Glad You Asked: Do Catholics have to believe in Marian apparitions?

On this episode of the podcast, Jeanette Rodriguez talks about whether Catholics are obliged to believe in Marian apparitions and why they are so popular.

Listen on: Apple | Spotify

Some of the most popular and well-known Catholic pilgrimage sites are places where Mary the Mother of Jesus is believed to have appeared to people. Every year, millions travel to Fatima in Portugal and Lourdes in France. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Mexico City sees around 20 million pilgrims a year. And the site of the claimed apparitions at Medjugorje, though controversial, still attracts huge numbers of visitors. 

These, however, are only a few out of hundreds of cases of claimed apparitions. Of these hundreds, some are approved by the church and others aren’t. But what does that mean? Are Catholics obliged to believe an approved apparition actually happened, if the church approved it? If there is a message associated with an approved apparition, do Catholics have to assent to it? And, if an apparition is not approved, does that mean Catholics aren’t allowed to believe in it?

These questions invoke another, larger question: What’s the point of Marian apparitions anyway? Why do people flock to these pilgrimage sites? And on the level of popular devotion, what do Marian apparitions have to offer to those seeking meaning or comfort in an uncertain world?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Jeanette Rodriguez talks about whether Catholics are obliged to believe in Marian apparitions, the role of these devotions in Catholics’ faith lives, and why they continue to be so popular over the ages. Rodriguez is a professor at Seattle University and teaches in both the department of theology and religious studies, and the couples and family therapy program. She serves as director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and has written on U.S. Hispanic theology, women’s spirituality, liberation theology, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

You can read more about this topic in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic

Cassidy Klein: And I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss a topic that relates to both popular piety and doctrinal teaching.

Rebecca: Periodically, throughout Catholic history, people have claimed to have had a vision of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Sometimes there are miraculous events associated with these experiences – like the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. Or the miraculous image of Mary at Guadalupe.

Cassidy: Some of these cases are widely known and associated with hugely popular pilgrimage sites: as well as Fatima in Portugal and Guadalupe in Mexico, there’s Lourdes in France – and also Medjugorje, which is more controversial. But these are only a few out of hundreds of cases of claimed apparitions.

Rebecca: We know some apparitions are approved by the church and others aren’t. But what does that mean? Are Catholics obliged to believe an apparition happened, if the church approved it? Are we obliged to believe the message associated with the apparition? And, if an apparition is not approved, does that mean Catholics aren’t allowed to believe in it?

Cassidy: Our guest on this episode, Jeanette Rodriguez, is going to talk to us about whether or not Catholics are obliged to believe in Marian apparitions, what their role is in the life of faith, and why they have continued to be so popular over the ages. 

Rebecca: Rodriguez is a professor at Seattle University and teaches in both the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, and the Couples and Family Therapy Program. She serves as Director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and has written on U.S. Hispanic theology, women’s spirituality, liberation theology, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Cassidy: Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Jeanette: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Rebecca: So to start, could you clarify what a Marian apparition is, according to the Catholic Church? Does the church believe that Mary really is coming down from heaven and interacting with people on earth?

Jeanette: Yeah, so first of all, what is it? So an apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by Mary, the mother of Jesus. So basically, that’s the basic definition of the countless apparitions that have been reported throughout church history. You’ll see different numbers, but 25 have been approved by the local bishops and 16 of those have been recognized by the Vatican. Because it’s important to understand in terms of authority, who has the authority to say this is an authentic apparition. It is the bishop.

Cassidy: Yeah, so we know that there have been hundreds of claimed cases of apparitions. How many of these are approved by the church?

Jeanette: When you say church, do you mean the institutional church, the bishop, the pope? They break it down to, like I said, 25 being approved by the bishop, 16 by the Vatican. But there’s been countless reports of the appearance of Mary, right? I mean, thousands, right?

They don’t make it up to the standard of recognized apparition. I’ll talk a little bit more about that later. But what I think is important to understand is that the purpose of these apparitions, they usually draw attention to some aspect of the Christian message, given the needs of a particular time and a particular place. So when you hear Marian apparitions, most people think of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe. All three of these are recognized by the church. But I think it’s really important to understand not just the message that comes with these apparitions, but the context, the historical context, what’s going on in the world at that time. So I can’t talk about all 25 of them or the thousands that are reported, but let me just talk about Fatima, for example, one of the famous apparitions. So you know, Mary appears to these children and she discusses a lot of things with them, but there’s at least three invitations in her message. One is about learning to pray the rosary, right? Two is that prayer that can change the world. So that prayer is seen as a ministry, as a vocation. That’s how important it is. And, that we work on having a healthy spirituality that involves not just penance, but reparation, atonement, healing. And Mary asks us to trust her and let her be our guide. The other theological themes that come up in some of these apparitions are not just the rosary, but the Eucharist, the Trinity. Things like this. So what was going on at the time of Fatima? This is really important because we’re talking about the early 1900s when we’re talking about Fatima. So Portugal had distinguished itself by its zeal to spread the Christian faith. But in the 18th century, the government was influenced by anti-religious ideas and a free-mansory set about de-Christianizing the country. So from the years from 1910 to 1913, these were years of terror for people in the church, right? Priests and bishops were either imprisoned or exiled, religious orders were suppressed, seminaries were closed. And from 1910 to 1926, Portugal as a country experienced 16 revolutions with 40 changes of government. So that’s, you know, that was what was going on. And so for her to come, right, with words of not just love and mercy and reparation and healing, it was appropriate for that time. Same thing with Lourdes, she teaches Bernadette three lessons for the sick. The importance of presence, not just the presence of God or Mary to one another, but presence for us, one another, present to one another. Healing and the importance of sacrifice. So that helped to understand. So it’s not just about some supernatural thing, but why and where it happened, contextually, and then what the message was.

Rebecca: So once an apparition does get approved by the bishop or by the Vatican, by the institutional leaders, what does that mean for Catholics in general? Does that mean that we’re supposed to believe in it? That we need to believe that Mary really came down and that we need to believe the messages?

Jeanette: Yeah, the Vatican does not have to approve the Marian apparitions. Like I said, it’s up to the bishop, nor is it dogma or doctrine like the immaculate conception or the assumption of Mary, right? This falls under the devotional aspect of our faith, right? That if it’s something that enhances your faith, if it brings you closer to Christ, you know, to God, if it brings you joy, these are demonstrated elements that this is something to nurture. So it’s not like you have to believe it. But certainly there’s a criteria for believing, like it doesn’t want you to go against, let’s say the ecclesial church or something like that. Then you would have to question whether, well, is this really, you know, from God. Does it really bring joy?

So, yeah, so you don’t have to believe, but thousands upon thousands of Catholics in particular, but Christians in general have a great devotion to Mary. It’s a very relational experience. It’s an intimate experience. It’s funny, because I’ve done a lot of work with women’s spirituality. And when I ask them, how come you go to Mary and not God about these things, they’ll say, because Mary is a woman and she’ll understand. And so I kind of reflected on that. I thought about that. And so I went back to scripture. And, you know, if you pull out the life of Mary, right, she was a young woman, you know, pregnant, not married at the time, a very young woman who I’m sure was shocked when the angel Gabriel came to her. But she was a woman of faith. And I think people forget that we tend to focus on Mary as mother, but before she was mother, she was a Jewish woman grounded in her faith and her tradition and the scriptures. So from a young age, she knew and understood the importance of hearing the word of God, right? So that’s first, right? Her ability to hear the word of God because she was a woman of faith.

But then she was a refugee. She had to leave her country. She was under Roman occupation. She saw her son unjustly brutalized and crucified. And so when you talk to women, especially in developing countries, who live under these kind of conditions, there’s a natural tendency to connect with and feel like Mary understands them.

Cassidy: Yeah, so aside from the official teachings on apparitions, why do you think that they are so popular? Like, what is the importance of Marian apparitions on the level of personal spirituality and cultural belief?

Jeanette: Well, you know, like I said, I think that she brings a lot of comfort to people, right? That when people pray to Mary as if, I mean, this would happen also if you prayed to Jesus, but people report feeling her presence. Feeling her comfort, feeling that they’re not alone. So at the personal level, you know, there’s all this wonderful affirming, loving, healing experience with her. No judgment. At the communal level, you can look at, for example, the story of our Lady of Guadalupe, which is also one of the most popular Marian apparitions across the Americas. Even though sometimes people say, well, that’s the Mexican Mary. That’s not true, it’s Mary, right? Again, it’s important to understand the context. In 1521, we had the conquest, and no conquest is good conquest, but this conquest was particularly painful because the dominant culture, in this case the Spaniards, were telling the Indigenous people that the gods that they believed in were not true. Now this is a very hard thing for a people whose whole identity and orientation is towards believing and understanding what the gods want and doing what the gods want. It was a hard thing to hear. And of course they were enslaved and their social systems were destroyed. I mean, it was just, it was brutal in 1521. Ten years after that, in 1531, we have the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe who appears to a 52-year-old Indigenous man. And again, it’s a very intimate encounter. The story begins with, Juan Diego was walking through the hills to get to his, what we would call catechism class now. He’s a recent convert and he hears this beautiful music and he follows it and then he sees this woman and he falls to his knees. So that tells me that he recognized her. There was something about her image that in itself, its iconography, we wouldn’t have been able to read it as a modern day person, right? But the Indigenous people of that time could read it. They could read what the stars meant, right? What the moon meant. All these iconic, I don’t have the time to go through all the iconographic beautiful symbols in that image, but he recognized it. And she says to him, Juanito, Juan Diego, the smallest of my children, that language of ‘ito’ is in Spanish a diminutive way of speaking. So instead of saying John, you say Johnny, right? So it’s a diminutive way of speaking. And she asks him where he’s going. She’s the mother of God. She knows where he’s going, right? But she’s doing that to engage in a conversation, to engage in this relationship. And her message is a very beautiful message, a little bit different than Lourdes and Fatima, because they’re responding to a context, war, or anti-Christian, et cetera, et cetera. This is also a devastating time, but her message is this. This is what she says. I am the mother of the true God for whom one lives. I love that phrase. For whom one lives. And I have a great desire, she says, that there be a house built here. Now the translations you see sometimes online say a temple or a church. And that’s not what she said. She wants you to build a casita, a house, a home. For in that place, she can show forth God’s love, compassion, help, and defense. That’s the message. Come forth to show God’s love, compassion, help, and defense. To whom is she speaking to? She says, to you, to all of you, to all the inhabitants of this land. So there were no borders in 1531, right? So we’re talking about the Americas. And she says, to all of you who call upon me, trust me, love me, I will hear your pains, I will hear your sorrows, I will hear your lamentations, and I will respond. Punto, period. That’s what she says.

She doesn’t ask for a church. She doesn’t ask for, you know, go to mass or, you know, she doesn’t ask for any of those things. All she says is to believe in me, trust me, love me. I’m here to love you, help you, be compassionate, et cetera, et cetera. This is a message that was very needed, right, to be heard. And so, and then of course the rest of the story is, you know, how Juan Diego has to negotiate that with the Spanish friars, but it revolutionized the place.

And a beautiful thing about the Guadalupe story, when I did my own research on Guadalupe, was that I asked some of the Indigenous people when I was doing research in Mexico, what’s the difference between Guadalupe and the message of Fatima or Lourdes? And one Indigenous woman said two words to me. She said, quote, se quedó, which means she stayed. That’s the difference. Fatima came, gave her message, left. Lourdes came, gave her message, left. In the world of Guadalupean devotions, she came and she’s never left. And people feel her presence every day, every moment. And you can see her image everywhere, right? Hanging on cars, tattooed on people’s bodies, on medallions, in the church, in the businesses, so I mean, it’s everywhere, right? It’s almost as if she sustains and contains all people. It’s really a very beautiful story.

Rebecca: Yeah, so could you talk a little bit more about this enduring spirituality and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and what the significance of this devotion is for Catholics in the Americas, but especially in Mexico today?

Jeanette: Yeah, I think along with the other Marian images, it’s always a message of mercy and love and reconciliation, not just with one another, but between the believer and God. So it is the same message said in different ways, expressed in different cultural manifestations. It’s basically the same message. The theological aspect of the story of Guadalupe, I think, though, is also one of liberation. So if you have the conquest on the one hand and on the other side, you have everybody living in the peripheral, right, the marginalized. She doesn’t go to the capital. She doesn’t go to the center of religious or political power to say she wants that house. She says she wants the house over here on the other side in the peripheral. So that says something to me about how we need to be going to the peripheral, right? Which reflects what Jesus did. To walk with Jesus means to walk where Jesus walked. And where Jesus walked was where among the poorest of the poor and those who were marginalized, right? And even our Pope Francis, you know, talks about the field hospital and invites us to go out and not just wait for people to come in. So this message, this thread, if you will, I think you can hear it not just in scripture, not just in the teachings of Jesus, not just in the Marian images, but even in our ecclesial authorities.

Cassidy: Yeah, so a lot of Catholics will say things like, oh, the church isn’t sexist. Look at how we revere Our Lady. But in white Western culture, there’s not a lot of talk about how Marian spirituality or Marian apparitions empower women. So what kind of role does Our Lady of Guadalupe play in women’s spirituality specifically today?

Jeanette: Yeah, well, I think the recent New Testament scholarship and the contributions of feminist theologians have really given us a different view on that. I mean, certainly, a lot of times people get their understanding of church themes from the pulpit, right? And it is a patriarchal church. I mean, that’s not a judgment, that’s not putting it down. That’s a description. It has been led and articulated by men. I think my own book on Guadalupe made a contribution because it was the first time women and Indigenous people were asked about the image. And so sometimes if you’ve been presented with Mary as being quiet and gentle, quiet and passive, quiet and obedient. I mean, I can see where modern day women were like, I don’t think so. I don’t wanna go there, right?

But if you really look at the scriptures and study Mary, well, look, we just went through Easter. We spent a lot of time on the Triduum and Good Friday here in this country. So in the Triduum, you have Holy Thursday, right? Then you have Good Friday, then you have Easter Sunday for the vigil. But in Latin America, between Good Friday and Easter, that’s Saturday. Everybody goes to church to keep Mary company. That’s a devotional practice in Latin America. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be a mother and have your son, your children brutalized or hurt. And we understand that your children are our children. And so we go to accompany her. That’s an example of the depth and the intimacy of the relationship, of the spirituality that you were talking about.

But getting back to Good Friday, I think we forget the passion of Mary during the Triduum. What must it have been like for her to stand at the foot of the cross and watch what they did to her son? So you talk about empowerment. Yeah, there’s something empowering about being able to not only witness, but to be present to injustice. And when you can, to respond to that. But the focus here is on the presence of it, as opposed to running away or turning away. And I think, you know, one thing that Mary and many of the other apparitions have discussed with the people she’s appeared to is this need for sacrifice to be with and for the other, right? And in terms of empowerment, I mean, again, if you look at Mary as a historical figure and what she’s gone through, anybody who’s had to leave their country, anybody who’s been under oppression, anybody who’s been a single mom, anybody who’s had to deal with worrying about their children out in the streets because they might be brutalized for any other reason, I think that’s a very strong person. You have to be a strong person, right? And can you be a strong person without being an angry person, right, without being resentful, like can you be strong and still maintain a posture of love and acceptance? This is not easy, right? It’s not easy to do. So it’s a model of how to suffer, and I don’t mean masochistically looking for suffering. I’m talking about the ability to endure suffering, to get through suffering, right? In order to lead you to some reconciliatory response.

Rebecca: So you’ve touched on this already considerably in our conversation, but just to wrap up, there’s a trend here in the United States when we’re talking about Marian apparitions to really emphasize a kind of legalistic and authoritarian angle. Like Mary shows up, she gives rules, she gives a lecture. You have to do what she says. And that can be picked up by a lot of kind of more conservative religious groups as a way of telling women to stay in line and like you said, be submissive. What’s a way we could think about apparitions in general that’s more empowering and more liberating?

Jeanette: Well, so I’ve already talked about Guadalupe, which I think is very liberating, it’s culturally empowering and it’s religiously empowering, right? Not just because of her message, but the impact that she’s had on people. And not just for Latinos. I mean, we’re talking about people, you know, Euro-Americans who make pilgrimages. I mean, the Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe has two to five million people who show up on her feast day. I mean, that has to mean something, right? Something’s going on. But like I said, for example, Fatima and Lourdes, because those are the ones people know the most about, you know, Lourdes has a special appeal for the fragile and the weak, including the wounded military persons, right, at that time. So, you know, I don’t, I’m not sure where that posture that you’re talking about really comes from, because people either ignore her, and some Christian traditions do ignore her. They think we give her too much attention. And then there are other people who very quietly, maybe not even publicly, just spend a lot of time with her by saying the rosary or by praying or by walking with her, if you will. I’m sure there’s something gray in the middle. But those are sort of like the two poles, right? Either they ignore her or they have a great devotion to her. But I don’t think she or her messages are oppressive. I do think that she can be used to oppress people, right? I think she can be used to try to make these authoritarian postures that has nothing to do with what her message is. So I think it’s important to read the message itself and to understand the context. But I don’t think, again, the sociology of knowledge always says, who’s speaking, who are you speaking to, who are you speaking for, and who benefits? So I think those kind of questions as educated people are important to also think about, like who’s saying this and why are they saying this? Because if all the messages include, I mean, from Jesus to all the Marian apparitions are talking about mercy and love and reconciliation, then that should give you a clue that if you’re hearing something and it doesn’t bring you peace or joy or, you know, reconciliation, then I might want to question that message. If it’s a message that divides and that judges, I don’t think that’s part of the gospel of Jesus. And Mary is here to bring us to Jesus, right? To remind us of God’s love.

Cassidy: Well, this has been so great. Thank you so much for being our guest today, Jeanette.

Jeanette: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.