Mary’s first Apparition and a Miracle
A group of Southern Cross pilgrims, led by Bishop Joao Rodrigues of Tzaneen, returned from a pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain and France. In the third of four articles, GUNTHER SIMMERMACHER looks at the Mother Church of Spain and a Eucharistic miracle in Portugal.
The story of the Church is rooted in the supernatural. At the very basis of our faith is the notion that a man rose, against all laws of nature, from the dead.
Likewise, the story of many churches, especially in Europe, is predicated on the implausible. Unlike the resurrection of Christ, the Christian is not required to believe in every or any miracle, so the question of how close a relationship a miracle has with reality, and how much it is the stuff of fable to drive home a point, is in the eye of the beholder.
The thing about approved miracles is that they are, by definition, inexplicable, and therefore very difficult to refute. So it is with the Eucharistic Miracle of Santarem.
Santarem is a town in northern Portugal, not far from Fatima. It has a long history – the area has been inhabited since pre-historic times. In the 8th century it fell under Muslim control and remained so until 1147 when the Christians conquered it. The conquest of the city and Lisbon soon after were decisive in the campaign to reclaim Portugal from the Moors.
Pedro lvares Cabral, the man who “discovered” Brazil, is Santarem’s most notable citizen. But for Catholics, the city’s most important person might be an unnamed woman whose desperation drove her to an act of sacrilege.
The year was 1247. A woman, the story goes, had done all she could to stop her straying husband from cheating on her, but nothing worked. In her desperation, she turned to a sorceress who promised to fix this sad situation. Her price: a consecrated host.
The woman went to Mass in the local church of St Stephen and received the host on the tongue. Quickly she removed it and put it into her pocket. As she turned to leave the church, blood seeped from her garment. The woman ran home and threw the bleeding host into a trunk.
That night, after her adulterous husband had returned home to sleep in the marital bed, the couple suddenly saw a bright light emerging from the trunk. The woman confessed to her husband what she had done. Conscious of the miracle before them, the couple knelt down in repentant prayer.
The next day the priest arrived, retrieved the host and returned it to St Stephen’s church. There it bled for another three days before it was placed in a beeswax reliquary.
The miracle soon attracted wide veneration, but the story doesn’t end there. Sixteen years later a priest, possibly the same one discovered that the wax container had been shattered and the host was enclosed in a crystal pyx.
The Church authorities approved both Eucharistic miracles, which have attracted many devotees since, including St Francis Xavier, who visited the renamed church of the Holy Miracle in 1541 before leaving for India.
The old church of St Stephen doesn’t exist anymore, but the 16th century Igreja do Santissimo Milagre, which replaced it, incorporates a portion of its arches, on which the now faded decorations can still be seen.
Of course the miraculous host is preserved in a reliquary, which the very devoted and helpful volunteers at the church were keen to show us.
The host, and the still liquid blood, was subjected to scientific review in 1997. No rational explanation could be found for it.
The miracle of Santarem is widely regarded as the second-famous Eucharistic miracle, after that of Lanciano in Italy, which the Southern Cross pilgrimage with Archbishop Stephen Brislin visited in May.
A different kind of miracle, one that goes back to the earliest days of the Christianity, is set in Zaragoza, Spain.
In brief, the apostle James the Greater, brother of John, had been dispatched to Roman-occupied Spain to bring the Good News to that region. James or Santiago, as the Spanish call him found unfertile ground in his mission.
Then, on the second day of the year 40 AD, as he stood on the banks of the Ebro river in Caesaraugusta (as the Romans called Zaragoza), the Blessed Virgin appeared to him upon on a pillar of jasper and instructed him to use it to build a church, telling the apostle: This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build.
He did as he was told, and the Good News spread throughout Iberia. At the spot on which St James built that first church now is the basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, whom St John Paul II described as the “mother of the Hispanic peoples”.
The reputed column is still venerated in the 17th century church. It is topped by a 15th-century statue of Mary, whose vestments, donated by Hispanic Catholics from around the world, are changed every day. Pilgrims can touch a small section of the pillar through the back of the chapel in which it is kept.
How much of that story is anchored in fact is difficult to determine. We know that St James was executed in Jerusalem, as the city’s bishop, within four years of the apparition. But we also know that the apostles went into different regions to evangelise; the absence of St James from the Acts of the Apostles might be due to his missionary absence in a remote territory.
Christianity was officially brought to Spain in the fourth century by the Visigoths who doubtless encountered some believers there already. St James is regarded as the patron saint of Spain, and his body, according to legend, is buried in Santiago de Compostela, destination of the famous Camino.
How it got there nobody knows. Pious legend has angels relocating his executed body to Spain; other stories ascribe the transfer from Jerusalem to Compostela to faithful disciples who presumably could stand the idea of lugging a rapidly decomposing body over 5000km.
Devotees of Nuestra Senora del Pilar hold that this is not only the very first Marian apparition, but the only one during her lifetime. This idea is based on an investigation by the Holy See in 1723.
But Mary might have been assumed unto heaven by the time she is said to have appeared to St James.
The ancient Transitus Mariae suggests that Mary was no older than 50 when she closed her eyes for the last time. By that calculation, if one presumes that Mary was about 13 when she gave birth to Jesus, and that Jesus was born around 4 BC, then the Blessed Virgin was born around 17 BC. If she was indeed 50 years old when she passed on, then that might have been in the year 33, soon after the crucifixion of her Son.
Whatever the integrity of the story of the first Marian apparition, it has left us with a magnificent church, decorated with paintings by Goya, on the banks of the Ebro.
Our group was privileged to have Mass in the church’s St Anthony of Padua chapel: a special Mass at the birthplace of the Church in Iberia.
And the basilica of St Anthony’s tomb in Padua, which The Southern Cross Saints of Italy pilgrimage will visit next September, has a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar.
After our Mass in the mother church of Catholicism in the Iberian Peninsula we left Spain and crossed the Pyrenees into France.
Next week: The Catholic spirit of Paris