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Apparitions of the Virgin Mary:
A Protestant Look at a Catholic Phenomenon
(Part One)

by Kenneth R. Samples

Devotion to the "Blessed Virgin Mary" (as she is commonly called by Catholics) has been a centerpiece of Catholic belief and piety for centuries. However, the last century and a half has seen a dramatic increase in Marian devotion. This resurgence of the "cultus of the Virgin" can be attributed to two primary factors. First, Mary's already exalted status in the church was substantially enhanced by Catholicism's official acceptance of the Marian dogmas known as the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950).[1] The second force behind Mary's growth in popularity, especially among the laity, is not so much doctrinal as experiential. It is her alleged appearances to people throughout the world.

These appearances (called apparitions) have occurred with increasing frequency since the nineteenth century, and have attracted widespread attention. Pope Pius XII, in calling attention to the apparitions, referred to the nineteenth century as the "century of Marian predilection [i.e., preference]." And the present century cannot be far behind: one leading Marian scholar notes that there have been more than 200 reported apparitions since the 1930s alone.[2] With the various shrines dedicated to the particular apparitions attracting millions of pilgrims each year, it is easy to see that this phenomenon is having a substantial impact on the almost one-billion-member Roman Catholic church.

The focus of this two-part article will be to address this somewhat mysterious matter of Marian apparitions. In approaching this unusual phenomenon, many questions immediately arise. What actually is an apparition? What were the circumstances surrounding these supposed appearances? How does the Catholic church officially evaluate these claims? And more importantly, at least for evangelicals, what is the biblical perspective on these events? Are they supernatural in origin, or is there some natural or psychological explanation?

The intent of this article, therefore, is to address these questions through providing a survey of the phenomenon itself (especially its effect on Catholic piety), as well as furnishing a biblical and theological critique. Since this phenomenon is attracting the attention of millions of people throughout the world, it demands careful examination in the light of Scripture.


Marian dogma: A truth concerning the Virgin Mary which is proposed by the Catholic church as an article of divine revelation.

pious belief: A belief that is recognized by the church as being in harmony with Catholic teaching.

Immaculate Heart of Mary: A symbol both of Mary's maternal love for humanity and of her total commitment to God.

Immaculate Conception: The dogma defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX declaring that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without the taint of original sin.

Assumption: The dogma defined in 1950 by Pope Pius XII declaring that the Blessed Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into heaven upon her death.


The word "apparition" comes from the Late Latin word apparitio which means "appearance" or "presence." An apparition refers to the sudden appearance of a supernatural entity which directly manifests itself to a human person or group. Within a Catholic context, it could be the presence or manifestation of any supernatural figure. Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer describes an apparition as "a manifestation of God, angels or the dead (saints or not) appearing under a form that surprises the senses."[3] This revelation to the senses involves seeing, but frequently the other senses as well. Some apparitions -- usually of Mary -- have included the hearing of voices, touching the figure, and even the smelling of specific fragrances.

Apparitions, however, are commonly associated with the broader category of religious visions. A respected Catholic dictionary, edited by Donald Attwater, defines an apparition as "the name sometimes reserved for certain kinds of supernatural vision, namely, those that are bodily or visible, as is often used for the manifestation of our Lady of Lourdes, of St. Michael on Monte Gargano, etc. Owing to the meaning of the word in popular use (ghost, spook), 'appearing' better expresses these events."[4]

While present-day Western psychology frequently equates religious visions with hallucination, Catholicism maintains that an authentic apparition is of a different category. In a hallucination, the content of what is reported is delusionary; it is solely a subjective experience with no correspondence in objective reality.[5] A genuine apparition, on the other hand, is a real subject/object encounter in which the source of the perceived reality is independent of, and external to, the seer or visionary. One Catholic author describes it this way: "An authentic apparition, therefore, is not a purely subjective experience. It results from a real, 'objective,' intervention of a higher power which enables the beneficiary to make true contact with the being that appears and makes itself known."[6]

The church fully acknowledges that many so-called apparitions can be explained as nothing more than hallucinatory experience. But it maintains that if it can be shown that the seer has experienced a real objective presence that is not of this world, then an authentic apparition has occurred.


Throughout the middle ages countless numbers of supposed supernatural manifestations were reported to the church. These included everything from physical healings (often connected to ancient relics) to statues and crucifixes which were reported to have bled. While many of these unusual occurrences have been discredited or rejected in modern times, apparitions have generally remained popular and credible in the eyes of Catholics. People in the past have reported seeing apparitions of Jesus, various saints, and even the Devil himself. But the most enduring and recognizable apparitions are those of the "Blessed Virgin Mary."

Apparitions of Mary have been reported in church history as early as the fourth century. In fact, while official statistics are not kept, some Catholic theologians have speculated that there have been as many as 21,000 claimed sightings of Mary throughout history.[7] Though this figure may be excessive, the Vatican "has acknowledged a 'surprising increase' in recent years in claims of 'pseudo-mysticism, presumed apparitions, visions and messages' associated with Mary."[8] As referred to earlier, the distinguished Marian scholar Rene Laurentin has counted over 200 reported apparitions in the last 60 years alone. Another international study produced similar figures, and stated that the reports covered 32 different countries.[9] In an article discussing Mary's growing popularity, Insight magazine stated that "claims of apparitions of Mary are on a worldwide upswing."[10]


With so many apparitions being reported throughout the world, how does the Catholic church go about evaluating them? The answer is, very cautiously and deliberately. Obviously, the church has much to lose in the area of credibility if it recognizes an apparition which later turns out to be inauthentic or even fraudulent.

As well, this phenomena is very elusive. How does one go about evaluating a reputedly supernatural manifestation which is, except to the visionaries, invisible? It is safe to say that while the church is open to the possibility of these supernatural manifestations, it is at the same time highly skeptical. In the words of one Catholic scholar: "The church accepts the authenticity of a supernatural intervention only with great circumspection. She requires that the facts, which she submits to a severe examination, should in themselves be striking and also insists on waiting before passing judgment."[11]

According to the Catholic church, apparitions come under the heading of "private revelations." The messages of approved apparitions add nothing to the official (public) revelation of the church which is found in the apostolic sources of Sacred Scrip