(Investigator 101, 2005 March)

While strictly nothing to do with the "New Age" (albeit certain similarities are involved – gurus and metaphysical belief systems), I have included this chapter to show how people see and hear what they wish to believe, and how mythical religious shrines can become perpetuated as fact.

As a young teenager in war-weary London I used to form a queue outside any shop with a couple of mates then, as others joined the queue, would walk away leaving people blissfully waiting to buy they knew not what! On other occasions we would stand on the footpath staring intently at the sky, within minutes a crowd would have gathered to join us in our vigil ... looking at what?! Sometimes I would asked whether anyone could see "it", more often than not the answer was "yes" without even asking "what?"

While teenage pranks may seem far removed from visions the stories serve to illustrate two things – conformity and self-induced visual experiences – essential precursors in deciding what sometimes becomes a religious shrine and where it is established.

There are literally tens of thousands of shrines throughout the world, no culture is without them; but for the purpose of this chapter I propose to deal with only four of the most celebrated in the Western world – Guadalupe (Mexico), Lourdes (France), Fatima (Portugal) and Medjugorje (Yugoslavia.)

Before giving an overview of these shrines, however, it should be noted that all four (and the vast majority of those not mentioned) are located in countries where the religion is predominantly Catholic, and therefore, a brief introduction to Roman Catholic dogma and doctrine may assist in understanding why this is so.

Mary, otherwise known as the "Blessed Virgin", "Our Lady" or simply the BVM, is traditionally referred to as the mother of Jesus in the Christian Gospels. Destined to become the mother of Christ, God infused her soul with grace at the moment of conception in the womb of her mother, St Anne, which freed her from the consequences of Original Sin – hence the "Immaculate Conception".

The early church patriarchs, believing that God could not be born of woman, discouraged worship of the Mother-figure. Constantine I forbade the worship of Mary and ordered all goddess temples destroyed. By the eleventh century she became more popular than Jesus and was hailed as the saviour of humankind, the great Gothic cathedrals built to honour her still stand today.

The "undefiled virgin" was raised from the dead by Jesus and assumed into heaven as a live woman. The Assumption becoming an article of faith in 1950.

Devotion to Mary is part of Catholic liturgical life, and the studies, doctrines devotions and doctrines associated with her are collectively called "Mariology."

Marian apparitions – the appearance or manifestation of the BVM have been reported hundreds of times over the centuries along with other paranormal phenomena such as brilliant lights, spinning suns, burning bushes, weeping statues and so on. Percipients identify the apparition, usually in the form of a luminous woman as Mary, who, if and when she speaks, foretells of apocalyptic disasters, and that the reign of the Anti-christ is imminent, urging people to repent, pray and do penance.

Although Catholic dogma states that apparitions are not ghosts it accepts that the phenomena are permitted by God. In some cases the apparition asks for churches and shrines to be built to honour her and where the apparitions have been deemed authentic by Church authorities it is to these sites millions flock to seek and witness miraculous cures.

Guadalupe, or more precisely, the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, is a Roman Catholic church situated in Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo just north of Mexico City. It is Mexico’s chief religious centre to which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come each year to worship and pray for miracles.

The two principal objects of veneration are "a miraculous cloth" and a portrait "not made with hands."

As told in the sixteenth-century Nican Mopohua, ("an account") (Henderson 1979a. p. v) legend has it that in 1531 an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, heard a voice calling, "Juanito." Then at the foot of a hill named Tepeyac, he came across an apparition of a young girl radiant in a golden mist who identified herself as "the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God", and said, "I wish that a temple be created here quickly, so that I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help and protection, because I am your merciful mother..."

She also instructed the peasant to hasten to the palace of the Bishop of Mexico and say, "that I manifest my great desire, that here on this plain a temple be built to me..."

Bishop Juan Zumarraga was unconvinced and asked for a sign. Reporting back to the Virgin, Juan was told to gather some flowers, wrap them in his mantle, and take them to the doubting priest.

Granted another audience, the cloth was unfolded and when the flowers were scattered on the floor they formed a drawing of the precious image of the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God. The Bishop then placed the cloth in his private chapel "until the temple dedicated to the Queen of Tepeyac was erected where Juan Diego has seen her." (Callero, in Smith 1983. pp 121-135).
Many of the events in the legend can be correlated with stories in the Bible – a luminescent holy personage on a mountain (Matt. 17:2), a divine command to build a temple (Exod. 25:8), the sending of a messenger to persuade a doubter (Exod. 3:18-19), the invoking of tangible "signs" to convince a disbelief (John 20:25-30) and so on.

There is some doubt about the authenticity of the legend. Historian Jacques Lafaye (1976), suggests it was borrowed from an earlier Spanish legend in which the Virgin appeared to a shepherd and led him to discover a statue of her.

A second apparition resulted in a painted image, supposedly miraculous, that became known as the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is now housed in the New Basilica; the second, built on the site of an earlier church and finished in 1709, became dangerous owing to the sinking of its foundations.

There is much to cast doubt on the authenticity of the legend. A detailed study of the portrait for example discloses a remarkable similarity to a Spanish painting by Bonanat Zaoritza housed in the Museo do Arte de Cataluna in Barcelona, right down to "the brooch at the throat" (Callahan. 1981. p.10). This painting preceeds the Virgin of Guadalupe by nearly a century! Also the obvious elements of religious dogma in statements allegedly made by the apparition, and the similarity to the Spanish legend.

The "miracles" undoubtedly helped the propagation of Christianity (an estimated eight million Indian converts from 1532 to 1538 (Smith 1983, pp, 10-11), and one of the main purposes of Spanish imperialism given that Bishop Juan de Zumarraga was the chief organizer of the church in Mexico it would not be stretching the truth to suggest that the whole business was a pious fraud.

Lourdes would probably be the first name to spring to mind if you were asked to name a famous shrine. Situated south-west of Toulouse in southern France, it attracts some 3,000,000 pilgrims annually, among them 50,000 or so sick or disabled seeking a miraculous cure.

It came to prominence in 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous, deeply pious, poorly educated and asthmatic young girl of 14, the eldest child of a poverty stricken devout Catholic family, was out gathering firewood with her sisters on a cold winter’s day. She heard a noise like a gust of wind, looked up and saw a soft glow in the grotto in a cliff face. A figure in white materialized with a soft white veil falling each side of her face.

Years later she wrote:
"I put my hand in my pocket, and I found my rosary there, I wanted to make the sign of the cross... I couldn’t raise my hand to my forehead. The Vision made the sign of the cross. Then I tried a second time and I could. As soon as I made the sign of the cross, the fearful shock I felt disappeared. I knelt down and said my rosary in the presence of the beautiful lady. The vision fingered the beads of her own rosary, but she did not move her lips. When I finished my rosary, she signed for me to approach but I did not dare. Then she disappeared."
Oddly enough, this passage is tantamount to Bernadette confessing that she did not see what she claimed to have seen. The apparition according to the girl "fingered the beads of her own rosary", yet the practice was not adopted until the 3rd century by Eastern Christian monks. Although the origin of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not certain, it has been associated with St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order in the early 13th century. It was not until 1520, however, that Pope Leo X gave the rosary official approbation.

As the BVM predates the custom by centuries, what Bemadette saw, other than a possible combination of early morning mist, shadows and a shaft of sunlight, could hardly have been the apparition as described. In my opinion, for what it's worth, we have a case of conditioned expectation – the subject perceives that which conforms to their own subjective experiences and associations.

Of course I could be wrong, maybe there’s a supermarket in heaven where one can purchase accoutrements. After all, bible classes are available as are language lessons, how else would the BVM be able to quote verbatim from the bible written and compiled years after her death and in every language and dialect to boot! However, I digress.

At first Bernadette was not believed, but after allegedly seeing the "white lady" thirteen times between February 18 and March 2, 1858, she told the parish priest that her white lady had instructed her to allow people to approach the grotto and that a chapel must be built there. (Familiar ring to the story?) The priest (as you can guess) demanded a miraculous sign before he would believe her. On Bernadette’s next visit to the grotto the BVM obliged by revealing that she was "The Immaculate Conception."

This was sufficient to convince the Church, and a newly disco-vered spring near the grotto rumoured to have miraculous healing powers became the destination of pilgrims from all over the world. Bernadette became a nun and died at the age of thirty-five in 1879. She was beatified in 1925, and canonized in 1933.

A medical team composed in the main of French Catholic doctors, the International Medical Committee (CMIL) at Lourdes, are cautious and painstaking in their investigation of alleged miracle cures, as a consequence, only sixty-five cures have been accepted as miraculous by the Catholic Church out of the estimated two million sick pilgrims who have visited the shrine since 1858, hardly indicative of a statistical link between Lourdes and cures.

One of those not cured was Bernadette herself, an early victim of cholera, she suffered from asthma all her life and died of a tubercular knee.

Fatima, situated in central Portugal, has since 1917 been one of the world’s great Marian shrines. Three Portuguese peasant chil-dren -- Lucia dos Santos aged nine and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta aged six and eight -- were tending their sheep and following a flash of lightning reportedly saw a beautiful young girl who said that she had come from heaven and identified herself as the Lady of the Rosary.

The news of the vision spread and crowds of the faithful and curious accompanied the chil-dren whenever the vision visited them. On October 13, 1917 an estimated crowd of seventy thousand people gathered at Fatima and witnessed a "miraculous solar phenomenon" in which the sun seemed to swivel and emit coloured rays, now referred to as the celebrated "Dance of the Sun."

This phenomenon has been repeated elsewhere in places such as Medjugorje, Denver, and Agoo in the Philippines.

World-famous atheist Professor A.J. Ayer, cited by John Cornwell in his book, Powers of Darkness Powers of Light, (1991, p.17) offers a probable explanation for the phenomenon. Asked whether it would satisfy Ayer's criterion of evidence for the truth of the statement that more than 100,000 people claimed to have seen the sun spinning and falling to earth he replied, "No it would not, for the simple reason that the phenomenon was reported nowhere else in the world, so we must conclude that the sun stayed in its proper place and that 100,000 people were subject to some sort of mass hallucination."

Continuing the story, the Lady is supposed to have entrusted the children, particularly Lucia, with secrets which were passed to the Vatican. Believed to be prophecies of apocalyptical disasters, the Pope is alleged to have collapsed with horror!

The first national pilgrimage to Fatima took place in 1927, the basilica was begun in 1928 and consecrated in 1953. Numerous cures have been reported although they seem not to have received the same publicity as those reputedly to have occurred at Lourdes.

Fatima International puts out a monthly newsletter full of warnings about the approaching fulfilment of the Apocalyptic prophecies and the coming of the anti-christ who, it would appear, must be on the slow boat to China. St. Louis de Montfort, promoter of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, stated unequivocally that the world was moving remorselessly into that terrifying period of human history known as the "Reign of the Antichrist" – back in 1711!

Medjugorje, a small mountain parish in what was Yugoslavia, rose to world prominence in 1981 when the Blessed Virgin Mary is alleged to have appeared to six young people – Ivanka, Mirjana, Vicka, Ivan, Marija and Jakov – and, like the children at Fatima, she gave them "secrets" and countless messages.

Among the messages (exactly what one would expect straight from the pulpit) – Faith in God and in the supernatural; Commitment to God…turn away from sin…repent; Regular Mass, monthly confession, daily rosary and dedication to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Fasting, Bread and Water on Fridays. Nothing profound, the usual exultations, a repetition of the same old traditional Catholic dogma, and an urging to conform to established Church rituals.

To date there have been three investigative commissions into the events at Medjugorje and their communiques exhibit a cautionary quality. This has not deterred the hundreds of thousands who have now made it a place of pilgrimage and stories of miracles abound, none of which stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Commercialism was not slow off the mark, official tour guides now have to pass an exam set by the bishops, and a ninety page quarterly magazine, The Medjugorje Sentinel, keeps the faithful fully informed.

Other lesser known shrines where the BVM has allegedly appeared include Zeitoun in Cairo, where in 1968 Muslim workmen saw a vision over a Coptic Orthodox church, then, in April 1986, she reappeared over the church of St Demiana in Cairo. The worsening relations between the Coptic Christians and Muslim fundamentalists may have had something to do with it!

At La Salette, France, in 1846, two young children, Maximin Giraud aged eleven, and fifteen-year-old Melenia Calvat, were tending their cows when they saw "Our Lady" weeping in a dried-up river bed. There were the usual dismal prophecies and she entrusted them with "secrets", some of which were passed on to Pope Pius IX in 1850. It is not recorded whether he too collapsed in horror!

In 1888, thirteen year old Jean Bernard of Vallensages, near St Etienne, was collecting firewood when he had a vision of a gorgeously clothed "grande dame" wearing a golden crown on her head and standing with one foot on a lizard. She requested him to kill the lizard which he did, and then she disappeared. The vision re-appeared six days later and although accompanied by his parents only Jean saw the lady. Convinced she was the Virgin he asked her to cure his thirteen year old friend who had been deaf since birth. The girl began to hear, and news of the miracle spread.

Feeling the need to authenticate the vision’s identity, Jean used the two traditional tests for apparitions. He said to the vision: ‘If you are the mother of the Lord, step forward. If you are the Devil, step back." No prize for guessing which way she stepped! He then threw holy water at her, but she merely smiled — a demon would have disappeared in a puff of smoke! Scientifically controlled tests such as these leave little room for doubt!

The vision appeared on twenty occasions, urging villagers to attend more masses and repent of their wicked ways.

On her final appearance the vision was asked to create a sacred spring — the miracle failed to materialize, perhaps rosary beads are not suitable for dowsing purposes! Springs incidentally are considered to be a standard folklore item.

A church at Knock in County Mayo, Ireland, became a shrine when a tableau of the Virgin, St John the Evangelist and St Joseph appeared on it’s gable end in 1879. While the flat two-dimensional quality was suggestive of a lantern-slide projection it didn’t stop it from becoming a famous pilgrimage site, among its visitors Pope John Paul.

In 1880, in the grounds of Llanthony Abbey, Wales, four boys aged between nine and fifteen saw the Virgin float through a bush. On another occasion, it appeared to four people who were singing Ava Maria. The surrounding moun-tains rumbled and were bathed in light. Above them they said, "a most Majestic Heavenly Form" appeared and glided into a nearby "Holy bush" (actually wild rhubarb). Subsequently there were reports of healing connected with leaves from the bush.

Well I don’t know about you dear reader but my credulity has been stretched to the limit, so let’s see if we can find some common factors from which to derive a conclusion.

First, the visionaries’ perception of an apparition they believe to be that of the Virgin Mary always conforms to what the percipients expect to see based on statues, paintings and other religious representations with which they are familiar.
No one living today has ever seen the original mother of Christ, nor is there any evidence of what she may have looked like. Of some things we can be sure, she never dressed in fine raiments, wore a crown, possessed rosary beads, read the bible, or was fluent in all languages and dialects, yet she is always portrayed as young, beautiful, radiant, bathed in light, splendidly garbed, conversant with the scriptures and an accomplished linguist into the bargain.

The Virgin’s utterances follow the traditional and conventional teachings of the Catholic church, as do her directions in respect of its rituals. Like the emanations from contemporary channeled entities, profundity is conspicuous by its absence — revelations are simply restatements. Her predictions, warnings, promises of salvation, threats of perdition and need for unquestioning devotion, are all reiterations of those written in the scriptures, they are exactly what the pious would expect to hear from a divine messenger.

All the percipients or visionaries fall into roughly the same category — they range in age from six to sixteen years, are peasants, shepherds or simple uneducated folk, devoutly religious, and have been thoroughly indoctrinated by the Catholic church into believing in miracles and the supernatural generally. Without exception they come from poor or deprived families, and it could be suggested that the conjuring up of the ultimate divine figure may comfort them and give them status in the eyes of others.

Young children have vivid imaginations, they love to fantasise, see what adults cannot, and love to tell secrets — all the attributes of a potential seer. Given the right environment, a religious background and a suitable motive and one is well on the way to hallucinating.

The supernatural is contradicted by everything we learn from our five senses and natural laws; to "see" and "hear" beyond those senses and laws is the result of a subjective state based on commonplace concepts.


Burrus, Ernest J. 1979. A Major Guadalupan Question Resolved. Washington. D.C: CARA.
Callero, Cleatas, trans. 1961, in Smith, pp. 121-135.
Cornwell, John, 1991. Powers of Darkness Powers of Light. Viking. Penguin Group, London.
Crees, Anthony, 1989. Anatomy of Religion. Freshet Press. Castlemaine.
Edwards, Harry. 1993. Apparitions and Shrines. the Skeptic. 13(4):1317
Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1992. V61.5. p. 527c.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, 1993. Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. Diamond Books, London.
Lafaye, Jacques, 1976. Quezalcoatal and Guadalupe. 1531-1813: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness. University of Chicago Press. pp. 231-253.
Nickell J. & Fischer J. F. "The Image of Guadalupe: A Folklorist & Iconographic Investigation." Skeptical Inquirer. 9(3):244-255.
Henderson, G. Gordon, 1979a. Introduction to Burros. p4.
Smith, Judy Brant, 1983. The Image of Guadalupe: Myth or Miracle. Garden City. NY. Doubleday.
    [From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, H Edwards]

The Supernatural and Paranormal; Hundreds of articles: