Marian apparitions…

Dominica XXIV et ultima Post Pentecosten V. Novembris
Commemoratio: S. Chrysogoni Martyr et in Anglia, Commemoratio infra octavam: S. Edmundi, Regis et Confessoris


A question asked during our parish post-Mass social this morning has provided a good excuse to finish this post that I have been intending to write for some time! I was asked, “what do you think of Marian apparitions, like Medjugorje, Lourdes etc?” My immediate response was “I’m suspicious” being fully aware of the recent controversy concerning the visionaries of Medjugorje and to be honest, I am wary of Marian apparitions per se. Mercifully I was able to refer to Pope Francis who has recently expressed similar concern (see here) and perhaps on this matter we, he and I, may be of a similar mind? It was also rather apt ref the Gospel at Mass today Matthew 24:15-35 (ably explicated by our curate, Fr Andrew Scurr here).

It has long been the tradition amongst Catholics of both East and West to have a strong devotion to Our Lady, the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it has become something in recent times, say the last one hundred and fifty years or so, to have a particular fascination with Marian apparitions, indeed some regard such a culture to be the “sine qua non” of particularly Western Catholicism and one finds such attitudes not just among Roman Catholics but even folk of the “reformed” traditions. To have a particular devotion say to Our of Lourdes is to be “more Catholic than Catholic” and to know critically the “third secret of Fatima” or have a devotion to Our Lady of Akito is to be “even more Catholic” than that!

Certainly, as I explained this morning, I am aware that the shrines to which pilgrims are drawn where “the Lady” is said to have appeared, inspire and encourage “faith, hope and charity” among those who venture to them. None so more perhaps than Lourdes where a long tradition of healing is associated and where a culture of assisting pilgrims has developed into providing numerous opportunities of service for young and old alike; as “brancardiers” assisting the sick and infirm, nursing in the hospital or nursing hostels etc. One can’t help but feel something of the strength of community, camaraderie and mutual generosity that is visible and tangible on pilgrimage to places like Lourdes. This is arguably on top of the usual fellowship that pilgrimage engenders, for at Lourdes and Fatima particularly, there is a palpable sense of charity being worked out that takes one out of oneself, where on other pilgrimages one would focus more interiorly perhaps.

What concerns me and perhaps Pope Francis however, is the “fascination” and “obsession” that some Catholics can develop about Marian apparitions, almost a kind of fanaticism… I’m sure some of my readers have had the experience of some wide-eyed but earnest looking stranger dashing up and pressing a Marian medal into one’s palm and asking earnestly if Our Lady has ever worked a miracle in one’s  life? I remember well the story of a colleague being almost forcibly press-ganged on his way to the Cathedral at Westminster into a meeting at some obscure place and being asked to give a testimony concerning Our Lady and his priesthood through a megaphone! There was nothing wrong with giving a testimony, it was just the room was full of “those” sorts of people!

Now admittedly, I’m perhaps being less than charitable, I have to say that some of these folk are indeed well-meaning and often seem more faithful as practising Catholics than even some clergy! That said, what they often portray is the kind of attitude and behaviour about Our Lady that gives grit to the misportrayal of fanatical Protestants about Catholicism in general… “You pray to Mary instead of Jesus” or other remarks along those lines. Particularly disturbing however, is to find that some of these aficionados of all things Marian, often place the “messages” of “visions” or “visionaries” above the precepts of Scripture and Tradition, sometimes even of dogma, and that is cause for alarm; there is in fact nothing in the Catholic faith that officially sanctions nor commands obedience nor heed to such “messages”. 

“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.” Gal 1:8. As is often the case there is “nothing new under the sun” and it would appear that St Paul, whom we know tackled mediums and visionaries, had the foresight to write these words which the Church saved for prosperity. To his protégé Timothy,  “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.” [1 Tim 1:3-4] Or indeed, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” [2 Tim 1: 13,14] Again, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Tim 4:3-4

There are some aspects of the Marian apparitions that I find particularly problematic and the admonitions and warnings of the Apostle noted above, always come into my mind about such things. I note for example that “the Lady” never seems to say exactly “who” she is… There are often vague references to “my son” though not being clear about “who” he is… There are vague doctrinal “revelations” and “prophecies”… promises of “grace(s)” and “salvation” through objects and devotions revealed independently from Tradition and Scripture. Often this engenders popular piety developed or practised without official and ecclesiastical sanction (like Medjugorje), and often manifested in a stronger adherence to “messages” rather than official doctrine and dogma (e.g. adherents of Vassula Ryden).

MaurLourdesThe most notable example of this sort of phenomena is perhaps the appearance at Lourdes of “the Lady” to St Bernadette Soubirous. The young peasant girl asked “the Lady” her name and after joining her hands at the breast and looking up to heaven she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was taken by many to be a sign of heavenly affirmation of the then recently proclaimed dogma by Pius IX of the “Immaculate Conception” four years prior of which it was widely believed the young uneducated Bernadette was unlikely to have heard about. This is the doctrine that Our Lady was herself conceived immaculately, rather than that she conceived Christ immaculately. A doctrine that had been much discussed since the eleventh century and roundly fended off by some of the greatest Doctors of the Church…

Sts, Augustine, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘the honey-flowing doctor’, who rejected the opinion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as contrary to tradition and derogatory to the dignity of Christ, the only sinless being; Peter the Lombard, ‘the Master of Sentences’, Alexander of Hales, ‘the irrefragable doctor’, St. Bonaventura, ‘the seraphic doctor’, Albertus Magnus, ‘the wonderful doctor’  all decried it and St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘the angelic doctor’ (d. 1274), and the very champion of orthodoxy, followed by the whole school of Thomists and the order of the Dominicans. St. Thomas taught that Mary was conceived from sinful flesh in the ordinary way, “secundum carnis concupiscentiam ex commixtione maris”, and was sanctified in the womb after the infusion of the soul (which is called the “passive conception”); for otherwise she would not have needed the redemption of Christ, and so Christ would not be the Saviour of all men. The following Popes also decried the notion, Pope St Leo the Great. (who says that Christ alone was free from original sin, and that Mary obtained her purification through her conception of Christ), Pope St Gregory the Great and Innocent III, John IV, Innocent III, Innocent V, John XXII, Clement VI.

For Old Roman Catholics the question of the domga is settled in a letter the Ultrajectine Fathers wrote to Pope Bl Pius IX concerning the promulgation of the dogma of the “Immaculate Conception”. “Given at Utrecht, the 18 of the Calends of Sept., 1856” the bishops refer to the admonitions of St Paul to St Timothy before treating the matter with reference to the clear opinion of the theologians quoted above…

“The integrity of the faith in which we have been instructed from our earliest years does not allow us to be silent. The charge which has been entrusted to us, notwithstanding our unworthiness, imposes a very grave obligation upon us, that of openly professing our belief upon the fact in question. We are, indeed, persuaded that the sacred deposit of the faith can neither be augmented nor diminished. In our office of Bishops of the Catholic Church, we have been charged to preserve intact that deposit. ‘Keep that which is committed to thy trust,’ wrote S. Paul to his disciple Timothy, (1 20). S. Vincent of Lérins did not think that this was only written for Timothy; all those who should succeed him, by the very fact that they are bishops, ought to receive this commandment as written for them.

“Now, the opinion which you have promulgated of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mother of our Saviour, would add to the faith. In fact, before the eleventh century of the Christian era, no such prerogative was anywhere recognised as belonging to the Blessed Virgin. If we turn either to the Eastern or the Western Church, and interrogate these two parts of the Catholic world upon their faith, we cannot find in either of them the slightest trace of this opinion before the time we have mentioned. If we appeal to the writings of the sovereign pontiffs your predecessors, we are convinced that they did not hold this opinion before the century above-mentioned; still further, it would not be difficult for us to quote some words of the sovereign pontiffs which are contrary to it. Let us only point out Innocent III., Innocent V., and Clement VI. It would be equally easy for us to cite some clear passages of Holy Scripture diametrically opposed to this new opinion. We can gain nothing, then, from the two sources of the Divine Word in favour of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, Mother of God. Therefore, to preserve this deposit as much as in us lies, we raise our voices, and we say that the said doctrine carries on its face the mark of novelty. This is the first and important reason which our judgement induces us to put forth.

They also wrote the following which should give us cause to pause and consider carefully the matter of late revelations and particularly those given to individuals…

“About two centuries ago, the ambassador of Philip IV., king of Spain, asked, in the name of his master, your predecessor, Alexander VII., a decision on the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin. This Pope wished to know if he could decide the question, and he interrogated Cardinal Bona on this subject. The pious and learned Cardinal replied to him, that neither the Holy See nor the Church herself could make new articles of faith, but that they could only declare what God had revealed to His Church, after having examined, according to rule, the traditions transmitted from the apostles. ‘Could I not,’ replied the Pope, ‘under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, decide what we ought to believe on this point?’ ‘Most holy Father,’ said Bona, ‘that which might be divinely discovered to you, could only serve for you, and it would not be permitted you to oblige the faithful, any more than myself, to adhere to your decision.’ Would to God that a procedure so wise and so catholic had been followed by all the successors of S. Peter!

As I wrote yesterday (here)… “lex orandi, lex credendi” and NOT the other way around is the only way to understand Tradition. Similarly, we should take the Apostle Paul’s warnings to heart; it is one thing to have a proper respect and appreciation for the Blessed Mother of God and venerate her appropriately and it is another thing to appreciate miracles as signs of God’s favour and His will among us, but it is quite something other to rely on “supernatural” revelations that go against the grain of “that which I received and in turn passed onto you” [cf 1 Cor 15:3]. No doubt this post may ruffle a few feathers, but I can do no more nor less than my predecessors as a bishop of the Church.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi… semper et ubique Fidelis!

‡Jerome OSJV

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