At the beginning of class, Professor Fulton Brown gave us the statistic that less than twenty Marian apparitions out of 295 reported have been deemed “worthy of the assent of the faithful” (66). We were asked whether we thought this number was too many (showing the Church to be a bit backwards) or maybe too few (presenting the Church as too skeptical). In addition to the number of apparition confirmations, I wondered why “the Church” choose to endorse and approve certain apparitions. If we think of the Church as a strategic institution, the selection of certain apparitions may fit into goals of local priests and bishops to increase attendance at Mass, scare parishioners into following religious rules, and other motivations. To explore these possible motivations of the Church, I will look at the apparition at La Salette to try to speak to how the Church (specifically local priests and bishops) may have selected apparitions. While it may have been possible that the Church deemed this apparition worthy because its truth, I want to consider what a skeptic might think of the choice to approve the apparition at La Salette. After reviewing some details of the La Salette apparition and the general circumstances of France during the apparition’s approval, the Church seems to act strategically by approving Melanie and Maximin’s story.
What would a skeptic question about the apparition at La Salette? Both Mary’s dire warnings and the healing spring seem like potentially suspicious elements. The “beautiful lady” that Melanie and Maximin see commands them to tell people of the “great famine” and plight (on potatoes, walnuts, grapes, wheat) that is coming (Zimdars-Swartz 28, 30). Mary (identified later by Melanie’s employer) then decries that few people go to Mass on Sunday, rest on the Sabbath, or observe lent. In Mary’s message, lack of proper religious behavior is connected to the upcoming disasters. The children obey Mary and share their story with people. It spread like wild fire. Then, some “marvelous effects” were seen (33). Many people started coming to Mass and stopped working on Sunday (33). As Zimdars-Swartz note (by citing Kselman), the local priest, Melin, was aware of the change and actually avoided getting involved with the story so that it would have more effect coming from the children (information that he communicated to the bishop). Thereby, local priests and the bishop were well aware of the uses of the La Salette apparition story as a tool to induce piety.
With the finding of a miraculous, healing “spring” at the place of the apparition, La Salette became a famous tourist destination (35). As the stories of people’s healings spread, the Cores parish “was flooded with pilgrims” (38). The apparition thereby helped the parish gain fame and bring people to the local church, leading a skeptical observer to be suspicious of the story’s truth.
Not all elements of the story at first seem ideal for Church appropriation. Many people criticized the character of the children, particularly Melanie, as unrefined and ill manned (38). Thereby, the beacons of the Church’s message appear as lazy and sully children. At the same time, we might interpret their lowliness and role as shepherds to be reasons people may have believed them. In previous Marian stories (see 15th century Spain), Mary appeared to lowly, uneducated shepherds – possibly strengthening Melanie and Maximin’s story as one that would be believed. Furthermore, the fact that the children did not recognize the (vaguely defined) woman as Mary may serve to weaken the effectiveness of the apparition. However, this detail fit the trend at the time for Mary to be identified by someone other than the seers (32). In this way, the children’s lack of recognition may instead make the story more credible (and likely to be used by the Church).
It is important to note that a bishop, not local priests, finally confirmed the apparition. Surrounding the bishop of Grenoble’s two investigative commissions was a sense of panic based on Mary’s words. Explained in newspapers at the time, people across France started to fear that Mary’s prophesy about rotting potatoes, walnuts, grapes, and wheat would come true (40-41). As the commissions continued their investigations (at least one looking particularly at the details of Mary’s prophesy), many French clergy were opposed to affirming the apparitions. Why then did Bishop Bruillard formally authorize the apparition? It might be that the Church (as an institution in France) wanted to assert itself in the first years of the Second Republic (41). By building on the popular base of the apparition, the Church might affirm the now nationally spread apparition as a way to “consolidate its support and authority” (41). With this reading, it seems that the Church as a national institution used the apparition at La Salette for strategic reasons, possibly caring less about the veracity of the children’s claims. The Church’s control of the message of the apparition after its approval in 1851 further suggests the Church’s use the La Salette apparition for its own purposes (42).
Throughout this post, I tried to entertain a skeptic’s point of view. I looked at how the La Salette apparition may have been used as local and national Church promotion. Both the story of the apparition and the national conditions during its recognition give the skeptic pause. They offer motivations for the Church to approve the apparition regardless of its truthfulness. This is not to definitively say the Church acted strategically, but that we should recognize the historical factors surrounding the Church’s decisions. These possible motivations may have affected which apparitions were “worthy of the assent of the faithful” (66).
 A more complete study would look at apparitions that were not approved to get a more complete picture. However, I focus on what can be seen in the example of La Salette with the caveat that they may not be representative of all apparition approvals.