BBC News called it “America's ‘last chance’ to hear the Virgin Mary.” Readers could have been forgiven for thinking that the news service was announcing the close of a Broadway musical, instead of the final curtain on an event of more sobering significance: the culmination of America's longest running Marian “event” to date — the purported Marian apparitions in Conyers, Georgia.
More than 100,000 pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Mexico and Haiti, converged on the 90-acre farm in north Georgia's Rockdale County October 13 to hear Nancy Fowler, a 47-year-old former nurse and mother of two sons, deliver what she claimed would be the last of seven years of public messages she would receive from the Virgin Mary “for the Americas.”
This, despite the fact that the attitude of the Atlanta archdiocese to the “apparitions” is decidedly cool, and that two episcopal administrations have forbidden priests to organize pilgrimages there or celebrate the sacraments at the site.
Slipping into what one medical expert who has examined her terms a “deep sleep that is wide awake,” Fowler spoke haltingly through loudspeakers to the hushed crowds, urging them to “live your life in full union with God,” to “pray against the evils of this day,” and to shun materialism. Her remarks were simultaneously translated into Spanish for the large numbers of Mexican and Latin American pilgrims who had chartered buses to this rural site 35 miles east of Atlanta.
“Today Our Lady has come for the last time in this way,” Fowler said. “We will not be permitted to see Our Lady again in this way until we are in heaven. She reassured me continuously that she remains with me, and you can be reassured that she remains with each of you.”
(According to a Reuters report, Fowler indicated that the length of the last message made it impossible to deliver in its entirety, and that the complete text will be posted on the internet in the near future.)
The unassuming housewife, who shuns interviews, began claiming daily visits from Jesus and Mary as early as 1987. By the late 1980s, convinced that she was called to “bear witness” to Jesus as “the living Son of God,” and to Mary under the title “Our Loving Mother,” she went public with monthly messages at her farm house. After October 1994, with beleaguered county authorities threatening to declare the site a public nuisance and restrict access, Fowler announced that Mary would confine herself to an annual address on Oct.13.
No reason was given for the end of Fowler's public declarations. She continues to claim daily private visions. She contends that Our Lady wishes a shrine to be built at Conyers, but, given the archdiocesan attitude toward her visions, there's not much chance of that. Then, there are reports that the “visionary” plans to move to Florida within weeks and that she has already transferred title to the farm to a nonprofit group called “Our Loving Mother's Children Inc.”
Coincidentally, a new Catholic church has been established for the greater Atlanta area within a mile of the Fowler farm, a new Byzantine-rite parish called Mother of God Catholic Church.)
What is clear is that the denouement of the monthly events at the Fowler farm that began on Oct. 13, 1990, a date which coincides with the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917, has not come any too soon for county authorities, hard pressed to meet the health and traffic demands of the tens of thousands who have descended on the rural district of 60,000. At its height in the early 1990s, up to 80,000 people gathered off a rural road each month to hear Fowler.
Early on, after the visionary told followers that Jesus had blessed a well on her property, health officials found that the water tested positive for coliform bacteria and demanded that she post a warning sign. While there were reports of physical healings, local medical teams were also kept busy treating pilgrims for exposure and other emergencies.
Church officials are breathing what can only be called a collective sigh of relief.
Msgr. Peter Dora, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, put it simply. When asked what he hoped would happen now that Conyers is folding its tents, he replied, “I hope it will become a fond memory.”
The archdiocese has been skeptical from the start.
“The Conyers situation amounts to a claim of private revelation by an individual, and the Church sees it as nothing more than that,” Msgr. Dora told the Register. “In all such claims, the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim and the Church must maintain a skeptical posture.”
While the archdiocese, said Msgr. Dora, had been inundated with hundreds of allegedly miraculous photographs, testimonies of rosaries turned to gold, and other mystical phenomena, along with reports from doctors and other medical experts “making claims about [Fowler's] state of mind,” the diocese decided, early on, that “there was nothing here that prompted us to feel that we should launch a formal investigation of any kind.”
The vicar general did volunteer that he found the alleged messages “verbose” and banal, “lacking the transcendent quality one would expect.”
The various scientific and medical tests that were performed on Fowler in 1993 and 1994 under the direction of Prof. Richard Castanon, a neurological specialist at the Catholic University of Bolivia, and which, according to Castanon, ruled out a psychiatric or physiological cause for the visions, were [Fowler's] “initiative,” said Msgr. Dora. “The Church was not involved at all.”
However, the archdiocese did have “cordial relations” with the visionary.
According to Msgr. Dora, Archbishop John Donoghue, Atlanta's current ordinary, and the former archbishop, James Lyke, met with Fowler over the years and found her “always respectful, always willing to follow the bishop's direction.”
“She understood that she was acting as a private individual, and that she did not speak for the Church in any way,” said Msgr. Dora.
But if Church officials were careful in their dealings with Fowler, they moved quickly to thwart the danger that a spontaneous ersatz “parish” would be created by pilgrims in the fields of Conyers.
Fowler had barely begun to attract crowds when then Archbishop Lyke issued a forceful statement on Conyers in the Sept. 19, 1991, issue of the Georgia Bulletin, the archdiocese of Atlanta's weekly bulletin.
Noting that “the Catholic Church recognizes the phenomenon known as … apparitions,” Archbishop Lyke went on urge “those Catholics who feel drawn by these [Conyers] events … to remember that the sacramental life of the parish must remain the central activity for the worshiping faithful.”
He then went on to forbid priests to lead pilgrimages to the site or promote the Conyers phenomenon from the pulpit. Further, he stipulated that Masses were not to be said there, nor confessions heard at the Conyers farm, and that the nearby Cistercian Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit was not to become a de facto center for pilgrims visiting the site. He even ordered the monks not to add Masses, or otherwise change their mon-astic schedule to meet the pilgrims' needs. Archbishop Lyke wrote a letter to other U.S. bishops a year later, urging them to dissuade their clergy from leading pilgrimages to Conyers. The present archbishop reiterated the directives in 1994.
Nevertheless, much of the pastoral burden of the Conyers phenomenon fell, by default, on the contemplative monks of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, located only 13 miles from the Fowler farm.
The monastery, established in 1944, and one of 16 Cistercian or Trappist houses in the United States, is a foundation of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Louisville, Ky., made famous by Thomas Merton. The Georgia monastery boasts 41 professed monks in addition to a number of postulants and observers.
“The bishop didn't want some Medjugorje happening out here,” Father Clarence Viggers, the community's former cellarer, or business manager, told the Register. “You know, priests out in the fields hearing confessions, that sort of thing.” (He was referring to the purported visions of Mary, ongoing since 1981, in a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which decades of pilgrimage have turned into a kind of Marianopolis, despite the lack of Church approval.)
But because of the relative scarcity of churches nearby, if pilgrims wanted to go to Mass, “they had to come to us,” said Father Viggers.
When asked for an assessment of Conyers, Father Viggers, not surprisingly, focused less on Fowler's purported messages than on what he saw happening to pilgrims.
“The messages weren't anything special.” “People didn't have to travel hundreds of miles to be told to love God and obey the commandments.”
What impressed him were the changes he saw in people's lives.
“When that many people come together to pray and to manifest their faith and confidence in Mary, grace is present, and miracles do happen.” It's not Nancy Fowler, or a farm in Georgia, he said, “but the simple grace of prayer.”
Official skepticism about the purported phenomena coupled with cautious appreciation for the faith they engender — it's become a common feature of official Church attitudes toward the hundreds of alleged apparitions under investigation at the close of what has, with justice, been called “the century of Mary.”
According to statistics from the University of Dayton's Marian Library, the world's largest Mariological research institute, there have been 386 documented cases of Marian apparitions in the 20th century. In 79 of those cases, the Church has made a “negative” determination — that there is no basis for believing that a supernatural event occurred. In only eight instances this century have Church officials concluded that there are reasonable grounds for believing in the supernatural claims of a given apparition: Fatima, Portugal (1917), Beauraing, Belgium (1932), Banneux, Belgium (1933), Syracuse, Italy (1953), Zeitoun, Egypt (1968), Akita, Japan (1973), Betania, Venezuela (1976), and, according to some sources, Manila, Philippines (1986).
Even in those approved events, it must be stressed, not everything associated with the visionary is necessarily included in the Church's endorsement — Fatima seer Sister Lucy's post-1917 statements, for example, or the Akita seer's grim prophecies.
In the vast majority of instances — 299 out of 386 — the Church has rendered no final verdict on whether the supernatural character of a particular apparition can be established.
Clearly, most Marian events will, and probably always have fallen into that difficult middle category which the University of Dayton listing calls “no decision.”
For one thing, despite today's ease of travel and its vast curiosity-seeking clientele, most apparitions, historically, have been local affairs with a largely local import. In many cases, they're more the object of a conference with a prudent confessor than a public vocation. Few purported visionary “events” at any time will merit the international scrutiny of a Lourdes or Fatima. This is one of the reasons the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF's) 1977 protocol on apparitions stipulates that the discernment process of any alleged “event” begin with the local bishop, and be referred to a broader Church consensus only if circumstances warrant it.
Historically, it's not always possible for Church authorities to determine whether or not a particular event has a supernatural origin or character. The originating event or inspiration may be too far back in the past. The number of alleged visionaries and their purported messages may make a realistic assessment of their claims improbable.
The silent visions that inspired Ireland's national Marian shrine at Knock, for example, have never been formally approved by the country's bishops; nevertheless, the site is recognized as a place of Marian pilgrimage.
One of the most important reasons, of course, for the Church's prudence is that private revelations, even if genuine, play only a very limited role in the life of the Church.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.” Their role, says the Catechism, is not to supplement Christ's definitive Revelation of himself in the Scriptures or the Tradition of the Church, “but to help [us] live more fully by it in a certain period of history” (CCC, 67).
In that sense, authentic visions and locutions can play a role in the life of a Catholic similar to that of the writings of the saints or to other legitimate sources of inspiration: They call us to greater fidelity to Christ or to the demands of the Gospel in the context of a certain time and place. At most, they're meant to function as aids to faith, not the subject of it.
Apparitions are, as Marian theologian and Lourdes historian Father Rene Laurentin once wrote, “modest sign-posts,” always pointing to a reality beyond themselves.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, CDF prefect, put it this way in a 1985 interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori: “No apparition is indispensable to faith. Revelation ceased with Jesus Christ. He alone is Revelation. But this does not stop God speaking at times through simple people and through extraordinary signs which point to the shortcomings of our prevailing rationalistic culture.”
In the last analysis, Cardinal Ratzinger concludes, what is important about apparitions is not their authenticity in the strictly scientific sense, but the “spiritual fruits” they produce in “the life of the Christian people…. In the vitality and orthodoxy of the religious life that develops from them.”
Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.