Catholicism For Dummies, 4th Edition
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A form of Marian devotion, Catholics can visit a holy place where an apparition of Mary has occurred. Catholics believe that a shrine is a holy place, usually where an apparition or other miracle took place or where a saint lived, worked, or died. Shrines are often connected to or located inside of a chapel or church so the faithful can pray and worship God, especially through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as a devotion.

An apparition is an appearance of Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints. It's not a physical presence of the holy person but an appearance — an image being imprinted on the senses. This is the reason that not everyone sees or hears the apparitions or locutions (speeches). Those who do are called visionaries. Catholics aren't obligated to believe in any particular apparition because apparitions aren't part of public revelation. The Church does, however, carefully investigate claims of alleged apparitions and then makes one of the following determinations:

  • It's a hoax. Someone is pretending to see apparitions when, in reality, they're lies or staged illusions.
  • Natural causes can explain it. Evidence of a supernatural occurrence is nonexistent. The visionaries may be prayerful and holy people without any intent to deceive, but upon investigation, evidence of a miraculous apparition can't be found. For example, maybe tears rolled down the cheeks of a statue of Mary, but when you look more closely, you see that some old steamy water pipes near the ceiling are slowly dripping right onto the statue's face.
  • The phenomenon can't be explained one way or the other. Any evidence of a supernatural occurrence is inconclusive — too many unanswered questions exist and not enough, if any, evidence.
  • The devil is at work. It's a supernatural event all right, but not of heavenly origin. Rather, it's an attempt by the devil to ridicule and mock the faith.
  • It's a supernatural event of heavenly origin. The apparition or locution is credible and worthy of faithful pilgrims.
The Church condemns any and all hoaxes as well as any trick of the devil and repudiates any apparitions of natural explanation. It endorses only authentic apparitions of supernatural and heavenly origin. If the evidence that surrounds a particular apparition is inconclusive either way, then pilgrims are neither discouraged nor encouraged.

Even if the Church determines that an apparition is worthy of belief, Catholics aren't obligated to believe it as they're obligated to believe the words of the Apostles' Creed or Sacred Tradition. Catholics are free to believe or disbelieve apparitions because they aren't considered revealed truth. But many saints and recent popes have given full support to all apparition places and shrines deemed legitimate and authentic.

Most accounts of apparitions are appearances of Mary to children and simple, humble people of faith. She asks them to pray to her son, pray for sinners, do penance, pray the Rosary daily for world peace, and live holy lives in obedience to God.

Anytime weird messages or secrets are supposedly released, particularly if someone claims to know when the world will end, the Church says you can be assured that it's not authentic. The reason, according to the Church, is that Jesus said, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matthew 24:36). So why would His mom know and why would she blab and spill the beans?

See the following listing of some famous Marian shrines and/or apparition sites that the Church has sanctioned:
  • Our Lady of the Snows, Rome, Italy: In a.d. 352, several prayerful folks had the same dream: Mary told them that she would indicate the site on which to build a church in her honor by a miraculous snowfall. Now known as St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore in Italian), it's one of the churches where the pope says Mass.
  • Our Lady of Walsingham, England: In gratitude for a favor received through the intercession of Our Lady, a wealthy woman built a small chapel to honor her in 1061. It inspired many pilgrims, the weak and the powerful, the poor and the wealthy, until Henry VIII outlawed the pilgrimages to this shrine.
  • The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland: Catholics popularly believe that St. Luke painted Mary's portrait, which eventually made its way to Czestochowa, Poland, where it has been enshrined since 1382.
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico: Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531, leaving her image on his cloak. Today, a famous basilica in Mexico City now hosts her picture. The image is often depicted as shown in the figure.
The traditional depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
© Godong / Alamy Stock Photo
  • Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnam: In 1798, a fierce persecution aimed at Catholics forced some to take refuge in the forest. Clustered together, praying the Rosary nightly, these Vietnamese faithful saw a consoling apparition of the Mother of God. A church was later built on the spot.
  • Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Paris, France: Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Laboure, a member of the order called the Sisters of Charity, in 1830. Communicating the exact design, Our Lady asked St. Catherine that a medal be struck in her honor.
  • Our Lady of La Salette, France: In 1846, while tending their cows in a pasture, a young girl named Melanie and a young boy named Maximin, both born into poverty, saw a tall lady who never stopped weeping. Our Lady told them, in a nutshell, that folks needed to straighten up their acts and start praying or else. A beautiful Alpine shrine now marks the spot.
  • Our Lady of Lourdes, France: In 1858, asking that a chapel be built and identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady appeared to another poverty-stricken child of God, St. Bernadette, on 18 different occasions. Today's pilgrims bring containers to fill with miraculous Lourdes water. In 1943, 20th Century Fox produced Hollywood's version of the event; The Song of Bernadette won four Academy Awards.
  • Our Lady of Knock, Ireland: Our Lady, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist appeared to 15 humble, hardworking Catholics of various ages in 1879. Many pilgrims experienced healings, and a shrine was built.
  • Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal: In 1917, asking everybody to pray the Rosary daily for world peace, a beautiful lady clothed in white appeared to three young children.

About This Article

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About the book authors:

Rev. John Trigilio Jr., PhD, ThD, is president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and is executive editor of Sapienta magazine. Rev. Kenneth Brighenti is an assistant professor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary.

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