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The many faces of Mary

This a rather long write up and no, it does not involve the many faces of Halspal’s beloved Mary…At least I don't think it does.

Yes, the Blessed Mother certainly seems to be making the rounds these days. Why, just couple of months ago, her image showed up in 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich and as recently as yesterday she was reportedly seen as an image in an underpass in the town of Chicago, Illinois. As a matter of fact, over the recent years, her likeness has shown up in tree bark, reflections in glass windows, walking on lakes, smoke from chimneys, hovering over churches, embedded in hospital walls and just plain hanging around in parks. There are also what seem to be countless instances and accounts of tears flowing from the eyes of statues of the Mother of God. This usually occurs when the church the statue has been calling home is getting ready to close. Coincidence, or divine intervention?

One might be tempted to scoff at all of this, or to think that these people reporting these visions are nothing more than publicity hounds and looking to turn a quick buck at the expense of the gullible. The strange thing about it is, the Roman Catholic Church will usually investigate each of these incidents to determine if it was a hoax, a psychological miscue or an actual occurrence of a religious phenomenon.

I don’t know what criteria the Church uses in order to attribute these sighting as actual religious events or miracles (I'm guessing the grilled cheese incident won’t pass muster) but I’m sure they have a strict regimen. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of "Mary sightings" are tossed in the scrap heap but, over the years, there have some that have been quite famous. The following is a partial list of the many faces, and sometimes words, of the Blessed Virgin Mary that they have recognized over the years.

Our Lady of the Pillar

This one occurred not long of Christ’s death, circa 40 AD. One of the Apostles who went by the name of James (the Greater) was tooling around Spain and found himself in the small town of Saragossa. Apparently things weren't going so well for James and he became distraught over his lack of success in recruiting converts. Legend has it that he was deep in prayer when Mary showed up and presented him with a small wooden statue of herself. She also gave him a piece of jasper wood and told him to build a church in her honor. Reportedly, these were the words she spoke:

"This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build."

James figured that was good enough for him and about a year later ground was broken to build a small chapel on the site. It was the first of many to be built over the years that were dedicated to Mary.

With work underway, James decided to make his way home to Jerusalem where he was promptly executed. Some of his disciples decided that his final resting place would be back in Spain and his body was returned and later buried. While there, supposedly, some of the disciples performed miracles and that was good enough to convince the locals to convert to Christianity and a cathedral was erected. About 800 years later, a hermit was digging through the fields and stumbled upon the grave of James. It was surrounded by some kind of formation of stars and has since been dubbed Compostella (starry fields). To this day, it remains a popular site for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Saint Mary Major

If we flash forward in time a couple of hundred years to about 352 AD, things in Rome had begun to change. Much of the citizenry had converted to Christianity and shrines and churches were going up faster than you could recite the Rosary. One of the nobleman who went by name of "John of Rome" and his wife decided that one honoring Mary was in order. Apparently they were both visited by her in a dream and she asked that a church be built in her honor on one of the seven hills - the Esquiline. Since John was a respected man about town, he managed to get an audience with then Pope Liberius and tell his and his wife's story. Liberius listened and a few days later he had the same dream. With this in mind, they all took a trip to Esquiline and upon their arrival found a portion of the hill covered in snow that matched the outline of a church. The rest is history. Construction began almost immediately and to this day the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the world’s largest churches still stands on the spot.

Our Lady of Walsingham

The next "Mary moment" of note takes us from Rome to the small village of Walsingham, England. In about 1061, a widow by the name of Lady Richeldis de Faverches began having visions of Mary. In one of these visions, Mary showed her the small house in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel first appeared and broke the news about her giving birth to the Son of God. Mary then reportedly asked her to build a replica of the house and if she did, well, why don't we let Mary speak for herself?

"Let all who are in any way distressed or in need seek me there in that small house that you maintain for me at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succor."

The house was soon built and later a church was put up around it to protect from the harsh weather. During the Middle Ages, Walsingham became one of the most popular pilgrimage sights in all of Europe. Even Kings of England managed to drop in every now and then. The last one to do so was Henry VII who actually dropped by three times before breaking away from the Catholic Church and forming the Church of England.

In the coming years, Henry ordered the destruction of just about everything Catholic and the house and church were not spared. Even the statue of Mary that dwelt inside the church was later burned.

In the 1920s the Walsingham Holy House was re-built. Another building nearby named the so-called "Slipper Chapel", where folks removed their shoes before entering, had somehow managed to escape the wrath of Henry. Today it is known as the Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of England and has regained some of its popularity as a pilgrimage site for the faithful.

Our Lady of the Rosary

The year is 1208, the place is Prouille, France. A Spanish preacher by the name of Domingo de Guzman makes the scene in the south of France to try and put an end to a perceived heresy. While he was praying at a local chapel, the Virgin Mary purportedly appeared to him and presented him with a Rosary. She called upon him to go out and preach it to the masses as a cure against heresy and sin. Domingo takes heed of her words and recruits like minded folks to join him. They are eventually successful and take their success on the road. They build monasteries all over the world and to this day are known as the Dominicans.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The details surrounding Mary’s next visit take us back to jolly old England. The year is 1251 and she drops in on a friar by the name of Simon Stock. She presents him with a couple of scraps of brown woolen cloth, tied together by a string and embroidered with her image. Once again, Mary in her own words:

"My beloved son, receive this scapular for your Order.

It is the special sign of a privilege which I have obtained for you and for all God's children who honor me as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Those who die devotedly clothed with this scapular shall be preserved from eternal fire.

The brown scapular is a badge of salvation. The brown scapular is a shield in time of danger. The brown scapular is a pledge of peace and special protection, until the end of time."

Now, if you ask me, those are pretty tough words coming from the Mother of God. Apparently Friar Stock thought so too, and he went on to establish Carmelite communities throughout England, France and Italy. This thing called a "scapular" was once one of the most recognized symbols of religious devotion in the world although its use has fallen off in recent time.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Mary's first documented appearance in the New World!

Beside the people looking to flee old regimes and strike out on their own to find fame and fortune in the Americas there were also preachers looking to convert the heathen Indians to Christianity. One of these converts was a young man by the name of Juan Diego. On one of his trips to the chapel to worship he ran into a beautiful women encircled by a ball of light that shined as bright as the sun. Apparently, Mary knew a little bit of the local Indian dialect for in his native tongue, she spoke the following:

"My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains its existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth. I desire a church in this place where your people may experience my compassion. All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my Mother's Heart in this place. Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace. So run now to Tenochtitlan and tell the Bishop all that you have seen and heard."

Since Juan was cut of the cloth of the poor and had never even met Tenochtitlan he didn’t know what to do. He went to the office of the local bishop and decided to as his advice. The bishop's servants weren't too keen about giving him an audience and they kept him waiting for hours and hours. He got discouraged and found himself unworthy to fulfill such a request and returned to the site where he first encountered Mary and ask her what he should do. Upon his arrival, she was already there. He begged her for someone else to do the job.

"My little son, there are many I could send. But you are the one I have chosen."

She then told him to go back to the bishops office the next day. Being a good convert, Juan heeded her request but was once again kept waiting for hours on end. Finally, the bishop emerged and Juan and told him his story. I guess the bishop was skeptical because he asked Juan to go back and see her again. This time however, he was to return with some tangible evidence backing up his story.

Juan did as he was told and again found Mary waiting for him (I can just picture her tapping her foot.)

"My little son, am I not your Mother? Do not fear. The Bishop shall have his sign. Come back to this place tomorrow. Only peace, my little son."

As fate would have it, Juan couldn’t make it the next day. One of his uncles had fallen ill and he had to tend to him. After a couple of days, Juan’s uncle wasn’t faring any better and he was near death. Juan figured it was time to find a priest to administer the last rites. Once again, he crossed paths with Mary.

"Do not be distressed, my littlest son. Am I not here with you who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Your uncle will not die at this time. There is no reason for you to engage a priest, for his health is restored at this moment. He is quite well. Go to the top of the hill and cut the flowers that are growing there. Bring them then to me."

Juan was not one to disobey a direct order, especially from the Mother of God. He went to the top of the hill and he found a bunch of roses in full bloom. He removed his poncho and cut the roses and placed them inside. He then carried them back to Mary. Mary was pleased, (after all, what woman doesn’t like flowers?) and told him:

"My little son, this is the sign I am sending to the Bishop. Tell him that with this sign I request his greatest efforts to complete the church I desire in this place. Show these flowers to no one else but the Bishop. You are my trusted ambassador. This time the Bishop will believe all you tell him."

Once again, Juan made his way towards the Bishops office and requested a private audience. After waiting again, he told his story to the bishop. When he opened his poncho to show him the flowers they were gone. In their place, inscribed on his poncho, was the exact image of Mary as he described it.

That did it. The Bishop was convinced. Juan took him to the site where the visits had occurred. He then returned to his village to find that his uncle, the one knocking on death's door, had been cured. His uncle told him that a beautiful woman had visited him in his dreams and told him:

"Call me and call my image Santa Maria de Guadalupe".

Today, the site of Our Lady of Guadalupe remains the largest pilgrimage site in the Western Hemisphere for the faithful.

Our Lady of Lavang

The Virgin goes Asian!

It’s now 1798 and during much of the 1700s, the nation of Vietnam is in a shambles. Various power struggles between the North and the South along with peasant revolts and insurgency have made the country almost ungovernable.

Finally, after years of struggle an uprising led by three brothers restored some defeated factions of the North and South and a semblance of order was restored to the country. One of the brothers was proclaimed king but soon died. He left the throne to his son who became king in 1792. It wasn’t long afterwards that the practice of Catholicism was banned and they took to the forests and jungles in order to seek refuge.

One of the forests was named Lavang. The living conditions were horrible and the people who took shelter there were faced with cold weather, monsoons, disease and the occasional hungry jungle denizen. Starvation was a daily threat.

As they were gathered one night to pray, the Blessed Mary swung down from a vine with the baby Jesus cradled in her arm and in her mightiest Tarzan voice called out…

Nah, just kidding.

She actually appeared to them dressed in a long cape and held a child in her arms. She was also accompanied by angels on each side.

She offered them comfort and told them that there was medicine in the leaves of the trees and that they should boil and drink it. She also declared their place a holy site and that whomever knelt to pray there would one day have their prayers answered.

During the next hundred years of persecution, the Virgin Mother appeared many times. Each time she offered comfort to those in need. A small chapel was erected in her honor.

After the persecution was officially over, a church was built in order to accommodate those who felt it their duty to make pilgrimages to the site. Because of its location deep in the jungle, the work took fifteen years to complete. By the time 1928 had rolled around, the church was too small to house those making the trek and a larger one was constructed. It was subsequently destroyed in 1972 during the Vietnam war.

In 1988, the dearly departed John Paul II canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs and issued plans to have another church built on the site.

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

We go back to France for Mary’s next gig.

It’s now 1830 and a 24 year old rookie in the service of the Sisters of Charity is awakened in her sleep by a five year old girl. The girl exhorts her to…

"Catherine, Catherine, wake up. Come to the chapel; the Blessed Virgin is waiting for you."

One Catherine Laboure had just met her date with destiny. Even as youth, she had conveyed her feeling that one day, she would like to meet the Blessed Mother and today her dream had come true. She followed the child down to the chapel and noticed that the candles were already burning. She knelt to pray and heard the what she thought was the rustle of a silk dress. She turned to look in the direction of the noise and she a beautiful woman bathed in a blinding white light sitting on the priests chair. She went over to her, fell on her knees and placed her hands in the woman’s lap. Mary then said to her…

"My child, the good God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will have much to suffer, but you will rise above these sufferings by reflecting that what you do is for the glory of God. You will know what the good God wants. You will be tormented until you have told him who is in charge with directing you. You will be contradicted, but do not fear, you will have grace. Tell with confidence all that passes within you. Tell it with simplicity. Have confidence. Do not be afraid." "The times are very evil. Sorrows will befall France; the throne will be overturned. The whole world will be plunged into every kind of misery."

Another five months would come to pass and the Virgin Mary again decided to pay Catherine a little visit. This time, she appeared dressed from head to toe in white and she held a ball that was topped by a golden cross. According to Catherine, Mary told her the ball represented the whole world, especially France. Mary herself stood atop a white globe with a green serpent encircling her feet. After a little while, an oval presence formed around her and the words written gold “`O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee” soon appeared.

Catherine then heard a voice tell her to “Have a medal struck after this model. Those who wear it will receive great graces; abundant graces will be given to those who have confidence."

It’s at this point in the proceeding that Catherine saw the oval do a 180 and the reverse side was presented to her. It was the letter “M”. Atop the letter was a cross and below it were two hearts. One of the hearts wore a crown of thorns and the other was pierced by a sword.

Catherine told the tale to her immediate superior but he was a little leery about her account of things. They took the story to the archbishop who found it credible and that the medals should be struck. Right after their first forging, accounts of miracle cures and spiritual conversions seemed commonplace. To this day, millions of people around the world continue to wear the "Miraculous Medal".

Our Lady of Lourdes

Please see Lourdes and Bernadette Soubirous for the next Virgin Mary appearance.

Our Lady of Knock

You would think that with all of the Catholics that call Ireland home, the Blessed Mother might've dropped in sooner but it took until 1879 for her to come calling.

Ireland in the 1870s wasn’t such a great place to be. There was famine and poor living conditions throughout the land. When you combine that with forced evictions, well, you’ve got all the ingredients for a wave of immigrants to search for greener pastures.

It was in this atmosphere that one Margaret Beirne was sent by her brother to lock up the local church for the evening. After finishing her chore and she was about to head home she noticed a strange aura surrounding the church. She decided to say nothing about it.

About the same time, another Beirne family member by the name of Mary ran into her as she was coming back from another errand. As they were walking down the road together, Mary turned to Margaret and mentioned something about new statues in the church. Margaret had just come from there and hadn’t noticed anything new but decided to take a closer look.

As they approached the church, they noticed that one of the statues appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the Blessed Mother.

They and twelve others who had gathered watched in amazement as Mary raised her arms in prayer. She was clothed all in white and wore a crown. To her right stood St. Joseph and on her left stood St. John. An altar with a lamb and a cross was surrounded by angels.

Eyewitness accounts state that the Blessed Mary hung around for about two hours before disappearing, taking the others with her. In the years to follow, miracles associated with the healing of the sick have been attributed to those who have made the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Knock.

I’m sure there are plenty of more instances of the Virgin Mary that could be told. Most notable among them would be the events that occurred at Fatima and the tale of the Black Madonna. Those two are probably deserving of nodes of their own.


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