My little Catholic community has a special connection to one of the famous Marian apparitions. We even had a feast day for her recently, at which I played an important part. Yet the night of the feast, when the nice little old Congregationalist neighbor lady came by and asked what I had been up to, I told her about the feast and went into scoffing mode. "You know us Catholics," I said, "seeing Mary everywhere." I downplayed as somewhat embarrassing the apparition that had been the founding vision of my community. But instead of joining in with my hilarity, she let me prattle on. I think she felt bad for me.
Then, I felt bad for me too.
I guess that I am of two minds - or one mind and one heart -- about apparitions of the Virgin. My heart can tell you about the rocky-soiled hillsides and poverty-stricken people who are graced with the presence of Our Lady. But my mind is filled with the possibility of scheming prelates, mentally unbalanced kids and the desperate sick eager for any miracle that might take away their pain. The Church itself is divided about many apparitions, not preventing the faithful from attending, but holding back on wholehearted support. In the 1970s, Garabandal, Portugal was a problem site, never accepted by the Church. Medugorje in Serbia, in spite of the throngs of Catholics who have trod its hills, has yet to receive official ecclesiastical approbation.
So it's no wonder that I, science-minded and suspicious of simplistic evocations of the numinous, am doubly doubtful of the veracity of claims that the Blessed Mother of Jesus Christ visits earth to solace and scold her children -- the Roman Catholic ones, almost exclusively.
I admit that Mary has a nice habit of popping in on the kinds of people you'd expect a heavenly mother to visit. Juan Diego (maybe a mythical figure) was an Indian peasant, a man whose race had been recently brutally conquered by the Conquistadors. Mary visited him and not his conquerors. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes--a lice-ridden, poor daughter of a deadbeat father, a girl who didn't even speak proper French--received a visit from a lady who spoke her mountain patois. The children of Fatima were poor shepherd children, yet saw a healing vision that still draws crowds of hopeful invalids.
But there's also the dark side of Marian sightings. The weird threats to wipe out crops unless people turn back to Jesus (La Salette). The terrifying visions of Hell (Fatima) . The stories of the sun falling out of the sky (curious echoes of a pre-Copernican cosmology!) that were not see anywhere else on earth (Fatima again). The predictions of a televised end of the world (Garabandal). The enigmatic secrets withheld for decades by the Vatican (Fatima again, again). The threats to women who wear short skirts (Flushing, NY). You'd think that the gentle virgin mother of a loving God-man would be less apocalyptic, less scary and less selective about appearing only to Catholics.
Hence, my ambivalence toward apparitions.
Yet, I need to acknowledge my shame at making fun of them to an "outsider." Is it possible to have an open heart toward the possibility that the Virgin Mary could appear to her children on earth? Could she be warning us of the folly of our ways -- not just of failing to say the rosary, but of treating each other like animals, denying justice and dignity and of ruining her Son's creation? At the end of the day, I am not looking for a politically correct Mary, but one whose concerns fall outside the parochial scope of prelates and the pious.