Review: Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World by Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins

Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2002) pp. xvi, 453, by Donal Anthony Foley.

Review by Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins, which appeared in Miles Immaculatae XXXXIX (Luglio/Dicembre 2003) 806-810.

I concluded my review of Donal Foley’s booklet, Apparitions of Mary: Their Meaning in History (cf. Miles Immaculatae 36 [2000] 720-721), with this statement: “All of the correlations proposed by the author are worthy of careful consideration. This little booklet deserves to be read and pondered — even as we await a more developed presentation of this thesis by the author!”

That “more developed presentation” has now materialized in the volume now under consideration. The “correlations” referred to above and in the title of the present work are of two kinds: (1) those which Foley analyzes in terms of biblical typology and (2) those which situate the apparitions which he describes within their wider historical context.

However, before considering these unique features of this book, a word ought to be said about the author’s fundamental exposition. I know of no single volume in English which so admirably summarizes Our Lady’s apparitions in modern times. Clearly, Mr. Foley has studied each of the mariophanies which he presents (Guadalupe, Rue du Bac, La Salette, Lourdes, Pontmain, Pompei, Knock, Fatima, Beauraing, Banneux, Tre Fontane and L’Ile Bouchard) at great length and succeeded in recounting them in a way that held my interest, even though I am familiar with all of the events which he narrates.

It should be noted that the phenomenon of Pompei is not strictly an apparition (although Foley integrates it well into his narrative and study of typology) whereas Tre Fontane and L’Ile Bouchard have not been officially recognized as worthy of credence by Church authority, but the cultus has been authorized in both places.

Foley has also spent years studying and spreading the message of Our Lady of Fatima. From the first page of his text he makes clear his conviction that the apparitions at Fatima are the most important of modern times. Indeed, his exposition of the events of 1916 and the six apparitions of 1917 (pp. 231-252) constitute the heart of the book.

Beyond his proposal of the analogy between the Prophet Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel and the Fatima events (pp. 253-257), he treats of the later Fatima apparitions to Sister Lùcia (pp. 270-273, 304-315) and the question of the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (pp. 304-315, 347-365). While he tends to admit the validity of the collegial consecration of 25 March 1984 (pp. 361-362), he does not argue that position with the conviction of Timothy Tindal-Robertson (cf. my review of his book, Fatima, Russia & Pope John Paul II. Revised Edition [Still River, MA: The Ravengate Press; Leominster, Herefordshire, 1998] in Miles Immaculatae XXXV [Gennaio/Giugno 1999] 282-285).

Besides his meticulous work of exposition, Foley has also given attention to the critics of the apparitions which he recounts: Hilda Graef on La Salette (p. 145); Michael P. Carroll on Pontmain (pp. 190-191); Stanley Jaki on the solar miracle at Fatima (pp. 257-260) as well as other critics of Fatima (pp. 261-267). If in each case he seems to take the critics more seriously than they merit, one surely cannot fault him for trying to deal methodically with the objections of those who have in one way or another, consciously or not, “reinterpreted” or misrepresented the basic facts.

Not only should we be grateful to Mr. Foley for his painstaking documentation of modern Marian apparitions, but also for his above mentioned correlations to biblical typology and to the consideration of the apparitions in their wider and more specific context. As I indicated in reviewing his earlier booklet, “his presentation is unique in that he relates each of the … Marian apparitions examined to specific Old Testament images and often supports them with references to the Fathers of the Church.”

This is at once the most innovative and fascinating feature of this book as well as that most open to criticism. I believe that his work in this area is pioneering and should provide an impetus and challenge to other scholars. At first view some of the correlations which he proposes between the Old Testament types and the various apparitions may seem somewhat contrived, but that is not to admit that they may not be valid. My point would rather be that biblical typology need not necessarily be limited to one primary analogate. There may often be several for any given apparition. I find his correlation of Mary’s vesture at La Salette (pp. 147-148) and Pontmain (pp. 193-195) with the vestments of the Jewish high priest particularly intriguing.

Foley has also furnished the reader with a remarkably broad and Catholic vision of the vast sweep of modern history, following in the general lines of Christopher Dawson whom he occasionally cites, thus providing the general and local background for each of the apparitions which he relates. While one might quibble about this or that particular interpretation, I believe that his evaluations of the Lutheran Reformation, the French Revolution and the Communist Revolution are sound and justified. This is yet another feature puts this book in a unique category.

This book is endowed with a bibliography and index, but unfortunately the index makes no reference to the material in the endnotes which extend for almost forty pages and arrive at #865! Would that the publisher had rendered them as footnotes which begin from #1 in each chapter!

There is an inaccuracy on p. 272 where the author states that Louis XIV consecrated France to the Sacred Heart of Jesus “in the seventeenth century”. That act was only accomplished by Louis XVI in his prison cell in 1792 (cf. Margaret Williams, R.S.C.J., The Sacred Heart in the Life of the Church [NY: Sheed & Ward, 1957] 135, 138).

Obviously, I believe that this is an important, ground-breaking book and I readily recommend it to scholars and the general public. I do, however, challenge two of Foley’s related assumptions. The first is:

“The decision as to the authenticity of an apparition rests in the first place with the local bishop, who is the ‘Pope’ of his own diocese. … In sum then, the Church has consistently taken a very cautious attitude towards Marian apparitions, with only a very small minority of such reported events being accepted. Episcopal approval is the first step in such acceptance, but other factors such as general church approval, expressed in the building of a basilica, for example, or a papal visit, are also necessary if an apparition is to be fully acknowledged” (pp. 105, 106).

At the very least, Foley’s language here is misleading. Prescinding from the ecclesiological inaccuracy of his first sentence, there is an epistemological problem. If Our Lady truly appears to someone, there is an authentic apparition. The immediate task of the local bishop is to discern the truth of what the visionary alleges. After careful discernment and consultation, the bishop may declare the apparition (and message) worthy of human credence. The bishop’s unwillingness to make any declaration about the alleged event(s) or even his making of a negative declaration are not an absolute indication that a genuine apparition did not take place. Clearly, one should presume in favor of a positive episcopal declaration about an apparition and presume against the authenticity of an apparition about which a negative declaration has been made, but such declarations do not in themselves constitute the truth of the matter.

In this regard the apparition of 21 August 1879 at Knock is very instructive. The successive Archbishops of Tuam never made an official statement about the authenticity of the apparition, but over a long period of time, it came to be accepted universally, eventually by the highest authorities of the Church, including the Pope.

Likewise, the negative judgment of the Bishop of La Crosse about Necedah and that of the Bishop of Brooklyn about the events of Bayside (both in the United States) are classic instances in which the negative episcopal judgments have been consistently verified and the bishops have wisely admonished the faithful to avoid all that has to do with these “alleged” apparitions.

Further, all of the other indications which Foley gives of “acceptance” do not constitute the authenticity of an apparition even if in their accumulation they lend ever greater credibility to its authenticity. As Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro pointed out in rendering a positive judgment about the apparitions of Kibeho, Rwanda in June 2001, “The recognition or negation of the authenticity of an apparition does not guarantee infallibility: it is based on proofs of probability more than on apodictic arguments” (L’Osservatore Romano English ed. 11 July 2001, p. 8).

What I consider Foley’s second questionable assumption is actually a presumption:

“In support of [Michael P.] Carroll’s position, though, it is to be admitted that the vast majority of reported Marian apparitions over the centuries are probably false, since only a relatively small number, since the time of the Reformation, have developed an appreciable cult and been approved by the Church” (p. 284).

My first comment on this presumption is that Mr. Foley is evidently unaware of what our Holy Father calls the Marian “geography” of a country like Italy. On the Italian peninsula there are not merely hundreds, but thousands of Marian shrines each with its own unique character and history from every century in the Christian era. All of these have a Marian image, most often considered “miraculous” and testified to by ex-votos which line the walls. Almost all of these shrines were built in commemoration of a Marian apparition or miraculous intervention. They have entered deeply into the piety of the faithful, even if they are not known outside of Italy except among pockets of Italian emigrants. This is also true of many other countries where the faith has been rooted since antiquity.

My presumption is the contrary of Foley’s. If one believes that Mary is the spiritual Mother of the faithful and Mediatrix of all graces, one should expect her intervention far more frequently than one is ever able to verify it “officially”. In his article “Marian apparitions: Some lessons from history” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review 101:9 [June 2001] 9-16) Donal Foley goes so far as to state:

“In fact it is possible to argue that God is actually obliged, in a certain sense, to stop giving prophecies, writings or apparitions once a certain point is reached, for fear of confusing people” (p. 14).

Such remarks seem to manifest a profound lack of understanding of God’s ways of dealing with men by means of both public and private revelation. The latter never present “new” truths, but keep calling to mind aspects of the public revelation that are often overlooked, forgotten or unexplored. Further, there is abundant evidence that the Mother of God has manifested her maternal concern in calling her children to a deeper understanding of the truths of the faith, including that of her own maternal mediation, from the earliest days of the Church until the present.

I sincerely hope that Mr. Foley seriously rethinks these assumptions before writing the next volume which he proposes on “more recent alleged Marian apparitions” (pp. 6, 366).

Arthur Burton Calkins