Divine revelation came to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. We await no new revelation from God. Moreover, our knowledge of Jesus' revelation came to its conclusion with the death of the last Apostle.
However, throughout history countless miracles and private revelations have illustrated that God is active, assisting people to accept his revelation in Jesus Christ, his witness and his teaching. The miracles associated with these private revelations are for our edification, although the miracles do not belong to the deposit of faith.
As far as we know, Our Lady has appeared on Earth more often since 1830 than at any other period in history. We can only speculate on the reasons: the vast increase in the earth's population over those 200 years and the secular drift in many societies whose elites choose to ignore God and marginalise religion and religious people.
Private revelations have a long history. In the Bible - both in the Old and New Testaments, where angels sometimes appeared without warning. And in the history of Christian spirituality over two millennia, visions and revelations occurred occasionally in the lives of the saints.
The saints are role models for other Christians and their encounters with the divine are meant to lead others to God, assisting them to recognise God in their lives and to convert.
However, there are fashions in devotion and spirituality, as in other areas of human experience. Over recent years, among many educated members of the faith community, devotion to Mary, Mother of God - and to the saints - has tended to wane, along with interest in Mary's apparitions and messages.
The strong emphasis on Biblical and liturgical spirituality since Vatican II has tended to marginalise the mystical life of visions and other revelations with some experts viewing these as a remnant of a previous more credulous age.
Of course, a reasonable caution about alleged visions, revelations and apparitions is sensible and consistent with the tradition itself as hoaxes, delusions and fraudulent claims have occurred from time to time.
A responsible approach is to remain cool and open to the evidence because a total rejection of the possibility of such events denies the fundamental idea of a loving God revealing himself to some people personally in history.
The experience of many Christians in the charismatic renewal, as well as the vast numbers who annually visit Marian shrines such as Lourdes or Fatima, is a sign that this element of Catholic devotional life, ignored by many, is still present for many others.
Apparitions of Mary have a special place. When Mary appears it is often in isolated places - L'Ile Bouchard (France), Naju (Korea), Kibeho (Rwanda) - and to children, teenagers or other marginalised individuals such as women in Third World countries. These apparitions, in every case, have resulted in intense outpourings of devotion, even down to the present day.
The Church does not affirm the reality of such appearances as being at the centre of our faith; they are not. However, where they are compatible with the Gospel and the drift of revelation through the centuries, they are eventually supported and recommended.
Our Lady's messages consistently include calls to conversion of heart, as well as prayer and penance, coupled with an assurance of the persevering love of Mary and the boundless mercy of God.
Pope John Paul II expressed the significance of Our Lady's appear- ances in his personal religious life:
'It has been my custom to make pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady, starting with my earliest youth. I know very well that every people, every country has its holy places, places of special encounter between God and people; places in which Christ dwells in a special way in our midst.
'However, if the life and teaching of Jesus, mediated through the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church has all that we require for salvation, why does God deal further with certain chosen souls down the centuries via Jesus' apparitions - as to St Faustina Kowalska - or apparitions of His mother, Mary, in many places?
'The obvious answer is that human beings need extraordinary assistance in view of our weakness and inconstancy. Private revelations exist to aid the Church. Meanwhile, in general terms, private revelations - especially the apparitions of Jesus and Mary - serve three main purposes:
* they call to repentance, conversion; to make God the centre of our lives; strengthen our will and turn away from sin;
* to consolidate the teaching of Jesus; and
* private revelations re-state (often in a dramatic way) key teachings of Jesus' public revelation, as, for example, at Our Lady's appearances at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where Mary stressed:
1. 'Penance', which in the Gospel sense means moral reform and reparation for sin.
2. Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, acknowledging that God intended to give His mother a most important role in our salvation.
3. The Rosary, consisting of lines from the Gospel and prayers composed by the Church. The Rosary takes us prayerfully through the whole of salvation history.'
Apparitions in Belgium
Two of Our Lady's most accessible apparitions were at Beauraing and Banneux in 1932-33. Both places are accessible by public transport on day trips from Brussels.
In the 1930s, with the Western world mired in economic depression, Our Lady appeared to a group of five children between late November 1932 and early January 1933 at Beauraing, a small town in the southern French- speaking half of Belgium.
The five children came from the Voisin and Degeimbre families, neither of which was actively Catholic. On the evening of 29 November 1932, Fernande Voisin, a fifteen-year-old teenager, Andree Degeimbre, a fourteen-year-old friend, and three other children, were walking to the local Catholic school to meet Albert's sister, Gilberte. They entered the grounds and passed a small Lourdes grotto in front of a railway culvert that skirted the convent garden.
They ran the front door bell and waited. Albert turned and looked towards the embankment over the grotto and gasped: 'Look! The Blessed Virgin, dressed in white, is walking above the bridge!' The girls looked and could see the luminous figure of a lady dressed in white walking in mid-air, her feet hidden by a small cloud. A nun answered the door but could see nothing, However, as soon as Gilberte Voisin reached the door she instantly saw the figure.
Over the next few evenings a pattern quickly developed in which the children would see Mary above a hawthorn tree within the Lourdes grotto. They knelt outside the convent gate, prayed the Rosary and looked through the railings.
This was because the local parish priest and Church authorities generally were taking a very circumspect attitude towards the events. They refused to become involved, and the Bishop requested his priests not to go near the site and await developments.
On 2 December, Albert asked the Lady if she was the Immaculate Virgin, to which she smiled and nodded her head. In answer to the query about what she wanted, she said simply: 'Be good - always !'
Meanwhile word of the events at the sleepy, depressed town spread fast through the neighbouring provinces and increasing crowds were flocking to the town - only five kilometres from the French border. On Thursday, 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a crowd of around 15,000 people assembled in the street hoping for a spectacular miracle. However, they saw only the children in ecstasy, impervious to lighted matches held underneath their hands, pin pricks and lights shone in their eyes.
The apparitions did not occur every night, although the children arrived and said the Rosary. On 28 December, Our Lady warned the children that the last appearance would shortly take place.
This occurred on 3 January 1933 when Mary spoke to each of the children separately. A large crowd, between 30,000 and 35,000 people, crowded the school playgounds as the children commenced their Rosary. After two decades, four of the five children fell to their knees, leaving Fernande, the oldest, in tears because she could see nothing. Mary spoke to Gilberte, giving her the main promise of Beauraing: 'I will convert sinners.' To Andree she said, 'I am the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven. Pray always'. The apparition appeared over.
Fernande remained kneeling while the other children went inside for questioning. Then, suddenly, she and many in the vast crowd heard a noise like thunder and saw a ball of fire on the hawthorn tree. Mary appeared and spoke to Fernande asking if she loved her Son and herself. When Fernande replied that she did, Mary replied: 'Then sacrifice yourself for me.' At this Fernande saw the vision more brilliantly.
The apparitions were over, but Church authorities waited two years for the excitement to subside before commencing any process to assess their validity. The Bishop appointed a Commission of Inquiry in 1935 and progress was glacial.
In February 1943, with Belgium occupied by the Germans during World War II, Bishop Charue authorised public devotions to Mary at Beauraing. However, it was not until July 1949 that the shrine was recognised officially.
In a letter to his priests the Bishop affirmed the apparitions: 'We are able in all serenity and prudence to affirm that the Queen of Heaven appeared to the children of Beauraing during the winter of 1932Ð1933, especially to show us in her maternal heart the anxious appeal for prayer and the promise of her powerful mediation for the conversion of sinners.' That was all.
I had occasion to visit Banneux and Beauraing five years ago and recommenced studying Our Lady's apparitions. It struck me immediately how completely traditional and 'back to basics' are the messages which Mary has given to visionaries:
* God exists and He loves you ... the visionary(ies) and all people.
* God wants all to be saved, but many are not saved through their own choices, during life and at the hour of death.
* Mary stresses prayer ... and the Eucharist as the centre of Christian worship.
* Mary stresses that human beings need to 'convert', i.e., turn away from sin, do penance, and fast. She urges Catholics to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation monthly.
* Mary never refers to social sin; she refers often to personal freedom and personal sin.
* Where relevant, Mary speaks of the reality of Death, Judgement, Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. At Fatima (1917) the visionaries were given a terrifying vision of hell after being assured that they themselves would be saved.
All the apparitions are given to poor, obscure and marginalised people, often young people. At Banneux and Beauraing, depressed towns in the midst of the Great Depression, Mary especially identified with the poor.
Some of Our Lady's appearances have an apocalyptic emphasis:
* At La Salette (1846), Mary predicted God's vengeance for the torrent of human sin unless there was a widespread conversion and repentance and a renewed turning to God.
* At Fatima (1917), Mary predicted the approaching end of the world war, but the failure of human beings to repent and convert would lead to a second, more terrible world war in a short time.
* At Kibeho in Rwanda (1981), Mary predicted the approaching genocide in lieu of widespread conversion and repentance and referred to the approach of the Last Judgement, seen as occurring sooner rather than far into the distant future.
Mary's apparitions highlight the traditional Christian message, never the enthusiasms of some 'radical' theologians or avant garde Catholics.
Dr Barry Coldrey CFC taught in Christian Brothers colleges for many years and has written and lectured extensively on religious topics.