Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Worthy of the assent of the faithful"

            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.[1]
            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).   


[1] 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.


  1. You do a nice job here illustrating the chicken-and-egg problem that I tried to suggest in our discussion: where do we start in deciding what to be suspicious about when even defining our terms (e.g. "the Church") is so caught up in the answers we are seeking? On the one hand, it is hardly nefarious for "the Church" to want people to attend Mass, rest on the Sabbath, and fast during Lent, and yet for centuries clergy struggled with ways in which to encourage lay people's participation in the rituals and observances of religion. On the other, if the children had not seen the apparition that they did, would the clergy have found some way to encourage them otherwise? I genuinely do not know myself how to evaluate these stories, whether as pious frauds on the part of the clergy (which they don't seem to be) or attention-seeking on the part of the visionaries (which, given the responses of the adults who knew the children, seems to have been contemporaries' first response, so arguably the first thing that would have been suspected and inquired about). Something else to consider is the willingness of the people at the time to accept the bishop's approbation: would the bishop have been able to declare the apparition worthy of belief if the people themselves did not believe it? There are so many layers to consider here! RLFB

  2. You've done a good job highlighting some of the factors which make evaluating these apparitions so difficult, particularly the fact that "the Church" is not itself a monolithic organization with united purposes and lockstep agreement on the particulars surrounding any given Marian apparition (or, indeed, when we look at the history of the Church, anything else). A further complication, which you didn't mention and which I feel generally doesn't get enough attention in discussions of "popular" vs. "clerical" religion is that priests often come from the communities in which this "popular" devotion is said to spring and spend their lives among the people. How then can we truly differentiate between the two? It seems that the labels themselves become merely designations of which side we believe is right, depending on our attitudes towards the popular or institutional.

    Similarly, the skeptic might say that the Church approved the apparitions to reassert itself at the dawn of the Second Republic, and this certainly seems plausible, but couldn't the believer simply retort that this is precisely what Mary wanted, that the Church become reasserted in what had for centuries been one of its heartlands where the faith had been badly shaken since the Revolution? Reflecting on this tells us quite a bit about how people are convinced of the truth of things, and indeed about how this process operates in ourselves, always a worth enterprise when thinking about the history of religious belief and, well, everything else as well.

  3. I agree with the previous comments that this post analyzes very well the skeptical viewpoint of why an apparition like the one at La Salette would be one of the few accepted by the church. And, although it is an important viewpoint to keep in mind, it also seems to me like this is one that is very familiar to us in this class. As has been noted in earlier classes, many of us – myself included – are naturally inclined to try and analyze the Marian tradition through a skeptic or ‘social-realist’ lens. Elsewhere, others have discussed the issues that arise when taking the point of view of the faithful, so in this case, so I just wanted to make one perhaps historically minded observation that struck me in reading this post.

    This post began with the comment that less than 20 Marian apparitions out of almost 300 have been deemed ‘worthy’, and it would seem to me that a big part of this has to do with the fact that this aspect of Marian devotion has occurred relatively more recently than – for example – those visions or appearances in 15th century Spain or the interventions recorded at Rocomadour. So, it’s not surprising that so few apparitions have been deemed ‘worthy of the assent of the faithful’. The history of ‘The Church’ or western Christianity has been marked by many long debates and divisions on certain issues – such as between the Dominicans and Franciscans as we have seen in previous readings. Given that these apparitions are a relatively recent phenomenon, it seems reasonable that the vast majority of these apparitions are still not officially ‘endorsed’ (for lack of a better word) by the upper echelons of the ecclesiastical hierarchy since it takes a long time for such things to be incorporated into “the Church” – further evidence that the monolithic nature implied by the term “the Church” is not in fact accurate. - LDD

  4. In another class I'm taking, I've been reading about European witch trials during the Inquisition and elsewhere. One of the difficult things about interpreting them is how to understand phenomena that we would deem supernatural or paranormal now but seem to have been accepted in other times and places. Did anyone actually think that their neighbor was meeting Satan at night or was it just a convenient way to remove someone who had caused a problem? Were the clergy involved in the trial consciously imposing a view of reality that would maintain the Church's power?

    Similar questions seem to apply to the apparitions of Mary. I think the answer may be that what people believe to be true often corresponds to what benefits them, and not necessarily in a self-aware or purposefully manipulative way. I can imagine a bishop examining the evidence for a possible apparition sighting and using the criteria of its utility for the Church as clear proof of its truthfulness. After all, why would Mary appear in a way that was dubious and made the Church look bad? In other words, I don't think it's necessarily an either/or situation; the witnesses of an apparition and those who approve it afterward can be utterly convinced of its truth and also benefit from it in some way without seeing the convergence as a contradiction. If a shrine is constructed over the place where Mary appeared and bring more people and money to the area, then it may actually be interpreted as more proof of the veracity of the vision because it means God (or Mary or both) wanted the area to prosper. Of course, there can also be cases of cold calculation and fraud or beliefs held without any regard for personal gain, but I don't think those are the only options.