The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, occupies a singular position in Christianity, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition. She is venerated as a figure less than a divinity, but someone definitively holier than an ordinary human being, or even a run of the mill saint. Some scholars have wondered if the veneration of Mary verges on the pagan worship of a mother-goddess.
Most people know the biblical account of how Mary, a young girl living in Nazareth in what is now Israel, was visited by angels who told her that she had been selected to bear the son of God, even though she was a virgin at the time. The story of how she and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, how she delivered the baby Jesus in a manger, and how the infant was venerated by both local shepherds and visiting wise men from the east is the entirety of the Christmas story.
Thousands of accounts exist dating back centuries of apparitions of Mary occurring, sometimes to one person or a small group, sometimes to crowds of literally thousands, according to the Miracle Hunter website.
The Roman Catholic Church takes these reports seriously and investigates them. Of the hundreds of Mary sightings that have been reported, only a few have received the stamp of approval by the church.
The most famous Mary sightings took place in Guadalupe, Mexico in 1531, at Lourdes, France in 1858, and Fatima, Portugal in 1917. The sites of these apparitions are places of pilgrimage and veneration in the Roman Catholic Church and are said to be the venues of miraculous healings.
Mary visitations are not confined to the Roman Catholic Church. The Egyptian Coptic Church has recognized a Mary apparition that is reported to have taken place in Zeitoun, part of Cairo, Egypt, that took place over a period of two to three years starting on April 2, 1968. The Anglican Church considers the event at Lourdes as being valid as well as a visitation that is said to have occurred in Yankalilla, South Australia in 1994.
The apparitions can be strictly visual or, as in the case of the events of Fatima, allegedly accompanied by some kind of divine message in the form of prophecy. These prophecies included a vision of hell, the end of World War I, and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.
The question as to whether any of these Mary apparition have any validity is a vexing one. A site on the phenomenon sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Church discusses the question of whether they constitute divine intervention or whether more secular explanations exist.
On the second side of the argument, explanations include children with overactive imaginations, delusional adults, solar phenomenon that have been misinterpreted, and even the nationalist will to be the venue of a miracle.
Scientific research into the nature of Mary apparitions is scanty. These events tend to take place in the absence of skeptical researchers who are prepared to bring to bear the tools of scientific research.
The reported visitation at Medjugorje, Croatia, occurring in 1981 is a possible exception. A paper published in 2001 in the Journal for Scientific Exploration, a periodical that often deals in fringe science such as parapsychology and UFOs, concluded that six people who claimed to witness the Medjugorje apparitions witnessed some kind of outside phenomenon and had not imagined them.
The Medjugoje events have not been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, not to mention more conventional scientists, as being supernatural.
Whether the Mary apparitions are authentic or whether they can all be explained away by science may be beside the point. Millions of people believe that they occurred and are authentic. Arguments to the contrary will not move believers, nor will belief move the skeptics.