Last summer in the Boston suburb of Milton, Mass, thousands turned up at a local hospital to view an image of Mary in a window. An estimated 25,000 people, inevitably joined by morning talk show crews, jammed the hospital parking lot one weekend to catch a glimpse of Mary in flowing garments and with arms outstretched like a giant Catholic Mass card. The crowds became so overwhelming that hospital administrators covered the window with a tarp to dissuade the milling hordes from blocking access to the hospital. The tarp was eventually drawn back between the hours of 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. as a concession to the gawkers.
Interestingly, the hospital didn't take a firm position in regard to the phenomenon itself. While explaining that the image was the product of chemicals mixing with condensation, the hospital's official statement added, "If there is a special message, it is believed by many that the purpose is to affirm the charitable mission of Milton Hospital to continue to serve the sick." This was more generous even than the Catholic archdiocese in Boston, which denied that the image had any supernatural origins.
Most Americans equate visions of the Blessed Virgin with sightings of the UFO variety, or with fairy tales rooted in myths from long ago and far away: the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico seen by a 16th century Aztec peasant, or the healing grotto in Lourdes, France where Mary is said to have appeared 18 times to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858. But Marian visions are at a historic high, and though some occur in exotic sounding places like Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, they happen more often and closer to home than we might think. Johann G. Roten, a priest of the Society of Mary and Director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, estimates that there are half a dozen reports of sightings every week. "Not all of them authentic," he quickly adds.
In the past 100 years, alone, Roten says, there have been between 380 and 400 apparitions that have attracted attention and scrutiny at regional, national or international levels, with the Roman Catholic Church looking into about 75 or 80 and recognizing a handful. At the regional level, you might have something like the Milton event, which attracts participants for a short period of time. Other sightings sustain a national buzz for years. In Conyers, Georgia, the Blessed Mother reportedly appeared to housewife and mother Nancy Fowler monthly from 1990 until 1993, and then annually until 1998. Then there are international phenomena, like that of Medjugorje, where a group of children first saw Mary in a light-gray robe standing on a cloud in 1981, and have been seeing and speaking with her daily ever since. The small Croatian-speaking village (now in Bosnia-Herzegovinia) still attracts millions of pilgrims from all over the world every year.
The trick, of course, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Because the vast majority of Mary-sighters are Catholics, and because of the Church's official devotion to Mary, the Vatican is the ultimate arbiter of the veracity of the visions. The Church stresses that extreme care should be taken to discriminate between bona fide religious experiences and inauthentic claims. The Church's method has traditionally been fairly hands off. It prefers, says Roten, to "let the phenomenon take its course, observe it over a period time, give it leeway.to see how it plays out."
Roten himself is squarely behind the authenticity of many of these sightings. "If indeed God is God, then He is omnipotent and has the possibility of manifesting Himself." Therefore, reasons Roten, "the possibility of apparitions should be accepted."
Some observers come to the same conclusion, but get there by different means. China Galland, an American who has written and taught about the feminine divine, travelled to Medjugorje in 1988 and was present at a session with three of the six visionaries who have grown up seeing Mary sometimes daily since first spotting her on a hillside as children twenty years ago. Galland photographed the visionaries, and later interviewed one of them.
Galland describes her experience with the visionaries as a "real gift," one that helped her understand that if, in fact, a "benevolent being came to visit a human being, it would come in a way that is familiar and consoling." In the East, she reasons, this being might take the form of Tara, a Bodhisattva figure in Buddhism. To young Croatian Catholics, the being may take the form of Mary. In her book, "Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna," Galland writes that she was "grateful to have been allowed into the presence of the Mother of God or God the Mother, as I think of her." "But," she adds, "we are always in this presence. Only rarely do we become aware of it."
Galland admits that she saw nothing in the choir loft where the apparitions supposedly take place, but she came away convinced that they had a bona fide spiritual experience. Citing the Biblical passage, "By their fruits you shall know them," she talks about the deep joy she felt after the session. "It was a love feast," she says of her session with the children and the town of Medjugorge itself. "It's a delight-this joy of the divine. Rarely do we get to experience it" she says. "Yet it was a very clear feeling I had there."
Galland, author and scholar in the area of divine female images, sees the apparitions on two levels. It could be, she says, an "intra-psychic phenomenon where people's beliefs might constellate something that they are longing for." Or, it could be a metaphysical event occurring "outside of ourselves rather than from our deep interior."
Seeing Mary sightings as a psychological phenomenon need not belittle them as spiritual events. Writing in "San Francisco Catholic," Fr. Ron Rolheiser calls Marian devotion "the mysticism of the poor." "In relating to her," he writes, "countless people, without the benefit of professional training in theology or liturgy, have wonderfully appropriated to themselves deep, essential truths about God's person, presence, compassion, and providence. They know and taste God's love through their relationship to Mary."
Galland, who describes herself as both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic, says there is much that we don't know about this world and about the nature of the mind. Conversations with Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, have convinced her that the power of devotion and a strong concentration of the mind can call forth a deity. Called the phenomenon of self-arising, the Buddhists believe that spiritual beings can be invoked when there is an appropriate convergence of time, place, and person.
Despite the numerous false claims and possibility for scams, Roten firmly sees value in apparitions. He says he personally "knows people 'graced' by apparitions" by which he means they are changed and transformed. "Some people have a change of heart triggered by their experience, not of a personal apparition but through participation in an event related to an apparition."
Whatever we choose to believe, Marian apparitions seem to touch a chord deep within human beings and express enduring truths, truths we're perhaps more in need of today than ever.