Apparitions and Their Visionaries

One of the well-known visionaries is St. Paul. Raised a Jew and Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus was converted to Christ after receiving a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul's companions did not see who he was speaking to, while Acts 22:12 indicates that they did share in seeing the light. The light of Jesus was so bright, he writes that he was blinded. Jesus later spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him to go find Saul in the house of Judas and heal him of his blindness. (Acts 9:11) Paul also writes that the gospel he preached he received as a divine revelation from Jesus. "I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it (Galatians 1:11-16).

St. Paul also had a vision of heaven and paradise, possibly stemming from a near-death experience. "I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know - God knows. And I know that this person...was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that people are not permitted to tell" (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

When considering supernatural manifestations and whether they might be authentic and true or they might be false and should be rejected we need discernment. St. Paul saw and heard Jesus, and then was healed by a servant of God who also had a vision and heard Jesus speak to him to go find Saul, and Paul saw and heard things while in heaven. Paul's advice on prophecies: "Despise not prophecies, but prove all things. Hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:19-21).

Progressive Revelation and Divine Authority
What about progressive revelation? Scripture teaches what is often called “progressive revelation.” Christians have long generally accepted that the Creator did not reveal Himself to human beings all at once but rather progressively revealing Himself throughout the Old Testament and the old covenant and into the new covenant. Progressive revelation is generally seen not as a movement from error to truth but from a gradual disclosure of truth to divine truth. Jesus and the Apostles quoted from the Old Testament showing that they believed in those Scriptures. Jesus quoted the Old Testament approximately 78 times, and the Pentateuch 26 times referring to the Old Testament as “The Scriptures,” “the word of God,” and “the wisdom of God.” As for the apostles they quoted from the Old Testament 209 times. The Old Testament in hundreds of places predicted the events of the New Testament. The New Testament testifies to the genuineness and authenticity of the Old Testament, and both together are the Word of God.

Most Christians do not accept "revelations" having any validity that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment. The Catholic Church teaches there will be no further revelation. However, they discern between public revelation and private revelation. Public Revelation, in their tradition, ended with the death of the last of the apostles. It is believed the role of private revelation is to help the person to live more fully in the Word during their particular period of history and cannot improve or in any way complete Christ’s definitive revelation. Throughout the ages, some of these so-called ‘private’ revelations have been recognized by the authority of the Church. Catholics are not required to believe in them as a requirement of faith.

Who, or what, has the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice?
While there are several major points that separate Roman Catholics and Protestants in their Christian beliefs and practices I will only mention a few here relevant to visionaries and the differing viewpoints on praying to saints. Who has the authority in deciding who is a saint and whether Mary, the mother of Jesus can be venerated? Both Catholics and Protestants may disagree as to how to define their differences so this is just an overview that can be debated by either side.

The underlying dispute between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was "Who, or what has the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice?" According to Catholicism the Pope is the “Vicar of Christ” (a vicar is a substitute) and represents Jesus as the head of the Church. As such, the Pope has the ability to speak ex-cathedra (with authority on matters of faith and practice), making his teachings infallible and binding upon all Christians. On the other hand, Protestants believe that no human being is infallible and that Christ alone is the Head of the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that she is the sole infallible interpreter of a dual source of authority: 1) Scripture and 2) Tradition (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church defines tradition as that collection of oral teachings not recorded in Scripture which the apostles of Christ passed down to their successors (the bishops). This oral tradition, because it also claims an apostolic origin, is given equal weight with Scripture; which is merely the written tradition of the apostles. Paul's admonition to the Thessalonian church is often used in support of an apostolic oral tradition (2 Thess. 3:6).

Only the Pope (as the Successor of St. Peter) and the Magisterium (the official teaching arm of the Catholic Church) can interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Thus, Protestants hold that this comes down to a single source of authority: the Church (Pope & Bishops). It is the Church that is able to infallibly interpret Scripture and decide what tradition is of divine revelation. This means that the Bible is under the authority of the Roman Church.

It was because popes and councils could and did err that Martin Luther came to realize the supremacy of Scripture and that the Bible, the Scripture alone (Sola scriptura), is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Luther and the Reformers rejected the idea of an infallible Church. They supported the belief that even the best of men could make mistakes. The word of God in Scripture alone was declared to be divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). Consequently, this disagreement was a major part of the break from the Catholic Church.

One point that needs to be made clear is that Luther and the Reformers did not mean by Sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. Rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the church. The Reformers also did not dismiss church tradition. They still appealed to early Christian writers to support their theology and interpretations of the meaning of the Bible. For Protestants, tradition is believed to be subservient to Scripture. While in Catholicism tradition is seen to be equal to Scripture.

Keep in mind too, that for several hundred years prior to the Reformation the Church had been seen as an institution plagued by internal power struggles. At one point the Church was ruled by three Popes simultaneously! The Church was very powerful (politically and spiritually) in Western Europe. Popes and Cardinals often behaved like royalty instead of God's servants with many living more like kings rather than spiritual leaders. Popes could command armies, and could make political alliances and enemies, and, if need be, some would even start wars.

The corruption of the Church was well known. Selling indulgences, Simony, and Nepotism were the major disputed problems. Several of the popes were sons of previous popes. For example, Pope Silverius (536–537) was the legitimate son of Pope Hormisdas (514–523). Pope Sixtus IV, (1471-1484 gave profuse benefices to numerous relatives as well as high church offices. Over time, popes and bishops began selling indulgences as a way of raising money. This practice made it seem that people could buy forgiveness for their sins, the greater the sin the more money they were to give.

The reason I bring up these points about the differences between Christian beliefs in what comprises the "true" Church is very relative to the belief in the Marian apparitions. I will write more on the Roman Catholic Church in a subsequent article as there is much more to detail in what constitutes this "true" Church and what has or has not worked in both the Catholic and Protestant faiths after a detailed look at certain Catholic approved "true" apparitions.

1879 Knock Apparition, Ireland

Background History of Ireland 19th Century
The following five major changes occured prior to and just at the time of the Knock Apparition.

  • The penal laws were removed in their entirety by 1829.
  • Ireland had just come out of the potato famine which lasted from 1845 to 1849.
  • The Rundale System of land holdings was changing after the Great Famine.
  • The devotional revolution began in 1850 and lasted until 1875.
  • The Land War began the year of the apparition.

Below is a brief explanation of each major change.

Penal Laws: In the history of Ireland, the Penal Laws were a series of laws imposed in an attempt to force Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the established Church of Ireland. The legislation devised for the Irish Catholics in that evil time was described as being "well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man." The Irish Catholics could not own any land, vote, own arms, study law or medicine, work for a government office, play Irish music or even establish schools for their children or send them abroad for schooling.

Leases were offered by Protestant English landlords, but they were to be kept no more than 31 years, and if the land produced more than a third of the price of the rent in profit, the land could then be confiscated from the Catholics. Ireland slowly but surely became the center of poverty. Many had to flee going to other parts of Europe and to America. The Penal Laws began in 1695 and finally were abolished in 1829.

Potato Famine:The population of Ireland was five million at the beginning of the century but with the Irish Linen industry expanding explosively in the first half of the century, the population began to increase dramatically. By 1841, there were eight million people in Ireland. (This number dramatically reduced to five million by 1996.) Most Irish landlords remained Protestants. The Irish peasants themselves, who were both Protestant and Catholic, ate potatoes almost exclusively since the land was scarce and potatoes were an intensive crop. However, in 1845 the 'potato blight' struck and wiped out a third of the potato crop in Ireland. This was a disaster to the peasants who relied upon it and many people began to slowly starve. Many also died from typhus, scurvy, and dysentery. Landlords began to evict Peasants who could not pay the rent because they had no potatoes to sell complicating the matter. Many emigrated to America. By 1851, the population had fallen 25%. By 1900, four million Irish remained in Ireland.

In 1858 a new group calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the 'Fenians' was formed with the aim of creating an independent Irish republic by force. They were easily defeated by the British and they ended up retreating into the background for the next 30 years.

The rundale (or open field) system: The system of landholding prevalent in the Western part of Ireland before the famine. The rundale system lasted longer in County Mayo than in any other county in Ireland. In this system, the land was leased to one or two tenants who then divvied it up amongst 20-30 others (in many cases the whole town). The land was held in joint tenancy (a partnership of tenants) so to speak. Under the rundale system, the land was divided into several areas based on varying land quality. This system governed how farmland was distributed between tenants.

The mountainous, boggy areas of County Mayo were ideal places for this type of settlement to develop. This poor quality land was unappealing to the large-scale farmers but quite appealing to the small tenant farmer and his "potato dependent rundale system." Landlords tolerated it as a means of extracting maximum rent from marginal land. With fertile land limited in extent and uneven in distribution, the Irish rundale system had maintained a rural society based on small kin groups living in clustered settlements. Farming land was held jointly and distributed in separate, small pieces. The degree of subdivision implied by this growth rate in rundale areas helps to explain the poverty encountered wherever the system was practiced, but the landlords also contributed through rising rents.  This arose mainly through the renting of property on long leases to middlemen, who in turn sub-let to farmers on short leases or sometimes at will.  Many tenants meant good incomes for the middlemen and landlords.

Extensive population growth in the years prior to the famine, increased economic decline and poverty in County Mayo. Small farms were subdivided leaving families with smaller and smaller parcels. This forced families to increase dependence on the Lumper potato as a sole food source, and coupled with repeated devastating crop failures this led to the eventual demise of the rundale system. 

Eventually, the effect of these changes was to encourage consolidation and enclosure, either through the initiative of individual farmers or as a result of landlord intervention. Later in the nineteenth century, when government assumed responsibility for consolidation, the ladder farm or ‘striped holding’ was preferred by tenants, since it preserved the rundale principle of equal shares of good land and bad in holdings which extended from valley bottom to hill margin. Consolidation and enclosure spread quickly in the decades after 1830. 

Devotional Revolution: The Archdiocese of Tuam—which serves Knock—is one of four ecclesiastical provinces that together form the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. By the 1870s Rome considered the pastoral condition of the diocese of Tuam deplorable. Tuam had been governed by the archbishop John MacHale for 45 years. Rome noted that there were a shortage of priests, extensive nepotism on the archbishop’s part, heavy debts, proliferation of secret societies and priests denouncing each other and their parishioners publicly.

The clergy had long aimed to streamline the practices of the laity to be aligned with Rome, but it was not until the period of "devotional revolution" from 1850-1875 that this was accomplished under the leadership of Cardinal Paul Cullen. Rome's answer was to send Archbishop Cullen to Ireland in 1849, launching a campaign to instill faith, orthodoxy, and obedience among the people. Cullen served as archbishop of Armagh from 1850-1852 and as archbishop of Dublin from 1852 (these are two other provinces of the four) until his death in 1878. Historian Emmet Larkin was the one who famously labeled this new direction the “devotional revolution" citing this revolution was a centralized and authoritarian regime, led by an infallible pope who would govern the Irish clergy. Irish parishioners would be required to attend Mass faithfully, go to confession, and receive Communion regularly, as well as adhere to other conservative, disciplinary practices.

During the period of the penal laws from 1695-1829, lay Catholics in Ireland resorted to practicing Catholicism in ways that were not church-centered. Pilgrimages to sacred sites continued even though they were forbidden by the Legislation of 1703. Patterns around holy wells, station masses held at private homes, fasts and abstinences, family and individual prayer, and the famous Irish hospitality were all ways in which Irish Catholics lived their faith.

In pre-famine Ireland it is estimated that only 30 to 40 percent of the population attended Mass and many who identified themselves as Catholic had virtually no knowledge of the faith’s dogma and practices. Worse still, many still clung to pre-Christian pagan rituals and beliefs that had never fully died out after Ireland was converted to Christianity by Patrick and his successor missionaries.

By the time of Cullen's death in 1878 the devotional revolution had failed to penetrate Tuam, believed to be due to archbishop MacHale. Knock is said to have been twenty years behind the rest of Ireland in the arrival of the revolution. Knock did not even have the bare essentials for celebrating basic Catholic rituals. It was not until after the pilgrims began coming to Knock that things changed.

MacHale was seen as a living saint to the people. Stories abounded about it attributing him to Christ-like beginnings. Born in County Mayo he was seen as one of the people. His birth was attended by a strange star with the interpretation that God had selected him before his birth to be archbishop of Tuam. During his studies to the priesthood he endured 40 days of near-death in the wilderness suffering from cholera. He life also included prophecy. He once prophesied that something great was going to happen in Knock. He was a fearless critic of British mismanagement of Ireland and was believed to have supernatural powers to stand up to any enemy that opposed the people. In his anxiety to reform abuses and to secure the welfare of Ireland he made many bitter and unrelenting enemies. This was particularly true of British ministers and their supporters, by whom he was dubbed "a firebrand", and "a dangerous demagogue". It was believed by the people that he was protected by God's power and that power superseded any Protestant enemy—or Catholic.

MacHale had wanted his nephew to succeed him but Rome wouldn’t agree. Much to MacHale's dismay Rome appointed his longtime enemy, John MacEvilly as Coadjutor Archbishop of Tuam in January 1878. MacEvilly was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam in 1842 and the bishop of Galloway in 1857. He had been trying to discredit MacHale in Rome for years so that they would either force him to resign or have him removed. MacEvilly was actually selected in 1876 as Coadjutor but his appointment had been kept secret probably due to his rivalry with MacHale. Both bishops could not stand to be in the presence of each other. MacEvilly had been under the guidance of his friend and mentor Cardinal Cullen since his arrival in Ireland in 1850. Whatever MacEvilly stood for MacHale would oppose, and thus inevitably he also opposed Cullen and his reform. While Rome might have seen MacHale as stubborn, quarrelsome, and authoritarian, the laypeople regarded these qualities as virtues, especially in the poor and oppressed of his diocese.

In the mid-nineteenth century the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities in Rome were promoting congenial teachings such as the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated in 1854, and the claim to Papal Infallibility formally adopted in the First Vatican Council in 1870. The goal was to stop all public observance of the old Gaelic customs and bring them to an end—but did they?

Cultural Environment: Many Irish peasants celebrated ancient Celtic fertility rites that were thinly disguised as saints’ days (often for saints unknown at the Vatican). The tenant farmer class ignored those teachings that did not resonate with their own needs. The priests could lead the people only in the direction in which they wished to go. As the society and culture shifted, Druids were replaced in function by priests, and it would seem that many of them may have moved with the times and become priests or monks themselves. This led to rather a lot of pure Pagan beliefs being subsumed into a Celtic Christian church, that then held a lot of beliefs and practices that the Roman Catholic church regarded as wrong, or even sinful. When Christian missionaries came to Ireland, instead of trying to wean the heathen from their superstitions they adapted the pagan shrines and ceremonies, such as the well-worship, to their own purposes, giving them a Christian veneer while they yet remained essentially pagan. Thus a saint would supersede the deity or spirit of the well.

Much of the ancient Druidic ceremonial has been preserved by the Irish, such as the symbolic dances, the traditions of sun-worship, and other pagan rites, which were incorporated into the Christian ritual of well-worship by the early converts. Although still retained today they have almost entirely lost their original significance, and are now only practiced as ancient customs, for which the Irish hold a strong tie to tradition.

Sacred wells are springs, ponds, or even lakes that are the focus of spiritual devotion, fountains of health, and also used for annual celebrations. They are depicted as originating in the otherworld. Known for their healing capabilities, some wells were believed to specialize in treating diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough or for healing broken bones or to cure blindness. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, many wells previously dedicated to Irish female saints were rededicated to the Virgin Mary. There are thousands of these wells across Ireland and hundreds of wells that are still dedicated to female saints. Yet for many wells, their mysticism extends beyond their connection to a saint.

While belief in the Little People, fairies, Leprechauns, and fairy trees is not as strong today as it was in centuries past, it has been handed down through generations in oral tradition and was still a strong belief in the 19th century. You do not trespass on fairy land or ever cut down a fairy tree or risk bringing bad luck to you and your family. Fairylore was an integral part of social life. In the Irish culture, there were no boundaries between their everyday reality and the otherworld. Seeking cures, protecting livestock, and their crops or keeping your children from being abducted by fairy people meant the otherworld was as near to them as their physical world.

The Land War: Wikipedia stated, "Land in Ireland was concentrated into relatively few hands, many of them absentee landlords. In 1870, 50% of the island was owned by 750 families. Between 1850 and 1870, landlords extracted 340 million pounds in rent—far exceeding tax receipts for the same period—of which only 4–5% was reinvested. This led tenants to regard landlords as non-productive parasites, even if they resided on their estate, which few did. Conflict between landlords and tenants arose from opposing viewpoints on such issues as land consolidation, security of tenure, transition from tillage to grazing, and the role of the market. The mutual animosity was exacerbated by religious and ethnic differences; the Irish nationalist politician Isaac Butt claimed that the fact that Catholic Irish were tenants to those they regarded as foreigners was worse than "the heaviest yoke of feudal servitude"."

The year of 1879 became a time of fear and distress for Mayo as another famine loomed over them. It rained two out of every three days from March through September of 1879. In addition, the weather of the previous years had yielded heavy losses to all crops. The harvest of 1879 in Ireland was the worst since the famine and this produced great anxiety. The people of County Mayo were concerned fearing eviction or even starvation. This led to an outbreak of agitation and a mass meeting in County Mayo in April ​1879 where the lay Irish began to demand change, giving rise to what is now known as the Land War.  The famine was perceived to be empirical evidence for the evil nature of the tenant-landlord system.

Some seven to thirteen thousand people attended the meeting, having come from all parts of Mayo and two other counties. The main issue was rent, which was typically paid in the spring; due to the poor harvest tenants could not afford to pay and many had been threatened with eviction. The activists tried to mobilize an alliance of tenant farmers, shopkeepers and clergy in favor of land reform. The Land War shattered traditional allegiances as the clergy refused to participate and were behind the landlords instead of the tenants, which caused considerable ill-will, culminating in the Knock local priest, Archdeacon Cavanagh, denouncing community leaders from the altar in which he condemned local Fenians who were believed instrumental in the April meeting.

This prompted a “huge indignation meeting" the following Sunday against Fr Cavanagh in Knock [three months before the Apparition]. Knock stood out from other parishes in County Mayo at that time because Cavanagh was one of the most outspoken opponents, while some other priests, in contrast, eventually became involved in the land movement. Cavanagh had condemned particularly the Fenians and Nationalists in a homily, which prompted the large reaction by the laity. A march of 20,000-30,000 protestors came upon the small village of Knock on June 1, 1879, to demonstrate their despondency and disapproval of Cavanagh’s denunciation of the Land War. There was even a rumor that Cavanagh’s ears would be cut off for his failure to support the people.

The Irish did not separate religious from secular matters. If the land was believed to be holy, then the question of land ownership was believed to be a religious matter. Consequently, the Land League desperately wanted the support of the clergy but disappointingly was denied that support in parts of County Mayo. In particular, as well as Fr Cavanagh opposing the Land War, Archbishop MacHale of Tuam did too. MacHale had typically supported the people in their struggle for improved conditions, in particular during the fight for Catholic emancipation earlier in the nineteenth century, and worked hard to get help for the starving masses during the potato famine, yet for the first timem he appeared to be on the wrong side. He denounced the demonstrators and wrote letters condemning the Land War leaders, specifically because he opposed any organization which was not under the control of the Catholic clergy. MacHale thought that any organization without clerical supervision would lead to defiance of the church and state.

Thus, MacHale and Cavanagh’s denunciations of the Land War were viewed as an extreme betrayal of this lay-led cause. Priests had been perceived to be intermediaries between the people and God and were believed to be God’s instruments and MacHale had fallen off his throne with the people. Consequently, their betrayal along with other transformative events like the shift from the communal organization of land under the rundale system to a primogeniture system where the firstborn legitimate son inherits his parent's estate in preference to shared inheritance among all or some children, as well as the threat of evictions and starvation, created a society unsure or unable to adjust to these changes without much suffering and confusion.

Still, the people of Knock, in some ways, were affected differently than the rest of Ireland by these life-changing circumstances. The reported apparition of the Virgin Mary in this particular place in Ireland illustrates how the experiences of the people in Knock diverged from those of the rest of the island. Therefore, the Land War and the devotional revolution, in particular, might have influenced both the ways in which the apparition was received and the investigations of the apparition.

Continued Part II