The Marian Apparition Enigma

Can Science Offer Any Credible Explanation?

On October 13,

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1917, in Fatima, Portugal, 70,000 people witnessed a miracle of the sun “dancing.” All who were present reported that they could look directly at the sun without blinking or hurting their eyes. While they were watching the sun, it appeared to come close and move far away, get larger and smaller, change colors, and rotate like a wheel. Eye specialist Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, wrote of his experience: “The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceeding fast and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat.”

Those present were gathered to witness this miracle because three children from the village had previously seen an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mother. These children were told by Our Lady of the Rosary, as she called herself, that God would perform a miracle so that people would believe the apparitions and the messages they contained. Upon seeing this miracle, many believers reaffirmed and strengthened their faith. The phenomenon also convinced hardened skeptics, who had traveled to Fatima, that something truly magical had just happened. Today, chapels, hospitals, and other facilities have been constructed at the site where millions have come to worship.

From the early days of the Christian Church, people have experienced apparitions and visions of the Virgin Mary, the first recorded being her appearance in AD 40 to the apostle James in Saragossa, Spain. They have continued throughout the centuries with almost 400 being reported worldwide in the twentieth century. Let’s take a closer look at the complex phenomena of Marian Apparitions—the personal, spiritual revelations with their social and political implications.

An apparition, in general, is an experience that is perceived as exterior images, sounds, and smells compared to a vision, which would be perceived more internally. Apparitions are distinguished from interior voices, trance mediumship, and phenomena, such as channeling, since such experiences do not have such a clear external emphasis. Sometimes the apparition is strictly visual, though it may be experienced by many people simultaneously, as with the apparitions of a luminescent image on the top of a Coptic Orthodox church of St. Mary in the Zeitoun district of Cairo, Egypt, from 1968 to 1971. These apparitions were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and even filmed.

Religious apparitions of deities or important religious figures have appeared across many different cultures and religious faiths. Apparitions have also taken the form of animals or as semi-human forms like angels or fairies. Some would even argue that some sightings of extraterrestrials are apparitional and spiritual in nature. Across the range of these possible permutations, the perceived form of the apparition carries some spiritual or religious significance to the individual.

Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary are often named after the town where they were reported, or they are given the name by which the apparition has described herself. Sometimes they recur at the same site over an extended period of time. Throughout history, Marian apparitions have been perceived by many different individuals, some who later became saints themselves, as well as by many small groups of people. More rarely large groups have seen them. The Blessed Virgin Mother often appears to young children or to poor people.

On May 13, 1917, five months before the miracle of the “dancing of the sun,” ten-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and her two cousins were herding sheep near their home village of Fátima, Portugal. Lúcia described seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” The woman described herself as Our Lady of the Rosary. Three other appearances occurred to the children in the following months. The woman strongly encouraged the children to do personal sacrifice, penance, and acts of reparation to save sinners. She taught them to bow with their heads to the ground and to say “O God, I believe, I adore, I hope, and I love you. I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love you.”

All of the recognized Marian apparitions have had a similar, strong message reaffirming the importance of practicing and adhering to the Christian doctrine. Many Roman Catholics recite the Fatima prayers today. Our Lady of the Rosary said if her message was heeded by enough people, then the Church would again experience a great renaissance. In theological terms, these Marian communications are thought of as private revelations. A Marian apparition may emphasize some facet of the received public revelation for a specific purpose, but it is never permitted to add anything new to the deposit of faith.

The Church, in fact, has specific criteria for evaluating the validity of apparitions. The person or persons receiving the apparition have to be honest, mentally balanced, lead a moral life, be obedient to Church authority, and have a willingness to practice the faith. Also, the content of the revelations have to agree with the faith and morals of the Church and lead toward a healthy devotion in people’s lives. Apparitions are not accepted by the Vatican if there are glaring errors in regard to the facts, if they have doctrinal errors, if the individuals involved pursue any financial gain or commit any immoral acts, or if they have psychological tendencies or actual disorders.

After initial investigations, if the occurrence meets the criteria, the Church will often leave the case open for public participation to see if it stands the tests of time. Historically, in most cases, Vatican approval of apparitions has followed general acceptance of a vision by well over a century. Of the 295 reported apparitions studied by the Holy See through the centuries, only 12 have been approved and there are many still under consideration. It is clear from the guidelines for approval that the Church keeps a tight reign on which apparitions are accepted, and this clearly seems to be based on what furthers the mission of the Church. Some apparitions are approved at the local level, by the local bishop, and, as with the apparitions in Zeitoun, Egypt, they have been approved by the Coptic Church but not the Roman Catholic Church.

Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima also gave the children three secrets and prophesied there would be two miracles to convince the world of the truth of her message. The first secret revealed to the children was a very graphic vision of hell and the second secret revealed how to save souls from hell by establishing devotion to the Immaculate Heart. She specifically asked for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart along with a special Communion of Reparation to be done on the first Saturdays of each month. In the second secret, she also prophesied there would be a great light in the sky that would be a sign of the start of the second great war. The third secret, which was not released to the public until 2000 foretold the death of the Pope and other religious figures, and some even suggest the original secret hasn’t been revealed by the Church because it foretold an apocalypse.

These secrets were revealed to the world at the same time the Russian Revolution was underway and Karl Marx was declaring that religion was the opiate of the people. The apparition at Fatima received a tremendous amount of press at the time because Europeans were turning away from the faith towards more materialistic, atheist attitudes. Perhaps it’s due to the importance of these messages to the Church that these apparitions received Vatican approval so quickly—in 1930, only 13 years after the event! Apparitions of Mary have repeatedly appeared during times of war and conflict asking the faithful for repentance and a turning away from sin if the most awful disasters are to be avoided. Believers feel that as the spiritual Mother of mankind she cannot stand idly by and watch humanity destroy itself through sin and selfishness.

Even though the Marian apparitions may be labeled mass hallucinations by the scientific, skeptical world, they continue to have a profound impact on the Catholic Church. They are collectively responsible for the conversion of millions of people to Roman Catholicism, the construction of some of the largest Roman Catholic Marian churches, the formation of some of the largest Marian movements, and hundreds of millions of Marian pilgrimages each year. Clearly these events strike to the heart and faith of millions of people.

Another example of a Marian apparition is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. In 1531, on the hill of Tepeyec, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a newly converted Indian. Mary directed Juan Diego to visit the Archbishop of Mexico to inform him of her desire to have a church built in her honor on Tepeyac. After two unsuccessful attempts, Mary miraculously gave her messenger, Juan Diego, red roses in a spot where only desert plants would grow. He gathered the flowers in his cloak and took them again to the Archbishop, Juan Zumarraga. When he unfolded his cloak before the bishop, the flowers cascaded to the floor and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously impressed into the cloth. The Bishop acknowledged the miracle and ordered that the shrine be built.

After almost 500 years, the cloth with the image is still displayed above the main altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It shows no signs of wear. The image shows a young, darker-skinned woman with her head lowered demurely in her shawl. She wears an open crown and flowing gown and stands upon a half moon. The symbols borrow from both Christian and pre-Columbian imagery. There is active debate as to the origination of the name Guadalupe. Though some say it was clearly a Spanish word, others suggest it is a mispronunciation of a Nahuatl name, which was the Indian language that Juan Diego spoke, which may relate to the Aztec god Quetzacoatl.

The Marian shrine on Tepeyac hill was built over the site of a pagan temple that honored the earth and fertility goddess, Tonantzin, also a lady mother associated with the moon. In pre-Hispanic times, that temple was the site of large-scale pilgrimages. The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe may be an effective blending of Catholic and pre-Hispanic beliefs. The indigenous people of Mexico needed an accessible image to provide meaning in their lives. Guadalupe may also be an example of the Catholic Church co-opting preexisting pagan beliefs to serve its ends.

Whatever the case, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the largest and most visited Marian shrines in the world. Some say Our Lady of Guadalupe was instrumental in adding almost eight million people to the ranks of Catholics in the Americas between 1532 and 1538. The Virgin of Guadalupe was declared the Patroness of Mexico City in 1737, Queen of Mexico in 1895, Patroness of Latin America in 1910, and Empress of the Americas 1945. In the mid-eighteenth century, devotion to her spread deeper among the indigenous people as a sign of liberation and nationality. In the nineteenth century she became a symbol of freedom for the oppressed native population.

It is easy for skeptics to dismiss visions appearing to single individuals as psychological aberrations and even to attribute those experienced by small groups as being the products of mass hysteria or mass hypnosis. Yet, it’s hard to deny the powerful effect these apparitions have on large masses of people. Strong faith and eagerness to believe are well known to affect human beings both mentally and physically, as with the placebo effect or faith healing. Of course, giving phenomena these labels does little to explain the power of these effects!

Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Laurentian University in Ontario, has done extensive research on how certain magnetic fields can directly stimulate the brain and can generate a “sensed presence,” much like an apparitional experience. He has created a kind of electrical helmet that stimulates people’s brains. He concluded that people identify the presence they experience as a particular personage from their belief or culture. He proposed that the cause of the mass Marian sightings in Zietoun, Egypt, might have been due to geophysical fluctuations. He also proposes that if a certain area or region is geologically active, it may become known as a sacred site, a place where people have mystical experiences.

Although more materialistically minded people see these theories as clear explanation of these mysterious phenomena, others are still not so quick to dismiss such phenomena as physically based. They assert that the capacity of humans to perceive these kinds of energies shows that we are hard-wired for these kinds of religious-spiritual experiences. People can experience apparitions without external magnetic field stimulation and the information perceived brings meaning into their lives.

Researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology are also exploring apparitions, seeing that they have important implications for understanding our human nature. This field combines scientific investigation with nonmaterial perspectives of human consciousness and the nature of reality. Apparitions of “The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace” at Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, started occurring with six children in 1981, and continue to this day. Due to the long-term, reliable nature of these apparitions, scientists have been able to study the phenomenon extensively. Taking ocular, auditory, respiratory, cardiac, electrodermal, and cortical measurements before, during, and after the apparition, researchers have concluded that the individuals do enter a shared ecstatic state. This is evidenced externally by simultaneous verbal responses, kneeling, and the raising of their eyes and heads. The research also shows that whatever they are perceiving is not processed through the normal sensory pathways and goes directly to an alpha-entrained brain. Their sympathetic nervous systems are hyperactive with heightened anesthesia and the absence of normal blinking and startle reflexes. The individuals, now adults, seem to be mentally healthy, not delusional, hysterical, or epileptic.

The debate among consciousness researchers is whether the apparition and its messages come from within the subconscious minds of the individuals or from other transcendent sources—which, interestingly, is also what the Vatican tries to ascertain in each case. The simultaneity of physical effects in the six children at Medjugorje seems to indicate a collective tuning into something other. It has been proposed that the source of the experience might come from outside—channeled through the conscious minds of the individuals involved—and then translated into their shared beliefs. Since they’re Christian, they see Mary. One wonders, if the same shared event occurred in India, might the apparition be perceived as one of the Hindu gods or saints.

It is recognized that when people do enter an altered or ecstatic state of consciousness, they are able to access other levels of being that are normally not available to ego-directed awareness. Physical scientists might be able to say which part of the brain is being stimulated or activated and which parts have gone quiet, but it still doesn’t answer the question of where the information is coming from. Because of that, transpersonal researchers believe these phenomena are worth studying more, in hopes of discovering if these are experiences where humans are able to contact another level of reality, different aspects of one’s being, or even deceased individuals.

The ability to tap into a transcendent source has been utilized by innumerable humans over millennia and across a wide variety of cultural and social settings, and will likely continue to be the case. When we hear of an individual experiencing an apparition or other miracles, we are drawn to them. Those in authority and in power will likely continue to manipulate these personal and collective experiences for the benefit of the larger systems or consensual norms. Even so, it doesn’t negate the power of an individual to access the source of his spirituality and have a direct communication with his or her God.

Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.

By Patrick Marsolek