The successful promotion of the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin is not merely evidence of “centuries-old tradition of folk Catholicism driven by local traditions,” as Lewis Wallace suggests in these pages—although he’s right about the endurance of local Christianities. The event has less to do with popular devotions, though, than the global politics of the Catholic leadership.
The main question posed by Bishop David Ricken’s public approval of the shrine and the 19th-century apparitions that inspired it is: Why this one, and not other literally countless reports of Marian visions and apparitions that pop up in the news every year? At a moment when Pope Benedict XVI is widely known to be cracking down on apparitions and limiting the doctrinal expansion of Marian devotion, why has Adele Brise won the status of bona fide visionary?
Mists, Clouds of Light, and the Occasional Grilled Cheese Sandwich
The Blessed Mother has been visiting earth for many centuries, according to believers, but the now familiar fashion for apparitions only began in the nineteenth century with the incidents at La Salette (1846) and Lourdes (1858). The Mother of God’s appearances to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes were followed almost immediately by Virgin sightings across Europe, which have since never ceased (for a good introduction to these phenomena, check out the website of the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute.)
The proliferating apparitions followed an obvious pattern. The Virgin appeared to more women and children than men, to working class and peasant believers rather than wealthy, educated Catholics, and to lay people rather than clergy.
She rarely appeared in a church, but instead hovered over trees and fields, or shone from grottos. The Virgin descended in mists or clouds of blinding light, usually wearing snowy white robes more dazzling than the sun. She was uniformly young and beautiful, with sweet features and an even sweeter voice. Only her accessories varied (at Knock, a crown; at Fátima a cloak like gold and a rosary; at Banneux a blue sash around her waist and a golden rose on her foot.)
Her messages, which she always repeated in the local language, have been largely the same each time: Repent, pray the rosary, seek peace. Sometimes she bestowed secrets upon her chosen visionaries, as at Fátima. In the first half of the twentieth century, she warned against Communism. Since the fall of the Wall, her bulletins have focused on the integrity of the nuclear family, the dangers of divorce and abortion, and the evils of consumerism.
After World War II, the Virgin went global. Since 1945, at least 700 apparitions have been reported, according to the count of anthropologist Paolo Apolito, the majority of them in North America. Most of those occurred after the apparition in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina (beginning in 1981) had begun luring millions of pilgrims from every corner of Christendom, who then returned home to find the Virgin awaiting them. Suns have been spinning over Conyers (GA), Phoenix and Scottsdale (AZ), and Cleveland (OH), among hundreds of other places in the US and Canada.
Mary has also frequently manifested herself in domestic items and food products, such as window panes, closet doors, and the infamous grilled cheese sandwich sold on eBay. Again, these are merely the apparitions and manifestations that surface in the public media—what the veteran vision-hunter and MacArthur-winning anthropologist, William A. Christian, Jr., calls the “tip of the iceberg”. For every blessed sandwich, there are a hundred more visions and locutions that no one sees or hears about, except for the lucky recipient.
The rash of apparitions has been astonishing to academics, journalists, and Catholic leaders alike. Professors of Religion talk about “re-enchantment” and cite the parallel expansion of charismatic Christianities such as Pentecostalism. Political experts point to identity politics and cultural clashes that have resulted from modern wars, such as the vicious history of fascist partisanship that haunts Apparition Hill in Medjugorje; or massive immigrations over national borders, as in the American southwest, where Marian apparitions have flourished as Latino/a Catholics arrive in ever greater numbers.
Journalists and television reporters, meanwhile, usually just poke fun at the latest Virgin on a Tree Stump or bleeding statue, without bothering to learn more about the long history of local Christian devotions and pilgrimage. Catholic bishops and parish priests usually take a hands-off approach to reported apparitions, at least in the U.S. As a diocesan archivist in Sacramento told me, when I telephoned to ask about a vision event in the Mojave Desert, “it’s nothing we’re trained about.” They get a half-dozen letters or emails every year from folks claiming they’ve seen “Christ in a marshmallow,” he added, and as far as he’s concerned, a report of apparitions is a “non-event.”
Perhaps Sacramento isn’t keeping up with postings to the Vatican News Service website, articles in L’Osservatore Romano, and other bulletins emerging from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faithful, which support the current pope’s efforts to control apparitions. Or maybe they actually have been watching the signs. Another official at the diocese suggested that his bishop takes the same information-gathering approach to apparitions as suggested by the Congregation in 1978 and recently reaffirmed by Benedict XVI. Once someone reports a vision to his pastor or the diocese, the bishop’s staff sends someone to interview and observe the putative visionary and evaluate her mental stability, level of education, and adherence to Catholic doctrine.
Does her description of the Virgin match that of earlier visionaries? Are the her reports of the Virgin’s words consistent with church teachings? Does the visionary say or do anything critical of clergy? The spy reports the results to the bishop, who might consult other prelates or the local Cardinal, or “just ask around,” and then makes the call about an apparition’s authenticity. “Basically,” admitted the diocese’s representative, they usually ignore the whole thing. “Let it be,” he added, with no apparent irony.
By comparison, bishops who enthusiastically support Marian apparitions or manifestations these days, like the former Bishop of Civitavecchia near Rome, run into trouble with the Vatican. When a statue of the Virgin—purchased on pilgrimage to Medjugorje—began bleeding in his church, Bishop Girolamo Grillo saw it happen and began encouraging pilgrimage to the statue. John Paul II was one of the devotees who knelt and prayed at the Virgin’s feet in 1995, according to Grillo. A formal investigation was conducted and a dossier of evidence assembled (including theologians’ evaluations of the situation and chemical analyses of the blood seeping from the statue’s face) for submission to the new pope soon after his ascension to the papal throne, but Civitavecchia has not become another Medjugorje or Champion. Grillo has been removed from office.
A Stranglehold on Official Religion
Why was the Bishop of Green Bay able to keep his job? Why are the visions of Adele Brise, a pious Belgian woman, more acceptable to Church leaders and the public—and even reporters, who have cracked nary a joke about the schoolteacher’s visions of Mary—than the bishop who witnessed a bleeding statue? Why is Our Lady of Good Hope celebrated by the media, while Our Lady of the Rock, who appears monthly to the Sonoran émigré I study, drawn criticism from local bishops but hardly any attention from journalists and academics? The answers to these questions are far more complex than the popular devotion to local religious heroes Wallace cites. For one thing, visions are not sufficient grounds for canonization. But Wallace’s reference to the politics of canonization are close to the mark.
On one level, the discretion of the Catholic leadership with regard to visions reflects its stranglehold on official religion. Since the Council of Trent (1545-63), clerical reformers have struggled to impose a single version of Catholicism on believers, trying their best to regulate doctrine, ritual, ordination, and the behavior of the baptized.
For equally as long, they have failed to prevent dissent and religious agency among the faithful, many of whom have demonstrated their dissatisfaction by joining other denominations or leaving Christianity altogether. The number of priests and nuns was at an all-time low even before the recent sexual scandals, and the number of self-identified Catholics world-wide keeps declining. Many of those who remain in the Church ignore standard doctrines and believe what they want. How many Catholics disobey Church rules? About as many as the angels dancing on a pinhead.
Believers know that Jesus promised that they would see God face to face. But continuing revelation has always presented a direct challenge to the canonical gospels and the learned keepers of these foundational scriptures. Every vision brings the possibility of new doctrines and practices different from those established by congregations over the centuries and approved by the clerical hierarchy.
In Christianity’s early years, every time a would-be prophet jumped up in the middle of the Eucharist and announced a new bulletin from above, a crisis of authority resulted. Bishops and theologians decided that for congregations and institutional Christianity to endure, direct revelation had to stop. The Deposit of Faith was complete with the death of Jesus’ apostles, eye-witnesses to his resurrection. Since then, individual believers may receive intimations of the divine through visions or by other means, but these are personal experiences with little or no meaning for the larger community of Christians.
Still, as with other institutional policies on private behavior, church leaders could never police visions. They could only try to punish reports of visions and apparitions and devotions to rogue Virgins and saints. The only viable alternative was to ignore most visionaries while selecting just a few to promote as exemplary. Bishop Ricken is savvy: Adele Brise and her Virgin are perfect examples of a safe apparition that poses no threat to the Catholic hierarchy and official doctrines.
For one thing, Adele only had three visions of the Lady in shining white, which she immediately confessed to the local priest. For another, the Lady’s messages to Adele were uncontroversial, according to the visionary’s reports: Ask everyone to repent, the Virgin requested, and told Adele to “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” Adele did exactly as ordered with no further Marian intervention before her death in 1896.
Afterward, although local Catholics kept her memory, Adele never became a political icon or inspiration for religious resistance, as other visionaries have. Adele Brise is no Juan Diego or Veronica Leukens or Ivan Dragecivic. The Lady of Good Hope is no mestiza Virgin of Guadalupe, symbol of la raza and transnational Latino/a culture, or bleeding statue of Civitavecchia. She represents no crusades against a particular politics, class, or ethnic group. Adele was safely European, white, uneducated, and unassuming, and her Lady has not reappeared in Wisconsin.
Above All, Pose No Threat
At this moment, Benedict XVI is pursuing European converts and fast-tracking John Paul II for canonization. Meanwhile, the Virgin keeps descending to obscure locations in Rwanda, Korea, Australia, and across Latin America and the borderlands of America and Mexico. The number of apparitions in the U.S. seems to keep rising, but not because of Belgian immigrants to Wisconsin. What seems to be an increase in apparitions is probably a jump in reports of apparitions and manifestations of the Virgin.
Rumors of miracles and visions now fly around the globe via the internet, rather than moving locally through the whispers of neighbors and friends, as both Paolo Apolito has pointed out. International pilgrimages are much easier now, at least for the middle class that can afford plane tickets to Medjugorje and Civitavecchia. Pilgrims learn from major apparition sites exactly how to watch for the Virgin and what to do when someone spots her. And it’s much easier for the news of an apparition to reach reporters, now that visionaries and their witnesses use video cameras and the World Wide Web.
President Obama made the news last week when he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop of San Salvador whom the Vatican has refused to consider for canonization. Romero has drawn the loving devotion of thousands of ordinary Catholics since he was assassinated in 1980 by agents of the US-supported government of El Salvador. Towards the end of his life, Romero spoke out with increasing vehemence against his government’s abuses of human rights and their murder of Salvadoran citizens, including priests. The Vatican has always maintained that Romero died for his politics, not his faith.
Ironically, Adele Brise may someday become a saint for her politics, rather than her visions and the faith that made them possible. Unlike the visionaries who have challenged religious and government leaders over the last two millennia of Christian history with new interpretations of divine justice, the unassuming Sister Adele poses no threats to the political equilibrium of nations or the Vatican. No banners with the image of Our Lady of Good Hope are flying over protest marches or rallies for social justice up in Wisconsin, as Guadalupe—who long preceded the current fashion in apparitions—continues to hover over marches for immigration rights in Los Angeles. No one is shouting the name of Adele Brise in the face of brutal oppression, as they once called “¡Viva Romero!”
Lewis Wallace quotes one of the shrine-keepers in Champion, who clearly understands why Our Lady of Good Hope has won episcopal support and the tacit approval of the Vatican: “A lot of people say well, why do you think it happened now? Well, every apparition is meant for its certain time in history.”