Whether appearing as a beautiful young woman to Juan Diego and speaking to him in his native language or as a small child-like figure to Bernadette whose mental depiction of the Virgin would have been heavily influenced by small Madonna figurines, the Blessed Virgin Mary in her apparitions takes a note from St. Paul and “has become all things to all, to save at least some” (NABRE 1 Corinthians 9:22). The Marian apparitions convince the seers in form and repeated appearances, but others also become convinced not by seeing directly but by the ways in which the seers respond to the Marian apparition and by the content of the messages which the seers relayed. Nonetheless, a more modern interpretation of the apparitions may lead us to become highly skeptical that they were actually divine, regardless of the position of the Church. In this post I would like to show how the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin become believable to the seers and other believers in addition to how our modern view of such past events may not be as objective as we would like to think.
How Mary Appears and Convinces:
The first major Marian apparition in the 19th century to be approved by the Church was to Catherine Laboure in 1830. Her vision of a heavenly figure labeled with the phrase, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee,” seemed to convince others of its supernatural origin because its message dovetailed the Church’s tradition that Mary was a powerful advocate and that she was immaculately conceived, though this would officially become dogma a few years later. At both La Salette and Fatima, the apparition took the form of a beautiful woman of light whose prophesy of an upcoming famine in the former and shaking of the sun in the latter were ample evidence to convince the crowds that these were divine appearances. Most interesting were the Marian apparitions to Bernadette since her description of the appearances were out of step with the motherly image people commonly associated with the Blessed Virgin. Bernadette described the apparition as a small figure and never called it other than “that one,” and as stated before, the apparition probably took this form due to the fact that Bernadette was mostly familiar with depictions of the Blessed Virgin in the form of little Madonna figurines. It was only later that the apparition was identified as Mary and “convinced different audiences in different ways, and in this special capacity lay the essence of its success” (Harris, 82). Those who did not go to the grotto but interrogated Bernadette were convinced by her aura when speaking about her apparitions and by the message she relayed from the Virgin, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” which was in line with the dogma that had been officially declared four years before the apparitions came to Bernadette, though she could not have had any knowledge of the position of the Church on this issue. Others who actually accompanied Bernadette to the site of the apparition were convinced by the fact that during her apparitions she showed no signs of possession, could perform sensible actions, and lost physical signs of weakness that usually characterized her. Overall, we see that the apparitions convince the seers by the fact that these appearances occur multiple times in familiar forms and convince other people by the messages, signs, and body language of the seers during the apparitions.
Effects of Modernity on Examining the Past:
While plenty of skepticism rightly surrounds these apparitions, we have to remember more broadly that perception is our reality and that modern thinking and beliefs cannot be read perfectly into past. One reason we may be so skeptical of these past apparitions is that they weren’t meant to appear to us in this time. After all, the latest Marian apparition that we studied, the appearance to Lucia and her friends at Fatima, was nearly 100 hundred years ago. In addition, someone had brought up the point that perhaps the Church was so selective in its approvals of such apparitions because while wanting as much support for its dogma on the Immaculate Conception, it only approved a total of 12 Marian apparitions worthy of belief simply in an attempt to appear selective. However, why would the Church go to the trouble to make certain apparitions worthy of belief and then declare that the Catholic populace is not obligated to believe in the very apparitions that offer the strongest empirical support for its own dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which otherwise could not be intuited except from tradition (and even then it was not always universally held the Virgin was conceived without sin)? Another thing that comes to my mind is a quote from Acts: "for if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them: you may even find yourselves fighting against God." (NABRE Acts 5:38-39) Belief in Marian apparitions and belief in the basic tenets of Christianity clearly do not require the same level of obligation; nonetheless, even if we are not convinced by the fact that the Church has approved some apparitions as actually of divine origin, we have to at least recognize that our putting on of a modern historical lens to view past religious phenomena is not entirely appropriate.
Just as Jesus made his divine presence universally accessible in the Eucharist, so too does Mary in her apparitions become accessible and believable to people on earth by taking on forms and relaying signs which are familiar to them. Regarding the authenticity of the Marian apparitions at least approved by the Church, my thoughts are in line with those of St. Thomas: “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible.”