“And 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 RSV
In an age that is so far removed from when the Gospels were written, it is quite difficult to wrap our minds around the possibility of witnessing a dramatic event considered to be supernatural or miraculous. For those of us who identify as Christians, it’s easy to accept everything in the Bible at face value, but it’s another thing to willingly believe in our heart of hearts that we live in the very same world as described in the Scriptures.
Some of the most dramatic supernatural events described in the Bible would be the appearances of spirits from the afterlife. A few examples would be the appearance of Samuel to King Saul1, the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation2, Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus to the Apostles in the Transfiguration3 or Jesus appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus.4 For most Christians, it’s easy to say we believe them simply because they are written in the Bible – but how willing are we to accept that these types of miracles could still actually happen nowadays?
Many Christians are quick to accept the notion of receiving messages directly from Jesus, whether audibly or visually. But when it comes to anything to do with other spirits it is usually met with hostile skepticism. This is largely due to two things: the first would be anything that seemingly isn’t directly from Jesus can often be taken as something demonic. As the Bible says,
“And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
The second contributor to skepticism surrounding these apparitions, I believe, is due to how many Christians are hesitant to accept anything extra-biblical as truth. But it is also worth nothing that the Bible itself acknowledges the possibility of Jesus doing above and beyond what had already been documented6 – which highlights the possibility that God is not bound by the limitations of Scripture alone.
This is where I admire Evangelicals for their habit of testing all spirits7, which they seem to have nailed down to a science. I believe it is important for Catholics to understand Protestant criticisms and concerns regarding these types of miracles. On the other hand, just because a certain miracle or belief is labelled ‘Catholic’ does not mean it should be dismissed as unbiblical, untrue or satanic. If this were the case, even fundamentally Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity (which is widely accepted by most Christians) would fall into that category.
I remember hearing about the Apparitions of Mary8 for the first time when I was around 8 years old. One of my relatives used to send my family articles about Mary appearing to three shepherd children near a little Portuguese town called Fatima. And as it turns out, Fatima wasn’t the only place in the world where Mary supposedly made an appearance. Some of the most well-known apparitions in recent history happened in Lourdes, Guadalupe, Zeitou and Medjugorje among several others. The impression I had was these alleged ghost-stories seemed to have a very cult-like following, and the messages (namely the ones from Fatima) carried a heavily apocalyptic tone with a significant amount of emphasis on sacrifices and penance.9 For the longest time, I used to find these stories quite terrifying.
Although Mary’s fate is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, I don’t believe it’s far-fetched to see a parallel between her appearances throughout history and the biblical accounts of other spiritual apparitions as mentioned earlier. Historical tradition suggests one of the oldest Marian apparitions was witnessed by the Apostle James (son of Zebedee) in the year 40 A.D. while on a journey in the Roman province of Hispania (which is now modern-day Spain). It is said that she appeared to him standing on a pillar of jasper surrounded by angels while he prayed on the banks of the Ebro river. James arranged to have a house of worship built after receiving this vision, and the site remains today as the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. It is said to be the earliest Christian church built in honor of the Virgin Mary and was a pivotal influence that eventually led Latin cultures to embrace Christianity.
Above: Fr. Robert Barron briefly explains the story of Juan Diego and the Miracle of Guadalupe, Mexico.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917. In short, the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children named Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta to deliver a message for them to pray the rosary and make sacrifices11 to God for people in need of His love and for an end to the Great War. Lucia and Francisco tried to keep quiet about this experience, but Jacinta spilled the secret to her mother who later shared it with the neighbours. Soon, word spread throughout the community and more and more people began following the children to the site of the heavenly appearance. Eventually, over 70,000 people from throughout the land got to witness the apparition themselves as well as an incredible sight of what appeared to be the sun dancing in the sky! This famous miracle is known as the Miracle of the Sun.
When it comes to miracles of such caliber, the Catholic Church treats them with careful seriousness. Often when a seemingly supernatural event occurs, emotions run high and word of it spreads like wildfire. Sometimes the details of these events become distorted as people share exaggerated versions of the story with one another, just like a game of telephone. Such miraculous events are easily sensationalized to the point of contagious mass-hysteria. This is why discreetly careful investigation and scientific research led by the Vatican is involved in every case.
If people can claim to receive messages or healings from Jesus or some other spiritual being, who are they to say they are in their right mind? Perhaps it’s possible these people might have experienced hallucinations? Or maybe the dancing sun-miracle could have been light refracting through a heavy cloud of ice crystals in the sky like a leaping sun dog? But simultaneously, who am I to tell 70,000 people that what they experienced was a figment of their imagination when I wasn’t there to witness it firsthand?
But even with such a multitude of witnesses, this doesn’t prevent hostile skepticism. Jesus managed to satisfy the hunger of 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, all the while having leftovers afterwards.12 Even still, some of the very people who witnessed Jesus perform these great signs and miracles doubted His divine origin.13 It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people outside of such an experience would express harsh cynicism.
The hostile skepticism towards miracles associated with Mary not only comes from some fundamentalist Christian groups, but from certain secularist groups as well. There is no shortage of criticism of the details of these events in an attempt to fervently disprove them. But what I’ve noticed between fundamentalist and secularist criticisms is both seem inconsistent with one another as though they were driven by an anti-Catholic agenda.14 In light of this, it is worth noting that National Geographic has given significant recognition of the Marian miracles throughout the world and acknowledged her as a highly influential woman in history.15 Also, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who happens to be agnostic, once quoted regarding miraculous healings at the Marian shrine in Lourdes,
“When a phenomenon is inexplicable, if it really exists, then there’s no reason to deny it.” – Dr. Luc Montagnier16https://youtu.be/dwx8g8z7FUo
Above: Fr. Robert Barron briefly explains the Miracle of Lourdes, France.
Although these miracles associated with Mary seem quite extraordinary, not all miracles are actually ‘approved’ by the Vatican as worthy of belief. For example, the alleged recurring apparitions in Medjugorje have been rumored by some to be a hoax. While some doubt the authenticity of these sightings due to the hyper-sensationalism surrounding them, others are apprehensive about whether or not the spirit in question is actually a demon posing as the Virgin Mary. Due to the nature of these cases, they are still under investigation and no official conclusion has been made by the Vatican as of yet.17If Mary’s role is to lead us to Christ18, is it better to test the validity of these apparitions, or is it more important to heed the messages they bring? What kind of a sick and twisted god would allow such phenomenon to happen if these professed miracles do not come from a divine origin – all the while deceiving millions of people? But if these appearances are calling for repentance from sin, then why would it come from something other than God? Perhaps a more appropriate question is, can Satan drive out Satan?19One of the fastest growing religious cults in Latin-America is centered on a deity known as Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.20 She is depicted as having a similar appearance as the Virgin Mary, but rather a skeletal figure. While the image on the Tilma of Guadalupe represents an image of life-giving salvation, Santa Muerte seems to represent the complete opposite as a sort of anti-Virgin Mother. Saint Death is said to be rooted in the goddess of death of ancient Aztec mythology while simultaneously claiming to have attributes associated with Catholics Saints. Invoking her spirit is said to have produced miracles and has been growing in popularity among Latin-Americans since the turn of the millennium.
The Vatican along with several Protestant churches have condemned devotion to Saint Death as a form of satanic worship.21 I find it very intriguing how the growing sensation of Saint Death seems to be competing against the honor of the Virgin Mary, in spite of fundamentalist anti-Catholic groups who condemn honoring Mary in any form. In my observation, if a kingdom divided against itself will not stand22, it seems as though Saint Death and Our Lady are spirits of two opposing, separate kingdoms.
Some would even say these spiritual encounters with Mary are a form of necromancy, but to me that contradicts the validity of her Assumption (which I briefly wrote about in a separate article). If Mary was carried off into Paradise by the Grace of God in a similar manner as Elijah, then she is more alive in body and spirit than all of us here on Earth. If God is truly behind these supernatural happenings, I personally believe the Virgin Mary will continue to make appearances until the day Christ returns – all the more to direct humanity to her Son.
From an outsider’s perspective, Catholic mysticism may seem scary as hell, but I believe it reinforces the realism of biblical miracles and wonders and makes us realize we live in a very spiritual world. Marian apparitions are certainly not a requirement for faith when it comes to knowing where our salvation comes from – which is in Christ alone.23As a former Evangelical Protestant, the holiness and authenticity of these apparitions is something I accept out of faith – just as I believe Christ was crucified, died, rose again and ascended into Heaven. But rather than obsessing over signs and wonders, I believe it is more important to follow the core teachings of the Gospel and let the miracles sort themselves out.24On the other hand, if we take our relationship with God seriously, the messages these apparitions deliver like the one in Fatima should not be ignored.
“Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy!”
– Prayer of Our Lady of Fatima
1 1 Samuel 28
2 Luke 1:26-36
3 Matthew 17:1-8
4 Acts 9:1-18
5 2 Corinthians 11:14
6 John 21:25
7 1 John 4:1-3
8 Wikipedia: Marian Apparitions
9 Vatican: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html
10 Wikipedia: Our Lady of the Pillar Basilica
11 Romans 12:1
12 Matthew 14:13-21
13 John 20:24-29
14 CARM: https://carm.org/are-the-apparitions-of-mary-really-mary, CRI: http://www.equip.org/perspectives/the-lady-of-fatima-has-mary-appeared-in-visions/, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: https://www.csicop.org/si/show/real_secrets_of_fatima, Miracle Skeptic: http://www.miraclesceptic.com/lourdes.html
15 National Geographic: 500 years of Virgin Mary Sightings in One Map, How The Virgin Mary Became The World’s Most Powerful Woman
16 Aleteia: https://aleteia.org/2017/02/18/nobel-prize-winning-agnostic-scientist-says-the-miracles-at-lourdes-are-inexplicable/
17 Catholic Herald: http://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/05/17/first-medjugorje-apparitions-were-real-vatican-commission-reportedly-found/
18 John 2:5
19 Matthew 12:26
20 Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Muerte, BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-41804243
21 Catholic Answers: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/the-virgin-and-the-anti-virgin
22 Matthew 12:25
23 John 3:16, John 14:6-7, Ephesians 2:8-9, CCC 452
24 Matthew 16:4