The messages of the Virgin: an interpretation
Zimdars-Swartz Sandra L. Popular Devotion to the Virgin. The Marian Phenomena at Melleray, Republic of Ireland / Dévotion populaire à la Vierge. Le phénomène marial de Melleray en République d'Irlande. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 67/1, 1989. pp. 125-144.
Public Apocalyptic Apparitions
Belief in apparitions has been part of Christianity since its inception. An apparition may be understood as the appearance within the physical environment to one or more individuals of person whom they would not expect to be within their immediate perceptual range. Apparitions are generally distinguished from internal visions or locutions which are experienced as part of a mystical state and which are sometimes described as being perceived by “the mind's eye”. The possibility of apparitions in Christianity is suggested first of all by the so-called resurrection appearances of Jesus. But Jesus is by no means the only figure reported to have appeared thus to Christian believers. During the Middle Ages devotees of particular saint often reported that the saint had appeared to them. Most popular of all the saints was the Virgin Mary, and reports other appearances to her faithful abounded. Common too were reports that statues of the Virgin moved or came alive and interacted with human beings. While the Reformation brought about the demise of these phenomena in those areas most subject to its influence, they have continued within Roman Catholicism and other parts of the Christian tradition. ‹…›
Christian has compared these events to missions and revivals with the Virgin as the missionary and the visionary merely the medium for conveying her presence. One purpose of these events is to revive flagging faith on social scale and Daithi O'Hogain properly emphasizes here the importance of the public ritual. In times of social crises he argues believers have recourse to phenomena which apppeal to the emotions and buttress traditional ideologies. But while external factors such as social crises may very well underlie and precipitate ritual response, it is the content of the ritual which constitutes the religious meaning and in the case of the public apocalyptic apparition, the messages themselves are the focal points of this religious meaning. Messages of previous apparitions are repeated and modified as the contemporary event unfolds, becoming points of reference for the believers for understanding and establishing the meaning of the contemporary events. ‹…›
The messages of the Virgin: an interpretation
The Themes of Apparitions
The themes emphasized in the summary an — angry God, the need for moral improvement, prayer as the means for that improvement, and an impending disaster which might be averted — give the apparitions at Melleray a decidedly apocalyptic character, and suggest the usefulness of classifying them with the public apocalyptic apparitions as described by Christian and others.
The apparitions are identified by the name of the site
The apparitions are identified by the name of the site, since the seers are understood to be only the medium through which the Virgin addresses the world. The best known of these apparitions are those which have been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church: rue du Bac (Paris, France, 1830), La Salette (France, 1846), and Fatima (Portugal, 1917). A brief examination of the messages conveyed in these apparitions and in two more recent apparitions, Garabandal (Spain, 1961-1965) and Medjugorje (Yugoslavia, 1981-present) will illuminate the interpretative framework which the Melleray believers bring to the events at their grotto.
Urgency and Immediacy
In the messages of these apparitions the divine-human relationship is characterized by sense of urgency and immediacy. God is not simply portrayed as angry with the world, but as so angry and offended by the sins of humankind that his justice demands immediate punishment.
The amount of time between the apparition and the impending punishment varies, but in all cases it is understood to be within the lifetime of the seer. Catherine Labouré (rue du Bac) reported that Mary told her that the times were evil and warned that France and the world would be plunged into suffering. Although Mary did not specify the time when this would happen, by an inner prompting Catherine understood that forty years was meant.
The three children at Fatima were told that God was already too greatly offended. The current war would end, Mary told them, but another even greater one would begin in the reign of Pope Pius XI if people did not stop offending God.
Conchita Gonzales reported two messages at Garabandal concerning an imminent chastisement. On October 18, 1961, the Virgin told her that the “cup is already filling up and if we do not change a very great chastisement will come upon us”. Four years later, on June 18, 1965, Conchita reported that the Archangel Michael appeared to her with a message from the Virgin. People had not heeded her earlier message, and now the cup was overflowing.
Reasons of God's Anger
The cause of God's anger is understood here, as in most Christian theology, as sin. The XIXth century apparitions focus on sins of personal order. At rue du Bac, for example, Mary complained about the abuses in observing the rules of the two Communities of St. Vincent de Paul, and she specifically cited useless reading, loss of time, and visits.
At La Salette, she cited working on Sunday, swearing in her name, neglecting to attend Mass, mocking religion, and eating meat during Lent.
With the apparition at Fatima, however, new element was introduced. Mary asked for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart and the Communion of Reparation on the first Saturdays. If her requests were heeded, she said, Russia would be converted and the world would have peace, If not, Russia would spread its errors throughout the world and various conflicts would ensue. Mary did promise a final victory. In the end, she said, her Immaculate Heart would triumph; the Pope would consecrate Russia to her, it would be converted, and a certain period of peace would be granted to the world.
Communism, Secularism and Modernism — Forms of Atheism
To followers of Fatima, Russia is symbol of atheism in its communist form, other forms of which are secularism and modernism. The personal sins of the XIXth century apparitions are now seen as but symptoms of this much more basic abuse of the divine-human relationship. The sin of atheism is emphasized in the current series of apparitions at Medjugorje, but here the converted Russia of the future is held up as a criticism of civilization in the West. Mary is reported to have told Marija Pavlovic in October 1981 that “Russia is the people where God will be most glorified. The West has advanced civilization, but without God, as though it were its own creator”. Other messages stress that God exists and that in him is true happiness and abundance of life.
Major Catastrophes are Results of Sin
In these apparitions, major catastrophes are basically understood as the results of sin. Famine, war, and persecution of the Church are identified in the apparitions as warnings to humankind to reform and as chastisements for offenses committed against God and occasionally, Mary. At La Salette Mary told the children that she had warned people to reform in the previous year by means of the failure of the potato crop. People had not heeded her warning; rather, they swore in her Son's name when they discovered that the potatoes had rotted. She warned that great famine would come and that children would tremble and die in their parents' arms, and adults would pay for their sins by hunger. The messages at Fatima also make explicit that these catastrophes are the retribution of divine justice. Mary warned that “when you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that it is the great sign that God gives you that he is going to punish the world by means of war, hunger, and persecution of the Church and of the Holy Father”.
Jesus — the Agent of Justice
In these apparitions Jesus is most often portrayed as the agent of justice, and Mary, as the intercessor with her Son on behalf of humankind. At La Salette, for example, Mary told Melanie and Maximin that if people did not reform she would be forced to loose her Son's arm. That arm was already heavy, pressing, and crushing. Mary emphasized that she had suffered long in this effort for humankind, and no matter how well people acted in the future, they would not be able to make up to her what she had endured for their sake. This relationship between Jesus and Mary is echoed in part at Medjugorje. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1981, the six children reported seeing the Virgin on her knees, entreating her Son to forgive the world for the heavy sins by which it offended him. At Fatima, Mary's role as intercessor is emphasized with focus on her Immaculate Heart. In several messages she stressed that to save sinners God wished to establish world-wide devotion to her Immaculate Heart. To all those who would embrace it she promised salvation. If people did what she asked, she said, many souls would be saved and there would be peace.
The Senarios of Final Events
In the worldview of these apparitions, however, these catastrophes are not inevitable. A major purpose of the apparitions is to provide another opportunity for people to convert, that is, to turn from their sins and thus to prevent the impending catastrophe. Mary promised at La Salette that conversion would bring abundance; the rocks would become piles of wheat, and the potatoes would appear to have sown themselves.
The senario of final events proposed at Garabandal involves a Warning and a Miracle. According to Conchita, when the Warning comes, people will find themselves alone in the world before God. They will be able to see all their sins and what those sins have caused. The Miracle will be such, that the entire world can see it at the same time, and permanent Sign will be established in the pines above Garabandal, where the majority of the apparitions took place. According to Conchita, the Virgin said that if people did not convert with the Warning and the Miracle, punishment would follow. Devotees of Garabandal currently await Conchita's advance announcement of the Miracle.
At Medjugorje it is explicitly denied that the punishments are inevitable and can only be alleviated. According to Helena Vasilj, youngster who claims an interior perception of the Virgin, Mary considered the inevitability of catastrophe an opinion of “false prophets”. She had always said, rather, that the punishments would only come if the world were not converted. Everything depended on conversion.
The Means for Conversion
The means for conversion here is prayer and penance, particularly that focused on Mary. The model of the «Miraculous Medal» was revealed to Catherine Labouré at the Sisters of Charity seminary on the rue du Bac. On the front of the medal is an image of the Virgin with the inscription, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”; on the reverse side is an «M» under which are the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The Virgin promised that all those who would wear the medal would receive great graces, and that for those who would wear it with confidence graces would abound.
At La Salette, Mary admonished Melanie and Maximin to say their prayers at night and in the morning. At a minimum they were to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary; when they could, they were to say more.
The messages at Fatima stressed prayer and sacrifices for sinners. Many souls went to hell, the Virgin said, because they had no one to make sacrifices and to pray for them. It is important to note the efficacy attributed to these prayers in the messages. At Fatima, Mary told the children to continue to pray the Rosary every day in order to obtain the end of the war.
At Medjugorje she said explicitly that fasting and prayer could prevent war. She identified herself here as the Queen of Peace and stressed that belief, prayer, fasting, and confession were the means for effecting a reconciliation of people with God and with each other.
This stress on special devotions as the means of reconciliation has an important precedent in the visions of the Sacred Heart reported by Marguerite- Marie Alacoque (1647-1690). Here Jesus is presented as overflowing with love for humankind. But people respond with ingratitude, showing coldness and contempt especially directed at His presence in the «Sacrament of Love» (Eucharist). Particularly painful is the irreverence shown by religious who are supposed to be dedicated to His service. Here as later at rue du Bac and Fatima, the heart is the central symbol of passionate divine love which expends everything for humankind but which also suffers from people's lack of response and is wounded and offended by their sins. Jesus asks Marguerite-Marie to have feast established for His Sacred Heart on the first Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. To all those who observe this devotion and get others to do so, He promises great graces. Jesus has also asked Marguerite-Marie to take Communion on the first Friday of each month and to spend an hour the preceeding Thursday night in prayer, sharing the agony He spent in the Garden of Olives. These devotions are understood as acts of reparation for the offenses Jesus has suffered and as a means of forestalling just punishments by an angry God.
The messages at Melleray repeat the apocalyptic worldview of these apparitions. The sense of urgency is conveyed by the designation of ten years as the time period within which God's anger must be forestalled. Mary appears as intercessor, calling the world to peace. Prayers, hymns, and increased attendance at Mass are the means for effecting moral reformation. Most important, however, is the role given to Ireland in this international mission. The Virgin's message to the world here is to be spread by the Irish people, and they themselves will know best how to accomplish this task. She will provide assistance by showing herself to more people in more places.
Comfort and Solace is being Offered to the Irish
The events at Melleray and how they are understood by their devotees provide a way of making sense out of related phenomena elsewhere in Ireland, where, for example, statues have been moving but messages not forthcoming. If, as editorials have suggested, comfort and solace is being offered to the Irish through these phenomena, it would seem that this should be understood in terms of the emergence of a religious worldview such as has been found at Melleray, which draws on and modifies the tradition of recent public Marian apparitions in order to establish Ireland as place of apocalyptic religious significance. In this worldview, Irish social, economic, and political crises are understood merely as a part of the current common condition of humankind which is so offensive to God. As the special object of the Virgin's concern, however, and recognizing at her urging that they are part of the problem, the Irish become qualified and indeed are then called to proclaim to the world solution. It is as if the paradigm of Mary's intervention in the more recent public apocalyptic apparitions, the best known of which to the Irish is Fatima, has been transplanted onto Irish soil. Said one believer at Melleray, “If you understand Fatima, you will know that all of this [the moving statue phenomena] is true”. Nearer to the events in Ireland in time and kind, however, is the current series of apparitions at Medjugorje. The Irish Catholic reported on November 7, 1985, that the seers had questioned Mary on the events on Ireland. The message that they received was that the Irish “are to be the messengers of my messages”.