GREEN BAY, Wis. — This October marks the 160th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to a young Belgian immigrant in Champion, Wisconsin, the only Church-approved Marian apparition to take place in the United States. Father Edward Looney, a native of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in which the apparitions took place, is doing what he can to make sure that the importance of this apparition is not overlooked.
Ordained in 2015 for the Diocese of Green Bay, Father Edward Looney is the author of the recently published Our Lady of Good Help: Prayer Book for Pilgrims (TAN, 2019), a vade mecum (reference book) for visitors to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.
Father Looney hopes his book will help the faithful — and the general public — understand the circumstances and importance of the apparitions. On three occasions in early October 1859, a woman in white appeared to Adele Brise. In the last of these apparitions, taking place on Oct. 9, the woman revealed that she was “the Queen of Heaven” and gave Adele two tasks: to pray for the conversion of sinners and to teach the children in the region “what they should know for salvation.”
Adele began praying and encouraging others to pray ardently for conversions, and she began teaching the faith to children in the region. Eventually, she founded a lay order of women called the Sisters of Good Health. And although she is often referred to as “Sister Adele,” she and other members of the group never took formal vows but voluntarily lived in community, following the Franciscan way of life.
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2010, during Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay issued a decree stating that the Catholic Church officially recognized Adele’s visions as authentic. The shrine was established first as a chapel on the site of the apparitions in 1861, and this chapel — named in honor of Our Lady of Good Help — also plays a part in Adele’s story, as it was here that she fled with local residents to escape the worst fire in U.S. history — the Peshtigo Fire — which incinerated the surrounding region but left untouched the chapel, its grounds and those who fled to it for protection.
Occurring on Oct. 8, 1871, almost 12 years to the day of the last two apparitions, the blaze claimed hundreds of thousands of acres and an estimated 1,500-2,500 lives.
Father Looney spoke with Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien about his book and how he hopes it will help the faithful better understand the Champion apparitions, the nature of apparitions in general, and the importance of pilgrimage as a dynamic means of living the faith and deepening one’s love for Mary and her son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why did you decide the time was right to write a pilgrimage book on Champion?
When the apparition was approved in 2010, and given my own great Marian devotion and interest and scholarship, while I was a seminarian in 2011, I was assigned to the shrine to help pilgrims. That led me to realize the pilgrims needed certain things to help them understand the shrine, and so I wrote some prayers and guidelines to help pilgrims better understand.
The Prayer Book for Pilgrims is, in part, actually a lot of smaller devotional books I’d written and previously published. So for example, the section “Praying the Rosary With Sister Adele” was a short little booklet, but I have rewritten all the meditations for this new book and included some new material, as well, such as the Stations of the Cross.
How do you hope your book will help turn visitors to the shrine into pilgrims?
I wanted to give pilgrims a book that could help them appreciate the shrine. When they visited a grotto or statue at the shrine, for instance, they have something to pray. People may not know how to pray or formulate a prayer. So by giving them the language of prayer, eventually people can pray from their hearts.
The devotees to Marian shrines know what to do: They’ve done their homework, and they know how to pray and have a sense of what it means to be a pilgrim. But we have so many people — and we hear about it from people who go to the shrine — who say that they didn’t know what they were looking for.
So whenever someone goes to a shrine, whether Champion or any other shrine, I want to be able to help people better appreciate where they are so they know the story, so they can do what they should do at a shrine: Attend Mass; go to confession; pray the Rosary. I want the book to help give them an experience that maybe they’re not equipped for.
Is there anything people ought to know about the shrine that they may not already?
I always emphasize the prayerful component of the message. Lots of people get excited when they hear that Mary told Adele to gather the children and teach them what they need to know for salvation. That’s a great part of the message … but at the very beginning of the message, Mary says, “I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.”
Mary is inviting us to pray with her for a specific intention, and she shows Adele how to do it, by offering her Communion for the conversion of sinners. Our Lady teaches us that every time we go to Mass and receive Holy Communion, we can unlock something there — offer our Communion praying for someone in particular. To think of all the people who go to Sunday Mass and receive Holy Communion, how many know they can do that? Our Lady taught us that, and that’s something special, and this was something unique to Mary’s message in Champion.
In your book, you write that “there is a Marian dimension to catechesis” expressed by her message to Sister Adele. What does that mean?
There is something we call the “Champion formula for evangelization,” which is that Mary tells us what to do: Gather the children; teach them what they need to know for salvation — teach them how to make the Sign of the Cross, how to approach the sacraments, and teach them their catechism. She tells us what we’re to teach; but also, as we gather the children, the other aspect of the formula is that so many parents don’t practice the faith, and some children aren’t going to Mass because their parents don’t bring them — the faith is not a priority for the adults. But if we’re doing effective catechesis of young people, instilling the faith in them, there is going to be a desire in the children which is going to affect the parents, who will hopefully come back to the Church. … Then the children become instruments for their parents to convert.
How is the catechetical component of the message in the Champion apparition distinct among the Church-approved apparitions?
Adele was invited to a very active response to the message. She is drafted, in a sense, by Our lady to do these things. For other visionaries, this wasn’t the case. For instance, St. Bernadette joined a cloistered religious order, as did Sister Lucia after Fatima. So the message is given to them, and they impart it to the world; but in Adele’s case, she fulfills the request through an active life in the world.
Of course, the other visionaries also fulfilled Our Lady’s request through prayer, conversion and penance, but that’s personal and private. Adele was going out into the local community — much like Our Lord says, “Go out, and make disciples of all nations.”
What was the catechetical need that Mary’s appearance at Champion helped address?
Immigrants were coming to the States and falling away from practice of the faith, in part because they didn’t have priests accompanying them who spoke their language. They just stopped going to Mass. Then Our Lady appears and invites people back to the sacraments. There was a need to teach the importance of Mass and prayer and get back to the basics of the faith for people who had fallen away.
It’s not a coincidence that 150 years later the apparition has been approved. We find ourselves in a different situation but a similar need. People are falling away from the practice of the faith, and the Church is calling for re-evangelization. So there is a need for the message again.
Why do you think Our Lady often appears in rural or sparsely populated areas, such as Champion — rather than a presumably more effective location, such as New York City’s Times Square?
I had that experience when I went to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland. As I was driving in this rural part of the country I thought that it was out in the middle of nowhere! Why does she choose these spots?
Perhaps because those to whom she appears are more ready to believe. But we see that many, if not all, of these Marian apparitions lead to a Marian shrine or a place of devotion. Perhaps, then, we can look at it spiritually: Mary appears in these places to set herself apart and invite people into a spiritual solitude.
In the same way that Mary treasured all the things about her Son in her heart, when we go out to the middle of God’s country, that’s an invitation to leave the world behind and enter a place of solitude and prayer to better cherish Our Lord. By the way, in the apparition that took place in Beauraing, Belgium, Mary appeared near railroad tracks. One of the theologians who have interpreted this apparition says that Mary came into the busyness of life at the railroad track so that at the crossroads of work we might find a place for prayer and reflection at the shrine nearby.
How do apparitions accord with Church teaching?
One way I always look at apparitions is to compare them in a way to Our Lord’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John. There, they receive an apparition of Moses and Elijah, and then we hear God the Father say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
So even in Scriptures, people who are dead have made themselves present to others: Jesus, Peter, James and John. So I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to say that God would send his Blessed Mother to impart a message to the people.
We can see Mary fulfilling in many ways the role of prophet — proclaiming the message, speaking on behalf of God, and calling people back when they go astray. Every apparition has this in common: People have gone astray, and Our Lady comes to help us refocus on her Son either in the Eucharist or in catechesis or the sacredness of God’s name. It’s as if she’s a continuation of the prophetic messages of old, always bringing us back to her Son.
How do we explain such things to those with a strictly scientific worldview?
The Church has a method of analyzing the authenticity of apparitions. A visionary would be tested psychologically, physically and spiritually.
When the Church says it approves an apparition, it’s simply saying it has found nothing that has contradicted what this person is saying, and everything is in line with Church teaching on faith and morals. As Scripture says, “Nothing is impossible with God.” I asked a third-grader once how he thought this could happen, and his response was that, well, Mary can just fall out of the sky and appear to us if she wants to!
Even if belief in apparitions is not necessary for salvation, why should the faithful be paying attention? If it’s not essential, why does it matter?
When a person says they don’t know if they can accept the idea of an apparition, you might ask that person why.
Oftentimes, you find that they don’t want to listen because the message that Mary has is difficult; and so, if it’s challenging, some people will ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. In other cases, it could be indifference: I don’t really care; I’m going to live my life the way I want. Marian shrines and Marian apparitions are always about building up the faith.
This interview was updated after posting.