Over the centuries, there have been various apparitions of Mary. They can be confusing to the faithful, who might not understand exactly how these apparitions fit into the deposit of faith and how they are to be received by the faithful.
Marian apparitions, or any supernatural vision, cannot be part of the deposit of faith received from Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, John the Evangelist. Prior to his death, everything that is necessary for faith and salvation was revealed, although it was not necessarily explicitly defined as an article of faith by that time. Any revelation occurring after John's death is private revelation. If it is indeed from Heaven, the revelation is private, made only to that person, and does not bind under faith. A person can be a Catholic in good standing and believe that all apparitions, including Marian ones, are fake and that their message should not be followed.
Now, the Catholic Church does examine reported apparitions and make (non-infallible) determinations about whether those apparitions are authentic or not. It bears repeating that these declarations of authenticity are not infallible, so they could be wrong, and they are not binding on Catholics. Rather, the Church examines the evidence and makes a decision for the help of the faithful. If someone from Heaven, particularly Mary, is making a special request, there are going to be many devout faithful who want to fulfill that request. Unfortunately, there is a high risk of fraud in these apparitions. A person themselves could be malicious and making up the apparition so as to gain attention for themselves. Even if a person is really receiving a supernatural event, it could be from the devil. Satan could appear to that person as a being from Heaven in order to trick them into doing something against God and the Church. For the well-being of both the individual receiving the visions and others who might be inclined to believe them, the Church investigates all apparitions. They examine the message for continuity with Catholic teaching and they make sure that the recipient is sincere and mentally balanced. They want to make sure the person is not having hallucinations or is mentally ill. If it is determined that the vision is most probably authentically from Heaven, then the Church will give it its approval, and the approval to spread the message.
The ordinary way which the Church has set up for the investigation of apparitions is to leave it to the local bishop. When someone claims an apparition, the local bishop will set up an inquiry into the affair. After a suitable investigation, the bishop will make his proclamation as to whether the apparition is authentic or not. This declaration by the bishop is taken by the church to be the final say in the matter. Since it is not an infallible declaration, it could theoretically be overturned by subsequent bishops, but this has never happened. In a few cases, the Vatican has also investigated apparitions and added their stamp of approval to the bishop's approval. They primarily do this with popular and well-known apparitions; there are many authentic and inauthentic apparitions which remain only known on a local level. I am going to discuss only those apparitions which the Vatican has approved. This is not to deny that others approved only by the bishop are authentic; they are. Rather, it is to concentrate on the most well-known ones, because it would be a very long list if we examined every single accepted Marian apparition.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
One of the earlier recorded Marian apparitions occurred in Mexico in 1531. This was just a few years after the coming of Europeans to the New World, but Mary did not appear to a European; rather, she brought her message to a Native American. She appeared to Juan Diego in December, 1531. Juan Diego was one of the few Native American Catholics in Mexico. He lived in the country, but every morning went to Mexico City to attend Mass. One morning on his journey he went over a hill and saw a beautiful women before him. She told him that she was the Blessed Virgin Mary and that she wanted a church built on that spot in her honor. Juan Diego went to the bishop to tell him about this request, but of course the bishop did not believe him. Over the next several days Mary kept appearing to Juan Diego in the same place, repeating her request, and Juan Diego kept asking the bishop to build the church. Eventually the bishop asked Juan Diego for a sign that the apparition was real. Juan Diego communicated this request to Mary, who promised to provide the sign. The next day, Juan Diego couldn't make it to the site because his uncle became sick and he had to tend to him. The next day his uncle appeared to be dying, so Juan Diego had to go to Mexico City to find a priest to anoint his uncle. He tried to avoid the spot of the apparition because he did not want to be delayed, but Mary appeared to him on the new route. She told him that she would take care of his uncle and that he must take roses, growing miraculously in that place, to the bishop. He gathered some in his cloak, called a tilma, and went to see the bishop. When he arrived at the bishop's house, he opened his cloak and no one even noticed the miraculous flowers, because Mary had put her image on Juan Diego's cloak. The bishop believed him and had the church built as Mary had asked. When Juan Diego returned home, he found his uncle healed.
Because of this apparition, many in Mexico were converted to the Catholic faith. Mary's demonstration of love and care for those in Mexico and the many graces she imparted through this image were enough to cause mass conversions in that country, and even today many Mexicans are Catholic. The Catholic heritage of that country can be traced back to this apparition.
Our Lady of Laus
Our Lady of Laus occurred in 1664 and is not very well-known. Laus is a small town in South France. Mary appeared there to a very poor seventeen year old girl, Benoite. Benoite was born into a very poor family and her father died when she was only seven, so she became a shepherdess at the age of twelve. Mary appeared to her in a grotto as she was tending her sheep. Mary kept appearing for four months without revealing her name. Eventually, Mary revealed her name and asked Benoite to have a church built in Laus on the site of a run-down chapel. After the diocese's investigation into the apparitions, they deemed it authentic and built the church as per Mary's request. The oil which was in the sanctuary lamps of the run-down church is preserved as miraculous. Many who have been anointed with it have been cured.
The primary message of the apparition at Laus is repentance. Mary wanted her children to change their lives and turn to God. Through this apparition, she hoped to inspire a greater sense of sorrow for sin and conversion to God. The chapel she asked to have built was to be dedicated to penance, to be a place where people could come and repent of their sins.
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
This apparition was given to St. Catherine Laboure in France in 1830. Catherine Laboure was a member of the Daughters of Charity founded by St. Vincent de Paul. When she was in the novitiate, she was blessed with several visions of Mary. In the first one, she was able to speak personally with Mary for several hours. Eventually Mary showed her the design of a medal which was to be made and distributed throughout the world. Catherine told her confessor about these apparitions and the request for the medal. He was understandably skeptical, but as he got to know her better and better, he realized that she might be telling the truth. He took the information to the bishop without revealing Catherine's identity and the bishop approved the medal. The medal was made and began to be distributed. It became very popular very quickly, and so many miracles were attributed to it that it became known as the Miraculous Medal. Catherine did not care if she became famous because of the apparitions, and kept her part in the medal secret until shortly before her death when she was convinced by others to do so so that the recipient of the visions would not be lost forever.
The primary message and spiritual benefit of this apparition is the Miraculous Medal. On the back of the medal is the prayer “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.” It was about another twenty years until the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was formally defined by the pope, so this prayer provides heavenly confirmation that the devotion to the Immaculate Conception is fruitful. St. Catherine Laboure's humility is also a wonderful fruit of this apparition. She cared nothing about her own personal gain or glory; she was perfectly content to stay hidden and convey all messages through her confessor, so that no one except him would know that she was involved. Throughout her entire life she lived the life of her order, doing whatever was needed, and no one suspected that she had been blessed with visions of Mary. She is an example to all of us to live humble lives in acceptance of God's will, while never seeking to glorify ourselves for whatever gifts God has given us.
Our Lady of La Salette
These apparitions occurred in 1846 in a tiny village of France to two small children. These two, Maximin and Melanie, were tending cows, and were returning home when they happened upon a lady weeping. She told them each a secret and gave them warnings to pass on. After this one appearance, she left and never returned. The next day the children wrote down what they had been told. After a while, the bishop decided to approve the apparition.
The message of this apparition was one of warning. She warned the children that if the village did not return to a more godly way of life, they would be punished. There were many violations of God's law going on in the area, including people working on Sunday and missing mass. She wanted them to repent and to turn back to God. The message of La Salette is one of warning but also of mercy. Mary clearly warns them to repent, but she gives them this warning out of love, hoping that they will turn around their lives and avoid the punishments that will occur if they do not reform. While perhaps the exact message and threatened punishments no longer apply to us today, we can certainly take note of this message of Mary. If we do not repent of our sins, we will also be punished, but Mary and Jesus give us this opportunity to turn around our lives and return to grace.
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Lourdes is one of the, if not the most, famous apparitions of Mary. It occurred in France in 1858, and like so many of her other appearances, Mary appeared to one of the least of society, a poor peasant girl named Bernadette. Bernadette was the daughter of one of the poorest families in the town and they lived in the former jail. One day she was sent with her sisters to gather firewood. She lagged behind them, and suddenly a beautiful lady appeared to her, in a cave on the side of a rock formation. She invited Bernadette to pray the rosary with her, and asked her to come back to the same place for several days. Bernadette's parents learned about the vision from her sister who had seen Bernadette in prayer. They ordered her not to return, but she went back anyway. The lady asked her to pray for sinners and offer sacrifices. Bernadette was told by the lady to dig in the weeds and drink from the stream of water which would appear. After digging, the stream was very small and muddy, so she ended up eating and drinking mostly mud and weeds. This made her look ridiculous, but she did it out of obedience. Eventually the stream became clear and unmuddied, and the source of a many miracles. On the last day of her appearances, the lady told Bernadette “I am the Immaculate Conception.” She took this message to the parish priest. He examined her and determined that she could not have known by herself or even heard of the Immaculate Conception. Coming from a poor family, she was mostly uneducated and would not have heard of the idea of the Immaculate Conception, which had only been defined a doctrine four years before. Eventually the bishop took up the case because it became so well known. He determined that Mary had indeed appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes. This shrine has become one of the most popular places to visit, particularly because of the miraculous water there. The stream/fountain that Bernadette dug up became the source of many miracles. Many who drank or bathed in the water were cured of their incurable diseases.
There is not a strong message from Lourdes like there is from some other apparitions. Rather, this vision was to bring hope and conversion to the people of France and the world. Mary did give a message of repentance, but she mainly wanted to show her love and care, hoping that people would be inspired to return to her Son. Like in Mexico with her appearance as Our Lady of Guadalupe, she did not appear so much to warn as to inspire. The miraculous water is by far the most visible and well-known effect of this apparition. Not everyone who goes there receives the healing they ask for, but the miracles that are performed through the water will hopefully bring people to acknowledge and remember the work of God in their lives and to convert to Him.
Our Lady of Pontmain
This is one of the least known of Mary's apparitions. It occurred in France in 1871 in the small village of Pontmain. At the time, the Franco-Prussian war was going on. France had been invaded by Prussia and were losing badly. It looked like France was going to be completely defeated. A man was in his barn with his two sons doing chores when one of them went to the door to look at the weather. Looking into the sky, he noticed a beautiful lady hovering there. He called his brother and father over. His brother also could see the vision, but his father could not. They called out their mother, who could not see the vision. Eventually others were attracted to the area and all the children who came saw the lady, but no adults could. Mary told them that their prayers would soon be answered. They prayed and sang songs, and after about three hours Mary disappeared. That night, the Prussian army which had been on the verge of conquering the city of Laval, near Pontmain, suddenly stopped their march and turned around. The general said that he was stopped by an invisible madonna. Very soon after this, the war ended and peace reigned. Several young men from Pontmain, including the brother of the original visionaries, returned home safely. After investigation, the bishop gave his approval to the apparition.
This appearance of Mary was to bring hope and consolation in time of great trouble. She consoled her faithful children in the town of Pontmain that their suffering and worry over their children at war would soon end. This vision did not have a universal message, except to show that Mary cares for each one of us. She wanted to personally demonstrate her love for these children in a remote part of France. We can be consoled that, even if we don't get to physically see Mary, she is there with us in good times and bad.
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Fatima appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. She first appeared to them on May 13. She asked them to come back for six months. The youngest, Jacinta, told her mother about the apparition. Her mother thought it was a joke and told others, so that soon the entire village knew about it; no one believed them. They went back for the next several months. Mary told them to pray and do penance. As each month passed, more and more people started coming out to the site of the apparitions and believing that what the children claimed was true. In August the local government, which was anti-Catholic, stopped the children and put them in jail. They did not want the apparitions becoming more of a spectacle than they already were. They kept the children for a few days and threatened them with harm unless they told everything. The children refused to give up secrets they had been given. Eventually they were released, and Mary appeared to them a few days late. Word began to spread that Mary had promised a miracle on the last day of apparitions, in October. When that month came, there were tens of thousands of people present. After Mary had appeared to the three children, the assembled crowd saw the miracle of the dancing sun. The sun appeared to come down from its normal place and move around before returning to its place in the sky. After the apparitions were over, two of the children, Francisco and Jacinta, died within a few years. The other, Lucia entered a convent.
The main message of this apparition of Mary is penance. She continually told them to pray and perform penance and to encourage others to do so. This vision took place near the end of World War I, and Mary predicted that if the world did not repent, much suffering would take place. This was a warning to the world, through the three children, that it needed to perform penance. This apparition of Mary has been widely approved of by the popes. Almost every pope since its time has visited Fatima. Pope John Paul II attributed his saving at his assassination attempt to Our Lady of Fatima. While she brings a stern message and a strong warning, this is also a manifestation of her love. She cares for us to warn us that we are straying from God and that we will be punished if we do not turn around.
Our Lady of Knock
This is the only apparition of Mary in which she did not speak. She appeared in Knock, Ireland in 1879. On either side of her were St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. They appeared by the village church, and about fifteen village people saw the apparition. Mary was deep in prayer. St. Joseph was by her side. St. John was on the other side, holding a book and appearing to be preaching. There was also an altar with a lamb on it. The bishop set up a commission to study the matter and they recommended that it was most likely authentic.
This apparition took place during a time of great upheaval in Ireland. The Irish were still suffering the effects of famine, and there were many who were poor and suffering. It is very unusual that Mary chose not to say anything during her short appearance, but perhaps she felt her presence was enough. She wanted to let them know that she and the saints were with them in their struggle for daily life.
Our Lady of Beauraing
This apparition happened in Belgium in late 1932 and early 1933. Two children were going to pick up their sister at school, and on the way two of their friends joined them. On the way home from school, they saw a lady hovering in the air. Over the next few months, they saw her thirty-three times. On each occasion, she did not speak very much, but over the period she conveyed to them a few messages. She told them that she was the Immaculate Virgin and that she wanted a church built there so that people would come to pray and repent. She also repeatedly encouraged them to pray and told them to sacrifice for love of God. After they reported these visions, the bishop took up the case and examined it. He eventually determined the apparition's authenticity.
It is notable that Mary appeared to these children. Although they attended Catholic schools, their parents were mostly non-practicing Catholics. This shows Mary's care for all her children, even those who aren't necessarily as devoted to her. Like Jesus, she goes to the lost sheep and calls them to return to Jesus. The message of this apparition is very similar to others. She tells them to pray and sacrifice for love of God and conversion of sinners. She also wanted a church built so that it could be a place of pilgrimage and people would be drawn to Jesus through Mary.
Our Lady of Banneux
This apparition of Mary occurred in Belgium in 1933. Mary appeared to a 12 year old girl Mariette. The girl first saw a lady in her front yard but she couldn't go out to meet her since her mother forbade it. Over the next several weeks the lady appeared seven more times. She called herself Our Lady of the Poor. During one of the apparitions, Mary asked the girl to put her hands into a local spring, and thereafter, miracles of healing were reported at the spring. Unfortunately, many people in the town made fun of Mariette. Some relatives ridiculed her, and local boys mocked her and called her Bernadette. She just ignored them and continued to receive Mary's gift to her. A few years later the local bishop commenced an investigation, and soon determined that they had been authentic.
This apparition of Mary spoke to her care for the downtrodden. She called herself Our Lady of the Poor, demonstrating that she is most solicitous for the care of the underprivileged. She also gave the area a miraculous spring, so that some would be cured and all would be encouraged to devotion. This is a gift to the sick, those who are often ignored and who are suffering. She appeared at Banneux to demonstrate her love for her children and that she is always with them in their time of greatest need.