The Virgin Mary was supposed to appear to the faithful at Knock Basilica in Ireland this past Saturday afternoon. Self-described "spiritualist and medium" Joe Coleman and his protege, Keith Henderson, predicted that the Blessed Mother would appear at 3:00 p.m. to deliver a message of great importance to the Church. About 600 people gathered, down considerably from the thousands who came out in hopes of a similar apparition at Knock on October 11, and again on October 31. While some at those gatherings claimed to have seen the sky change and the sun dance in the sky, others suffered permanent retinal damage from looking directly at the sun.
The Catholic Church has been more than cautious in discussing this latest round of apparitions, and the October 31 gathering left the Knock Basilica in such chaos and disrepair that it had to be closed for three days for cleaning. In these days when everyone's a celebrity, or aspires to be, no one remembers how we're supposed to behave around the sacred, or even what the sacred might be.
The Church has, however, approved several apparitions by the Virgin Mary. One distinguishing characteristic of all of them is that in each case, she appeared to people who were truly pure of heart, who sought no fame or reward for themselves. Here are five that met the Church's standards of truth.
1. Guadalupe, Mexico, 1531. On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a Christian convert in his late fifties, saw a beautiful woman at the top of Tepeyac Hill. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary and asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she wanted a church built at the base of the hill. The Bishop did not believe Juan Diego, and asked for proof. Returning to the hill, Juan Diego found not only the lady but a rosebush in bloom out of season. The lady told him to gather the roses as proof of her visit, and Juan Diego collected them in his cloak. When he spilled the roses out before the Bishop, the men saw a miraculous image of Our Lady herself, imprinted on the inside of the cloak. The image of the Virgin is on permanent display at the Basilica de Guadalupe, on the site of the original apparition.
2. Lourdes, France, 1858. The Virgin Mary appeared on eighteen separate occasions to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl who had not yet made her first communion. Over the course of the apparitions, "the beautiful lady," as Bernadette called her, identified herself — "I am the Immaculate Conception," a phrase Bernadette had never heard and did not understand — and showed Bernadette the source of a previously-unknown spring, whose waters have miraculous healing properties. She told Bernadette that she wanted a chapel built on the spot; today that chapel is the Basilica of the Rosary, where millions have come to ask Mary for help. The Church has confirmed dozens of miraculous cures at Lourdes; a rather out-of-date list is online here.
3. Knock, Ireland, 1879. Late in the day on August 21, Mary McLoughlin and Mary Beirne were walking home past the town church. On the back wall of the church they saw a vision: not only the Virgin Mary but St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, an altar and a lamb, with several angels. The women called out to people nearby and in the church, who came out and saw the apparition as well. None of the figures spoke, but 15 people in all saw the apparition, which lasted for two hours. Others in the village reported seeing a bright light from the back of the church, and miraculous healings have been reported in connection with visits to Knock's church ever since.
4. Fatima, Portugal, 1917. Three children — Lucia dos Santos, 10; Francesco Marto, 8; and Jacinta Marto, 7 — were playing in a field when they saw a bolt of lightning. They started to gather up the sheep when they saw a bright light above a tree, and a beautiful lady dressed in white. She spoke with them and asked them to return every month for six months, on the 13th of each month; in the seventh month, she would tell them what she wanted. Over the months that followed, the Virgin Mary asked for the consecration of Russia, and warned of a more terrible war to follow the one happening at the time. She gave the children three secrets, the last of which was shared only with the Bishop and the Pope. Francesco and Jacinta died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919-1920; Lucia lived as a nun until 2005, when she died at the age of 97. Pope John Paul II revealed the third secret in 2000, while Lucia was still alive; it was a disturbing vision of the leaders of the Church being killed by soldiers beneath a cross.
5. Banneux, Belgium, 1933. Eleven-year-old Mariette Beco, oldest child of a family of non-practicing Catholics, saw a shining, beautiful woman in white outside the window of her house. Her mother saw a light and a shape, but was frightened, and told Mariette to turn away. Mariette decided to go back to church and catechism classes. Three days after the first apparition, Mariette saw the lady again; the apparition led her to a stream and told her, "This stream is especially for me." Over six more apparitions, the lady identified herself as The Virgin of the Poor, and told Mariette to "pray much." Mariette Beco is still alive; she retreated into private life, married, and does not talk to the press. The stream is now the site of a shrine, and has been the source of at least 50 miraculous cures.