Marian Apparitions: Facts and Theological Meaning


This feature offers comprehensive information on some aspects of the apparition theme.  After a useful introduction on the nature of apparitions, this document studies the facts of some major and recognized apparitions (e.g. Lourdes) and cautions against some occurrences not recognized or rejected by the Church.  The second part deals with the theological significance of apparitions, and examines their biblical sources and juridical implications.

The author of this document is Fr. RenÚ Laurentin.  The contents form part of a book called "Mary in Faith and Life in the New Age of the Church", published by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute in 1980.  The text published here corresponds to pages 353-486.  If the theological basis of this presentation and most of the factual information have not changed, this text does not take into consideration recent developments regarding apparitions (e.g. Medjugorje).  It needs to be kept in mind that there exist more recent and comprehensive studies on apparitions or specific questions related to this Marian phenomenon. 

Nature of Apparitions

In more simple terms and to come to our precise topic: What is the nature, the function, the status of the apparitions of Mary?  In the teaching of the Catholic faith, Christ and the Virgin Mary are capable of apparitions.  This is not the case with God in himself.  God is by nature invisible, inaccessible (this is true also of angels and separated souls.  Christ, invisible as the Word of God, became visible by personally becoming man, that is to say, by assuming a human existence, soul and body.  Thus, he became, by a new title, the visible image of the invisible God - he in whom the plenitude of the divinity dwells corporally, according to Col. 2:9.

The Incarnation was not a passing phenomenon.  Our faith is the opposite of Platonism, which considers salvation as a liberation from the body and from matter. The essential mystery of Christ is his resurrection.  He kept a visible body, and it is the pledge of our resurrection.

Concerning the Virgin Mary, as Pope Pius XII defined on November 1, 1950, she was the first to participate in the mystery of the risen Christ.  She was taken body and soul into his glory.  In this way, Christ and Mary are visible, in contrast to separated souls. [N.B. We will not discuss here the theory of Rahner, according to which the Resurrection would be immediately after the death of each person, a theory inspired by a reflection on the mysterious relations between time and eternity.]  We will take care to distinguish carefully two problems: one essential and the other incidental. 

First, it is of the very essence of faith to take someone's word for the existence of an object which we do not perceive by our five senses, by the objects of this world, and even by an experience of intimate communication.  However, when we believe, we take the word of God that they exist, and that we are in an invisible relationship with
them.  Second, the incidental problem is to see precisely the modality according to which that which is by nature invisible or inaccessible can become sensible and the object of our experience.

Let us begin by defining the word which indicates the object of our course.  What is an apparition?  In the general sense of the word, we can give the following definition:
"the manifestation, perceived by a subject, of a being, the vision of whom in this place and in this moment is unexplainable according to the normal course of things."  Let us make some comments on the diverse aspects of this definition:

  1. The term "apparition" suggests a visible manifestation, a perception of the visual order.  It happens that sometimes the apparitions of the Virgin are purely visual, as in the case of Pontmain.  However, more frequently, there is added an audial perception" a message which can be in certain cases reduced to a perception of the intellectual order.  The sense of smell can be involved, likewise that of touch, as apparently happened in the case of Saint Catherine Laboure, who said that she placed her hands on the knees of the Virgin before whose feet she was seated, on the night of July 18-19,1830.

In practice, "apparitions" and other presumed supernatural communications are ordinarily designated as private revelations, as opposed to Revelation.  This current vocabulary intends to distinguish Revelation, as official and public, from non-official revelations, which are incidental and which can happen in the course of the centuries, while Revelation is closed.

The word "private" is ambiguous, since many of these revelations have a rather public destination.  The visionary receives a mission to speak to the Church.  And Bishops or even the Pope have contributed to the public character of such messages.  For this reason, it is better to distinguish more precisely: a) Revelation: foundational, essential, biblical, closed with the era of the Apostles, and b) particular revelations, made after the former, no longer to uncover something unknown, but to recall the first Revelation, to aid us to live it better, and to draw from it certain consequences, in a particular time and place.

  1. The word "apparition" implies a surprising, marvelous, or astounding character of the manifestation; it is related to the etymology of the word miracle (from the
    Latin word mirari, which signifies "surprising, capable of arousing admiration"). Thus we sometimes hear the expression " It is an apparition" to characterize a surprising,  happy or marvelous encounter .
  2. The classic definition adds, however, that we speak of apparition when the manifestation is exceptional; thus: "unexplainable according to the normal course of things."  It would not normally be seen at the time or in the place where it appears.   For those who encountered the Virgin Mary at the wells of Nazareth, there was no apparition.  If she was seen in the grotto of Lourdes, above the fountain which she caused to spring up there, we can then speak of an

Reflection on apparitions involves thus a general reflection on space and time.  Certain objects or persons are not visible in a place because of distance.  If one of my students from Angers or from Paris would suddenly be present in this room during this course of Dayton, that would be an apparition.  But there can also be distance in time. If I go to Rome I would not encounter -except by apparition - either Julius Caesar or the apostle Peter who were both in the same place and time in the past.

Supernatural apparitions, the object of our course, present the problem on still another level.  If the Virgin Mary is not normally visible, it is a problem in the order of time
rather than in the order of space.  It is not just because heaven is elsewhere, or because Mary belongs to the PAST like Julius Caesar, whom we no longer encounter if we go to Rome.  It is because she does not belong any longer to our time and
space, but rather to the duration of God, who gives to his elect a share in his life.  A supernatural apparition is a communication between beings belonging to two heterogeneous orders of duration: let us call them, to simplify, space-time and space-eternity , the latter one being the space of which the duration of God is the measure.  The difficulty of using rational categories in discussing these things is that, even if we have an experience of time, we have no experience of the duration of God and his elect.

From this point of view, we do not accept the difference drawn (na´vely) by classic theoreticians of spirituality between apparition and vision.  The apparition wouId be an
objective encounter, and the vision, a subjective representation.  One cannot oppose the subjective and the objective in such a simple manner.  All objective knowledge is the action of a subject, affected by his subjectivity and by his diverse sensible impressions.  There is a subjective element in all objective knowledge, beginning with the visual or audial perception which affects the organs of our senses and our
nervous system.  Our objective knowledge of the exterior world comes from a qualitative and symbolic decoding of subjective, quantitative and natural modifications which affect us.

If the Virgin or the Risen Christ appear today on earth, it cannot be in the manner of flying saucers coming from another planet, according to the mythology of science-
fiction.  If their glorious bodies are outside our view, this is not so much a problem of distance in space, but rather because they belong to another duration.  This gives their apparition a mysterious character.  This can explain why the apostles were disconcerted by the apparitions of Christ, and why those thousands who surrounded Bernadette at the foot of the niche of the apparitions did not - in contrast to Bernadette - see anything.

Marc Oraison, a French priest-physician who died last year, liked to say, "When Bernadette or another visionary perceived in a given moment of time and space an object which others could not see, I say, from a clinical point of view, it is a matter of a vision without a sensible object, thus a matter of hallucination."  A psychiatrist and a Psychoanalyst who were present at one of the last presentations of Oraison told me that, "the medical conceptions of our colleague are a bit outdated."  In what sense?  In the sense that today we can no longer oppose the objective and the subjective in such a simplistic manner.

Let us take up the classical analysis of sensible perception.  Vibrations, which are characterized by the number of their frequency and not by colour, strike the retina. There they produce physical-chemical modifications which are transmitted along the nervous system up to the brain centre of vision, where the influence is transmitted (always by .physical-chemical modifications) to the motor centre.  Here is produced a phenomenon of another order, vision.  This is an act of the subject who decodes subjective modifications (vibrations, etc.).  The mechanism of information is complex
and centripetal.  Vision is simple and centrifugal.  It perceives the object as exterior, qualitative (coloured), symbolic. . . and real.  The fact of apprehending an object - the other as other - is the proper action of knowledge, what we call its intentionality, its capacity to contact reality through information (or impact) which affected the knowing subject in his subjectivity.

The first philosophers who attempted this analysis of sensible knowledge were bothered with this.  They multiplied disturbing assertions such as: "When I cease to look at the forest, it ceases to be green (or even, it ceases to exist)" or "Perception is a true hallucination."  It is true that there is no colour in itself in nature, independently of a subject who perceives it.  But, for all that, it is not true that colour is an illusion and the world a place of desolation.  The mental mechanism which decodes vibrations according to their number, and causes us synthetically to perceive colour , attains well the reality in an objective way.  The proof of this is that we understand each other very well about colours, and we all perceive them in the same manner.

We should conclude, therefore, that sensible knowledge is not reducible to subjective mechanisms.  It is an intentional act of a subject who attains an object by means of this information and a complex decoding - The vibration process and the chemical processes (Qualitative).  Other mysterious ways of knowledge are possible.  Those who explore the metapsychic area believe that there exist communications of a telepathic type; however, of these we know practically nothing.  We know still less of what can be termed supernatural communication.  This communication, as gratuitous,
is not open to experimentation, thus to a scientific study.

But nothing prevents it from being objective.  Those who have received such apparitions say, however , that they are truer than every-day perceptions, that before them other perceptions or communications pale.

A normal, open reflection on supernatural apparitions should not begin from the category proposed by Marc Oraison, but should return to the terms of the problem.
Instead of saying, "If any sensible object is perceived by a visionary it is a victim of a hallucination," we should rather ask, "If Christ or the Virgin would want to manifest themselves in our time, enter (according to their free choice) into communication with a person or a group of persons, what could be the mode of the communication employed?"  It would evidently not be the ordinary mode.  It is, according
to the experience of visionaries, a communication that is more intimate and existential, but which is not, for all that, less real.  The person who wishes to be perceived (Christ or the Virgin) can be really perceived, even if that person does
not enter into the ordinary mechanisms of perception, like an object emitting coloured vibrations similar to those of another terrestrial body.

This analysis was necessary to prevent a certain naivetÚ (the na´vetÚ of an elementary science) and to permit us to enter into this domain with a necessary openness and humility of spirit, an openness at once theological and scientific.  A merely systematic spirit is not admissible in such a field, It is too pretentious.

New Interest in Apparitions

It is a sign of the times that I am invited here to treat the question of apparitions.  When I began teaching at Dayton, in the years 1966-1970, I was advised not to treat this subject.  It would not interest Americans, I was told.  It is a European matter; we have no equivalent of Lourdes or the Rue du Bac, etc.  However, at that time, Europeans also looked down on apparitions.  Some saw in them forms of an
archaic, popular, retarded, contemptible piety, perhaps even a pathological hallucination raised to a supernatural phenomenon.  A theologian occupying himself with apparitions was decadent and discredited.  And as a regrettable consequence, this domain was abandoned by the learned and surrendered to the improvisations of enthusiasms, to the exaltation of subjectivity, and this displacement resulted in

If the opposition to apparitions was especially the result of Protestantism, born of a reaction against the abuses of popular religion in favour of a return to naked faith,
Catholics sometimes surpassed Protestants in this criticism and in this severely, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.

For this reason, we will see, apparitions and private revelations were systematically and radically repressed in the Church, a repression that did not always succeed, perhaps because it was an excessive reaction to phenomena which spring from an irrepressible religious function.  This is one of the problems we must treat.

In these recent years something has changed.  We are witnessing, in every domain, a revenge of the irrational over rationalism.  We have returned from a certain abstraction in religious matters, as we have returned from a certain asepsis in medical matters, an attitude which would have wanted to suppress every microbe, and thus risk destroying life itself.  So, today, we find ourselves in a climate favourable to posing questions too often neglected.

A presence is normally manifested.  God and the supernatural are the object of epiphanies (manifestations), according to the Biblical and the most ancient and constant Tradition.  Therefore, we have to raise the following questions:

Are apparitions the outmoded survival of the mythological religion, called to disappear with the arrival of the scientific age and of modernity?  Or are they, on the contrary, a normal component (although, secondary) of Christian life?  In what sense?  Is faith so much the better by being abstract and thus without sensible or supernatural signs?  Is this the absolute sense of the word of Christ, "Blessed are those who have not seen but who believe"?  Or rather, is Christianity a religion that involves sensible links, that is, signs, and among those, signs which are supernatural and exceptional, such as apparitions and private revelations?

What is the place of these supernatural, sensible phenomena?  Are they important or accessory?  What is their function?  Are they an epi-phenomenon?  A consolation or an aid?  Are they a gift relative to certain situations or spiritual needs?  Are they a charism and of what order?  What should we think of the apparitions of the Virgin?  What is their place?  Why in these last centuries have we spoken almost only of these, from Guadalupe to the Rue du Bac, Lourdes, Fatima, Banneux and Beauraing?  Why do these apparitions have such a lustre?  Why have they received such recognition from the papacy, traditionally so reticent in such matters?  How does this papal acknowledgement articulate with the traditional suspicion of authority?  How should we classify such sensible supernatural phenomena, such as lachrymation (Syracuse), miraculous images and other miracles?  Why do we practically not speak of any apparitions prior to the modern apparitions (if we are to judge from Mariological Treatises)?  Why have the prior apparitions not left at least traces, remembrances, or approbations?  Why, finally, have the approbations ceased (in effect) for the last half century? (The last apparition approved was Banneux, which dates from 1933; it was approved only in 1947.)  Why since then do we see flourishing such a disarray of apparitions, like San Damiano, Kerizinen, Garabandal, Paomar de Troya, Bayside? (A list of 210 was made in 1971-1973 by Dom Bernard Billet (Vraies et fausses apparitions, Paris, Lethielleux, 1973, 2nd ed. 1916).

In response to these questions, we will present the following: First, we will treat the principal modern apparitions, those which we have mentioned already (from Guadalupe to Banneux, the last recognized apparition).  We will also examine the problem presented by the numerous non-recognized apparitions: those reproved, forbidden, condemned.  Further, we will work back from there to refer briefly to previous appearances made during the first Christian centuries.  Then in the Second part of this study, we will reply to the questions posed: What is the function, the status, and the nature of apparitions, more specifically the apparitions of the Virgin, the object of this course?

Part I: Study of the Facts

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