Marian ApparitionsFor a virgin, the Virgin Mary really gets around.
No, we don't mean she's bedhopping, you sicko. It's just that the Virgin Mary's World Tour has registered a lot of stops, especially over the last couple hundred years.
The Virgin Mary is primarily a Roman Catholic fixation, due to mainly theological reasons. According to Catholic lore, Mary never died but was instead taken bodily into heaven in an alien abduction event called the Assumption.
This naturally set the stage for the occasional comeback tour, starting about five minutes later and repeating irregularly thereafter, the Virgin Mary would occasionally stop by to deliver messages of hope, cheer, the impending Apocalypse and eternal damnation.
The Virgin also delivers cryptic instructions for people to engage in suggestive but mostly pointless activities, which are usually a big hassle to accomplish. Idle hands are the devil's workshop.
Like extraterrestrials, the Virgin Mary favors rural areas and generally likes to reveal herself to the historical and geographical equivalent of trailer trash.
The pattern of regular Marian apparitions began in the second millennium with a handful of documented appearances. In one, she commissioned a British noblewoman (an exception to the trailer trash rule) to build an exact replica of what she claimed was the childhood home of Jesus. Interestingly, Jesus appears to have grown up in a medieval English cottage.
Mary moonlights as a fashion designer. In one apparition, she invented the "scapular," a weird cardboard magickal fetish used by Catholics to win miraculous favors from Herself.
A legendary portrait of Mary known as the "Black Madonna" was the center of some mystical activity in the early period. According to its highly unlikely legend, the portrait was painted by the gospel-writer Luke, as Mary told him the story of the young Jesus. The main problem with the story lies in the infinitesmally small odds of that gospel actually being written while Mary was still alive, let alone the question of whether it was written by anyone actually named Luke.
The modern era of Marian apparitions began in 1531, shortly after the Spaniards arrived to convert willing natives and kill whoever was left. The Virgin Mary, apparently approving of this barbaric behavior, appeared to an Aztec convert with the Christian name Juan Diego. The Virgin Mary appeared to him and demanded he build a church on the spot where she stood.
What with being an impoverished farmer, Diego sought the assistance of the local bishop. The bishop demanded a sign from heaven before he would embark on a redevelopment effort, and the Virgin told Diego she'd take care of it.
She had him collect a bunch of flowers which she arranged in a special pattern, explaining that this would convince the bishop. He carried the flowers to the bishop in his apron but inadvertently dropped them. However, everything was fine because the Virgin Mary, not wanting to miss the opportunity for a cruel practical joke against an illiterate peasant, had anticipated this eventuality. The actual sign was a miraculous image of Mary which has never been satisfactorily explained by science. The church got built and the Aztecs got converted, and everyone lived happily ever after, except for the Aztecs who had been exterminated.
Mary popped up handful of times over the next couple of centuries to request church construction or design fabulous accessories or predict the French Revolution. One of the most famous apparitions took place at Lourdes, a small French village, where she appeared to a teenage girl named Bernadette. During this visit, the Virgin created a miraculous spring whose waters are fabled to have amazing curative properties. In exchange for this, she predictably demanded yet another church be built. About 5 million people go to Lourdes every year to gawk, pray or be cured.
The 20th century saw a big increase in apparitions, spearheaded by the infamous Fatima visitation. Fatima was a rural village in Portugal, suitable for UFO abductions, crop circles or cattle mutilations, but they hadn't been invented yet. Instead, the Virgin Mary appear to three children over a six month period. Mary told the children that God was royally pissed off at the world's iniquities, as if these three peasant babies could do anything about that. She told the children to pray the Rosary and to repeatedly beg her son Jesus Christ not to burn them in hell for all eternity.
Surprisingly, the children were not hideously traumatized by all this. They were excited and came back for more, even defying their families and church officials who had by now caught wind of these visits. The visits culminated in a mass apparition in which tens of thousands of spectators saw a UFO fly down from the sky and buzz the crowd. Or, as the Vatican would have it, the sun moved around in the sky. A downpour of rain erupted but everyone's clothes were dry at the end of it. During the visions, the Virgin Mary had entrusted the kids with three Secrets. The first secret was a horrific vision of Hell, which would not seem to be a nice thing to subject children to, but whatever. The second secret was a prediction that World War I would end soon, but that World War II would follow unless humanity cleaned up its act (it didn't).
Mary specifically asked that Russia be "consecrated" to her and its residents converted (see previous entry regarding the Aztecs). This is a somewhat baffling request, since its meaning isn't exactly crystal clear, and it was never quite explained why Russia was so important, as opposed to say, Swaziland. The consecration didn't happen in time to forestall WWII, but the Popes didn't get around to it until the reign of John Paul II.
The third secret, now that's where the fun was. Lucia, one of the children, took it on herself to stipulate that the third secret couldn't be revealed before 1960. The document was locked away in the Secret Archives of the Vatican (yes, this is a real place!). Pope John XXIII allegedly called for envelope containing the written text of the Secret in 1959 but decided not to read it. Yeah, right. Pope Paul VI supposedly read the secret in 1965, but he decided to suppress it. No official explanation was given.
Apparently, no one bothered to check out the envelope until 1981, when a former Trappist monk went berserk and hijacked a plane, demanding that the Vatican release the Third Secret or else he would blow up the plane and its 100 plus passengers. The Vatican did no such thing, and an armed takeover of the plane ended the crisis. Turns out former Trappist monks aren't very effective against commandos.
Just 11 days after this bizarre incident, John Paul II was the subject of an assassination attempt on the anniversary of the first Fatima vision. As he lay at death's door, he developed the notion that the Virgin Mary had saved his life, and he had all the secret archive's documents on Fatima brought to his hospital room. He decided to belatedly consecrate Russia to Herself, although he did it with a lame loophole, by consecrating the whole world "including Russia." Why not do the solar system while you're at it?
Anyway, after years of fanciful speculation and perhaps in the interest of preventing further hijackings, the Vatican decided to reveal the third secret in 2000. Lucia's account as released by the church was, shall we say, a trifle anticlimactic.
"After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!'. And we saw in an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it' a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father'. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.
The Vatican released the secret in 2000 with an accompanying statement explaining that it had already happened. According to the Church, the prophecy referred to the assassination attempt on John Paul II.
There was a problem with this interpretation, mainly that it didn't seem to have the slightest thing to do with the assassination attempt. The actual event was one man with a gun shooting at the pope and failing to kill him. Where was the "group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him"? Where was the "big city half in ruins"? Where were the corpses of the bishops, priests, nuns, monks and sundry? And of course, John Paul II actually survived the attempt, unlike the guy in the Secret.
Besides these issues, there was a strong school of thought which argued that the secret just wasn't flashy or dramatic enough to have been kept secret for so long. Where were the aliens? Where was the nuclear war? Where was the revelation that Jesus was a fraud?
However, these arguments fail to account for the papacy's inherent self-adulation. To the mind of the Vatican, nothing could be more grave or disturbing than a threat to the Vatican. Furthermore, if they were going to concoct something as a cover-up, wouldn't they have made it a little more specific? Rather than construct a frankly unconvincing argument that the text cited above refers to the assassination attempt, why not reveal a secret that was not only more disturbing but also more easily dismissed as having already happened, like a prophecy of Richard M. Nixon's presidency or the advent of reality television?
Regardless of all this, the post-Fatima era was a busy time for the Virgin Mary, who began routinely appearing all over the world in much the same manner as Elvis. The church soured on these events pretty quickly and started publicly denigrating them, which had absolutely no effect on their soaring popularity.
In the 1980s, for instance, Mary made a series of appearance to some more children in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where She made some pretty heavy predictions of bad things on the horizon, including more secrets. While the Church has steadfastly refused to validate the Medjugorje visions or allow pilgrimages to the site, it also kept an airtight clamp on the secrets, which included threats of "chastisement" and "punishment" for the world and its crappy sinners (i.e., you, the reader).
Other apparitions of the Virgin occur on a near daily basis, and tend to involve blots, stains, rocks and clouds that in the minds of the beholders somehow resemble some iconographic representation of the Virgin. One of the most recent incidents involved a big stain on a window in Massachusets Catholic hospital, which is currently drawing hundreds of local gawkers per day. TV images of the stain do kind of look vaguely like the Virgin Mary, but in a decidedly Rorschach kind of way.