I recently visited the site of the first Marian apparitions to receive episcopal approval in the United States: Our Lady of Good Help near Green Bay, Wis. In 1859, the Blessed Mother appeared three times to a young Belgian immigrant woman and told her to catechize the children in the area. There are some amazing stories associated with Our Lady’s appearance to Adele Brise, especially related to the devastating Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
Even though this story is interesting and the bishop of Green Bay approved these apparitions last December, does that mean they’re formally approved by the Church? Are Catholics required to believe in them? How many other apparition sites have received formal approval?
If the local bishop permits devotion inspired by the apparition, based on an initial assessment, that permission isn’t the same as formal approval, which recognizes the apparition as being supernatural in origin. Formal approval may not happen for years or even centuries.
Do we have to believe?
All apparitions are considered private revelation because public revelation ended with the Apostles’ deaths (when the New Testament was completed). According to the Catechism, private revelation doesn’t improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but it helps us live more fully by it in a certain period of history. (CCC 67) The Church will confirm an apparition as worthy of belief as a private revelation but Catholics aren’t required to believe it.
Marian experts have estimated that as many as 21,000 Marian apparitions have been reported since the year 1000. The Holy See has formally approved the apparitions at 12 sites out of 295 it has studied, according to Father Salvatore Perrella, O.S.M., an expert in dogma and Mariology from the Marianum Pontifical Institute in Rome.
Some Vatican-approved apparition sites:
- Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico
- Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (Rue du Bac, Paris, France)
- Our Lady of La Salette, France
- Our Lady of Lourdes, France
- Our Lady of Pontmain, France
- Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal
- Our Lady of Akita, Japan
A site that’s drawn millions of pilgrims but is not on the “approved” list is Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Investigation of this site is ongoing.
So why should we pay attention to apparitions when there are so many and it’s not always clear if the Church has approved them?
Maybe because they can point us toward heaven. Father Perrella said the Church-approved apparitions manifest Mary’s evangelical mission throughout the history of the Church, which has been to show the way to the Father’s house through faith in Christ.
I didn’t go to the shrine of Our Lady of Good Help because I’m especially intrigued by supernatural phenomena. I just thought that anywhere Our Lady had appeared would be a good place to seek the Lord, bring petitions and pray. What I found at the shrine was peace and a real sense of God’s presence.