A quick look around the world shows us what most Catholics do when a message comes from heaven – they build a shrine and go there on pilgrimage. “This must be a holy place, God’s messenger has been there! If we go, good blessings will rub off on us!”
Suppose you have a granny who lives in Australia – or Manila – or Kerala. But something wonderful happens! Granny comes to stay with you in Cardiff for a whole six months. It’s really lovely having granny around. But those six months come to an end, and granny is getting ready to go home. Before she goes, she sits down in your living room and makes a little speech: “My dear grandchildren! I have to leave you soon. I only ask two things of you: ring me once a month, and do try to make up after the quarrel you had with your cousins last year.”
After granny flies home, you miss her so much, that you decorate the guest room she stayed in with lots of pictures of her, and spray around the perfume she always wore. Now and then you lie on the bed she slept on, and remember her fondly. But after a few months, life gets so busy, that you stop ringing granny every month, and as for that quarrel with your cousins – no, it’s just too painful to go there, so you never sort things out.
So if that happens, have you done what granny wanted?
This is the trap we so easily fall into. There are many places around the world where people claim that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared. Some of these claims have been declared believable by the local bishop or by the Vatican. But often we put all our energy into saying, “How awesome, Our Lady has been here,” and none into following the instructions she gave.
Now it’a true that in some places, the main message has been about establishing a place of pilgrimage: Lourdes in France for the sick, or Banneux in Belgium for the poor. But in other places, the message is one calling us to daily prayer. 99 years ago in Fatima, Our Lady asked us to pray the rosary every day for peace in the world. Then, the main threat was from the military powers engaging in the First World War; today, we face global terrorism; but the need for peace is just as important. In Nicaragua, Our Lady want further, saying to the visionary of Cuapa, “Make Peace. Don’t ask Our Lord for peace because, if you do not make it, there will be no peace.”
In Venezuela, Our Lady appeared to the Servant of God, Maria Esperanza, often between 1976 and 2004. Among her many messages, she requested “prayer for the church, for priests and the conversion of sinners; study of Sacred Scripture; frequent Confession and Communion; and charity, solidarity, and social justice for all.”
As members of the Catholic Church, we are under no obligation to believe in any particular apparition of Our Lady. Even when the Vatican has said something is worthy of belief, we are free to take it or leave it. But we are not free to swoon over the shrine while missing the message – to do that would be the height of hypocrisy.
It’s much rarer for visionaries to report visions of Our Lord himself. Most famously, he showed his Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1674, and spoke of his Divine Mercy to St Faustina Kowalska in the early 20th Century. But of course the greatest apparitions were the ones to St Mary Magdalen and the Apostles, demonstrating that he has risen from the dead.
Our Lord was setting us a puzzle in today’s Gospel, imagining Abraham saying “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” Today’s Lazarus was a character in a parable – but we know that Our Lord raised another Lazarus from death, for a human lifetime, and himself returned to show he had entered into the new and eternal life which awaits us all. These apparitions are not given to us to convince us of anything. Rather, they are given to remind us of those good spiritual practices we so easily neglect or avoid.
In today’s letter to St Timothy, we receive advice which applies to all of us: “you must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle. Fight the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called … I put to you the duty of doing all that you have been told, with no faults or failures, until the Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That is the only apparition which matters. At the Second Coming, or when we appear before Him for judgement at the end of our earthly lives, Our Lord will appear to us, with a cloud of saints attending upon him. Our Lady will not be impressed if we have visited Fatima but not prayed the rosary, or if we have visited Lourdes, but never repented of the sickness in our hearts.
So what’s your favourite apparition? Do you know what message is associated with it? If you do know, be sure to live out the message. And if you don’t know, make it your business to find out!