Our Lady of the Nations

Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe

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Chris Maunder
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2016.
     256 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198718383.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Chris Maunder, in his volume Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe, provides a broad overview of Marian apparitions in modern, secularized, 20th-century Western European societies. The author takes a secular or Durkheimian approach towards apparitions. For him, apparitions are products of social forces and political circumstances and expressions of collective values and concerns. 

Maunder goes beyond documenting the apparitions and illuminates how narratives of Marian apparitions are socially constructed. The apparitions do not happen in a social and political vacuum—they happen in particular social and political settings, to particular people, mostly underprivileged ones, and express, although indirectly, particular fears, concerns, and sentiments. Our Lady of the Nations reveals how people articulate and interpret the alleged facts of apparitions, how they relate apparitions to ongoing social and political transformations, and finally, how the legends of apparitions are employed as instruments in political struggles for achieving certain political aims. 

In modern societies, social critique and protests are required to be public, secular, and rational, whereas irrational, mystical, and private forms of oppositional activities (or oppositional intentions) are considered to be pre-political and attributed to premodern societies, both within Western Europe and beyond. Maunder has chosen an interesting angle for his analysis—he reveals how much of the political landscape of 20th-century Europe was influenced by Marian apparitions and how they were instrumentalized in political struggles for delegitimizing adversaries, mobilizing opposition, and achieving particular political aims. 

The volume illustrates how apparitions appear as a response to certain social, cultural, and political tensions—fear of secularization, fear of modernization, and fear of communism (both in the form of the Soviet communist state and local sympathies for socialism). 

Maunder leads the reader through analysis of selected cases such as Fatima and Medjugorje, “epidemics of apparitions” in interwar Belgium and Nazi Germany, and apparitions during the Cold War period and apparitions late 20th-century Ireland, among others. In each case, he explains the prevailing political tensions and social antagonisms and explains how Marian apparitions “happened” as a response to fears of occupation, discontent with Nazi policies, despair related to the Cold War antagonism, or simply to rapid cultural modernization and related uncertainties. 

The analysis reveals different actors’—seers, seers’ families and their home communities, church officials at different levels, and state authorities—reactions to the alleged fact of apparition. There is always a multiplicity of perspectives: different narratives are produced by different actors or by the same actors through different stages of life (childhood, adulthood, etc.). 

In this volume, there are several highly interesting aspects of apparitions: apparitions as a method of silent resistance practiced among subordinated groups, active and intentional use of apparitions for political or propaganda purposes, and the paradoxical link between apparitions and technologies. 

First, apparitions tend to happen in societies characterized by gross inequalities in power. Apparitions seem to fit the concept of “silent resistance,” a concept explained by James Scott in his book Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1987) that refers to low-profile, indirect, non-political methods of resistance, channeling and expressing collective discontent among subalterns. Apparitions typically occur among relatively powerless social groups. Seers and visionaries typically come from communities that are left behind in the process of modernization and, to rephrase Antonio Gramsci, are not incorporated into society “beyond the form of the state.” They “employ” supernatural powers as their alliances against ideological adversaries.

Whenever Catholic communities feel threatened, apparitions begin to appear as a response to unwanted change and uncertainty. Apparitions also serve as a method of empowerment for another subaltern group: women. The author refers to women as dominant visionaries and seers who, through their visions, are able to recuperate some power and legitimacy to act as equals with men. Thus, on the social level, people use “divine forces” for pragmatic purposes and legitimize their own political agenda through divine interference.

Another interesting aspect of apparitions, according to Maunder, is their use for political and propaganda purposes. Besides traditional fears associated with modernization and secularization, the 20th century in Western Europe was characterized by the fear of communism. The fear was expressed both towards the Soviet state and towards local sympathies for socialism in Western European societies. As communism constituted a threat to traditional moral and social order and to the authority of the Church, Marian apparitions were appropriated and promoted in the struggle against communism.

The third interesting aspect is the paradoxical link between apparitions and contemporary mass media. Apparitions, although typically asserting traditional conservative moral order and blaming, or critically addressing, both popular culture and technological developments, are promoted by modern mass media and become a part of popular culture. This illuminates well the paradox once described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment (1944): that culture industries are successfully incorporating all voices, including voices of protest and of resistance. 

The novelty and value of Our Lady of Nations is that it brings supernatural forces, mystical experiences, and religious visions back into the Western European political landscape. Traditionally, modern European societies saw themselves as a stark contrast to their own colonies. Europe was characterized by secularization and rationalism and the colonies were associated with mysticism and irrationalism. Maunder challenges binary dichotomies between modern rationality and premodern irrationality by demonstrating how religious visions of Mary played a political role in 20th-century Europe. 

This book will be of great use for anyone interested in studying and understanding collective memory, propaganda, ideologies, popular consciousness, culture wars, or silent resistance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rasa Baločkaitè is Associate Professor of Sociology at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris Maunder is a senior lecturer in Theology & Religious Studies at York St John University; he has worked there as Head of Department and Head of both B.A. and M.A. programmes, but is now semi-retired. Since completing a PhD at the University of Leeds in 1991, he has written several articles on the European apparitions of Mary. While being a scholar of Catholic popular religion in his professional life, he is also passionate about Marian shrines as a personal interest, visiting them across Europe and helping to maintain his local shrine, a 15th-century rock chapel in Knaresborough, Yorkshire.

Keywords: 

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