Reports of Mary

Olympic officials in Atlanta could learn a thing or two from tiny Conyers, Georgia. Throngs of people have ventured to the historic antebellum town and its environs over the past five years. And not in fits and starts either. Rockdale County, not quite a two-hour drive from Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville and home to the world’s fourth largest Cistercian monastery, has seen the likes of thousands, and for a time tens of thousands, of visitors on the thirteenth of nearly every month since October 1990, when a middle-aged homemaker named Nancy Fowler began delivering messages she says she receives from the Virgin Mary.

Mrs. Fowler delivered the monthly messages “for the people of the United States” until May 1994; they resumed in October of that year as annual messages. Mrs. Fowler says she also receives messages from Jesus Christ. After regular crowds of up to a hundred thousand pilgrims, the droves of Olympic-goers that turn up in Rockdale County for the ’96 equestrian events will most likely amount to child’s play for county officials.

During the early nineties, when the Bosnian war thwarted the plans of many—though not all— pilgrims to Mejugorje, Herzogovina, says Ted Flynn, co-author of a best-selling encyclopedia of Marian prophecy and warning, Conyers became the most heavily-attended, active, ongoing apparition site in the world. Now that the Virgin Mary’s alleged messages for the nation are annual, the monthly gatherings attract just a few thousand pilgrims. But Father Thomas Francis, a member of the nearby Trappist community, says he believes that even when the reported messages have stopped completely, Conyers will continue to draw the faithful. “It is because of what is found deep in the heart of the Christian,” he explains. “A yearning for the sacred encounter, for the direct experience of God.”

More Marian apparitions have been reported since 1981, when the Virgin Mary reportedly first appeared at Mejugorje, than during the whole of Church history. This puts us, writes Dr. Mark Miravalle in his book, Introduction to Mary, at the climax of what is often called the Age of Mary. In discussing Marian apparitions generally, Dr. Miravalle, a professor of theology and Mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, explains that “the Blessed Virgin’s critical purpose is to get us to live the full challenge of the Gospel. Her messages, like all authentic private revelations, do not replace the Gospel—public revelation ended with the death of John the Apostle. Rather, they accentuate the hard parts of the Gospel, like fasting, prayer, and full conversion. Even if one out of every ten reports were true,” he contends, “it would still indicate that we are not doing so well as a human family.”

While a vital faith does not technically require Christians to accept authentic private revelations, such revelations have rejuvenated the spiritual lives of many who previously suffered from a tired, plodding faith. Journalist Michael Brown, who has toured over 120 cities giving lectures about Marian apparitions and has written a best-selling book on the subject, insists the Church is sorely in need of such a renewal. Catholics everywhere, he says, are hungry for some word about the supernatural workings of God in their lives today. Mr. Brown says that across the nation his talks and similar talks made by others have filled churches that, during regular Masses, are sparsely attended. “It is too bad the Church has booted mystical theology from the seminaries and replaced it with dry secular philosophy,” he says. “This has been a near calamity for the Church.”

There are some close followers of Marian apparitions who believe the Virgin Mary is the “Prophetess,” or “the Great Sign,” meant for our age—the woman described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation as being “clothed with the sun,” the harbinger of the end of times. Ted Flynn, who with his wife Maureen founded MaxKol Communications, a publishing company that distributes information on Marian apparitions worldwide, says, “It is clear from the startling frequency of reports that God is trying to tell us something. We learn from many of the messages, which are similar in language—a fact that is striking in and of itself— that we are headed for a major purification of the world and a cleansing of the Church. We are approaching, not the end of the world, but the end of an evil age.”

What Mr. Flynn concludes is that the messages revealed by authentic Marian apparitions provide us with a blueprint for the finale, which will amount to “the two greatest events in the history of the world.” First, Mr. Flynn explains, according to nearly all of the mystics, there will be a Warning, a moment when everyone on earth will see the state of his soul as God would see it at Judgment. This will be God’s ultimate act of mercy, Mr. Flynn relates, and is meant to put humanity back on the proper spiritual track. Within one year of the Warning, say the mystics, a Great Miracle will occur that will usher in an era of peace.

As for the number of Catholics who follow Marian messages, or who are part of what is loosely called the Marian Movement, it is difficult to say. Michael Brown says the Mejugorje movement alone is bigger than the environmental movement. And he covered the environmental and hazardous waste movements as a secular journalist for a decade before he began studying and tracking Marian apparitions.

The alleged messages coming out of Conyers do not map out the events that will mark the end of our age, but they urge Americans to return to the Lord, to live holy lives, to pray and make sacrifices, to consecrate themselves to the Virgin’s Immaculate Heart and to stop abortion or suffer grave consequences. Mrs. Fowler has said that in many of her visions the Virgin Mary has been deeply grieved over America’s failure to turn its face toward God. In one vision, the Virgin reportedly appeared in dark gray and said nothing. In another, she cried mystical tears of blood.

Archbishop John F. Donoghue of the Archdiocese of Atlanta has not investigated the apparitions at Conyers, nor does he have plans to do so any time soon, says Monsignor Peter A. Dora, a spokesperson for the archbishop. Archbishop Donoghue has said he will continue the policy set by his predecessor, the late Archbishop James P. Lyke, who explicitly staked a position with regard to Conyers similar to that assumed by Gamaliel in the Book of Acts. Priests in the Atlanta archdiocese were instructed in 1992 by Archbishop Lyke to leave Conyers alone. They are not to lead or encourage pilgrimages to the apparition site, nor are they to conduct prayer groups or meetings directly related to the reported apparitions. The Eucharist may not be offered on the site. Most priests in the archdiocese are reluctant to comment on the apparitions. Mrs. Fowler has said that she will do her part to fully cooperate with the archbishop’s policy.

But in an action that goes beyond the remove of Gamaliel, Archbishop Lyke addressed a letter to all of the bishops in the nation, requesting they make his wishes known to priests in their own dioceses. Such action is not typical for a pronouncedly hands-off local bishop, says Dr. Miravalle of Steubenville, and reflects a more cautionary stance on the archbishop’s part. Priests from other dioceses attend the monthly gatherings in Conyers despite Archbishop Lyke’s request.

The Church has always moved slowly when considering alleged private revelations, and rightly so, says Dr. Miravalle. On the one hand, he explains, the Church must be mindful of the gifts Christ proffers through private revelations. On the other, the Church, as guardian of Scripture and Tradition, must avoid hasty maneuvering when faced with such reports. It took the Church thirteen years to authenticate the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, perhaps the most notable apparitions of our century. The apparitions at Mejugorje, which have drawn more than twenty million pilgrims since 1981 and have been spoken of favorably by the pope in private conversation, have not yet received approval from the local bishop.

As for what makes an apparition authentic, the Church has set up some general criteria. First, the messages revealed by an alleged apparition must be in keeping with the Church’s Magisterium. Any foundational heterodoxy in a revealed message would immediately disqualify the reported apparition as inauthentic. Secondly, there is the ecstatic state of the visionary to consider. A visionary will normally have some experience “out of our time-space reality” when communing with an authentic apparition, explains Dr. Miravalle. During medieval times, he relates in Introduction to Mary, an investigator would plunge a thick needle into the arm of the alleged visionary to gauge the authenticity of his ecstasy. Modern scientists use the less obtrusive EEG and EKG tests, among other methods.

Inexplicable phenomena directly tied to the appearance of an apparition, like the whirling sun at Fatima or the miraculous waters at Lourdes, are also considered by the Church as significant factors pointing toward an apparition’s authenticity.

Then there is the matter of spiritual fruits, such as conversions and physical healings, that are spawned by private revelations. “If it is of the Holy Spirit,” says Dr. Miravalle, “it will bear consistent and perduring spiritual fruits.” These include fruits in the life of the visionary; the moral and emotional state of the visionary during the period of time when the reported apparitions are appearing is critically significant, he says.

Some theologians and members of the clergy have voiced concern about Mrs. Fowler’s visions—it is not about what she sees, but how she sees it. Mrs. Fowler is fully alert throughout her visions. She dictates the messages as she reportedly receives them to her friend and scribe, George Collins, who kneels beside her in front of the crucifix in the apparition room. Father Thomas Francis of the Trappist community, says he was “quite surprised” when he watched a video tape of Mrs. Fowler undergoing EEG baseline tests at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. Mrs. Fowler agreed to be tested by scientists there, and she invited them to the apparition room one thirteenth. She also traveled to Bolivia and Puerto Rico for tests. “In the video,” says Father Francis, “she’s lying on the bed, and the doctor is talking to her. Suddenly, she says, ‘There’s the Risen Christ.’ I couldn’t believe it. There was no altered state of consciousness. She was talking to the doctor as she was talking to Jesus.” A source with experience in the domain of private revelations, who prefers to remain anonymous, calls Mrs. Fowler’s lack of ecstasy “preposterous.” He says that an ecstatic state of some sort is “normative” among authentic visionaries.

But Dr. Ramone Sanchez, a neurologist, neurophysiologist and epileptologist who, as part of a team of scientists, has conducted several series of tests on Mrs. Fowler, claims that despite her lack of ecstasy, Mrs. Fowler’s EEG tests have drawn some highly unusual results. “The tests blew my socks off,” he says. “I’ve read over 10,000 EEG’s. I have special training in epilepsy and sleep disorders, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

When Mrs. Fowler says she is experiencing a vision, explains Dr. Sanchez, her brain “like a switch” assumes a brain-wave pattern that has never before been described. “She remains awake, alert, cognizant, normal in speech and in touch with reality during a vision,” he says. Beta activity, which corresponds with her behavior, shows up on her EEG reading as it should. But stray Delta activity, which corresponds with a state of deep sleep or with a coma, says Dr. Sanchez, appears on her reading like clockwork at the same time. The two waves, he insists, never appear together; such a reading is oxymoronic. To further complicate things, Mrs. Fowler’s brain has “checked out as normal against hundreds of thousands of brains with disorders,” he says. These and further conclusions have been sent to Archbishop Donoghue in Atlanta and to the Vatican.

Dr. Sanchez, who has had no prior experience investigating private revelations, says he has been converted as a result of the testing process. He says he is convinced Mrs. Fowler is “an authentic mystic and a true prophet.” The Bolivian clinical neuropsychologist who organized the scientific team—he found Dr. Sanchez in the yellow pages—was also converted in the process of studying Mrs. Fowler, according to his written testimony. Says Father Benedict Groeschel, author of A Still, Small Voice: A Practical Guide On Reported Revelations, “This is not to impugn their professional integrity, but scientists lose their objectivity when they become converted.” A thorough background check on all of the scientists involved is necessary before the data collected can be rightly considered, he argues.

Still, says Michael Brown, who does not give science much weight so far as apparitions are concerned, “Scientific tests may indicate that something unusual is happening to the visionary, but they don’t tell me what a visionary is seeing—it could be demonic.”

Two years ago, an article that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported accusations of turmoil in the Fowler household troubled clergy and lay people alike. The accusations were made by three women who had worked with Mrs. Fowler as volunteers. Ronald Fowler fervently defended his wife. And Mrs. Fowler’s response to her accusers was, “I will pray for them.” People close to Mrs. Fowler insist the charges are not true.

Whether they are true or not, it would be difficult for anyone to answer to such allegations. Family disharmony, after all, is a state of affairs that flourishes in every home. And there is a difference between the palpitations in one’s household and serious moral failings. Further, says Father Edward O’Connor, a retired member of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, “If there is trouble in the life of a visionary, you must find out where it comes from. It may be there is disorder in the person, but it may be due to opposition from others.”

It is hard to say for sure whether the women who claimed the Fowler home was riddled with strife were witness to problems of weight which they then rightly relayed, or whether the charges amount to the carping of disgruntled votaries-turned-sour. But the distinction is critical so far as the Church is concerned: its resolution directly impacts any decision about the authenticity of Mrs. Fowler’s reported private revelations.

In 1991, before the run on Conyers started, Robert and Bernice Hughes, two pilgrims from Virginia, purchased a piece of property now known as The Farm, located behind the Fowler’s home, to accommodate the growing crowds. That same year the new benefactors helped incorporate a non-profit organization, Our Loving Mother’s Children. OLMC later acquired 150 acres adjoining the property. “No one, other than the guy who cuts the grass, makes a dime,” says Mr. Hughes. The organization oversees Farm operations and distributes books of the messages Mrs. Fowler claims to receive from the Virgin Mary and from Jesus Christ.

Each thirteenth at around noon, Mrs. Fowler goes up to The Farm and delivers messages from the front porch of the beige clapboard farmhouse. The porch overlooks a pasture, where the masses assemble with lawn chairs and picnics and bibles and rosaries and Polaroid cameras and wait for Mrs. Fowler while she is in the apparition room. While they wait, the pilgrims watch the sky for signs—whether unusual cloud formations, or the appearance of a figure, or a whirring sun effect. Many claim to have witnessed these phenomena. Others say the links of their rosaries have turned to gold. Still others claim to have smelled roses, the scent the Virgin is said to leave in her wake for the faithful. Sometimes, say witnesses, the scent has left whole crowds gasping in unison with delight.

According to Father Francis, who orders books for the monastery bookstore, the pilgrims constitute the other story at Conyers. “This story has a momentum all of its own that is separate from the story of Nancy and the visions.” Father Francis says he has talked to hundreds of pilgrims in the bookstore over the years and has heard stories of whole families transformed by their encounters at The Farm, stories of marriages restored, of healings both physical and emotional. Countless people, he says, have told him of their renewed devotion to the Eucharist and of their return to the Sacraments after decades of spiritual inertia.

Those theologians who are worried that the alleged apparitions at Conyers may fail to measure up to Church standards would not deny that good things can result when the faithful come together for prayer and worship. But the emergence at Conyers of spiritual fruits alone does not mollify their concerns. If the reported apparitions do prove over time to be false, they say, the result could do grave spiritual harm to those who have undergone conversions based on their experiences at The Farm. Further, a false apparition could ruin for many people future experiences of authentic apparitions, which, theologians aver, are for our edification.

But the pilgrims who have benefitted spiritually are convinced of the apparitions’ authenticity. “If Satan were behind this,” argues Peggy Murdock, an Atlanta native who has not missed a thirteenth for more than two years, “we certainly wouldn’t be seeing people returning to the faith and entire families getting back on track. Satan doesn’t want that.” Father Joachim Tierney, who has served as Mrs. Fowler’s confessor for over six years, says he has “never doubted for one minute that these things are of God—because of the fruits.”

Whatever the truth, says Father Benedict Groeschel, it will be known in time. “If some hard evidence emerges, I might go down to Conyers to see for myself.”

Some Approved Marian Apparitions

By Jeannine Veraldi

•             Our Lady of Pillar, Zaragoza, Spain, 61: Mary appeared to St. James (Brother of St. John the Beloved Apostle) to encourage him in his evangelization of Spain and to ask him to build a church.

•             Our Lady of Mount Cannel, Aylesford, England, 1251. Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock to give the brown scapular to the world as a cloak of grace and love.

•             Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tepeyac Hill, (Mexico City), 1531. Mary appeared to Juan Diego to request that a church be built for the conversion of the Aztecs.

•             Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Rue Du Bac, Paris, France, 1830. Mary appeared to Catherine Laboure, the Saint of Silence, asking that a medal be struck after the image of the apparition.

•             Our Lady of La Salette, La Salette, France, 1846. Mary appeared to Melanie Mathieu-Calvat and Maximin Giraud warning that a great evil was about to take place in the world.

•             Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, France, 1858. Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubrious on 18 occasions telling her: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

•             Queen of the Holy Rosary of Pompeii, Pompeii, Italy, 1976. Mary appeared to Fortuna Agrelli, curing her of her illness after three novenas, then asking that she make three more novenas in petition and three in thanksgiving.

•             Our Lady of Knock, Knock, Ireland, 1879. Mary appears to Mary McLoughlin & Mary Bryne in a vision, praying with St. John & St. Joseph. No oral message was given.

•             Our Lady ofFatima, Fatima, Portugal, 1917. Mary appeared 6 times to Lucy dos Santos, and Francisco & Jacinta Marto giving the three children her plan for peace from Heaven—pray the Rosary daily.

•             Mediatrix ofAll Graces, Beauraing, Belgium, 1932-33. Mary appears to Fernande Gilberte, Albert Voisin, Andre Degeimbre, & Gilberte Degeimbre on 33 occasions revealing herself as the mediator of all graces.

•             The Virgin of the Poor, Banneux, Belgium, 1938. Mary appears to Marriette Becco on 8 occasions revealing her desire to relieve all suffering, especially that of the sick.

•             Mary as Coredemptrix, Akita, Japan, 1973-1981. Mary appears to Sr. Agnex Sasawaga delivering four messages: prayer in reparation of sin, the offering up of sufferings, the use of the Rosay and Eucharist, and Mary as Coredemptrix in salvation. A wooden statue of Mary weeps 101 times

  • Stacy Mattingly

    At the time this article was published, Stacy Mattingly was a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...