And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
— Luke 1.41
The 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima is approaching, a celebration of one of the most dramatic accounts of apparitions in our time. Beginning with three visits by the Angel of Peace in 1916, three shepherd children in Portugal claimed to see the Virgin Mary via six apparitions ending on the 13th of October 1917. Our Lady promised to reveal three secrets to the children, and offered a miracle upon her last visit, which was witnessed by upwards of 60,000 people. One of these secrets is said to have predicted the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. Lucia Dos Santos, the eldest of the three children, later saw an apparition of the Child Jesus and the Virgin Mary in her convent room in 1925.
Dating back to the 1500s, the Anglo-French word aparicion references the Epiphany as an opening of heaven to the world. Just as the revelation of the Christ Child to the three wise men offered a glimpse of a greater glory, so an apparition can be understood to open a door to divine understanding. Over time the word has come to be used as a signifier of anything ghostly and unexpected, but it traces itself back to holy origins. Marian apparitions, in particular, occupy a unique place in the Catholic faith, and pilgrimages to major sites in Lourdes, Guadalupe, or even Medjugorje are legendary.
As important as the visions themselves, however, are the “messages” Mother Mary is said to have brought, from requests to build churches, to prayers to end a world war. The visions all reveal a call to hope, though they also warn of challenges and crises, for which faith is offered as a refuge and an antidote. A particular feature of Marian apparitions is the disclosing of secrets that tell of impending tragedies or momentous events. In the end, though, such apparitions are powerful reminders of our belief in Mary, and her place as a mediator for humanity — a bridge to Our Lord.
As a university named in her honour, St. Mary’s understandably looks forward to the month of May, which is traditionally understood as Our Lady’s month. As Marge Fenelon, writing in The National Catholic Register puts it, “The idea of a month dedicated specifically to Mary can be traced back to baroque times. . . . It was in this era that Mary’s Month and May were combined . . . with special devotions organized on each day throughout the month. This custom became especially widespread during the 19th century and remains in practice until today.” For many, however, myself included, every day is Mary’s day: a time to celebrate a blessing of incredible mystery and approachability. As St. Josemaria Escriva once said: “When you see the storm, if you seek safety in that firm refuge which is Mary, there will be no danger of your wavering or going down.”
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.