Today’s Feast of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth points to more than the single visit recalled in the Gospel of Luke. In this mystery Mary promises “all generations” the blessing of her presence. Each generation knows her; occasionally over the years she visits some in apparitions.
Three prominent apparitions of Mary have occurred in the last 500 years resulting in major Marian shrines –in Lourdes, Fatima and Mexico City. In 1858 Mary appeared to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in France as she was gathering firewood. In 1917 Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima in Portugal. In 1531, she appeared to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego on a hillside outside of Mexico City. These are major pilgrimage sites today. Three liturgical feasts in our church calendar honor these apparitions.
The depictions of Mary in art follow closely, if not perfectly, the accounts the visionaries gave of the apparitions. Mary, arms folded in prayer, prays for her children on earth and she encourages them to pray with her.
The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes made by Fabisch in 1864 and placed in the grotto at Lourdes in France (above) is a model for the many statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in churches and shrines throughout the world. We have one in our Lourdes Grotto in Jamaica, NY. (below)
Various images of Our Lady of Fatima exist; we have one in our monastery chapel.(above) Her bright white garments witness to the glory the visionaries saw surrounding her. She brings the glory of heaven to brighten the earth, as Jesus did at his transfiguration. “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2-3)
Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe show her in the native dress of the time; she identifies with the native peoples then under colonial subjugation.
Contemporaries of Bernadette and the children of Fatima faced trials of another kind than the native peoples of Mexico. Secularizing governments promoted unbelief in society and wars were increasing in number and intensity. Mary’s appearances were not only the occasion of physical cures and healing. To ordinary people then and afterwards Mary’s appearances brought reassurance and renewed faith in the promise of God’s glorious power and presence. Their faith was real.
In his letter Laudato si’ Pope Francis calls upon Mary to visit us today as we struggle to care for the earth we have neglected. I like this image of Mary, holding in one hand Planet Earth and in the other her Son, Jesus Christ, who holds the Book of his life-giving Wisdom. “We can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom,” the pope says. May she hold in her hand our wounded world.