JULY 7, 2003
Milton, Mass Mary
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Recently, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the window of a Massachusetts hospital prompting 25,000 visitors. The hospital took no official position as to the authenticity of the apparition, but tried their best to accommodate the pilgrims who were regularly gathering in their parking lot. The Boston archdiocese was contacted for help. Cameramen and news reporters soon followed. Eventually, the majority of the media-consuming public glimpsed the sight of what appeared to be the Madonna, head bowed and set in frosted glass. But other than etchings in glass, what do we see in scenes such as these? In our rational and cynical culture, how do we explain the attraction, as observers and participants, to miracles and the supernatural?
The church and the media are in similar binds when they seek to address these happenings. The church has historically taken a wait-and-see approach. Loathe to dismiss the possibility of the supernatural or quash the faith of the people, yet prudent in wanting to protect (or control depending on your viewpoint) theology and worship. The media also strives to respect rather than dismiss "folk" religious expression but, as serious news, generally feels compelled to add an alternate explanation. This can border on the ridiculous as when a recent Associated Press account included commentary by Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, providing a parenthetical non-miraculous explanation (mineral deposits) in their coverage of the hospital appearance. What's needed, instead of squeamishness over the existence of faith, is thoughtful reporting on religion.
The interesting questions that arise from these events are not "why is there still faith?" but "what is going on in religion? why Mary?" Since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which downplayed and clarified the role of the saints while formally incorporating a detailed Mariology into the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, at least thirty Marian apparition claims have made news in the U.S.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, teaching on Mary continues to be expanded and veneration encouraged. The current pope's devotion is well known. During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has declared the "Marian Year" (1987); issued the encyclical, Redemptoris Mater; delivered, from 1995 through 1997, seventy Wednesday catecheses on Mary; and declared the "Year of the Rosary," from October 2002 to October 2003. Pope John Paul II has recently instituted a new set of mysteries, the Luminous mysteries, to contemplate in the rosary prayer through which, he explains, the face of Christ is contemplated in the "school of Mary."
On a "folk" level, interest in the Holy Mother abounds. The internet overflows with sites and webrings devoted to her. Conservatives and liberals alike claim her as their own, putting forth wildly differing accounts of her role in faith and her intentions for mankind. She has been reclaimed as a traditionally Christian, but newly understood, female locus of devotion by the "not religious, but spiritual" folk, while at the same time serving as the standard-bearer for conservatives in the pro-life movement (complete with a pro-life rosary).
Apparition sites like the one in Milton, Massachusetts abound throughout the world, drawing thousands of pilgrims each year. And new ones crop up all the time. There was even a follow-up story that said people were now claiming to see the image of the cross on the hospital's chimney stacks. Somehow that story never grabbed hold (or we had already moved on). But despite our ability to see what is or isn't there, we recognize that faith in America continues to flourish in parking lots as well as parishes -- with or without a permit.
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is the managing editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is currently working on a dissertation on the history of devotion to Mary in America.