Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
The Virgin Mary, ‘sensational happenings’ and ‘mindless credulity’
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Sept. 13, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
It won’t be long now before we begin another season of Advent. Throughout this season and the season of Christmas, the liturgy once again will present us with the image of the Virgin Mary, and once again we will be challenged to see in her a pattern for our own lives. From this challenge, born over the centuries, comes what Catholics call Marian devotion.
This devotion, which takes so many forms in so many places, must always be nourished by the liturgy, and have as its aim to lead people more deeply into the liturgy. At the same time, such devotion can sometimes lead in directions that are good neither for individuals nor for the church.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II lays clear responsibility on theologians and preachers of God’s word to avoid “exaggerations” in the areas of Marian belief and devotion. We preachers of God’s word “are to guard conscientiously against anything in word or act that might lead Christians separated from us or anyone else to a mistaken idea of what precisely the church teaches on Mary.” A few years later the pope repeated this caution in his own teaching on promoting healthy and authentic Marian devotion.
Some years ago I sat in an airport in Houston, watching a CNN report of thousands of people flocking to a farm in a southern state to listen to a visionary who was going to reveal some messages from the Mother of God. An older man sitting near me remarked to his wife, “There go those crazy Catholics!”
Should I have felt embarrassed? Absolutely. This was a perfect example of someone watching Catholics behave in such a way that leads people “to a mistaken idea of what precisely the church teaches on Mary.”
The Catholic Church does not – repeat: does not – teach that Mary has ever appeared to anyone, or has ever left a message, ever so brief, with anyone. Individual Catholics, for whatever personal needs or motives, are free to believe in Marian sightings and messages, but none of these alleged happenings are part of our church’s deposit of faith.
Unfortunately, these private beliefs of individuals have sometimes become an embarrassing identification with Roman Catholicism. If church leaders remain silent about this serious misunderstanding, then their silence is often regarded as their consent.
I once read in U.S. News and World Report that Catholic bishops were troubled at the time because reports of such “miracles” were on the rise throughout the world. The article quoted French theologian Rene Laurentin, a widely recognized expert on Marian phenomena, who counted more than 200 such events throughout the world since the 1930s. He says, “Most are easily dismissed as illusions, hallucinations or, in a few cases, outright fraud.”
Today our media continue to report on such happenings. For example, three people in a parish in Lubbock, Texas, are alleged to have visited with Mary. In Queens, N.Y., hundreds of Catholics gathered each week where Mary allegedly was speaking through a Long Island grandmother, whose sessions with Mary were put on tape and were available through a toll-free number. A European priest wanders the world selling a book about the Marian messages he claims to receive.
Being exceedingly skeptical about such happenings is in no way meant to criticize the sincerity and faith of those who give them their attention and devotion. All of us, however, are warned by the Vatican Council teaching and by the pope to exercise common sense and rely on what we already know for sure: Members of the Catholic Church “must be mindful that true devotion does not consist in sheer, passing feeling, or in mindless credulity, but that it issues from an authentic faith that leads us to acknowledge the exaltedness of the Mother of God...
“That devotion will become more willing and genuine because it rests on solid ground: study of the sources of divine revelation and respect for the teachings of the church’s magisterium far surpass an excessive interest in novelty or sensational happenings.”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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