Saturday, November 21, 2015

Church-Sanctioned Apparitions in 19th-Century France

       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.



  1. It is true that the reports on these apparitions are more complicated than the ones that we have looked at earlier, but we still need to develop some criteria for talking about them. The question is whether skepticism as such is a sufficient explanation for the way in which the clergy at the time responded. Certainly, the other adults whom the children told about their visions could be equally skeptical (particularly their mothers!) without necessarily having any more education than the children. One could even argue that the better educated clergy seem to have been more likely to believe the children than their own families. We need to put these stories in context with the other accounts that we have read fully to appreciate why they took the form that they did in the 19th century. It is not so much that the 19th century European Christians were more skeptical than their pre-modern ancestors; rather, their skepticism took a different form, required different kinds of proof. We need to figure out some way of thinking about why. RLFB

    1. For the whole quarter it seems like we have been trying to reconcile modern understanding of Mary with the origins of her cult in the earliest origins of Christianity, and I think the way LS contextualizes these Marian visions in paragraph 3 hits the nail on the head. The earliest specifically Christian writings we read (I'm thinking mainly of the Apocryphal stories concerning Mary's life, Proclus' speeches, and Germanos I and Andrew of Crete, particularly) all based their claims on a synthetic reading of preexisting material - namely, the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, along with the widespread wisdom imagery of e.g. the Song of Songs.

      All these authors come from a time (and place, and social milieu) so far removed from that of these 19th century visionaries, yet although the end products differ, both groups are essentially doing the same thing. In both cases the visions serve to legitimize what the viewers see: in late antiquity, or even as late as St. Gertrude, this was based on the panoply of learned references with which the authors justified their claims, but by the time of La Salette and Lourdes (or even before, as we saw in the visions from Spain) the metric for a vision's authenticity has changed to the ignorance of the viewer. If a learned individual sees an ornate vision of Mary, whose attributes can be supported by numerous scriptural or patristic references, by the understanding of the 19th century it's simply subconscious suggestion, but if an unlearned tabula rasa like an illiterate, grudgingly-pious shepherd child sees the same vision, that's proof of the innate truth of what is seen. This seems to be in tune with what little I know of the 19th century's approach to knowledge - but to me this seems to speak more to Mary's intrinsic place in Christianity regardless of time period.

      F. S.

  2. Building on what Prof. Fulton Brown has said, I think there are (at least) two things worth highlighting that suggest major differences between these modern apparitions and pre-modern visions. The first is the idea that the visionary is more credible because they are less educated in spiritual matters. This seems completely contrary to the medieval understanding which suggested that the visionary ought to be highly learned, highly trained, and someone actively involved in the religious life in order to be taken seriously. There seems to have been a loss of respect for what we might called "learned holiness" in favor of "simple faith."

    On a related note, there is also the content of the visions themselves. Besides the fact that the apparitions which they witness are of a very different form than, say, Hildegaard's visions, the modern visionaries also have this lack of recognition which you point to, while Elizabeth, Hildegaard, and others are able to offer sustained exegetical reflections based on what they've seen, and their visions are exceedingly complicated. Is there a difference not just in detail but in what visions fundamentally are that we're witnessing here? Or are there important similarities that these distinctions mask?

  3. I think you raise some interesting questions on how the Church’s response to Marian apparitions has changed over time, but I’d like to note that actually, Marian apparitions are all over the place prior to this period! We saw dozens of accounts of sightings of the Virgin in the Golden Legend, the accounts at Rocamadour, the Cantigas, etc, all of which were highly localized instances of Mary offering aid, requesting something, interceding on her follower’s behalf – in short, doing precisely the kinds of things we see in “modern” apparitions like those at Lourdes and La Salette. The difference is that in almost none of those early legends do we see a process of inquisition and verification at the level we have documented for the “sanctioned” Marian shrines.

    At La Salette, we saw verifications of Mary’s presence through the alleged Christ-imprinted rock fragment from her seat; we saw the spring of healing that became a source of pilgrimage for tens of thousands, even today, we saw the seers undergo years of questioning, allowing their visions to become fleshed-out and developed over time.

    But we never saw any of this rigor in the miracle stories of the Virgin, no attempts to find precisely the church, or the river, or the field where she appeared. Even at the time of the Reformation, we saw a wide proliferation of Marian icons and statues that marked sites such as where Mary healed a worker’s eye – where was the inquisition then?

    I think that one of the reasons why the Church’s standards of proof may have changed is because it became easier for any member of the Church to visit and venerate an alleged site of devotion for him/herself. Before, if a traveler was waylaid by bandits and saved by Mary on the road, it was a story to pass around among monks and priests as parables of faith. Now, if that happened, people from miles around would flock to that road, hoping for some sign that Mary had been there. Thus it became exceedingly important to ensure that visions of Mary aligned with Church-espoused beliefs, that such sites were within the Church’s sphere of control. And through this process of inquisition, the interaction between the Church and the masses produces the character of the shrine that we still have today. Just look at what happened to Melanie and Maximin after their revealing of the “Secrets” to the Pope, in which they revealed distressing “prophecies” given to them by Mary years ago – the Church split with them! No one really paid attention to these belayed declarations. Instead, we visit La Salette to see the Christly rocks and take a sample of the spring water.


  4. Building off your post, and the comments about the changes between earlier depictions of Mary, and more modern apparitions, the shift in the visionaries from the highly learned to the simple also seems to parallel a shift in giving Mary a more authoritative image. I do not mean that Mary was not an authority before, she was venerated and women and men tried to follow her examples of piety and humbleness. However as an apparition, Mary is much more physically present, and in a commanding way in these readings. Monks asked Mary for help in being like her, but here Mary is coming down and making things happen. SL’s comments however give me pause though, and maybe this was just shift in focus. The reality of apparitions, and the power of God were very much alive for earlier generations. An example that comes to my mind is Luther in the thunderstorm story where Luther appeals to St. Anne to save him, and she does.

    The shift away from the learned visionaries to the simple faith is somewhat puzzling. In a time of the growing importance of science, reasoning through facts based off of experience, it seems surprising that the Church moved away from the more academic veneration that drew a great deal from Church teachings. Maybe this was connected with romanticism, and reaction to rationalization of most everything, and an appeal to a broader section of society by putting the simple in the middle of an active faith. SL’s comments argue away from this being a romantic shift, the Church’s increasing standards of proof certainly point against it.

    I think it would be interesting to discuss more in class about the Church’s image in the press, and the role of the press in religion.


  5. I definitely think it is interesting to examine why the Church was so extensive in ensuring the validity of visions in the 19th century. The idea that greater skepticism was characteristic of the “modern era” is certainly valid, but I wonder if there is also something in the way the Church and Christianity itself had evolved to a more predominant and secure place with European society. At the beginning of the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, the Church faced numerous difficulties with the conversion process from Paganism to Christianity. We’ve seen in a few of our readings the idea that the power and majesty bestowed upon Mary in more medieval literature comes out of a desire to make her like a pagan goddess. There is a multitude of miracle accounts – like those from Rocamadour – that, in the extent of agency they give Mary, suggest a desire from the laity to have a goddess-like figure. The fact that all of these miracles are recorded within a church setting also shows less skepticism on the part of the Church than seen later in the 19th century, as well as suggests that there was some understanding among Church officials that in order to have a successful whole conversion and devout laity, there possibly needed to be some leniency in allowing people to look to Mary as a sort of goddess. Thus, when this Church position changes to skepticism in the 19th century, I wonder if it also comes out of change in the overall makeup of the Christian people, where Mary is no longer needed as goddess necessarily in order for the people to fully be faithful; thus allowing the Church to be more skeptical in questioning Marian visions.


  6. As HPB mentions, a bigger emphasis on the importance of the factual evidence had just taken place through the Enlightenment and had been continued with the rise of the sciences and the Industrial Revolution. This could explain the validation process of the church. The scientific process had been introduced as a useful way of proving theories, so to be able to prove these vision are correct, the church used the conventional method at the time. Ergo, rigorous and repeated tests had to take place for the church to publicly announce the legitimization of these occurrences. But this cannot fully explain it, because the church is also showing their work. Instead of saying, “we put these children through many tests with these circumstances, etc”, they’re making a point of outlining the entire process. So then we have to wonder why the church would want to make sure their methods appeared so valid.

    I would posit that this effort was a result of not who the seers were, but on who was watching these events unfold. The 19th century was the start of the rise of popular media. These apparitions would’ve been more accessible to and judged by people around the world and the church probably took notice of that. They had to check and double-check every single word of these visions. The effect is one of seemingly increased skepticism. The rigorous processes utilized are a result of new methods in humans’ abilities to prove theories and things. The express utilization of these processes alone, with increased explanations of why the church is right was the result of the church now being more exposed to the public’s eye. No longer could faith alone buy legitimacy*.

    *This might be why we see such a drastic change in seer demographics. Once the ethos previously granted to the faithful’s visions disappeared, the church “allowed” others to be visionaries. Regarding my point in the article about the scientific method, I would argue that had their been other demographics represented in the apparition stories of this time period, the church would have utilized the same process.