For almost two centuries, there have been ever more frequent reports of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin. If one takes as a beginning point Mary’s appearance to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830—when the seer was presented with the miraculous medal, copies of which have been worn by millions since—one can trace a series of apparitions, many of them given Church approval of various degrees, that continues to the present day. These are shadowed by bogus claims, indeed bizarre ones, with Mary showing up in filling stations and the like. Given the number of reliable apparitions, it can be assumed that the devil would seek to discredit them and bring them into disrepute by means of patently risible claims. It is not a matter of faith to accept any apparition, but even Catholics who calibrate their openness to the supernatural in the apparent desire to know how little they can believe must be given pause by the phenomenon.
Mary’s appearance at La Salette in 1846 attracted the attention and devotion of Leon Bloy and Jacques Maritain. Maritain had begun a book on Mary’s message at LaSalette when a ban was put on discussing it, so he journeyed to Rome to seek papal permission to continue. It was not forthcoming. The reluctance seemed to stem from the negative remarks about the clergy attributed to Mary. Lourdes (1858) captured even the secular fancy and Franz Werfel’s book was made into an edifying Hollywood movie. More recently, the apparitions at Fatima in 1917 have affected popular piety and drawn popes to the shrine.
The so-called secret of Fatima has exercised the minds and imaginations of many, and its mention by Cardinal Ratzinger in his famous Report of 1985 further stimulated interest in it. But it is what was not kept secret that, in retrospect, amazes. The “autodemolition” of the Church, as Paul VI called it, following Vatican II, with bishops quarreling with bishops and cardinals vilifying the pope, must have seemed as unlikely as that Russia would rise up after World War Ito menace the world. In any case, Marian criticism of the clergy, high and low, is no longer the sensitive subject it was in 1914. Prediction of the parlous condition of the Church is found in the Amsterdam (1945) and Akita, Japan (1973) apparitions. Since these predictions have lamentably come true, interest must turn to the significance given to forseeing the present state of the Church.
That we are being punished and that only repentance and a return to the Christian ideal of life can prevent further divine retribution—that is the kernel of all the apparitions. Mary emerges more and more as the Mother of the Church, whose intercession plays a key role in the affairs of mankind. Of course no new doctrine is contained in these apparitions and messages; rather, they recall the faithful to the saving truths known since the beginning of the Church.
Roy Abraham Verghese has just published God-Sent: A History of the Accredited Apparitions of Mary (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000). It is a magnificent book, placing the apparitions in a theological setting, recalling the Church’s attitude toward such happenings from the earliest times, and analyzing the interrelationship and common notes of the various apparitions. Verghese writes as a devout Catholic, but his book is devoid of “enthusiasm” of the sort examined by Ronald Knox in his book on that subject. There may be no other single volume that is as informative and judicious as this one.
John Paul II has characterized ours as a “culture of death.” One effect of reading about Mary’s messages to so many in so many places is that we are given a standard against which to judge our own times. The verdict is as somber as the pope’s. Prayer and fasting are clearly called for. But there is need as well for the kind of confrontation with the culture of death that one can read of on the inside back cover of this issue of Crisis. (I should perhaps mention that the founder of Women’s Injury Network is my daughter-in-law, but this should not be held against her.)
It has been a feature of the various Right-to-Life efforts that they are markedly Marian in their spirituality. This is as it should be. Saddened by what we are doing to ourselves, it is well to have recourse to our tainted nature’s solitary boast.