Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-century Catholic Europe
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
WHEN the Virgin Mary appeared to three children at Fatima in 1917, the youngest, Francisco, wanted to throw a stone at whatever his sister Lucia was seeing. Lucia, meanwhile, both heard and spoke to the apparition, while Jacinta saw and heard. Francisco saw her eventually, too.
This little cameo neatly sums up the faith response of even the most devout when presented with evidence of apparitions. There will always be the stone-throwers; always those whose acceptance is partial; and always those who accept the whole package.
Subtitled Apparitions of Mary in 20th-century Catholic Europe, this book makes a serious and detailed exposition of the evidence. Like a woodcutter armed with a chainsaw, Chris Maunder cuts through a veritable forest of apparitions, lining up his material in neatly labelled stacks, story by story, country by country. The book concludes with an exhaustive 12-page bibliography. Unashamedly forensic in his approach, the author traces the cult of Mary back to its origins in the Greco-Roman classical and Hebrew patriarchal traditions, and takes up the narrative again in the 19th century, notably in France (Catherine Labouré at the Rue du Bac; La Salette; Lourdes) and at Fatima in Portugal. This he regards as the most archetypical of apparitions.
By examining Fatima at some length he is able to extrapolate his thesis that the way to understand and interpret apparitions is not to ask how, what, or even whether they happened, but rather to explore the contexts in which they emerge. That way the reader can lay aside any stones he or she might have thrown and engage with what is really going on.
The result is an intriguing and insightful book that explores the political and religious history of the 20th century through a particular lens: that of popular piety and lay engagement. Fatima is somehow normative, because its ramifications were felt decades later, when various Popes either tried or failed to carry out the requests made by the Virgin Mary in “her communication to humanity” about praying for Russia. For Russia? For the conversion of Russia? For the downfall of communism?
After a useful chapter explaining how the Church itself “receives” apparitions, Maunder goes on to identify what he sees as one of the inherent problems with this issue of reception: namely, that visionaries are often women and children. He considers the question whether, for example, the naïvety of youth indicates a certain permeability, the existence of a place where the veil between the seen and the unseen might become thin. And does the reception of female visions relate to what might have been considered, in less progressive times, hysteria? Given that the apparitions number into the thousands and that the Vatican has “accepted” only a fraction of them, this question remains fascinating, especially when another toxic ingredient is added. Fatima is not the only place where Muslim and Christian women worship side by side, united in their veneration for the mother of Jesus. The Church finds this hard to deal with and tries to pretend it is not happening; the women know differently.
Yet Maunder can claim a natural conformism for the countries and groups among whom the visions occur. “The Catholic sub-communities in which apparition cults have arisen are generally those that have resisted political, social and moral change,” he writes. Hence Garabandal; hence Medjugorje. Hence, strangely, the right-wing bias of the apocryphal messages that so often accompany the sightings — though Nazism, and even religious indifference or secularism, also take the rap.
In the 21st century, apparitions have slackened off, not because Mary has lost her hold on the popular imagination but because, in an age of instant travel and 24-hour rolling news, what hope is there for a new shrine? Though my better-informed friends tell me she does appear on a garage rooftop in Cairo…
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.