Throughout faith history, Mary has made her motherly presence known by appearing to believers around the world. In doing so, she shares poignant messages, prayerful devotions, personal healing, and miraculous phenomena—all steeped in religious relevance and cultural connections.
Marian apparitions deemed by the Church as “worthy of belief” undergo extensive investigation. Initially led by local bishops, it involves questioning of witnesses and a dedicated commission of experts to identify credible criteria such as conversions, miracles, and healings.
Each Marian apparition is unique to its local society, faith community, and native culture. Mary’s countenance and clothing take on diverse expressions and symbolism to reflect the intent of her visit, her audience’s faith context, and the cultural and political setting.
Here’s how four approved apparitions—Our Lady of Knock in Ireland, Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, Our Lady of Gietrzwald in Poland, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico—demonstrate the diversity of Mary’s presence as she aims to move hearts and minds toward her Son.
In 1879, Mary appeared in a series of apparitions to the people of Knock during a time of severe famine and suffering in Ireland. Our Lady of Knock appeared on the wall of the village’s church alongside St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. Beside them was an image of an altar with a lamb on top, resembling Christ the Lamb of God, backed by a large cross surrounded by angels.
The apparition lasted for about three hours with fifteen witnesses of all ages who recited the rosary together as it rained. Mary was unusually silent, not sharing a verbal message. Despite her silence, her ethereal stance and the company of St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist held powerful meaning. Appearing with St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist, Mary’s apparition indicated stability and the sanctity of family life.
Mary stood tall with her eyes toward heaven, dressed in white garments and wearing a crown. During the era of starvation and suffering, her peaceful presence brought divine comfort and physical and spiritual healing to the local faith community. The first miraculous cure took place ten days following the apparition, followed by hundreds more over the years.
Similarly, the Lamb of God on the altar represented human redemption from sin and suffering. Each element of the Knock apparition contributed to bringing motherly support and physical healing to Ireland through Mary’s silent communication and symbolism.
Our Lady of Fatima appeared to three children in Portugal—Lucia de Santos and her two cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto—six times starting in May 1917. During the first apparition, as the children cared for sheep in the Cova de Iria field, she asked them to return on the thirteenth day of the next six months. The last apparition culminated in a miraculous movement of the sun seen by the thousands gathered.
Presenting herself as Our Lady of the Rosary, Mary shared three secrets. The first was a vision of Hell, terrifying yet accompanied by Mary’s promise that the children would rest in heaven. The second included a prediction of the end of World War I and continued peace, dependent on Russian conversion and consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. If her wish for Russian conversion did not materialize, peace would not prevail—resulting in World War II. The third foreshadowed a papal assassination believed to be the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.
Taking place during a time of war, the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima sparked much skepticism in the local community and the children’s families. The apparitions even caught the attention of local bureaucrats who took the children into custody, trying to make them rescind their testimonies.
Mary’s wish for enduring peace throughout the world, possible only through spiritual conversion and religious devotion, had particular significance during the World War I context and offered hope for peace through devotion to Mary and religious conversion.
Our Lady of Gietrzwald appeared nine times to two young Polish girls, Justyna Szafrynska and Barbara Samulowska starting in June 1877. At the time, the Polish region including the village Gietrzwald was under Prussian control. The Polish language was banned as were many Catholic practices, priests, religious communities, and parish congregations.
Speaking to the girls in Polish and robed in white, Mary emphasized the importance of praying the rosary to achieve religious liberty. The girls posed various questions to Mary about healing, salvation, and the persecution of the Church of Poland. In each response, Our Lady of Gietrzwald urged daily prayer, specifically the rosary, as essential to achieve personal wellbeing and religious freedom.
Many of the local parishes were abandoned due to the occupation, and the girls asked Mary if new priests would soon lead worship in their region. She replied, “Yes, provided people pray fervently. Then the Church will not be persecuted and the orphaned parishes will receive priests!”
During the eighth apparition, Mary blessed a spring of water as a site for those with spiritual and physical ailments to seek healing. Her emphasis on both political and religious freedom brought much encouragement to the suppressed people of Poland and instilled hope of liberation through prayer.
Addressing Christian convert Juan Diego through four apparitions in December 1531, Mary explained her vision for constructing a chapel on the Tepeyac hill where she appeared. She asked Juan Diego to share her wish with the bishop Juan de Zumárraga, head of the Church in Mexico City. At first, the bishop dismissed Juan Diego’s request in disbelief, but the miraculous and inexplicable image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma confirmed the truth of her message.
The indigenous Aztec culture of Mexico viewed religious sites like temples and chapels as the foundation of society—in addition to buildings of worship. When a new religious building was constructed, it indicated the beginning of a new civilization. Therefore, Mary’s desire to build a new chapel represented her desire for cultural renewal and evangelization.
Mary’s hope for societal renewal is also evident in her choice to appear to Juan Diego whose baptized name means “eagle that speaks.” The eagle was an Aztec symbol of the sun god, the herald of the Aztec civilization, giving Juan Diego significance as the messenger of a new civilization. This new civilization was rooted in the belief of God who brings eternal life for all people and doesn’t demand human sacrifice like the Aztec deities.
Flowers were symbols of truth in the Aztec culture. So when Juan Diego asked Mary for a sign as proof to share with the bishop during her third apparition, she miraculously made roses bloom on the rocky hillside. Besides serving as a sign of truth, the roses then unveiled the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma in the bishop’s presence—undeniable evidence of Mary’s wish. Convinced and humbled, the bishop visited the chapel site the next day with Juan Diego to begin the construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Seeking to communicate directly with the world, Mary adapts to the local culture and faith communities of those she appears to through the demeanor, desires, miracles, and visions she reveals. The religious and societal nuances of Marian apparitions speak to Mary’s motherly understanding of and divine relationship with her spiritual children.
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Originally published in USA Today.