Review of "Marian Apparitions, the Bible,
and the Modern World" in New Directions

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New Directions, February 2003 - Book Reviews - Bishops, curates and Anglican divines

Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World

Donal Anthony Foley, Gracewing, 454pp, pbk, 0852443137, £20

Not another weeping statue (or icon)? Not another child or nun having yet another tediously improbable vision of Mary? Not more Immaculate Hearts and First Saturdays? 'Surprising stuff', as one German theologian dryly described it, 'to people from the Anglo-Saxon and German cultural world,' peasant Mediterranean religion at its most superstitious and credulous; salvation by dodges; outlandish devotions leading to embarrassing plaster statues of saccharin sanctities. But here is a book that takes Marian apparitions seriously and comes to us with heavyweight back-up: Professor John Saward has lent a hand; Fr Aidan Nichols OP has written a foreword; and our own admirable Jill Pinnock has helped out.

This book makes clear that Rome does not require belief in any post-biblical visions or revelations. Indeed, the bishop who provides an imprimatur insists, 'It does not imply agreement with the contents, opinions or statements expressed therein, or approval of, or support for any private revelations, apparitions, messages or devotions.' The Church simply decides that a particular cult is safe and edifying; and she may also take a very negative view of those she regards with suspicion. Significantly, the word 'Medjugorje' does not appear in the index to this book. Perhaps those most devoted to Our Lady are likely to be the most offended by attempts to exploit her fraudulently. Witness that untiring promoter of devotion to Mary sub titulo Mater Misericordiae, Bishop John Grandisson of Exeter, who nevertheless ruthlessly demolished a questionable 'shrine'. It remains true that a genuinely enlightened world-view would examine claimed phenomena coolly and objectively rather than with a bigoted and prejudicial antipathy.

Donal Foley's book is long and meaty and perhaps uneven. I suspect that professional historians might differ in the extent to which they were impressed by the many historical judgements which Foley makes as he attempts to set a number of apparitions from Guadalupe to some in the twentieth century in their historical contexts. But, after all, any historical judgement must be provisional except as matters are seen from the Eschaton by the eyes of the Eschatos. Where Foley is most thought-provoking is in his demonstrations that the imagery and theology of so many of these apparitions cohere with biblical imagery; with the way in which the biblical texts and images relate intertextually with each other; with the continued development by the Fathers and the classical liturgies of same divine didactic game.

Thus, in his first chapter, as Foley unpacks the iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he recounts the significance of snake cults in Aztec religion; of the Nahuatl title for Mary, Coatlaxopeuh, 'She who crushes the serpent', which probably lies behind the Nahuatl word translated 'Guadalupe'; and relates it all to the patristic typological account of Mary as the New Eve complementing him whom St Paul typologically identifies as the New Adam; and ... but stay: read Foley's accounts for yourself in their totality; whether or not you are convinced by his thesis, you will learn a lot.

Foley provides interesting evidence for the view that, during the Enlightenment onslaught upon the rich tapestry of biblical and Christian tradition, during that trahison des clercs which culminated in the condescending unbelief of twentieth-century 'biblical scholarship', it was through the simple and the foolish that God kept alive for his Church understandings which the clever and the wise were certain they had outgrown. Yet even the most dogmatically intransigent liberal or atheist might pause for an uneasy moment before Our Lady of Fatima (Our Lady of Coincidences, as we might rename her) whose feast-day, marking her first appearance in 1917, is May 13; whose 'Third Secret', written down in 1944, was a tableau of papal assassination; whose devoted client John Paul II slumped forward in St Peter's Square as blood pumped out through his white cassock on May 13 in 1981, when an assassin's bullet missed, by a fraction of a millimetre, his principal artery, his spinal column and his more important nerve centres and organs. 'It was a Mother's hand that guided the bullet's path, and in his throes the pope halted at the threshold of death', was the victim's comment. 'In the designs of Providence there are no coincidences.'

What an un-English business. But could it be that God is a touch more like a vulgar impresario of Mediterranean melodrama than like the quiet, well-mannered, self-effacing figure that polite English agnostics almost believe in? And how foreign to all our fashionable sub-Christianities is the shadowy truth dimly discernible behind these coincidences of divine omnipotence placing its free mercies in the intercessory hands of the Great Mother of God, Mary Most Holy. It makes you wonder who is blind and who it is that sees; who really possesses the divine wisdom which men call folly.

John Hunwicke celebrates the liturgy in Devon.

This review first appeared in New Directions, Forward in Faith, Tufton Street, London


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