Books

Marian piety, from glorious to dubious

An icon of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in St Peter’s Square (Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk)

Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary
by Fr Paul Haffner, Gracewing, 648pp, £27

This hefty book is designed to provide daily readings relating mainly to places associated with Marian apparitions, devotions and pilgrimages. Thus there is an entry for every day of the year and these are drawn from a variety of sources, with the general aim of encouraging devotion to the Blessed Virgin as part of everyday life.

In many cases, the readings chosen for a particular day will be well known to most readers, as either important Marian feast days or as a commemoration of major apparitions of Our Lady. But what makes this book interesting is the breadth of the entries, which indicate the truly universal nature of the Blessed Virgin’s influence over the past 2,000 years of Church history.

A number are devoted to statues of Our Lady which have appeared miraculously, and around which a devotional cult has arisen, or where an individual has put a statue in a particular location as a devotional offering, and then over time a cult has grown up.

Another recurring theme is the way Our Lady has appeared to poor shepherds or shepherdesses, such as the children of Fatima. But unlike Fatima, which has grown into one of the world’s most important Marian shrines, those that grew up around these other individuals have often remained obscure. There is a hierarchy for the various apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, and some are clearly more significant than others.

Regarding shepherds and shepherdesses, there is an example of this from near Fatima itself, at Ortiga, which is only a few miles from the shrine. Here a young mute shepherdess was miraculously cured by Our Lady during the Middle Ages, and Fr Haffner details similar occurrences which took place in Piedmont in the 15th and 16th centuries, where cults devoted to Our Lady of Divine Providence and Our Lady of Bocciola developed.

Something similar happened only about 10 miles from Lourdes in the16th century, at Bétharram, where some shepherds found a statue of the Blessed Virgin on rocks on the banks of the River Gave. This statue was one of those which when moved, later returned to its original place. According to local tradition, the shrine took its name from a miracle when a young girl fell into the river nearby and called out to Our Lady to save her. The Blessed Virgin appeared holding the Child Jesus, who held out a branch to save the child. This led to a golden branch being given to the shrine as an ex-voto offering – the name Bétharram means “beautiful branch” in the local dialect.

Many miracles are documented as having occurred in the village, and after the French Revolution, it was restored by St Michel Garicoïts, the priest who founded the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Bétharram, and who was canonised in 1947. He supported St Bernadette, who frequently visited Bétharram and used rosary beads from the village during the first apparition of Our Lady at the grotto at Lourdes. St Pius X apparently also had great devotion to Bétharram.

Apart from apparitions or statues, the book also deals with icons of the Blessed Virgin, such as Our Lady of Philhermos, which was discovered by the Knights of St John while they were leaving the Holy Land. Like the icon Salus Populi Romani, now in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome, this one is traditionally attributed to St Luke. The icon became the patron of the Knights, and they took it with them when they moved to Rhodes and then to Malta. After many vicissitudes, the image ended up in Montenegro.

There are many such interesting accounts in Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary, but unfortunately the book is marred somewhat by the inclusion of a number of alleged Marian incidents and apparitions, which range from the possibly legendary, to the questionable, to the downright suspicious, if not fraudulent.

For example, there is an entry for the alleged “apocalyptic” visions at Akita in Japan in 1973. Although the local bishop supported them, the rest of the Japanese hierarchy rejected them. And it’s difficult to see why claims for places such as Mettenbuch in Germany, for apparitions dating from 1877 – which the alleged visionaries publicly repudiated 10 years later – were included in the book. Likewise, the entry for “Our Lady of Medjugorje” for June 24 – a title which wrongly suggests official approval – seems inappropriate, given the controversy surrounding the alleged visions there.

It would have been better to focus on more established and trustworthy apparitions rather than these suspect ones. Having said that, such entries only comprise a small percentage of the work, and overall, the book will undoubtedly be helpful in making people more aware of Our Lady’s role in history, and in strengthening their devotion to the Blessed Virgin.