Marian apparitions are alleged supernatural or paranormal events where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is claimed to be seen by one or more people. Some apparitions or revelations are called "private" while others are said to be "public".
In the case of Roman Catholic apparitions, the local bishop is called to supervise the investigation of a purported Marian apparition. The bishop along with other investigators will determine if something supernatural occurred. During this investigation the following criteria will be used to evaluate the alleged apparition. (Other faiths may use different procedures to conduct investigations. This article is limited to apparitions in Roman Catholic countries, except for a reported apparition in Egypt.)
- Determine if something miraculous occurred by interviewing the witnesses and the visionary. A visitation of the apparition site is usually scheduled.
- Character evaluation including church attendance, sincerity and mental soundness.
- Theological soundness according to catholic doctrine.
- A positive and enduring income that may include conversion, prayer and increase of charity.
Of the 386 reported Marian apparitions that occurred during the twentieth century most were not approved. The Church has made "no decision" about the supernatural character regarding 299 of the 386 cases. The Church has made a "negative decision" about the supernatural character in a further seventy-nine cases.
The Church has decided that "yes" there is a supernatural character only in the remaining eight cases: Fatima, Portugal; Beauraing, Belgium; Banneux, Belgium; Akita, Japan; Syracuse, Italy; Zeitoun, Egypt; Manila, Philippines (according to some sources); and Betania, Venezuela. Local bishops have approved of the faith expression at the sites where these eight apparitions occurred.
Besides the eight approved apparitions, there have been 11 (out of the 299 apparitions that received no official decision) which have not been approved with a "supernatural character," but which have received a "yes" to indicate the local bishop's "approval of faith expression (prayer and devotion) at the site."
Approved apparition sites
The following sites have been approved by the Catholic church:
- 1531, Guadalupe, Mexico - On a hill outside Mexico City, the Blessed Mother appeared four times to a recent convert to Christianity, Juan Diego. Mary proclaimed herself "the Mother of the true God who gives life" and left her image permanently upon Diego's tilma or mantle.
- 1830, Paris, France - In the chapel of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Mary showed herself three times to novice Catherine Laboure (age 24). Laboure said she was commissioned by the Virgin to have the medal of the Immaculate Conception or "Miraculous Medal" made in order to spread devotion to Our Lady.
- 1846, La Salette, France - Six thousand feet up in the French Alps, Mary is believed to have come to Maximin Giraud (age 11) and Melanie Calvat (age 14) while they tended sheep. Her appearance in sorrow and tears called for conversion and penance for sins.
- 1858, Lourdes, France - At the Grotto of Massabielle, the Virgin showed herself eighteen times to Bernadette Soubirous (age 14). Under the title "the Immaculate Conception," she called for penance and prayer for the conversion of sinners.
- 1871, Pontmain, France - Mary appeared on a farm to Eugene (age 10) and Joseph Barbadette (age 12) and Francoise Richer and Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, students at the nearby convent school. Mary's message was written on a banner that unfurled from her feet: "But pray my children. God will hear you in a short time. My Son allows Himself to be moved by compassion."
- 1879, Knock, County Mayo, Ireland - In pouring rain, the figures of Mary, Joseph, John the Apostle and a lamb on a plain altar appeared over the gable of the village chapel, enveloped in a bright light. None of them spoke. At least fifteen people (ages 5-75) saw the apparition.
- 1917, Fatima, Portugal - While tending sheep, Lucia de Santos (age 10) and her two cousins, Francisco (age 9) and Jacinta Marto (age 7), reported six apparitions of Mary, who identified herself as "Our Lady of the Rosary." Mary urged prayer of the rosary, penance for the conversion of sinners and consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.
- 1932-33, Beauraing, Belgium - Mary is believed to have come thirty-three times to the playground of a convent school to five children (ages 9-15), Andree and Gilberte Degeimbre and Albert, Fernande and Gilberte Voisin. Identifying herself as "the Immaculate Virgin" and "Mother of God, Queen of Heaven," she called for prayer for the conversion of sinners.
- 1933, Banneux, Belgium - In a garden behind the Beco family's cottage, the Blessed Mother is said to have appeared to Mariette Beco (age 11) eight times. Calling herself the "Virgin of the Poor," Mary promised to intercede for the poor, the sick and the suffering.
- More recent apparitions include Akita, Japan, in 1984; Chontaleu, Nicaragua, in 1987; Kibeho, Rwanda, in 1988; and Betania, Venezuela. 
Fatima is rated as one of the highest ranking apparitions when it comes to prophecy. "Fatima is undoubtedly the most prophetic of modern apparitions. The first and second parts of the “secret”—which are here published in sequence so as to complete the documentation—refer especially to the frightening vision of hell, devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Second World War, and finally the prediction of the immense damage that Russia would do to humanity by abandoning the Christian faith and embracing Communist totalitarianism." Foretelling the Fatima Marian apparitions were the Angel of Portugal visitations to Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, Francisco Marto and Jacinta Marto in the spring of 1916. The children witnessed the visitation of the angel three times who delivered various messages. Francisco and Jacinta Marto were beatified by the Roman Catholic church on May 13, 2000. Lucia is now deceased, according to Joe Nickell of Committee of Skeptical Inquiry.
In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary eighteen times, events that the Catholic church determined were supernatural in nature: "We adjudge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, really appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11, 1858, and subsequent days, eighteen times in all, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes: that this apparition possesses all the marks of truth, and that the faithful are justified in believing it certain. We humbly submit our judgement to the judgement of the Supreme Pontiff to whom is committed the Government of the whole Church," wrote Bishop Laurence in 1862. In November 2005 the 67th documented cure was attributed to the healing waters of Lourdes.
Marian apparitions have been reported in other branches of the faith. One of the best known is the Zeitoun Marian apparition that took place at a Coptic church near Cairo, Egypt. It was investigated by local Coptic church authorities who verified the apparition was valid.
"The Virgin (Virgin Mary) made Her apparition over the domes of the Virgin's Church at El-Zeitoun (Egypt) on the eve of the 2nd of April, 1968. Her apparitions have been characterized by their full clarity. They also took many forms..." wrote the Rev. Father Boutros Gayed. The Rev. Gayed added that the apparition was seen encircled by stars, it walked over the dome and bowed to the cross, and white pigeons appeared. Stars, unusual lights, doves, unusual cloudlike formations and incense were seen or smelled during the apparitions, wrote Gayed. Numerous witnesses reported seeing the event and it was documented by various newspapers including the New York Times. The apparitions continued for several years and were recognized by Coptic church officials and the Roman Catholic Church.
Paul C. Manuel, Co-chair, Iberian Study Group, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, says that the supposed Fatima apparitions had far-reaching political influence. He writes:
There is no question that Fátima has influenced the beliefs and political behavior of many people in Portugal. Popular sectors believe the Virgin Mary was sent to the Portuguese with messages from God, in a sense turning the traditional, absolute “divine right of the King” model on its head. In this case God sent important messages to three of His most humble creatures, granting to them—and, by extension, to all the country people—a sort of popular absolutist model of political legitimacy; in other words, a belief that one need not worry about the ballot box. The recitation of the Holy Rosary can solve all political problems.
Manuel offers comparisons between Fatima and Portugal and notes how both apparitions seemed to feature similar characteristics.
The rational-faith polemic over Lourdes in the nineteenth century featured many of the same elements as Fátima. According to Ruth Harris this French case involved a wider debate about science and religion, modernity and superstition, and anticlericalism and clericalism. In her work, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in a Secular Age, she is concerned with the role of the religiosity of a small rural community within a secularizing France at the mid-point in the nineteenth century. Or, in her words, “Lourdes in the early decades is a story about France, about the struggles of Catholicism in the aftermath of revolutionary turmoil.”
Joe Nickell, Ph.D, Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and the "Investigative Files" columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, is skeptical of Marian apparitions. He writes in reference to Fatima:
Further evidence that Lucia orchestrated the fantasy and manipulated the other children is provided by certain incidents. For example, when Jacinta first told the story, she stated that the Virgin had said many things that she was unable to recall but “which Lucia knows.” Lucia’s own mother was convinced that her precocious daughter was, in her words, “nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray” (qtd. in Zimdars-Swartz 1991, 71, 86).
The Electronic Newsletter for the Georgia Skeptics offers theories on how Marian apparitions may be caused by illusion or hallucinations:
Michael Carroll, in his The Cult of the Virgin Mary (1986), classifies
apparitions into two categories: hallucinations and illusions. He identified as hallucinations those visions in which outside observers report no physical evidence of anything extraordinary: only the seer or seers see or hear anything unusual. The apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, and it would seem, Conyers, are of this type. The apparitions that I have studied in central California are of the second type because they involve the play of light and shadow on the wall of a house. So is the appearance of Christ's image in the spaghetti billboard. These are classified as illusions because there is some physical stimulus available for all to see (often some sort of funny light) although not all see the same thing or come to the same conclusions about exactly what the illusion means. The famous Marianapparition at Zeitoun, Egypt, some years ago is another excellent example of this sort of phenomenon.
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