What is a Marian Apparition?



Lady of Lourdes
By Colleen Pressprich

May is a month that the Catholic Church traditionally devotes to Mary, the Mother of Christ. During this month, I like to spend some time with my children learning about the different Marian apparitions that have taken place throughout the Church’s history. 

What is a Marian Apparition?

A Marian apparition is a mystical event where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appears here on the earth. They take many forms and have happened since the earliest years of Christianity all the way up to modern times.

Most often, when Mary appears, she takes on the appearance of a person from that place and time- which means that she looked very different at Lourdes than she did when she appeared in Mexico.

Why does Mary appear to certain people?

The first recorded apparition is that of Our Lady of the Pillar- which happened when St. James the Apostle was in Spain. He was struggling with his faith. Mary appeared to him to offer comfort, encouragement, and support. This is something that Mary often does in her apparitions and shows the common thread throughout them all.  

Because while the messages of each apparition have different, Our Lady’s motivation is always love- love of her children here on earth and a desire to get them to Heaven. When Mary speaks during an apparition, she often asks for a return to prayer, especially the rosary, and the sacrament of reconciliation.  

Mary appears most to children, for example at Lourdes and Fatima, but occasionally to adults as well, as at Guadalupe.

How many apparitions have there been?

The Catholic Church is very, very careful about offering approval to any alleged Marian apparition. Throughout the last two millennia, only 26 apparitions have received an official stamp of approval.

How does the Church approve Marian apparitions?

When considering whether an apparition is real and true, the Church looks at several factors including:

  • Is the message of the apparition in line with Church teaching?
  • What are the effects of the apparition on the local population and the world?
  • Are there any other possible natural, scientific, or medical explanations for what was seen/heard? 

The process of approval falls to the local bishop, who is responsible for investigating the events, deciding if they have a supernatural aspect, and making the decision to either suppress the alleged message/event or encourage the people in devotion. This process includes interviews with those who saw the apparition as well as their family and friends. Often it takes years before an apparition is approved or denied so that the events and effects of the apparition can be more fully understood.  

The Vatican will also offer approval of apparitions, though it is not necessary.

My favorite apparitions

Every single Marian apparition is unique and has its own flavor. There are apparitions across all cultures around the world, even one here in the United States. As you research the different approved apparitions, you’ll find that one or two might strike your heart in a deeper way.

The Marian apparition closest to my heart is Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, when Mary appeared to a young sister in a small chapel in the heart of Paris and asked for a new devotion, one that would bring men and women closer to her heart and closer to her son. If you visit that chapel today, you’ll be struck by its size and simplicity, especially when compared to the larger shrines at Lourdes and Fatima. But my favorite part of all, is that during the apparition Mary sat in the chair used by the priest during mass and St. Catherine laid her head on Mary’s lap while they spoke. It’s one of the few apparitions where Mary touched the person she appeared to, and the chair that she sat in is still in the chapel.

Other apparitions that I love are:

  • Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal, 1917
  • Our Lady of Knock, Ireland, 1879
  • Our Lady of Kibeho, Rwanda, 1981

I would encourage you to spend some time reading about and praying with the messages of the different Marian apparitions, and to go deeper than just sticking to the well known ones. Mary has spoken beautiful messages throughout the centuries that still resonate today.


Colleen Pressprich is the author of Marian Consecration for Families with Young Children. She is a former missionary and former Montessori teacher turned homeschooling mom. You can read more of her writing at elevatortoheaven.com.

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