Saturday, November 21, 2015

Investigating the Immaculate Conception: Skepticism and interpretation of the visions of children

The apparition stories we read about this week were particularly interesting in part because of the people to whom they were directed. We’ve seen all sorts of Marian apparitions and miracles this quarter that have appeared to  people of all ages, occupations, and social classes. In the three biggest apparition evens since the 1840s, however, Mary chose to reveal herself to the humblest of all possible devotees, poor rural children. Because Mary’s visions were received by such an impressionable and vulnerable group of people, we see in these apparitions a level of external skepticism and control that, while present in medieval and Renaissance vision accounts, reaches an unprecedented level at Lourdes and Fatima and sets the standard for the modern Church’s investigation of miracles.

More so than in earlier apparitions, the Mary of the late 19th and early 20th centuries seems to favor children as witnesses of her visions. Maximin and Melanie, Bernadette Soubirous, and Lucia Santos, in addition to the Marto siblings and the dozens of later Lourdes visionaries, were all considerably younger than the vast majority of previous Christians who were purported to have seen Mary. In the miracle of collections of Rocamadour and the Cantigas, Mary appeared to or intercessed for a diverse collection of people of all ages, professions, and social classes. Most of the non-miraculous visitations, however, were received by members of religious communities, like Hildegard and Elisabeth of Schonau. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Mary appeared more to laity in Spain and the new world, with a preference for poor, uneducated poor people like Juan Diego and Pedro of Santa Gadea. Several visionaries of this Spanish tradition are children, like Pedro and Ines of Cubas. However, by modern times the most significant Marian visions appear to children, notably to poor children in very rural areas on the periphery of industrial, modernizing Europe. It is worth noting that the other major vision we studied this week, that of Catherine of Laboure in 1830, was witnessed by a middle-aged nun. However, as we observed in class, the reception of this miracle had more in common with earlier Marian visions and was not subjected to the sort of rigorous skepticism and external interpretation with which Bernadette and Lucia were faced.

Hand in hand with the appearance of Mary to poor, often bewildered children rather than educated religious was a new tradition of thorough and persistent skepticism in the way local church and civil authorities responded to these visions. In the past, we have seen certain visionaries were asked for proof or definitive testimony that the person or thing they were seeing was actually Mary. Thus Juan Diego goes to gather a tilma-ful of unseasonable flowers and Ines is given a lengthy questioning about the nature and form of the woman she observes.

We see this new tradition of skepticism and proof taken to extremes at Lourdes and Fatima (or, if it is not in fact a new tradition, it is better recorded at Fatima and Lourdes than it was in medieval sources). Both Bernadette and Lucia were thoroughly investigated by Church and civil authorities who occasionally seem more interested in disproving their claims about the visions then confirming them. When Bernadette first met with local priest Dominique Peyramale following her first several visions of the virgin, his response was not one of cautious consideration but outright hostility; according to Zimdars-Swartz he calls her a liar and accuses her of disgracing the town (Encountering Mary, p. 51). Similarly we hear of Lucia’s mother, adamant that her own daughter was lying, berating and threatening the child to stop proclaiming her visions and turning her over to priests who subjected them to “the harshest of ordeals” through rigorous cross-examinations and psychological ploys (pp. 83-85).

And while there were these figures, both in and outside of the clergy, who approached claims of Marian visions with harsh skepticism, there were also those who tried to project their own interpretations of the visions onto the visionaries themselves. It is notable that the first several apparitions at Lourdes refused to identify itself as the Virgin Mary. Peyramale had instructed Bernadette on March 2 to ask the apparition her name, but it wasn’t until three weeks later, on the Feast of the Annunciation, that she finally responded to the question by saying “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was the only indication the apparition of Lourdes ever gave in over a dozen appearances to Bernadette that she was, in fact, the Virgin Mary. Bernadette had, on the instance of the first apparition, referred to the woman as “Mother of Angels” (p. 49), and it was later believed that Bernadette herself started the belief that the apparition was Mary, despite the woman’s coy refusal to speak her own name. Prior to the widespread acceptance of the woman’s identity, however, early Bernadette supporter Madame Millet had promoted the belief that the vision was a deceased village girl (p. 48), effectively stepping in to Bernadette’s spiritual experience and offering up her own explanation for what had occurred in lieu of Bernadette’s actual interpretation.

We discussed in class the possibility that local adults had manipulated the stories of these children to encourage the belief that the apparitions they saw were, in fact, the Virgin Mary. Personally, it seems unlikely to me based on the resistance these children met from some of the priests and other authority figures in their communities, that they were directly falsifying facts at the direction of adults. However, it is very clear in the popular responses at both Fatima and Lourdes, both in the alternative interpretations of events provided by adults who themselves had experienced no visions of Mary whatsoever and in the strong backlash presented by parents, community members, and local priests, it is clear that those around the visionaries were taking an unprecedented role in influencing and interpreting the testimony of these children. Though other clergy were certainly present to interpret and ask questions of the visions experienced by medieval nuns, these impoverished and generally undereducated children (excepting, of course, the poor but precocious Lucia Santos) were subjected to examination and reinterpretation to the extent that their visions took on popular narratives outside of the control of the visionaries themselves (for example, Bernadette’s discomfort with requests for blessings and miracles, p. 54).

What seems most odd, at least from a modern critical standpoint, is why the Mother of God would decide to appear not to credible, educated adults, but rather to the class of individual least likely to accurately identify and effectively propagate her message: poor children from patois-speaking towns in, effectively, the middle of nowhere. That these visions were often either appropriated by adults who felt they knew better (Madame Millet) or dismissed out of hand (Abbé Peyramale) seems the natural consequence of choosing such unlikely intermediaries.

Of course, from the skepticism surrounding these apparitions arose the system the Church uses to verify modern apparition, which has developed into a new form of devotion for an era that is, in general, more skeptical of miracles and miraculous vision. So maybe Mary chose wisely in selecting the most impressionable and least credible element of society to deliver her message to the devotees of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

- GT


  1. One thing that I would have liked to see more of here is a consideration of just what may have led to the shift you point to between spiritual training and knowledge of Scripture as an asset for visionaries to knowledge and training as a detriment. It seems that there's a sense that actually knowing the vast background of information we've surveyed about the Virgin becomes viewed with greater suspicion, more likely to suggest that the visionary made things up or that the vision was somehow constructed, and it's that last part, about the idea of what exactly a vision is that is (to my eyes) most interesting. Are the visions of these children of the same character as, for example, Elizabeth's visions? Or are they an entirely different sort of thing? What does that tell us about ideas of mystical vision or about how God acts (through Mary) in the world?

  2. There are two things that you say here that I think point to the real question we face in making sense of the accounts of these apparitions: "(or, if it is not in fact a new tradition, it is better recorded at Fatima and Lourdes than it was in medieval sources)" and "which has developed into a new form of devotion for an era that is, in general, more skeptical of miracles and miraculous vision." The modern world (thanks to the likes of David Hume et al.) likes to think of itself as more skeptical than (by the modern world's own self-definition) the pre-modern, but is this in fact what we see in the sources that we have read? Over and over, we have encountered instances of what we would call skepticism if they were more recent--beginning with the skepticism of whether Mary was in fact the virgin prophesied by Isaiah and including Nestorius's skepticism about the title "Theotokos," the Carolingians' skepticism about the apocryphal accounts of the assumption, the eleventh-century skepticism about the saying of the Marian office, Bernard of Clairvaux's skepticism about celebrating the feast of the Conception, the Dominicans' skepticism about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, her own skepticism about whether Sor Maria actually appeared to the natives in north Texas. Why then are we so convinced that the modern world is more skeptical, when in fact (again, as we have seen) many of the methods for investigating the truth claimed by Mary's devotees have been centuries in development? This is the difficulty that I was trying to point to in making sense of the devotion as we see it in the 19th and 20th century apparitions: suddenly, it looks like what we were expecting Marian devotion to look like, and yet... should we not be skeptical of such protestations having seen them over and over again all quarter? RLFB

  3. This post made me realize that I don't think we've seen anyone say that of course Mary reveals herself to little children, just like in Jesus' praise of God: "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Mt 11:25). I blogged about Sor Maria using this verse, but not about the little children who see the apparitions. I think that might be yet another way in which what might look like modern skepticism is really the same ancient desire for signs to prove that divine things really are divine, that people ask for throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
    -- ADM