A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1).
Throughout the history of the Church, and beyond, when we examine the biblical record, people from all walks of life have recounted stories of “apparitions” from heaven. That is, they have described how a spiritual being has manifested to them with a message of some sort, either for them, personally, or for the whole world. We recall that God Himself would appear to Adam and Eve, and that He Himself gave them their sentence and the hope of their redemption after the Fall (Genesis 3). He and two angels appeared in the form of men to Abraham (Genesis 18). Jacob wrestled with an apparition (Genesis 32:23-33). God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and to all of Israel as a pillar of cloud above the Ark of the Covenant. Angels, too, often manifested to people, bearing messages. We remember particularly the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary that she would bear Jesus and be His Mother, and the angelic choirs that told the shepherds about Jesus’ birth.
Occasionally, it was not God or His angels who did the appearing, but other faithful servants of His. Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus during His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). On the other hand, Satan and his demons can also appear to people, so as to lead them astray. St. Paul warns us that he can even appear as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:24). We must, therefore, not automatically assume that, because someone has claimed to have visions of God or His Saints, that they are legitimate, for the claimant could be deceiving or deceived.
What, then, are we to think about the historical claims (that is, the ones not in the Bible) of Jesus or Mary or other saints appearing with messages from God? Since the Bible records countless legitimate cases of this happening, it would be unwise to simply dismiss these claims. However, since Satan can use such means to deceive, we must be on our guard to properly discern the truth.
The official stance of the Catholic Church towards the reality of apparitions is that they fall under the category of “Private Revelation.” That means, such apparitions will never be able to alter the essential truths of the Scripture or Tradition, and, in fact, must be judged according to Public Revelation. Indeed, if a contradiction is determined between the alleged apparition and the Church’s deposit of faith, the apparition is deemed fraudulent and unworthy of belief. But even in cases where the apparition seems all true and good, and receives the approval of the Church, that approval always comes in the form of a “negative approbation”—that is, the Church declares such an apparition to be “worthy of all belief”, but it never forces anyone to believe in the apparition. Provided we do not refuse to believe in, say, Our Lady’s appearances to St. Bernadette in Lourdes (which feast we celebrate tomorrow) out of contempt, we are not sinning or in any other way “less Catholic” for not believing.
And yet, the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin that have been approved (there are 12 so far) do make very compelling cases for their credibility. The person or people to whom our Lady appears are almost always children, usually unlearned (and a few that would probably be considered as having learning disabilities today). Many times, Mary would speak to them in the official language of their country, while they only spoke a particular dialect (such as when the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette, speaking French, which Bernadette knew only a little, as she spoke the Patois dialect). Yet, upon gruelling questioning from parents, other townsfolk, civil and religious authorities, some sympathetic, but most of whom were downright hostile, the children’s stories never wavered. In fact, for as long as any of the visionaries lived, their stories would never change, even in the smallest detail, even when trick questions and deliberate attempts to confuse them were made. And then, of course, there were the miracles.
In February of 1858, St. Bernadette Soubirou, her sister, and a friend, were out gathering firewood when Bernadette wandered into the hollow of a rock at Massabielle, the town of Lourdes’ dump. There, she fell into an ecstasy, and saw an apparition of “a beautiful lady” all dressed in while, with a blue sash around her waist, gold roses on her feet, and holding a rosary, which she invited Bernadette to pray with her. Eighteen times over the course of the next five months, Bernadette continued to visit the grotto, talking with the woman whom she knew only as “the Beautiful Lady.” On one such visit, the Lady asked her to drink from a nearby spring—only, there was no spring nearby. The Lady indicated a patch of dirt inside the grotto, so Bernadette obediently knelt down and scratched at the ground for a bit. Immediately, water began to bubble forth (even though the ground there had been perfectly dry previously). The spring at Lourdes still exists and continues to pour fourth around 30 to 40 Litres per minute. While chemical analyses of the water has shown that it is typical, potable water, many people have been healed from drinking it or bathing in it, beginning with Catherine Latapie, on March 1st, 1858. The walls of the shrine at Lourdes are lined with discarded crutches from those who have claimed to be healed.
The Beautiful Lady told St. Bernadette to ask the local priest to build a church in her honour, but the priest refused unless Bernadette could determine the name of her mystical visitor. Having received no response to her previous questions about the Lady’s name, Bernadette nevertheless went back to her and asked again. This time, the Lady responded by saying, “Je suis l’immaculée conception”—”I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette had no idea what this term meant—the doctrine itself had only been promulgated four years earlier—but the title more than convinced the religious authorities, who agreed to build the church. The local bishop declared the apparitions worthy of belief in 1864.
The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary serve to further demonstrate her motherly work of mediation, calling us back to her Son. May we respond with the same openness and simplicity of heart as St. Bernadette.
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