The Power of the Virgin

January-February 1992By David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Virginia

Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje.  By Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz. Princeton University Press. 342 pages. $24.95.



Nothing is more mysterious to non-Catholics than the Catholic Church’s devotion to Mary. Protestants, such as myself, reared on the principle of sola scriptura, know Mary largely as the faithful mother whose life steadily descended from the glories of the Annunciation to the pathos of the Crucifixion, with little but heartache and rejection in between. Her last appearance in the New Testament comes in the first chapter of Acts, when she gathers with the apostles and the “brothers” of Jesus in the Upper Room and devotes herself to prayer. And then, apart from an uncertain reference in Chapter 12 of Revelation the woman threatened by the dragon — is she Mary or the Church? — she disappears from the Scriptures. This means, for Protestants, that there is little else to be said of her.

Yet, Henry Adams, not a Catholic (indeed, of Puritan descent), stood in Chartres Cathedral and was awed by the power of the Virgin who inspired its building. I’ve had the same haunting sense in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. By themselves, the pages of Scripture do not, cannot, explain the passions with which these sublime works are built, or even the more commonplace objects of devotion which, to the skeptic, seem like superstitious kitsch. From the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral to the cheap plastic images of the Immaculate Heart adorning residences in barrios and trailer parks, the same animating devotion is at work. But the Church, though grateful for the devotion, has wrestled constantly over the centuries with what it all means. For Bernard of Clairvaux, Mary was the great mediator, her Son being altogether too just and transcendent for sinners to approach. But for Aquinas, Mariology was at most an appendix to Christology.

In recent times there have been only two ex cathedra papal pronouncements. Both of them — the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 — concern Mary. In both instances, decisions about the place of Mary in the life of the Church have been made, if not dispassionately, then at least soberly, prudently, and on the basis of evidence and reflection that took centuries to attain. It takes longer for the Church to reach a dogmatic conclusion about Mary than it does to build a cathedral in her name. Such measured actions are usually the very heart of wisdom. What, then, is the Church to make of claims of Marian apparitions — of encounters with Mary that come, at unexpected times, to what are usually poor, unlettered children? And what is the Church to make of those millions of faithful who believe, beyond doubt, that those appearances were real, and who find meaning and comfort at the sites where they occurred?

In the past two centuries, there have allegedly been scores of such appearances. In Encountering Mary, Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz takes a phenomenological approach to these latter-day apparitions, examining six that have had the longest term impact on piety and devotion: La Salette and Lourdes in the 19th century, and Fatima, San Damiano, Garabandal, and Medjugorje in the 20th. Many of the apparitions bear strikingly similar features: The Blessed Virgin appears to one or more young people of generally impoverished background who, at first, do not recognize her. She speaks words of comfort and assurance to them, and at various times returns to them at the spot where they first met. She eventually tells them secrets, some of which they may reveal and some of which they may not. Her appearances provoke a state of ecstasy among those who see her. The vast majority of those present at the apparitions witness the seers’ ecstasy rather than Mary herself, but nonetheless many begin to ascribe heavenly significance to the event. Local Church authorities are initially cautious, wanting neither to deny the validity of what could be an authentic appearance of Mary, nor to be guarantors of what could be self-delusion or a hoax. The child seers endure the hostility and mistrust of their families and local authorities (the mayor jailed the three young seers of Fatima and threatened to boil them in oil unless they revealed the Virgin’s secrets). Eventually, if the apparitions are affirmed by the Church (though they are never required as articles of faith), a shrine is built on the spot and becomes a center of devotion. Pilgrims seek peace and healing there. Some receive the healing; almost all receive the peace.

It is the messages given the seers that cause Church authorities the most concern. Some are unexceptional — believers must repent and be more devoted to acts of piety and charity. Some have cataclysmic implications — her Son’s hand is ready to fall in wrath on the earth, and Mary can barely restrain him. And some are veiled, notably “the third secret of Fatima,” passed on to the Vatican in 1957 and still unrevealed. Of course, an unrevealed secret is practically a tabula rasa, and the one from Fatima has been used to project some sensational and hair-raising apocalypses. Zimdars-Swartz cites a useful caution from Fr. Francis L. Filas of Loyola University (Chicago), who said in 1959 that many writers and editors who had promoted speculation about the message of Fatima had gone beyond “the approved teaching of Catholic theologians concerning private revelations….”

Regarding the apparitions which have allegedly been occurring at Medjugorje (about which the Holy See has not yet issued a verdict), many have criticized Pavao Zanic, the bishop in whose diocese Medjugorje lies, for his hostility to the events transpiring there. But bishops are charged with being conservors of the faith, which is why they so often seem, well, conservative. It would certainly be in the bishop’s financial interest if he would embrace wholeheartedly what is going on — consider the funds that could flow undiminished into his impoverished Yugoslav diocese. That he has not done so is a mark of his integrity. But that is not to say that he is not perhaps erroneous in his opposition — bishops, too, make mistakes.

One striking note of the later apparitions — particularly at Fatima and Medjugorje — has to do with the peril posed by Communism and the Soviet Union. Fatima seer Lucia Santos’s Third Memoir, written in 1941, claimed that in 1917 — the year of the Russian Revolution — the Virgin had revealed to her that if Russia was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Pius XII consecrated the entire world to her in 1942) and the Communion of Reparations was offered on First Saturdays, “Russia would be converted, and there would be peace.” The prospect of peace in 1941 must have seemed a pipe dream. When World War II ended and the cold war began, the conversion of Russia would have seemed the stuff of fairy tales: The astonishing, largely nonviolent collapse of Communism in what was the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war are matters of record. The reasons behind these good things are open to analysis. Still, one cannot help thinking that more was at work there than economics.

Yet, one must be cautious: Conversion to democracy and market economics is not the same thing as conversion to Christ. Moreover, Yugoslavia, homeland of Medjugorje, is, at this writing, collapsing into chaos and civil war; it has hardly found peace.

Zimdars-Swartz writes in cool, measured tones. Her style, off-putting at first, comes to be much appreciated, and lends her work great credibility. She is neither a scoffer nor an apologist, and she has great respect for facts. She sympathizes both with the Church as it sorts out the claims and counter-claims that surround alleged Marian apparitions and with those who believe they have encountered Mary or have been affected by an apparition.

To that I would here add a story of my own: Several years ago, the father of a four-year-old stood outside the door of a hospital room and wept. His desperately ill son had been diagnosed with meningitis; but whether it was the life-threatening bacterial type, or the much more benign viral type could not be known until the results came back from a spinal tap. Two weeks earlier the father had prayed with the parents of another young child, who did have bacterial meningitis. It was uncertain then that she would live through the night. She did, though, and was on her way to the fullness of health. But now, with his own son gravely ill with what was potentially the same disease, the father was suffering a kind of theological madness. Was this a visitation because of an answered prayer? Is there a cosmic arithmetic that says, “I gave you a life because you asked for it, and now I claim one in return”? In rational moments, he would not have thought such things — it was the theology of enormity — but he was too stricken to be rational. An old cleaning woman, noting his distress, came up and asked if she could say the rosary over his child. The father was not Catholic; the cleaning woman had not met him before; she was both presumptuous and kind. “See?” she said, holding up the rosary. “See how every other link in the chain is gold? That’s because it was blessed at Medjugorje. My cousin sent it to me.” The father nodded. In rational moments he would not have believed that, but he was not rational, and he wanted to believe. She went in, and said the rosary over his son while the father stood outside the door. She came out and said, “He’ll be fine, now,” and walked away, pushing her cart in front of her. A few moments later, the attending doctor came. “I just heard — the early indication is that the tests are going to be negative,” he said. “I’m almost positive it’s viral. You son’s going to be fine.” And he was.

Many times in the years to come, the father saw the old cleaning woman in the hospital, who always asked about his son, and he would thank her for asking. Even now, the father makes no claims about the empirical truth of what transpired at Medjugorje, or for that matter at La Salette or Lourdes or Fatima. Once in a great while, when he is feeling particularly intellectual, he will blush at his credulity in the matter of the gold links in the rosary. But more often, he will remember the animating love that moved a stranger to do what she did; and sometimes, that will lead him to reflect about the animating love that must have moved the Mother of our Lord to do what she did; and sometimes, in particularly grace-filled moments, he will think that she is doing it even now.



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