Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our Lady of...

Statue at the Shrine of Our Lady of Hope in Wisconsin.
We've all heard them: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, etc. These are names of the Virgin Mary associated with officially Church-approved apparitions or appearances to certain persons throughout history. You can now add another name to the list: Our Lady of Good Help.

Adele Brise, pictured later in life.
Yesterday, Church officials at the Vatican finally acknowledged and declared "worthy of belief" what is now the first Church-approved apparition of the Virgin Mary in the United States. Here's the story: In 1859, at the eve of America's Civil War, Our Lady appeared three times to Adele Brise, a Belgian immigrant near the town of Bay Settlement, Wisconsin. Adele was given a personal mission to "gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation." Adele was 28 years old at the time and she devoted the rest of her life to teaching and catechizing children.

A small wooden chapel was constructed at the site soon after the apparitions. By 1861, a larger chapel was constructed, on which was inscribed "Notre Dame de bon Secours, priez pour nous" or "Our Lady of Good Help, pray for us." This is where the name of the shrine came from. But it was not until December 8, 2010 that Bishop David Ricken, bishop of Green Bay, gave official Church recognition to the shrine after theological and historical experts spent more than two years intensely investigating the chapel and the apparition. Yesterday, the Vatican added it's approval, making this the first officially-recognized Marian apparition in the United States.

What is a "Marian apparition?" 

Well, according to Catholic belief, the era of public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. Nothing more can or will ever be added to the Apostolic faith which has been preserved by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures and in the Apostolic Traditions of the Church. This is called the "deposit of Faith" and we cannot add to it nor take away from it.

An apparition is a private revelation that emphasizes some aspect of the deposit of Faith. The Church may investigate such an apparition and may, after a lengthy investigation,  declare that a particular apparition is "worthy of belief," but this simply means that the message of the apparition does not contradict or add anything new to the deposit of Faith and that the faithful may believe that the apparition is real. However, belief in approved apparitions is a matter of personal faith and private devotion and is not required of anyone.

Statue of Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes
Some Marian apparitions are known as "historical apparitions" because they occurred many centuries ago, predating the Church's official mechanisms for investigating these matters. Such "historical apparitions" include Our Lady of the Pillar (Spain, c. AD 39), Our Lady of the Snow (Rome, 358) and Our Lady of Walsingham (England, 1061). Apparitions which have been approved by the Church include Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico, 1531),  Our Lady of Lourdes (France, 1858) and Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal, 1917), to name a few.

Why Mary? Well, she's pretty important. Through our baptism, we are the adopted sons and daughters of God. Jesus, according to Hebrews 2:11-12, is our spiritual brother. So, Jesus' mother is our spiritual mother. And like any good mother, Mary is always praying for us, that we might have salvation through her Son, Our Lord. In all of the approved apparitions, Mary is always calling her children back to her Son, pointing to Jesus as the way of salvation.

As explained by the great folks at Catholics United for the Faith:

Authentic private revelations, such as approved Marian apparitions, neither add to or subtract from the deposit of faith. Rather, they call us to a greater commitment to Jesus Christ, the one Savior of the world, and the Church He founded, and draw our attention back to the content of public Revelation.

Do all Catholics have to believe in Marian apparitions?

No. As stated earlier, apparitions are considered "private revelation" and are only approved by the Church after a long and very thorough investigation. Many supposed apparitions are false or hoaxes and are never approved (including the Mary-on-rye-toast and Jesus-in-a-window-pane kind of stuff). But for the apparitions which the Church does approve, they are meant to be an aid in strengthening one's Christian faith and, in the end, belief is a personal one. Remember, the Church never declares an apparition to be "necessary," she simply clarifies that some are "worthy of belief."

But, private revelations such as those at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and, yes, now Champion, Wisconsin, can be a great boost to our faith life. They can remind us that God has not abandoned his Church but is still with us. According to one great explanation, these apparitions "provide an invitation to deepen our conversion to Christ, often through a heightened awareness of Mary's spiritual motherhood. They are a gift to the Church that ought to be received soberly, but also joyfully."