May 10, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: What about Marian apparitions?

John F. FinkNext Monday, May 13, is the 96th anniversary of the first appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three children in Fatima, Portugal. There were six more appearances, on the 13th of each of the following months, culminating on Oct. 13 with a solar phenomenon witnessed by about 50,000 people.

Fatima is only one of many sites where people believe that Mary has appeared. More than 1,500 visions of Mary have been reported around the world. However, the Catholic Church is very careful about approving them.

In the past century, only nine cases have received the Church’s approval as worthy of belief. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Church thinks that the others didn’t occur. The Church simply has high criteria that have to be met before gaining approval, and it begins with the presumption that there is a natural explanation.

So do Catholics have to believe in Marian apparitions? No. Mary’s appearance, and that of other saints, is considered a private revelation, and we don’t have to believe in whatever was revealed in them.

Do we have to believe that Mary actually appeared at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, and Knock, Ireland? No again. But it seems to me that it would be pretty foolish not to believe it.

In the case of Guadalupe, we have St. Juan Diego’s tilma or cape, which should have fallen apart centuries ago. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on it. Scientists have been unable to determine how it was created and how it has survived from the 16th century.

At Lourdes, a stream appeared that had not been there before. Although many miracles have been claimed from its water, the Church carefully examines each case and has approved only 67 since 1858. The last was approved in 2005.

At Knock, Ireland, large numbers of people viewed apparitions of Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist on four occasions in 1879 and 1880. Unlike the appearances at Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima, Mary didn’t speak at Knock.

There are large basilicas today at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and Knock, as well as numerous other sites where Mary has appeared. Millions of people visit them every year, especially Guadalupe in Mexico City, and Lourdes, France.

Today, many Catholics have a great devotion to Our Lady of Medjugorje because of alleged apparitions of Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia, beginning in 1981. Although the Church has neither approved nor disapproved these apparitions, Medjugorje has become a place of pilgrimage, and the seers have become well known to pilgrims.

Why does Mary sometimes appear to people? And how are those people chosen? Only God knows—literally. We believe that Mary is in heaven with Jesus and sometimes he sends her to Earth. She might have messages God wants people to hear, but they usually are exhortations to prayer, penance and sacrifice.

Although we sometimes hear about secrets in those messages and forecasts of things to come, there is never anything beyond the teachings of Jesus in the Bible and through oral tradition. Mary usually calls us to conversion, sorrow for our sins, and a return to God. †

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