The phenomenon of Marian apparitions was first reported in the Middle Ages, but the number of alleged sightings of the Virgin increased dramatically around the 19th century. Whereas before Mary usually reportedly appeared to the consecrated religious, particularly nuns, the 19th century saw an increase in reports of poor peasant children, often shepherds or shepherdesses, claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary. Each claim was extensively evaluated by Church commissions—children were interviewed many times and local clergy would report to their bishops as officials tried to piece together the story—so that stories might be formally recognized. This process is a feature of the “modern” era, where scepticism was more rampant and the Church had to avoid being perceived either as too credulous of local superstition or as suppressing the faith of the laity. In class, we emphasized that only 12 out of 295 total supposed visions of Mary were Church-sanctioned. The apparitions at Lourdes and La Salette, since both occurred around the same time and were approved by the towns’ respective bishops, must therefore indicate what attributes a vision must have in order to be considered believable. What did it take for a Marian apparition to be sanctioned by the Church in mid-19th century France?
One place to begin is the nature of the seers of the apparitions. Unlike in medieval reports, such as testimonies like that of Elisabeth of Schonau, very poor children now claim to have seen the Virgin. Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz’s Encountering Mary: from La Salette to Medjugorge has a strong focus on these seers, their background, and character—fundamentally important traits in considering such miracles. These children—Mélanie and Maximin at La Salette, and Bernadette at Lourdes—share some important characteristics that could indicate why their testimony was believed. Members of religious orders are very well-educated and familiar with the Catholic canon and its iconography, and this knowledge can provoke suspicion, as they could better fabricate a story or project imagery they are intimately familiar with onto some kind of hallucination. Mélanie and Maximin, however, are both illiterate, and Maximin learns a few prayers “only with a great degree of difficulty,” while Mélanie uses the Lord’s name in vain upon seeing the apparition (28-29). Similarly, Bernadette was judged “stupid and incapable of learning her lessons” the first time an attempt was made to teach her the catechism (47). These children, by Zimdars-Swartz’s account, seem to know little about the teachings of the Church past whatever they picked up during the (presumable) weekly Mass. As shown in Bernadette’s case, though, being uneducated and poor inspired a “bourgeois class-prejudice” that engendered doubt that such “vile intermediaries” could see she who is “pure par excellence” (46). Albeit common “in the early records” of the investigations of such claims, classist derision did not overshadow the added credibility implicit in being a young, uneducated layperson, probably thus deemed unimaginative and too simple to be dishonest (46).
In a similar vein, the seers’ reactions to the apparitions could legitimize what they saw. Mélanie and Maximin do not at first recognize the Virgin as such, and refer to her only as a “beautiful lady” and initially interpret her prophecy—obviously, to a reader familiar with Christian doctrine, about Mary’s intercessory power and her son, Jesus—as a cry for help about domestic violence (31-32). Maximin even thinks she might be a villager from nearby Valjouffrey (31). The idea of the “beautiful lady” being, in fact, the Virgin was only promulgated once the mother of Mélanie’s employer suggested it (32). Their not recognizing the person “in the light” as Mary does raise a problem (29). The siblings’ failure to recognize the apparition as Mary either indicates that they did not claim to see an image they associate with the Virgin from popular iconography, thereby decreasing the likelihood that their story was fabricated, or it hints that whatever they saw was not Mary at all, but rather another kind of phenomenon. While the former possibility further evidences the legitimacy of their story, the latter raises the possibility that this apparition of the Virgin was just an embellishment made by adults. Similarly, Bernadette refers to her vision as “aquerò”, evidencing that she did not recognize her vision as Mary initially (47). It is possible that Bernadette herself suggested “this identification” later, a discovery which makes her story seem more genuine (49). She might have associated her vision of a very small Virgin with that of the tiny statues of Mary popular in the area, though the youthful apparition is a very different representation of Mary than the statues’ depiction of an older Virgin and child. Not describing her vision of Mary as a familiar image of the Virgin lessens the likelihood that she made her story up, while identifying her (according to one story) on her own makes her account all the more credible.
Other parallels in the two stories indicate why the Church sanctioned these two apparitions. Springs were discovered on both sites after the apparitions occurred that had celebrated healing powers (though some of these miracles were called into question by commissions). Both places, particularly Bernadette’s grotto during her fortnight of visions, became pilgrimage sites attracting thousands of visitors—a mass demonstration of faith that the Church would be hard-pressed to deny. Naturally, in addition to different aspects of the apparitions, the proceedings of the Church’s investigation played an important role, though a more obvious one—the Church clearly did not find any significant discrepancies in from interviewing the seers, nor did they find any evidence of a local church trying to bring in money by establishing a pilgrimage site.
Both the La Salette and Lourdes apparitions feature different aspects that lend credibility to their claims. For example, Mélanie and Maximin’s report results in an increase in townspeople attending church; Bernadette is miraculously not burned by a candle and her vision of Mary declares herself to be “the Immaculate Conception,” corroborating a Church doctrine officially proclaimed by Pius IX four years earlier (56). It is difficult to say for sure what lead the Church to sanctify these two apparitions, particularly since the accounts of each are jumbled and probably inaccurate in some capacity, even when assembled together in modern scholarship. Though the nature of the seers and of their apparitions raises some questions, it also contributes to a new narrative of legitimacy: that of poor and uneducated children as those most likely to truly see Mary. Reports of miracles tangential to the apparition itself, though substantiated in varying degrees, also add to the legitimacy of these Church-sanctioned apparitions.