The cover story for the latest edition of National Geographic. “How the Virgin Mary Became the World’s Most Powerful Woman“, looks at the rise of the ‘cult’ of the Virgin Mary, specifically through the lens of the miraculous/supernatural/Fortean apparitions of – and ‘healings’ by – the mother of Jesus throughout history. Award-winning journalist Maureen Orth looks at how the iconic religious figure has permeated Western culture (as well as Islamic culture to some extent as well), and how alleged miracles in her name provide sustenance to her on-going mythos:
Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fátima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture (Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” Notre Dame Cathedral), as well as poetry, liturgy, and music (Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin). And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.
Praying for the Virgin Mary’s and being devoted to her are a global phenomenon. The notion of Mary as intercessor with Jesus begins with the miracle of the wine at the wedding at Cana, when, according to the Gospel of John, she tells him, “They have no wine,” thus prompting his first miracle. It was in A.D. 431, at the Third Ecumenical Council, in Ephesus, that she was officially named Theotokos, Bearer of God. Since then no other woman has been as exalted as Mary. As a universal symbol of maternal love, as well as of suffering and sacrifice, Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. Pope Francis, when once asked what Mary meant to him, answered, “She is my mamá.”
Her reported appearances, visions experienced often by very poor children living in remote or conflict-wracked areas, have intensified her mystery and aura. And when the children can’t be shaken from their stories—especially if the accounts are accompanied by inexplicable “signs” such as spinning suns or gushing springs—her wonder grows
Apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported throughout post-New Testament history, but in the last 450 years alone there have been more than 2000 reported sightings (see the map below for a graphic representation – the National Geographic story has a larger version for ease of viewing).
The Catholic Church however is very careful in officially recognising such events, with only sixteen of those being sanctioned as true miracles. Their pain-staking process of investigation covers many aspects of each sighting, though “the ‘authenticity’ and mental stability of the seer are prime, and anyone suspected of trying to gain fame or riches from contact with the Virgin Mary is ignored or condemned”. Furthermore, “the Vatican would never approve an alleged apparition whose message contradicted church teachings, and the faithful aren’t required to believe in apparitions.”
The locations of apparitions and healings, such as Lourdes and Medjugorje, have become famous the world over.
Here’s a video made by National Geographic to accompany their story, “Five things to know about Marian apparitions”:
One aspect unfortunately not covered in the story is the Fortean interpretation – are these apparitions actually Christian/Islamic, or are they something else, simply being interpreted through that lens? Jacques Vallee covered some of these thoughts in his book Passport to Magonia, in which he discusses VM apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, and another at Knock in Ireland, and how some elements also match those found in sightings of other strange phenomena, such as UFOs and ‘fairy folk’, throughout history. (I also specifically covered the similarity in ‘sounds’ heard during these sightings in my article “Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the aural phenomenology of border experiences“.) From spinning disks to falls of ‘angel hair’, there are some distinctly strange aspects to a number of ‘Virgin Mary’ apparitions.
An interesting article nonetheless, although one can only wonder how much criticism it might receive from scientific quarters given recent concerns that Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of National Geographic, and the subsequent cuts to staff within the organisation, might lead to a less scientific approach from the iconic science magazine.