A few months ago I was asked by Grizzly Adams Productions/PAX Television Network to appear in a documentary with the tentative title "The Mystery of Fatima." For those not familiar with the subject, it is claimed that in 1917, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to three young shepherd children in the rugged hills a few miles west of Fatima, Portugal, giving them secret messages to be revealed at a later date. Growing up Catholic, I was very aware of the apparitions of Fatima, and like most of my Catholic grade-school friends, I had anxieties about what we perceived to be secrets too frightening to imagine.
The video production company was looking for a critic, and I reluctantly decided to be interviewed. My reluctance had to do with how things rarely turn out the way one would hope, especially when dealing with secular productions. Based upon the interview, the program (which I have yet to see) could well have me crying out with Job, "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me" (3:25).
The appeal of Mary is a growing phenomenon which needs to be addressed biblically, having spread far beyond the traditional borders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Mary, who has at least a thousand times more shrines dedicated to her than even her Son, is rapidly becoming the "queen of ecumenism," someone whom diverse religions can honor, rally around, and even worship without offending their respective theologies. The Los Angeles Times reported that "A growing number of Americans from all Christian denominations are reaching out to the Virgin Mary as a comforting conduit of spirituality and a symbol of peace in troubled times. ...It's not just Catholics who are interested in Mary and following the apparitions...."1
Surprisingly, apparitions of Mary even appear in Islamic countries, where multitudes of Muslims turn out to honor her. For example, in the late 1960s thousands witnessed "a lady composed of light" who was holding a baby as she seemed to be moving across the roof of a Coptic Orthodox church on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. "Several nights each week, thousands of Muslims fell to their knees on prayer rugs spread wherever space permitted, and wept before the 'magnificent, wondrous, glorious form of Our Lady from Heaven.'"2 While such a reaction may seem puzzling to western Christians, there is a substantial basis for it. An entire chapter (Maryam) in the Qur'an and numerous other verses therein, as well as hundreds of hadiths, pay homage to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Islamic scholar Aliah Schleifer writes in her book Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam that Mary is esteemed above the most revered women of the Muslim faith, including Muhammad's two favorite wives Khadija and Aisha, and his daughter Fatima. According to Schleifer, one hadith quotes Muhammad as saying he would take Mary as one of his wives in heaven: "The Messenger of God said, 'God married me in Paradise to Mary....'"3 Schleifer concludes,
From the perspective of the classical Muslim scholars, Mary, in the Qur'an and Sunna, is a symbol that brings together all revelation. As a descendant of the great Israelite prophets, the bearer of the word, the mother of Jesus, and as traditional Sunni Islam's chosen woman of the worlds, Mary is symbolic of the Qur'anic message that revelation has not been confined to one particular people.4
In addition, the fact that an apparition claiming to be Mary appeared near a place named for Muhammad's favorite daughter has endeared millions of Muslims to "Our Lady of Fatima." In 1992 The Fatima Crusader reported that more than 500,000 followers of Islam turned out to honor a statue of the Fatima Mary in Bombay, India.
It would seem that at least some apparitions of Mary share the Muslim's respect for the Islamic faith. Our Lady of Medjugorje, who has made numerous appearances in the war torn area of Bosnia and Herzegovina (where Roman Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox are killing one another), allegedly communicated to one of the visionaries, "Tell this priest, tell everyone, that it is you who are divided on earth. The Muslims and the Orthodox, for the same reason as Catholics, are equal before my Son and I [sic]. You are all my children."5 Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, popular television evangelist of the late '50s and early '60s, predicted that Mary would be the key to reconciling the faiths of Rome and Mecca.
Mary has played a key role in the conversion to Catholicism of some of that Church's leading apologists such as former Reformed theologian Tim Staples and Scott Hahn, a graduate of the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Seminary and former Presbyterian minister. Staples credits "the Lord and his Mother" with helping him convert to Romanism. He writes, "I had despised for so long the Catholic belief in Mary's intercession. But...I finally gave in to her loving call...."6 For spiritual assistance in his conversion Hahn turned to praying the rosary, in which 153 of 170 prayers are offered to Mary. He writes in his conversion story, "I proceeded to pray [the rosary], and as I prayed I felt more in my heart what I came to know in my mind: I am a child of God. I don't just have God as my Father and Christ as my brother; I have His Mother for my own."7 Franciscan University, where Hahn is a professor, is one of the foremost promoters of tours to the shrine of Our Lady of Medjugorje.
More and more Protestants are becoming attracted to Mary. The historic St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City prominently displays a statue of Our Lady of Fifth Avenue. The late John Cardinal O'Connor and Orthodox Archbishop Peter were on hand for its dedication in 1991. Charles Dickson wrote a popular little book in 1996 encouraging a reconsideration of Mary among evangelicals. In A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary, he points out that Luther and Calvin were more agreeable toward Mary than later generations of their followers. Dickson quotes from a letter Luther wrote to the Duke of Saxony: "May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers." One enthusiastic Amazon.com reviewer writes, "[Dickson's] book is SUPERB!....this book by a Protestant is the BEST book about the Holy Virgin I have read to date. This book made me cry and it made my spirit laugh. After reading this book, few people will be able to deny Mary's role in the lives of ALL Christians...[and] how the Rosary is for ALL Christians. ...This book also helps construct a bridge between Christian groups. It attempts to establish some much needed common ground (with lots of success). Will Protestants and Catholics ever be able to agree about Mary? Well, this book sure will help that happen!"
In response to the question, "Will Protestants and Catholics [or Muslims, for that matter] ever be able to agree about Mary?", a more basic question must be asked: "Mary who?"
The Mary of the Orthodox Church was sinless but not conceived immaculately. The Mary of Islam is confused with Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, whose father was Amram. She is not the Mother either of God or of the Son of God ("Allah has no son" Surah IV:171). The Mary of Catholicism was immaculately conceived, the Mother of God, a perpetual virgin, Mediatrix between God and man, and the Queen of Heaven.
Then there's the Mary of the Bible.
For anyone who has an interest in learning the truth about Mary, the only trustworthy account is to be found in the Scriptures, where information is presented by those who knew her personally and, more importantly, whose writings were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Fewer than 90 Bible verses address the life of Mary. In them we find a wonderfully humble servant of the Lord who rejoices in Him as her Savior (Lk 1:47). Obviously her heart was not "immaculate" nor was she conceived without sin because her Son, her Savior, came not for the sinless but "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lk 19:10). The Catholic Church seems to be confused over this issue of Mary's sinlessness because it considers her to be the woman of Revelation 12, "clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." This specific imagery is reflected on innumerable statues of Mary around the world. Yet the Bible says this woman gave birth in pain and travail (Rev:12:2), and pain and labor are part of God's judgment on sinners (Gen:3:15-16). So either the (recently beatified) "infallible" Pope Pius IX, who engineered her immaculate conception into Church dogma, was wrong about Mary's sinlessness, or the "infallible" Pope Pius XII and numerous other Catholic theologians were wrong about Mary being the "woman" of Revelation:12:1-2.
Mary's ministry was simply the birth and nurturing of the child Jesus. Once He reached adulthood, she played no influential part in His earthly service. It's at the wedding feast of Cana, which began the public ministry of Jesus, that her last words are recorded. Fittingly, she tells the servants, "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it" (Jn:2:5). There is no doubt that she is exemplary among biblical saints as a model of obedience and submission to the will of God, especially in the appointment to which she was called. In keeping with the words of John the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn:3:30), Mary faded into the background.
Search the Scriptures as you will and you will find no leadership role for Mary among the Apostles. She taught no doctrine. We never hear of the Apostles seeking her out for counsel. Other than the gospels, Mary is mentioned only once in the New Testament, where the Book of Acts tells us of her simple participation in a prayer meeting along with her sons. The teaching that Mary was a perpetual virgin is also contradicted by many other verses (Mat:12:46; Mk 6:3; Jn:7:3,5; 1 Cor:9:5; Gal:1:19; Ps:69:8; etc.).
When you compare what the apparitions around the world say and do in claiming to be Mary, you get, to borrow a phrase, a Mary "quite contrary" to the one presented in Scripture. In subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways the apparitions are given to self-aggrandizement and self-promotion—all to the devaluation of Jesus—and their instructions are often antibiblical and anti-Christ. The "Mary" who spoke to Father Gobbi, the founder of the Marian Movement of more than 100,000 priests, declared, "Each of My statues is a sign of a presence of Mine and reminds you of your heavenly Mother. Therefore it must be honored and put in places of greater veneration...."8
Consider Our Lady of Fatima: "Say the Rosary every day to obtain peace for the world....Pray, pray, a great deal, and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because they have no one to make sacrifices for them....God wishes to establish in the world the devotion to My immaculate heart. If people do what I tell you, many souls will be saved and there will be peace."9
This is not the humble and submissive Mary of the Bible. The rosary invokes prayers to Mary ten times for every one for the Lord; Jesus is the Prince of Peace; only Christ's once-for-all sacrifice saves souls from hell; neither is Mary's heart immaculate, nor are we to be spiritually devoted to anyone other than our Lord and Savior. The Marian apparitions present a status for Mary which is without support or precedent in the Scriptures. The Apostle Peter, a contemporary of Mary and regarded by Catholics as the first pope, wrote nothing about her. The Apostle Paul, through the Holy Spirit, gave more specific instruction in living the Christian life than any other writer in the Bible, yet made no mention of the alleged importance of devotions or reparations to Mary. In contrast to the apparitional Mary who claims to have been "conceived without sin," Paul called himself "the chief of sinners," yet God made him the most productive figure of the New Testament after Christ. The Apostle John, who wrote the last book of the Bible and was given the care of Mary by Jesus himself, says nothing about venerating her.
The apparitions are clearly not the mother of Jesus, although they make every attempt to be perceived that way. Many appear as a young woman bearing an infant. So who's this child? Jesus was in His thirties when He returned triumphantly to His Father. Obviously, the apparitional Mary has the superior position in the relationship; what small child would not be obedient to his mother? Moreover, rather than as a helpless babe, the Bible exalts Jesus as the King of kings, Lord of lords, Creator of the universe, the glorified Son of God, God manifested in the flesh!
Apparitions are the primary source of many major Catholic liturgies, rituals, and dogmas. The Brown Scapular which "releases souls from purgatory" came from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1251; in 1830 an apparition introduced the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception along with the Miraculous Medal; the Dominican Order claims its founder initiated the devotion of the rosary through the counsel of an apparition of Mary in the thirteenth century.
Although mankind is being drawn into every kind of spiritual deception in the last days before the return of Jesus, it is especially sad that the real mother of Jesus, the remarkable "handmaid of the Lord" (Lk 1:38), is so terribly misrepresented, thereby drawing millions away from her Son. In the Gospel of Luke (11:27-28) we find a well-meaning woman saying to Jesus concerning His mother, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" Had the Mary we know from Scripture been present, we can be certain that she would have added a hearty amen to her Son's poignant response: "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" May our obedience to God's Word be our passion. TBC