The Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was born without the stain of original sin. Like the rest of us Mary received salvation through the sacrifice of her Son, Jesus. Unlike the rest of us God applied this sanctifying grace to Mary from the time of her conception. She was created a perfect tabernacle for the incarnation of her Son, free from stain from the beginning.
Like the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception of Mary was a belief held for many centuries, back to even the second century, which was only recently formalized. Pope Sixtus IV established the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1476. The belief was defined as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
The Marian Apparitions
An apparition is an appearance of a heavenly being, Christ, Mary, a saint or an angel, to a human or group of people. Heavenly apparitions have been recorded throughout history, both in Scripture and in the writings of many of the saints.
The first testimony of a Marian Apparition was reported by Gregory of Nyssa in 395AD. Since that time over 2200 visions of Mary have been granted official recognition by the Church. The Church never declares that an apparition is real or authentic. After a thorough investigation the most the Church will do is allow that a certain apparition is “worth of belief.”
Some Marian Apparitions are very well known. The most famous probably occurred in December 1531. At that time Juan Diego Cuanhtlatoatzin, an Aztec convert was walking on his way to what would one day become Mexico City to attend Mass. He was met by a Lady who spoke to him in his native language. She asked him to inform the bishop that a church should be built on that hill. The bishop was less than impressed. The bishop demanded a sign. The lady showed Juan Diego a miraculous rose garden. Blooming in the middle of winter. She bade him gather roses to show to the bishop, which he did in his cloak. When he showed them to the bishop an image, a portrait of what became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe was on the cloth. It is as Our Lady of Guadalupe that Mary is patron of the Americas.
A more recent apparition was Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. In Lourdes the Lady directed Bernadette Sourbirous to dig, revealing a miraculous spring at which many unexplained healings have happened, numbering over 5000. Significantly the Lady identified herself to Bernadette, who was a peasant girl of scant theological training, as the “Immaculate Conception” at a time when that dogma had barely been formalized four years before.
Another well know vision was at Fatima in 1917. There the Lady appeared to three children. Two things made Fatima different from other apparitions. The first is the Miracle of the Sun. Before a crowd of 70,000 people, which included atheists and other non-Christians the sun became a colorless silver disk and danced in a multi color sky while members of the crowd screamed in terror, wept and prayed. It lasted for ten minute before returning to normal.
The second was that the children received three secrets. The secrets were revealed to the local bishop and eventually to the pope. The first 2 were revealed in 1927. The first predicted the Second World War. The second warned that if Russia did not convert it would spread its errors throughout the world and many nations would face annihilation. The third secret was not disclosed until 2000, when it was published by John Paul II. The Holy Father believed it predicted the attempt on his life that occurred in 1981, and credited the Blessed Mother with saving his life.
It should be remembered that the Church holds that any revelation made by even an apparition declared as “worthy to be believed” is a private revelation. Public, dogmatic revelation ended with the death of St. John, the last Apostle. No one is required to believe private revelation.