Something that I thought about that didn't come up in class was that the apparition of La Salette initially spoke to Melanie and Maximin in French. This is confusing because Melanie's French was imperfect, necessitating the apparition to switch over to their local dialect. If this really was the Virgin Mary, why would she have started speaking in a language that the children did not understand? For that matter, what she had to say to Melanie and Maximin was itself puzzling. The woman warned them of the town's godlessness and impending famine, but they were only children—and not especially devout children, at that. Melanie was described as "extremely lazy, disobedient, and sullen"; she was illiterate and not very knowledgeable of prayer. Maximin, in a similar vein, was "a reckless child, an innocent without malice but also without foresight." He was also illiterate and had only been taught a few prayers "with a great deal of difficulty." If the Virgin Mary had really appeared, why did she appear with such a portentous message to two children who weren't exactly model Catholics?
The nature of the message's delivery was also unlike previous appearances of Mary that we have seen this quarter. She said:
"If you have wheat, it is not good to sow it. All that you will sow, the beasts will eat, and that which remains the beasts will not dare to eat... A great famine will come. Before the famine comes, the children under seven years of age will be seized by trembling and they will die in the hands of those who hold them..."
This sounds to me nothing like the benevolent, radiant maternal figure of previous visions and encounters. Rather, it reminds me of the more wrathful Old Testament God. Why was there this sudden and dramatic shift in the tone of the apparition—now somewhat fallible, having initially tried communicating in a language that the children did not understand? The message in the event seemed to have been ignored by the population; there was no large scale attempt by the clergy to use it to rally religious fervor, and it seems that there was little panic caused by the prediction of hardship. Rather, one of the features of the apparition that contributed most to its popularity was the miraculous healing spring.
The message delivered by the apparition at
Lourdes made me think
along similar lines. Among some of Mary's most extolled virtues were her
humility in our earlier readings; although the vision that appeared to
Bernadette was not as wrathful as the one that spoke to Melanie and Maximin, it
seemed to lack that humility. It reportedly had said: "I am the Virgin of
the Immaculate Conception. I want a chapel built on this very spot."
Demanding the construction of a chapel doesn't strike me as particularly
humble. What changed, then, in the image of Mary and the nature of her popular
cult? As the world entered the age of modernity, it seemed that not only did
visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing to less educated people and become
more accessible to people without a strict religious background and education, but
her messages also began to shift, losing some of their old maternal quality.
Some of the changes in her appearances' receptions may have been due to simple practicality. Unlike previous writers who we have read, the children at La Salette,
and Fatima came from poor and troubled backgrounds. They
(and those close to them) had little time, much less the religious education
and upbringing in some instances, to properly receive and digest the visions as
Maria de Agreda had done, and in any case had other things to worry about. For
instance, one of the reasons that Lucia's visions created a rift between her
and her mother was that one of the effects of the visions was to hurt them
economically. "Lucia's sisters... found themselves, after the onset of the
apparition, spending a large amount of time dealing with the people who wanted
to speak with Lucia and watching the sheep in her place so that she could spend
time with these people herself... These were matters of considerable
importance, at a time of general economic distress, for a family who had only
limited resources to start with..."
This unfortunate practicality stemming from the children's backgrounds was not the only new aspect of Marian devotion in the "modern" world. As Marian and Christian devotion became more "decentralized" and prominent in local, small towns and villages, the effects of their smallness became more evident. Melanie and Maximin were not fluent in French; there has also been some discussion over the vision at
Lourdes and how it fit
into local Pyrenean religion. "Although [Bernadette's] apparition bore
little resemblance to orthodox Marian imagery, its similarities with mythical
creatures of Pyrenean folklore were much more marked... Bernadette chose the
term used to describe fairies, the little women of the forest." What
Bernadette saw was a little girl—a child like herself, not a maternal figure at
all. Nonetheless, the events at Lourdes
were eventually accepted by the Catholic Church, Bernadette was later canonized
as a saint and the shrine requested by the apparition was built.
Modernity, then—much had changed over the course of the centuries. Visible instances Marian devotion had spread to a much wider social strata, and the nature of the appearances had changed to reflect differences between locales and the unique socioeconomic circumstances of any particular visionary. That these apparitions were accepted by the authorities indicates that these changes were recognized by the Catholic Church, as well.