Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World Foreword

Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World
Foreword by Fr Aidan Nichols OP

Donal Foley has written a book with an extraordinary message. “Appearances” by the Blessed Virgin Mary to visionaries, often children, at what frequently became afterwards major centers of Marian cultus, are not to be considered—when creditworthy at all—theologically unimportant occurrences somewhere on the margins of Christian spirituality.

The context for interpreting them aright is far different. For the Fathers of the Church—and many contemporary biblical scholars for that matter—the New Testament writers treated the symbolism of the Old Testament as “fulfilled” in the incarnation of the Word through Mary, the climax to which Jewish history was pointing.

So likewise the Marian appearances fo the early modern and modern periods constitute a divinely-originated exploitation of that same symbolism—but this time with a view to purifying and re-energizing the post-apostolic Church as founded on Jesus Christ.

Rather in the spirit of the early writings of the French lay philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain, Foley sees the main lines of the history of Western culture since the sixteenth century as a progressive demolition of Christendom.

Painting in broad strokes, like Henri Daniel-Rops and Christopher Dawson on whose work he draws, the student of overall historical trends will not satisfy the historiens de métier—and yet we do need some general picture of where, in 2002, we stand in human time. To correlate the general history of the modern West with a handful of visionary experiences will strike many as bizarre (especially when it be added that those experiences were chiefly enjoyed by simple nuns, semi-illiterates or those barely out of infancy).

And yet the narratives and symbolic patterns of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic dispensations were for Old Testament prophecy and apocalyptic a privileged key in the interpretation of world events. To the mind of the patristic Church that key was now supplied by Jesus Christ who in his Flesh-taking from Mary had brought the scattered pieces of the Old Testament mosaic into one. Perhaps the poor and simple, with their lack of excessive intellectual and material baggage, can see that more clearly.

When faced with approaches to the Marian apparitions of recent centuries, the choice of the present-day Catholic is likely to be an invidious one between skeptics and maximizers. The skeptics pooh-pooh the material as incredible. They forget that if there is a reality of grace—that is, of divine-human communication, then some commerce between humankind and the Word of God who became and remains human like them only through Mary can hardly be called implausible.

By contrast, the legenda of the appearances (I use the word in the sense of a story told, not that of historical untruth) so fascinate the maximizers that their Christian imaginations can be all too easily hooked—and so rigidified—by them.

Donal Foley’s study, by taking with full seriousness the possibility of—spectacular as well as humble—interventions of grace in the Church’s life avoids the first pitfall. And by re-rooting these stories and their native imagery in biblical revelation as magisterially construed by the Fathers and the Liturgies of East and West, it also removes from them that theologically dislocated quality which afflicts them in much devotional writing. We see them related once again to the great biblical narrative of which they are (if we may accept his account) the derivative continuation

I hope this book will make some readers look at the Marian appearance accounts with more sympathy and others reject “apparitionism”—the attempt to build a spirituality on such foundations alone. There is only one Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to which all the Scriptures bear witness.

But if Mary is the most eminent member of the Church that carries the Gospel, how can she lack all role in evangelism, the bearing of the Gospel to others? Christian history suggest how in a charged and dramatic ways, albeit with the intimacy that belongs to personal witness, she continues to take the Word to other people, as once, on the hills of Palestine, she carried it to Elizabeth.

Aidan Nichols, OP