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Marian Apparitions: Some Lessons From History

by Donal Anthony Foley

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  • Description:
    The purpose of this article is to show that we can learn important lessons from history regarding the authenticity of Marian apparitions. Donal Anthony Foley encourages those who believe in unapproved apparitions to re-examine and question whether their allegiance to them is based on a secure foundation.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 9 - 16
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, June 2001

What are we to make of the explosion in the number of reported "Marian apparitions" and similar phenomena in recent years? Some people see them in apocalyptic terms, as evidence of the "end-times," with alleged modern apparitions as precursors of a forbidding future. The argument is put forward that because the world is in such a terrible state, then we should expect all these happenings. For others, the main question is: what is the point of all these alleged visions when the Church, at its highest levels, has endorsed the apparitions at Fatima in such a prominent way? This article sets out to show that we can learn some important lessons from history regarding the authenticity of Marian apparitions, and that when this is done, the modern rash of alleged apparitions looks distinctly questionable.

However, at the outset, I would like to make it clear that I entirely respect the good faith and sincerity of those who believe in apparitions unapproved by the Church, and that, by the same token, I myself am sincerely seeking the objective truth about such apparitions so that I may know on the authority of the Church whether practicing Catholics can safely believe in them. My aim in writing this article is not to be critical of people who believe in unapproved apparitions, but to encourage them to re-examine and question whether their allegiance to them is based on a secure foundation — that is why is there is quite an emphasis on the official judgments of the local episcopate in the text below, since it is only by looking at the objective truth of the situation, as mediated to us by the Church, that we can really come to any firm conclusions.

As far as the more modern main recognized apparitions of Mary are concerned, we are dealing with a series, which lasted for just over a century, from 1830 to 1933. Nearly three centuries separate Guadalupe in 1531 and Rue du Bac in 1830, and the former is more intimately related with the Reformation era. The latter apparitions can, in some respects, be seen as paralleling the great upheavals of the modern era, and particularly the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Nazism. This series comprises: the apparitions to St. Catherine Laboure at Rue du Bac in Paris, in 1830, which led to the promulgation of the Miraculous Medal; the apparition to Melanie and Maximin at La Salette, also in France, in 1846; the apparitions to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858; the apparition at Pontmain, in northern France, in 1871; the apparition at Knock, in Ireland, in 1879; the apparitions at Fatima, in Portugal, in 1917; the apparitions at Beauraing, in Belgium, in late 1932; and finally, the apparitions at Banneux, also in Belgium, from late 1932 to early 1933.

Thus we have eight major modern apparitions of Mary, which have been recognised by the Church and are generally acknowledged to be the most important and trustworthy Marian apparitions. This acceptance has involved not only the approbation of the local bishop, but also wider acceptance in the Church as a whole, including elements such as liturgical grants, the building of a basilica, and more recently, a papal visit.1 There were also a few more minor apparitions, at places such as Pellevoisin in France, and Pompeii, in Italy, in the 1870s, but the eight listed above are the most important.

Since then, although there have been certainly hundreds, and probably thousands, of reported apparitions, apart from Akita, in Japan, and Betania, in Venezuela, both dating from the 1970s, which do seem to have received some support from their respective initial local bishops but have not really assumed any great status in the Church, we are left with nothing comparable to the great apparitions of the past — and particularly to Lourdes or Fatima. And even in the cases of Akita and Betania, there is room for doubt as to just how binding the decisions made by their local bishops really are. In a slightly different domain, the events at Syracuse in 1953 involved lacrymations from a plaster model of the Virgin Mary, and seem to have been authentic.

But apart from these, the Church's reaction to reports of alleged apparitions has been pretty much uniformly negative. And by the Church's response, I am thinking primarily of the response of the local bishop, who has the main responsibility for determining the truth or falsity of a said apparition in his diocese. In most cases the Vatican is content to leave the matter in the hands of the local bishop, who has jurisdiction within his own diocese.

Thus to take a few of the more famous recent alleged apparitions, we can begin with Garabandal in northern Spain, in which four young girls alleged that the Virgin Mary appeared to them between 1961 — 1965: the response of successive bishops of the diocese of Santander has been uniformly negative, and the present bishop, Jose Vilaplaua, has concurred with this verdict and effectively "closed the book" on Garabandal.2 Despite this there are a number of active associations supporting Garabandal.

Similarly, the Bishop of Piacenza in Italy in 1980, Enrico Manfredini, issued an Official Notification backing up previous condemnations of the activities of Rosa Quattrini, who began to claim she was seeing Mary in 1964. The Bishop stressed that her alleged apparitions had "no supernatural foundation" and discouraged all pilgrimages to, and cultic acts at, the supposed shrine.3

More recently, the alleged happenings at Medjugorje have captured worldwide attention. It is asserted that the Blessed Virgin has been appearing on a daily basis since 1981, to at least some members of a group of visionaries from a small village in the former Yugoslavia. Again though, the official episcopal response has been uniformly negative. The relevant bishops of Mostar-Duvno in Herzegovina, Bishop Pavao Zanic, and more recently, Bishop Ratko Peric, have been resolute in their judgment that there is nothing supernatural in the events at Medjugorje, while in 1991, the Bishops of Yugoslavia could not affirm that anything supernatural was happening there, as this declaration makes clear:

From the very beginning, the Bishops have been following the events of Medjugorje through the local Bishop, the Bishops Commission and the Commission of the Bishops Conference of Yugoslavia for Medjugorje. On the basis of studies made so far, it cannot be affirmed that these matters concern supernatural apparitions or revelations.4

If after ten years of alleged apparitions there was no evidence for the supernatural, then it is safe to say that we must be dealing with phenomena, which are not of the same kind as those, which occurred at Lourdes or Fatima.

Similarly, in 1996, the Vatican reaffirmed its ban on parish and diocesan pilgrimages to Medjugorje after a French bishop had asked the Holy See for a clarification. Archbishop Bertone, the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated the 1991 report of the Yugoslav bishops, although he acknowledged that provision had to be made for those who came as private pilgrims.

Despite these negative judgments it is said that upwards of twenty million people have come as pilgrims to Medjugorje — clearly there seems to be a major inconsistency between the unmistakable negative judgment of the Yugoslav Bishop's Conference and the Vatican, on the one hand, and the practice of millions of Catholics, all no doubt in good faith, on the other.

Another series of apparitions, which have recently become popular are those which are alleged to have taken place in Amsterdam in Holland between 1945 and 1959. The visionary was a certain Ida Peerdeman, a middle aged woman. These "visions" have come into prominence in recent years under the title given to Mary in them, "Our Lady of All Nations." The lately deceased bishop of Haarlem, Mgr. Bomers, issued a notification in 1996 which allowed veneration of Mary under the above title, but without giving any support to the alleged "messages," as the following text makes clear: "Distinction must be made between the apparitions/messages on the one hand and the Marian title "The Lady of All Peoples (Nations) on the other hand."

The bishop then went on to say: "At the moment the Church cannot make a pronouncement about the supernatural character of the apparitions and the content of the messages. One is free to make a personal judgement according to his or her own conscience."5 However, given the condemnation of the alleged apparitions and messages which was issued by the original bishop, Mgr. Huibers, this seems like rather a strange statement to make, and in fact it seems to have given the Amsterdam messages a new lease of life.

A Notification "regarding [the] alleged apparitions" by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the 27 June 1974 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, makes the following points, and is worth quoting in full:

With regard to the alleged apparitions and revelations of 'Our Lady of All Nations', said to have taken place in Amsterdam, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considers it advisable to make the following declaration.

On 7 May 1956, the Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem (Netherlands), following a careful examination of the case concerning the supposed apparitions and revelations of 'Our Lady of All Nations', declared that he 'found no evidence of the supernatural nature of the apparitions.' He therefore prohibited public veneration of the picture of 'Our Lady of All Nations' and the spreading of writings, which attributed a supernatural origin to these apparitions and revelations.

On 2 March 1957, the same Ordinary repeated the above statement. The Holy Office, in a letter dated 13 March of the same year, praised the Bishop's prudence and pastoral concern and approved of the measures taken. Moreover, in reply to an appeal of the Bishop of Haarlem dated 29 March 1972, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 24 May of the same year, confirmed the previous decision on the matter.

At the present time, following on further developments and after a fresh and deeper examination of the case, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirms by the present notification the judgment already expressed by the competent ecclesiastical authority and invites priests and laity to discontinue all forms of propaganda with regard to the alleged apparitions and revelations of 'Our Lady of All Nations.' It exhorts all, moreover, to express their devotion to the Most Holy Virgin, Queen of the Universe (cf. Encyclical Letter Ad Caeli Reginam, A.A.S. 1954, pp. 625-640) by forms, which are recognized and recommended by the Church. ROME, 25 May 1974.

This is such a clear rejection by the original bishop, and one backed up by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that it is hard to see how Amsterdam can possibly have made a comeback — and yet there it is, a movement which grows stronger with each year, attracting thousands of new adherents, yet one based on alleged apparitions for which the first bishop could find "no evidence of the supernatural." These apparitions too have had wider repercussions, in that they are at least "unofficially" linked with the move to get a new "triple dogma" accepted by the Church, one, which sees Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate. Ida Peerdeman claimed that Mary told her that the above triple dogma would be "the last and greatest dogma."

And of course the examples given above are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Mention could also be made of Montichiari in Italy (1947), or Necedah in the United States (1949), or Palmar de Troya in Spain (1968), or Bayside, again in the U.S., (1970), or Dozule in France (1974), or Surbiton in England (1983), or hundreds if not thousands of others — to say nothing of all the alleged visionaries and locutionists past and present, such as Maria Valtorta, Christina Gallagher, Vassula Ryden, and many another poor deluded souls.

That is the situation we find then: a series of eight major authentic apparitions of Mary lasting about a century or so, followed by a multitude of alleged apparitions, particularly since World War II, the vast majority of which are unable to produce any authentic evidence to substantiate their claim to be of supernatural origin. Can we find any historical parallels to this situation, which might help us to put it all into context? I think the answer is yes, and in order to do this we have to look at some aspects of the formation of the biblical canon of accepted books.

From the time of Samuel on, and during the period of monarchy, from about the eleventh to the fifth century B.C., prophecy was very common in Israel. During this period the great literary prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, flourished. There were also twelve minor prophets, and a number of non-literary prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. The last recognized prophet was Malachi, whose book completes the canonical Old Testament. Prophecy then fell silent for about four hundred years until the coming of John the Baptist.

But just because genuine prophecy was lacking, that did not mean that individuals who passed themselves off as "prophets" or as "inspired" were not to be found. During this "intertestamental" period, the time between the Old and New Testaments, many writings were produced, some of which are genuine, and have been accepted as such by the Catholic Church (although not by the various Protestant groupings or Judaism), but more, too, which have turned out to be false, although often well-intentioned.

The apocryphal Old Testament books arose in the second century B.C. and can be said to have had a threefold purpose. Some books, such as the Book of Jubilees, a rewriting of parts of the Pentateuch, were written with a juridical aim that is to strengthen the idea of the Mosaic Law. Others, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, had a moral aim, that of inducing greater piety, by producing imaginary accounts of the lives of biblical figures. The final section covers "apocalyptic" writings, such as the Book of Enoch, and these contain "prophecies" written in the name of a great biblical figure, designed to encourage the people to renew their hope in the Messiah.

An interesting point about many of these writings is that, although non-canonical, they were often held in high regard in the early Church. It was only with the gradual establishment of the canon of the Old Testament that they were excluded.6

Perhaps there is a parallel here with some of the more modern alleged apparitions, which although seemingly enjoying some support now, will finally turn out to be false.

The New Testament writings were also subject to this type of imitation, and it was centuries before the New Testament canon was definitively established throughout the Church: St. Athanasius, in 369 A.D, in his Festal Epistles, is the earliest writer to give the exact list of New Testament books we have, while it was not until 382 that a complete list of books of both the Old and New Testaments was given at a Council in Rome, under Pope St. Damasus.7 Some of the smaller books were very late in being universally accepted into the canon. In contrast some of the apocryphal writings were very popular before finally fading from prominence.

The four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, suffered most from apocryphal mimicry. This took a number of forms, including Gospels containing heretical or invented material. Infancy Gospels, purporting to give details of Jesus' early life were very popular, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which has stories of Jesus as a child working miracles, while the Protoevangelium of James gives details of Mary's early life and names her parents as Joachim and Anna. A partial listing of apocryphal Gospels indicates how popular this form of imitation was: the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Matthias, the Gospel of Barnabas, and even the Gospel of Judas! It is noteworthy how many of these spurious gospels there were, numerous enough to be a threat to the true "Good News."

Similarly, there were quite a few of imitations of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, which in the main seem to have been composed by heretics, although some of them may have been revised by orthodox writers. These include the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Thomas. Apocryphal editions of St. Paul's epistles also exist, as do imitations of St. John's Apocalypse. These include apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Thomas and Stephen.8

The implications of all this are clear: of all the Gospels, epistles and apocalypses produced during the first centuries of the Church, only a small proportion were authentic. The others were either to a greater or lesser extent heretical, or else pious forgeries written to satisfy a legitimate desire to know more about various characters related to New Testament events. In some cases they may contain elements of truth, but the Church has not been able to accept them as canonical.

Comparing this with the approved Marian apparitions and their more modern alleged counterparts, we can obviously see that there is a strong possibility that many of the latter are imitations and not genuine. Thus we can draw some important conclusions from the history of the compilation of the biblical canon and how this relates to judging the plethora of modern alleged Marian apparitions. Firstly, we can see that prophecy is not necessarily continuous, that is prophets did not appear continually throughout Israel's history, but only during specific periods. In particular from about 400 B.C. until the time of Christ there were no prophets. God had given his message through the Law and the great prophetic figures and it was up to the people to accept and live up to it, in expectation of the Messiah.

Similarly, as difficult as it might be for some people to accept, there is no reason to expect that genuine Church-recognized Marian apparitions should have continued to take place from the time of the two most recent apparitions to be accepted by the Church as a whole, those at Beauraing and Banneux in the early 1930s. As explained above, there have been more recent apparitions, which have apparently gained the support of the local bishop, but this is not the same as acceptance by the Church in general.

Thus the proliferation of alleged apparitions since the 1930s may well be a counterpart to the situation which prevailed in Israel in the "intertestamental" period, the time between Malachi and Christ, and to that which prevailed in the early Christian centuries, when genuine New Testament writings were threatened by a host of imitations.

In fact it is possible to argue that God is actually obliged, in a certain sense, to stop giving prophecies, writings or apparitions once a certain point is reached, for fear of confusing people. Once a certain style of prophecy or writing is well known and accepted it is very easy to imitate it, as the extra-biblical writings indicate. Similarly, we reached the stage long ago where the mechanism of the approved Marian apparitions could easily be copied. If deluded people were imagining apparitions at Lourdes at the time of St. Bernadette, as was actually the case nearly 150 years ago, in a very much simpler and more devout age,{9 how much more likely it is today that dubious imitations, which cannot be substantiated by the authority of the Church, will abound. In other words it is possible to argue that the Church has been given a more than adequate "prophetic" message in Mary's approved apparitions, and particularly Fatima, and that it is presumptuous to expect anything more. While sites of alleged apparitions such as those detailed above continue to attract large crowds, ordinary Catholics are neglecting Fatima, despite the fact that it has attracted overwhelming approval from the Church.

Popes from Pius XII onwards have given increasing support to Fatima: Pius XII consecrated the world to Mary's Immaculate Heart in 1942, and followed this by a similar consecration of Russia in 1952. In 1967 Pope Paul VI went to Fatima as a Pilgrim, at a time when no Pope had even been to Lourdes. Pope John Paul II's connection with Fatima is well-known — the assassination attempt in 1981, the pilgrimage to the shrine the following year in thanksgiving, the collegial consecration in 1984, and now more recently, the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta, and in October 2000, in Rome, the entrustment of mankind and the third millennium to the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the statue of Our Lady from the Capelhina in Fatima.

The "Marian Movement" as a whole seems to have arrived at a cross-roads: on the one hand the focus has shifted back onto Fatima, following the developments detailed above; on the other hand, reports of alleged apparitions and the movements these have generated are apparently still prominent, although it's possible to detect an attitude of greater skepticism towards them in recent years. For the good of the Church, it is necessary that a genuine and properly regulated Marian piety and practice are once more part of normal Catholic life, and so somehow the genuine enthusiasm and any real achievements attached to unapproved apparitions, where these exist, have to be integrated into mainstream Marian Catholicism.

This means that somehow they must be integrated into the overall Fatima apostolate, since Fatima has achieved such a prominent place in the Marian thinking of the Church now. Thus the apparently genuine conversions and spiritual good points coming from Medjugorje — for example the large numbers involved in receiving the Sacraments — and any other positive points coming from disputed apparitions, need to somehow be harnessed to the ordinary Fatima-led Marian "channels" which exist in the Church.

The danger is that if this integration does not happen then these movements may continue to diverge from Fatima, and thus become estranged from the true life of the Church, and there are many signs to indicate this is happening already in certain cases, particularly in terms of disobedience to lawful episcopal authority. Either the "good fruits" of places like Medjugorje are properly appropriated, or there is a danger that like the proverbial biblical streams they will end up running into the desert and evaporating in an excess of enthusiasm, or worse lead to the formation of schismatical or even heretical groups. It has certainly been the case in the past that groups, which have started out with the best of intentions have deviated from normality and ended up in opposition to the Church, so this is not a far-fetched scenario.

In conclusion we can say that the lesson of history regarding the general area of genuine writings, revelations and prophecies is that they are subject to imitation at the instigation of Satan, the father of lies; that is, the devil attempts to drown out the truth by a deluge of confusion. (This is not to deny though that false apparitions may well have a purely human origin, in some psychological disorder, or hallucination, or desire for money or fame). Thus there is more than a danger that true apparitions will be followed by false ones — in fact it is pretty much a certainty. We are apparently seeing this in our own time, as the message of the genuine Marian apparitions is in danger of being submerged by a host of alleged apparitions, visions, messages, and other dubious and unauthenticated claims.

In the end, as Our Lady proclaimed at Fatima, her Immaculate Heart will triumph, but in the meantime it is up to us to be vigilant, and not allow ourselves to be deceived. It is thus opportune for all those genuinely devoted to Mary to honestly examine their position, look at what the Church is saying about Fatima, take up the message given through the recently beatified children, and then put it into practice in everyday life. The alternative could well be a continued vain quest for new "signs and wonders," a quest that may well end in disappointment and possibly disaster.

Mr. Donal Anthony Foley has degrees in Humanities (BA) and Theology (BD). He lives in Nottingham, England and has written a booklet on the role of Marian apparitions in history. He plans a full-length on the same subject. Mr. Foley's website, which deals with apparition discernment, among other topics, can be accessed at: www.theotokos.org.uk (e-mail: info@theotokos.org.uk). This is his first article in HPR.

Notes

1 See, for example, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2nd ed., s.v. "Apparitions," by Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp.; Rev. Eamon R. Carroll, O. Carm., "Must Catholics believe in Fatima? The place of Private Revelation in the Church," in Exploring Fatima, (AMI Press, New Jersey, 1989), p. 3; and John Delaney, ed., A Woman Clothed with the Sun, (Doubleday, New York, 1961), where all but Pontmain are dealt with.

2 See "Soul Magazine" March/April 1997, p. 8.

3 Official Notification of the Office of the Bishop of Piacenza — issued 1 May 1980.

4 See, for example, the booklet, "Criteria for Discerning Apparitions: Regarding the events of Medjugorje," p. 11, taken from, Mons. Ratko Peric, Prijestolje Mudrosti (The Throne of Wisdom), Mostar, 1995, pp. 266-68.

5 Notification of the Diocese of Haarlem, Holland, given on 31 May 1996, signed by Mgr. Bomers, Bishop of Haarlem and J. Punt, Auxiliary Bishop.

6 Steinmueller & Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, Old Testament, (Wagner: New York, 1959), p. 80.

7 F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Oxford University Press: London, 1958), p. 229.

8 Steinmueller & Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, New Testament, (Wagner: New York, 1959), pp. 32-36.

9 See Satan in the Modern World, by Leon Cristiani, (Tan Books and Publishers: Rockford, Ill. 1974), pp. 42-61.

© Ignatius Press 2001.

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