information on Marian apparitions prior to the guidelines established at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) are sparse. However, even with the documentation currently available, it’s obvious that reports of Marian apparitions, those both unverified by the Church and those that have been Vatican-approved, have significantly increased beginning in the nineteenth—and particular in the twentieth—centuries.
Why the profusion of alleged apparitions, and how can their legitimacy be determined?
Ancient and long-held traditions have reported the physical intercession of Mary since the early days of Christianity. According to oral tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to the apostle James the Greater at a time when he needed support, hope and encouragement while evangelizing the people of Zaragoza, Spain. This appearance is said to have taken place in 40 A.D., well before the Blessed Mother’s assumption into heaven.
The first written record of a Marian apparition was described by Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, who described an apparition witnessed by Gregory the Wonderworker in the third century.Only one Marian visitation was recorded in the fourth century, with no other events on record until an apparition of the Blessed Mother in the tenth century. This apparition is said to have occurred at Mt. Athos in Greece to the hermit monk Peter the Athonite in 963 A.D.; the Blessed Mother appeared to Peter in order to relieve him from suffering and as a help to battle certain temptations.
After that time, no other mention of Marian appearances has been passed on through history until Protestant Reformation, when four credible apparitions were recorded (in Guadalupe, Mexico; Avila, Spain; Lezajsk, Poland; and Quito, Ecuador).
Even though all these apparitions have been approved by the local bishops of the dioceses in which they took place, only two have been approved by the Vatican: the appearance of the Blessed Mother to a devoted woodcutter in Lezajsk, Poland in 1578, and the most famous apparition of the Renaissance era, to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico in 1531.
This apparition dramatically transformed the brutal Aztecan society of sixteenth century Mexico, in which human sacrifice was regularly practiced. Mass conversion to the Christian faith took place after the miraculous appearance of the Blessed Mother, in which eight million natives were converted from the violent religion of the Aztecs to the peaceful faith of Christ.
Commenting upon the sixteenth century, one of the most well-known Mariologists of the modern era, René Laurentin, observed that “a new kind of apparition began [at that time].” These apparitions had a public character and were intended to “re-animate faith” and to “surmount the world’s crises.”
The Blessed Mother had begun appearing to her children on a global level during their time of deepest need. This began with the tumult and unrest caused by the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath.
It was during the key years of 1517-1648 that the Reformation caused Marian devotion to slowly wilt as Protestantism began to take root, yet it seems that during this time of grave need the Blessed Mother refused to let her children languish. For example, Mary’s documented appearance in Siluva, Lithuania in 1608 was a call to conversion and restoration of faith, and a direct fight against the stringent teachings of Calvinism that had taken hold of the surrounding area.
These approved apparitions are in direct alignment with the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. Since the beginning of Christianity, from Christ’s statement during His passion in which He commanded us all to “behold, your Mother!” (John 19:27), to Mary’s evangelistic ministry during the days after the Resurrection and before the Ascension (Acts 1:14), and beyond to her appearance to the apostle James during her lifetime, Mary has been interceding for her children with the goal of bringing them closer—and eventually in union with—her divine Son.
Church authorities have instituted extremely strict and even secular guidelines for discernment of all claimed miracles, including apparitions. The Council of Trent stated that “no new miracles are to be acknowledged, or new relics recognized, unless the said bishop has taken cognizance and approved thereof.”This reduces the possibility of fanaticism, deception, delusion, and the seeking of personal gain in regards to alleged miracles.
Not only are these guidelines still strictly adhered to today, but they have been expanded upon to ensure solid, orthodox discretion. In 1974 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a document entitled “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations.” In this document, the Fathers of the Sacred Congregation made it clear that all alleged apparitions are to be judged according to either positive or negative criteria.
Positive criteria includes moral certitude “acquired by serious investigation”—the psychological stability of the person making the claims (including their honesty, integrity, moral life and obedience to Church authorities). Also included in this analysis is the theological message of the revelation (ensuring it is not against orthodox doctrine) and the spiritual fruits (the “spirit of prayer, conversion, testimonies of charity, etc.”) that have resulted. The negative criteria includes obvious factual and doctrinal errors, any sign that financial benefit is being solicited as a result of the supposed apparition, “gravely immoral acts” in connection with the claim or performed in any way by the claimants, and any sign of psychological imbalance or collective hysteria.
After thorough and exhaustive investigation conducted not only by Church officials but also secular authorities such as scientists and psychologists, the local bishop must determine if the apparition is constat de supernaturalitate (of supernatural origin), non constat de supernaturalitate (no supernatural aspects are readily apparent) or constant de non supernaturalitate (the evidence points toward nothing of a supernatural nature).
Apparitions are then deemed “worthy of belief,” “no decision,” or “not worthy of belief.”The results of such rational and strict regulations on discernment have ensured the integrity of the Blessed Mother’s authentic visits and have avoided the pitfalls of superstition, “copy-cat” claims, and fanaticism.
The twentieth century is a prime example of the effectiveness of the Church’s methods. According to Michael O’Neill, who has been studying Marian miracles since 1998, there were 579 alleged appearances of the Virgin Mary reported in the twentieth century alone, far greater than any other century since the Council of Trent. The seventeenth century is the runner-up with a reported 143 alleged apparitions, which is interesting to note since Mariologist and Catholic convert Hilda Graef has observed that devotion to the Blessed Mother sharply declined after the Protestant Reformation and during the “Age of Enlightenment.”
It seems that during this time of spiritual crisis, the Blessed Mother not only refused to give up on her children, but was determined to nurture them all the more.
It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that devotion to the Blessed Lady began to revive, aided tremendously by the discovery of a book written by Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (d. 1716). This book, entitled True Devotion to Mary, was rediscovered in 1842—the same year the firmly anti-Catholic Jewish gentleman, Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne, was miraculously converted after a challenge to wear the Miraculous Medal (based on the recent 1830 apparition of the Blessed Mother in Rue du Bac, France). After taking up the challenge to wear the medal, Ratisbonne was graced with a vision of the Blessed Mother which changed his spiritual awareness forever and impelled him to pursue a converted Christian life. He became a priest, devoting the rest of his days to evangelization.
Yet this was just the beginning of the true “renaissance.”
The Reverend Johann Roten, a Marianist priest as well as the director of the Marian Library at the International Marian Research Institute (University of Dayton), believes that even the “no decision” claims in which people honestly believe they are witnessing the supernatural in a positive way but that the Church cannot make a firm judgment upon “may suggest that there is a spiritual hunger today … There is 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.”
Of the 579 allegations reported in the twentieth century, only eight have been classified as having an authentic supernatural character, those which “cannot be explained away due to an impediment in the visionary, nor as fraud, nor as a natural phenomenon, nor of demonic origin.”Out of this vast number of alleged apparitions, the Marian appearances that have received Vatican approval are rightfully conservative—such as Fatima, Portugal (1917), during the crisis of the First World War and the violent Masonic attacks against the Church.
In 79 cases out of these hundreds of alleged apparitions in the twentieth century the Church has announced a negative decision regarding the allegations, whereas in 299 cases, no decision has been granted.Dismissing all apparitions that have not gained Church approval, the twentieth century still has seen a profusion in authentic Marian activity, to such a degree that our times have been dubbed the “Marian Age.”
It’s easy to see why the Blessed Mother has come to warn, implore, and urge her children toward necessary moral and spiritual reform. The twentieth century has been called the “bloodiest century” for good reason; horrific events have spanned the entire decade, from two devastating world wars to the threat (and spread) of Communism and other atrocities, to the decline in family life, morals, and the immense shedding of innocent life in the form of such barbaric practices such as abortion and euthanasia.
It’s easy to see how Our Lady of Sorrows has felt another sword thrust to her loving heart as she watches the people her Son sought to redeem destroy themselves and their society.
However, not only is there hope, but there is a promise from Our Lady herself; during one of her appearances to the three children of Fatima she vowed that her Immaculate Heart would triumph.
Although the faithful should deal with caution any Marian apparitions that are purported to have occurred, we can remain confident that the appearances the Vatican have approved are those apparitions holding authentic messages from our Blessed Mother.
The faithful are in no way obligated to believe private revelations, yet it can enhance faith and bring believers closer to Christ to learn more about the authentically approved supernatural occurrences of our Blessed Mother. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “private revelations,” such as the appearances of Mary, don’t “improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation,” but rather they help the faithful to “live more fully” the established Deposit of Faith as apostolically handed down to believers from Christ Himself (CCC 67). John Delaney points out that
as is true of all the Church’s pronouncements, her teaching on [apparitions] is logical, and yet at the same time it allows the greatest possible personal freedom to the individual. According to this teaching, a miracle is an unusual event performed by God or through His intervention which cannot be explained by the ordinary laws of nature. The Church demands that her children accept as a matter of faith the principal that miracles occur … However, the Church then allows the widest latitude for personal belief in apparitions or miracles which have occurred since Biblical times.
The twentieth century saw a profusion of authentic apparitions in which Our Lady implored the same theme, over and over again; her message was so stable, strong and repetitive in these authorized apparitions that it will do all faithful to pay close heed:
Prayer. Penance. Conversion.
These are the things we need most in today’s world. We need to pray for God’s intervention, His will and His mercy, and for all of us to be fitting vessels for His grace. We need to accept our faults and failings, and strive through prayer and the grace of the Holy Spirit to improve ourselves through penance. We need not only to “circumcise our hearts” (Deut. 10:16, Jer. 4:4, Rom. 2:29) but also to be the forerunners in faith, to help share the joy, love and peace that all humans can attain through the intervention of our Blessed Mother, who does nothing more than lead all who are willing to her Son.
We all need to convert, whether it be a radical conversion to the Faith or an increase in charity for those already members of the peaceful Church our Lady is leading us toward. Regardless of our station or faith in life, one thing is certain: we all need to draw closer to Christ, who is the Prince of Peace and bringer of international unity. This is the true and repetitive message of the visits of our Blessed Mother. It will do us all well to pay close heed.
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Michael O’Neill, “Marian Apparition Claims in the United States and Canada in the Twentieth Century,” Marian Studies: Vol. 63, Article 13, https://ecommons.udayton.edu/marian_studies/vol63/iss1/13 (accessed January 14, 2019). See also Mark Miravalle, “The Age of Mary,” Marians of the Immaculate Conception, https://www.marian.org/news/The-Age-Of-Mary-7517 (accessed January 16, 2019) and University of Dayton, “Apparitions Yesterday and Today,” All About Mary, https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/a/apparitions-yesterday-and-today.php.
University of Dayton, “Apparitions Statistics, Early,” All About Mary, https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/a/apparitions-statistics-early.php.
University of Dayton, “Chronological Table of Marian Events,” All About Mary, https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/c/chronological-table-of-marian-events.php.
René Laurentin and Patrick Sbalchiero, Dictionary of the Apparitions of the Virgin Mary. 2010 Edizioni ART pp.592, as quoted in Michael O’Neill, “Early Apparitions (40-999 A.D.),” The Miracle Hunter, http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/apparitions_0040-0999.html
Ibid. See also Michael O’Neill, “Bishop Approved Apparitions with Vatican Recognition,” The Miracle Hunter, http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/vatican.html
John J. Delaney, ed., A Woman Clothed with the Sun: Eight Great Appearances of Our Lady in Modern Times (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959), 48. See also John Ireland Gallery, Mary vs. Lucifer (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1960), 18-19.
University of Dayton, “Apparitions Statistics, Early.”
Hanover Historical Texts Projects, “The Council of Trent: The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred Council of Trent,” Hanover College, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/trentall.html (accessed February 13, 2019).
The Holy See, “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations,” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19780225_norme-apparizioni_en.htm.
Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, Ave Maria Press, 1965), 433.
Graef, Mary: A History …, 321.
Johann Roten, “Apparitions: Why So Many?” All About Mary, https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/a/apparitions-why-so-many.php (accessed January 19, 2019).
University of Dayton, “Apparitions Statistics, Modern”; see also The Holy See, “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations.”
Michael O’Neill, “Marian Apparition Claims in the United States …” and University of Dayton, “Chronological Table of Marian Events.”
John J. Delaney, ed,, A Woman Clothed with the Sun, 16 and 17.