Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apparition of the Virgin at Lourdes: The Mary "We've Been Waiting For"?

At the beginning of our class on interpretations of the Virgin in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Prof. Fulton Brown asked if we had finally arrived at "the Mary we've been waiting for," a mystical apparition who appears to the poor and humble in mysterious ways. I posit that the "popular" image of the Virgin, and in this case I mean popular image to describe the one often seen in contemporary culture, an image many of us had before this Fall, is drawn from these nineteenth century apparitions and their resulting dissemination: here, then, is the Mary we've been waiting for.

The question of "is this 'popular' religion" featured heavily in our earlier discussion, and, though I have no illusions of answering that question in its entirety here, I do think that there are things going on in these apparitions, and the responses to these apparitions, that mark a new emphasis within Marian devotion. This shift doesn't come out of nowhere: there are similarities in the accounts of the apparitions at Santa Gadea and Cubas. Here we encounter a mysterious figure witnessed by shepherds and other townsfolk; it is presented to us in a legal document. These fourteenth- and fifteenth-century apparitions borrowed much of their visual vocabulary from the liturgical and Scriptural sources upon which the Marian tradition is based. However, these public apparitions, in their public nature, are a shift from what we've seen before, and I believe we can see them as a bridge to the nineteenth-century apparitions in the Pyrenees and Iberia.

In the chapter from Ruth Harris's Lourdes, she approaches head-on this question of the "popularity" of the apparition at Lourdes. In reflecting on the vision's claim (via Bernadette) that "I am the Immaculate Conception," Harris attempts to tie the vision to both the older theological tradition and the more recent developments in Marian doctrine: "The words 'I am the Immaculate Conception' struck them as so monumental in significance that they were unwittingly heedless of the visionary's statements on other matters. In acting thus, they were neither willful nor consciously manipulative. Instead they filtered Bernadette's words through the sieve of their religious imagination, filled with the iconographic traditions of childhood teachings.... They chose to stay within the tradition they knew and venerated" (Harris, 82). Is this, then, the answer to our question regarding the popularity of the vision and how it fits with the tradition? Bernadette's vision does not have all of the usual scriptural iconography that we, as a class, have come to expect, but rather aspects of Marian devotion that seem a step or two removed. The Virgin appears as a young girl, dressed in the uniform of the local Children of Mary group. She appears to those praying the rosary and assumes the pose of the woman on the Miraculous Medal, another popular devotional object (Zimdars-Swartz, 55). She declares herself to be "The Immaculate Conception," a concept previously applied solely to Mary, but not one of the many names by which she was referred in the earlier tradition. The Marian vocabulary here is a sort of pidgin language: rather than running to the Psalms or language from the liturgy, the rosary, the miraculous medal, and a local church group provide Bernadette an iconography once removed from the tradition we've been studying. Given these departures, does Bernadette's vision only become "Our Lady of Lourdes," as Harris seems to argue, after the news is spread and the visions can be interpreted by those more steeped in Marian vocabulary?

According to L'ere Imperiale, a newspaper that covered the event (cited by Zimdars-Swartz in Encountering Mary) the massive crowds that gathered at the grotto on the last scheduled appearance had no problems labeling all of the characters in the encounter: "...for a rumor was circulating that Bernadette had predicted 'a revelation of the Virgin on that day....' Such was the conduct of the people... when Bernadette finally appeared and the cry was heard, 'There is the saint! There is the saint!'" (Zimdars-Swartz, 52). The spreading word about the apparition, through rumors and newspaper articles, seems to pin down the somewhat odd visions of Bernadette. The huge and immediate response to the event creates a new Marian iconography where the colors of the temple veil are replaced by white and blue (an image that stays with us to this day). A hagiography developed around Bernadette as well, as can be seen by the crowds calling her "the saint" and the stories of healings at the grotto (Zimdars-Swartz, 53).

Since word of the vision was not cloistered, not written by a religious and disseminated via ecclesiastical channels, one does get the sense that the ancient, Marian tradition is being referenced obliquely. The resulting surge in popularity of Our Lady of Lourdes and the pilgrimage site there helps explain why the Bernadette's vision of the Virgin, and the way that vision has been filtered and made sense of by her contemporaries, matches this image of the Virgin we've been waiting for. Notions of "popular religion" and the long, Marian tradition is obviously a huge topic and one that can't be treated nearly as fully as it deserves here. However, as our readings have taken us into the nineteenth-century and we see one of the world's most popular Marian shrines at its origin, we can begin to see the way interpretation of the Virgin has changed and how we came to understand her as so many of us did at the first meeting of the class.



  1. And yet, many would argue that the tradition that we have been studying all along was "popular," and therefore by implication, at odds with whatever is the opposite of "popular"! This is one of the most important things I have been trying to encourage us to grapple with: how our own categories have developed out of the very tradition that we use them to study, even as the tradition itself confounds the categories that it has given rise to. I am happy that now the version of Mary that I suspect most of you came to the course with makes sense, where it comes from and how relatively recent it is. What now do we do with this realization?! RLFB

  2. While I agree that these 19th century appearances are central to our contemporary conception of the virgin, it is not certain that they are the only “popular” aspect of Marian devotion that we see in the appearances at Fatima and Lourdes.

    When talking about Rocamadour we debunked the idea of a divinizing “popular” cult of the virgin – an idea we saw propagated by Reformation scholars like Karant-Nunn and Weisner-Hanks. It was actually religious and notaries propagating stories of healing through the virgin’s intercession, not commoners. At Fatima and Lourdes, however, the “popular” aspect is not necessarily a function of beliefs about the virgin’s intercession or appearances. Rather, it deals with conception of those to whom Mary appeared.

    When speaking about Bernadette, Zimdars-Swartz states, “According to the newspaper accounts and even the observations of the local priest, many and perhaps most of the people who accompanied Bernadette to the grotto or sought her out at the cachot early in this fifteen-day period already saw and treated her as if she were a saint” (50). Further, when talking about Fatima, she states, “Almost as soon as their experiences become public knowledge, some people began to look upon the children as saints, who through their privileged relation to the virgin could obtain special graces and favors for the faithful” (81).

    Bernadette Sobirous as well as Lucia Santos & her cousins were then “canonized” by the populace. Their recognition as “saints” was popular; it preceded the validation of their visions by Church officials.

    However, this does not necessarily avoid the issue of determining who is a member of the “populace.” Are parish priests? Is it exclusive to the laity? In this way, deeming any aspect of Marian devotion “popular” still remains problematic.

    A. Fialkowski

  3. I agree with you that this new visionary Mary of Lourdes, Fatima and the others is part of what the modern Mary is thought to be: ethereal, intimate, mystical, and not only mother but virgin. Does this encompass all of modern dogma and thought on Mary? No. But Marian theology is too large an animal to be summed up in one section. But I also think viewing these apparitions as belonging solely to the more modern believer or that they somehow were not part of Marian beliefs prior to these apparitions would be a step too far. Even though many of these visionaries were uneducated, sister Catherine Laboure excluded in this because of her monastic background. The ‘popular’ side of these apparitions is a new feature, the fact that they drew in such big crowds so rapidly and with such fervor, but the idea of the young being granted audience with Mary should not be. Although her form for Bernadette was atypical, Mary was based off in many cases her form as what they saw in their local statue, a statue based off of not only current local culture but on centuries of doctrine and practices. Although new, it becomes even more fascinating The communities want these stories, these apparitions to be true, they want the mother of the Lord not as a popular new idea but as something that now seems possible to achieve for any man, woman, and especially child. This allows for the old beliefs in Mary to no longer be exclusive but rather inclusive and by popular, it means more that Mary could become one of the people as a lowly handmaid who became a queen.
    - A. Graff

  4. I think your post summarizes how the contemporary language about Mary came to be in a really effective way, and reading it made me realize that I don't understand what happened to the older Marian imagery. Until this point, new things get associated with Mary (like Stella Maris wasn't important until Bernard even though it had existed earlier), but they don't seem to replace the earlier images. But these modern ones supplanted what came before them so well that almost none of us had heard of the earlier ones before, and I don't really understand how or why that happened.
    -- ADM