What’s going on when the Virgin Mary appears and statues weep? The answers aren’t just about science or the supernatural
by Mathew Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross
Claims of appearances of the Virgin Mary and weeping statues have been common in Catholicism. And now they’re going to get a closer look – but on a worldwide scale.
The Pontificia Academia Mariana Internationalis, or PAMI, recently announced an “observatory” to investigate claims of appearances of the Virgin Mary and reports of statues of her weeping oil and blood.
This announcement extends PAMI’s mission of promoting devotion to Mary and study of phenomena related to her. While still waiting for full Vatican approval, the observatory will train investigators to study mystical phenomena in cooperation with church authorities – for example, trying to determine the substance of reported tears.
Investigating the supernatural has always been a delicate task in the Catholic Church, which has to balance the faith of believers with the possibility of fraud.
Catholics believe Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, and the mother of God, who still makes her presence known. And the Catholic Church has officially recognized a number of sites where Mary has reportedly appeared around the globe.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a cloak in Mexico City has long been revered by Catholics as a miracle confirming Mary’s appearance to the peasant Juan Diego in 1531. In Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, three children claimed that the Virgin Mary had visited them several times. Crowds drawn by the children’s prophecy that Mary would reappear and perform a miracle reported seeing the sun “dance in the sky.”
The most recent Marian apparition that a Catholic bishop has declared “worthy of belief” was in Buenos Aires province, Argentina, in 2016. A local Catholic woman told her priest that visions had begun with rosary prayer beads glowing in multiple homes and progressed to Mary warning her of humanity’s “self-destruction.”
There is also a long history of claims of weeping Mary statues. A well-known example is the Madonna of Syracuse, Sicily – a plaster statue that seemed to shed tears. Investigators appointed by the church said the liquid was chemically similar to human tears. The shrine now housing the image is shaped like a tear drop.
Recently, weeping statues have been reported in places as distant from each other as Paszto, Hungary, and Hobbs, New Mexico. It is, however, rare for the Catholic Church to say that an apparently weeping statue has a supernatural cause.
Mary’s tears have special significance for Catholics. She is often pictured as crying over the sins of the world and the pain she endured in her earthly life. Mary’s earthly sorrows are depicted by seven swords piercing her flaming heart.
Given Mary’s religious and symbolic significance, it is not surprising for a supposed apparition site or a weeping statue to become an object of devotion.
And when this happens, the local bishop sometimes decides to investigate.
The possibility of fraud
In examining claims of the supernatural, bishops follow standards set by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees Catholic doctrine. Perhaps because they address controversial issues, the standards were only made public in 2012 – nearly 35 years after they were first implemented.
The bishop, or a committee appointed by him, evaluates the alleged supernatural phenomenon. This involves interviewing witnesses and, sometimes, scientific tests. Impact on the community is also considered. Positive aspects include reports of physical healings and religious conversions, or a general deepening of faith among Catholics. Negative aspects would include selling oil from a purportedly weeping statue or claiming a message from Mary that goes against Catholic doctrine.
A well-known case of an apparition that the Catholic Church rejected concerns the visions of Veronica Lueken, the Brooklyn “Bayside Seer,” who died in 1995. Lueken reported a number of messages from Mary that concerned church authorities. For example, Lueken claimed in 1972 that Mary had told her that the pope was, in fact, an imposter made to look like the true pope, Paul VI, through plastic surgery. Although belief in the messages endures among a small number of Catholics, the local bishop deemed the apparitions not credible.
When it comes to weeping statues, one of the primary questions is whether the event has been staged. For example, in two cases of statues that supposedly had wept blood – one in Canada in 1986 and another in Italy in 2006 – the blood turned out be that of the statue’s owner.
Liquids can also be injected into the porous material of statues and later seep out as “tears.” Oil that is mixed with fat can be applied to a statue’s eyes, which will “weep” when ambient temperatures rise.
Searching for meaning
The Pontificia Academia Mariana Internationalis seems to be searching for proof of supernatural signs, which certainly draw intellectual curiosity and media attention.
But as a scholar of global Catholicism who has written about claims of the supernatural, I think it’s also important to understand what brings people to an apparition site or weeping statue in the first place.
In my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, statues and pictures have appeared to weep oil and blood at the home of the late Audrey Santo, who died in 2007 at the age of 23. As a child, “Little Audrey” was left mute and paralyzed after a swimming pool accident. In spite of her physical condition, pilgrims who came to see her believed that she was praying for them.
After Santo’s death, a foundation was established to promote her cause for sainthood, believing that the statues and pictures in her home were signs that God has specially blessed her.
In my writings about the case of Santo, I was definitely tempted to focus on talk of the supernatural. And the claims surrounding Little Audrey are still debated among Catholics as her sainthood cause stalls. But what I found most interesting was listening to people share why weeping statues were so meaningful in their personal lives.
At the Santo home, the people I talked to shared moving personal stories of pain and sadness, hope and healing. In the end, the sense of togetherness in and through suffering was far more important than talk of scientific proofs of the supernatural.
*This article was originally published on the Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
When I was just a youngster, it was not uncommon to find baby alligators and caimans in pet stores being sold as novelty pets. Despite the fact that overharvesting threatened the survival of the species and hunting them became illegal in 1962, the practice continued.
Like many kids in the sixties, I too, had a pet caiman. But mine hadn't been bought from a pet store; rather, it had been caught by my two older brothers who were always kickin' it in the swamps and woods. I loved that little guy, he always seemed to have a smile on his face. Alas, he started growing pretty fast and so we ended up letting him go in the West Esplanade canal a couple of blocks from my home. Ever since, alligators, caimans and crocodiles held a special place in my heart.
In Louisiana, alligators are considered a renewable natural resource. Every part of the animal can be used; although, it is the meat and hide that are valued the most. By- products like dried heads and feet, claws and teeth have long been tourist commodities and considered good luck charms. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, "By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, so as to increase alligator populations." Today, their populations are stable due to strict wildlife management.
Alligators, caimans and crocodiles have also long been used in southern conjure. We can trace the roots of this practice to the veneration of crocodiles in Africa when we pay attention to Southern folklore. For example, Uncle Monday is a powerful ancestral spirit that persists in southern Hoodoo lore. Uncle Monday is said to have been a medicine man of the shape-shifting variety who was brought to South Carolina with the slave trade. As the story goes, he escaped slavery and went to Florida to live among the Seminoles and the maroons, bringing his crocodile medicine with him. Like the Africans, the Seminoles held the alligator very sacred and like Uncle Monday’s crocodile medicine, they have their alligator medicine. You can read a version of Uncle Monday's story here.
The alligator is an animal of great significance to both Native Americans and traditional African cultures. Hoodoo revolves around veneration of water spirits in the South, and in Louisiana, Papa Gator and Uncle Monday carry with them the essence of rootwork, and are the keepers of ancient wisdom. Various parts of the alligator are deemed to carry special medicine, including the head, feet, claws and teeth.
A small alligator foot, for example, can be a powerful protection. On a key chain, it can draw luck for gamblers. To protect money, a piece of pyrite and a gold Sacagawea coin can be placed in the palm of the gator foot and wrap with green flannel. It is then worn around the neck to keep your money safe and close to you. In the absence of a Sacagawea coin, a buffalo nickel, Indian head penny or silver dime can be used. For fertility, a charm can be made by placing Adam and Eve root in the palm of the alligator foot and wrap with red string. This is then worn about the waist to boost fertility.
Alligator heads are also used by believers in ju ju type charms. A small alligator head can be set on a shelf near the front door with its mouth open as a protection for the household. These can often be seen throught the South, particularly in Florida and Louisiana. Some believe the spirit of the alligator resides in the head itself. In this context, the head is called a gad. Place the gator head over your prosperity bowl so he can protect your money. To protect the home, place a gator head by the front door to draw on its protective territorial nature.
Finally, an alligator's tooth is frequently worn by conjure doctors, root workers and others as a pendant around the neck for protection. Interestingly, it is said the pendant should not be worn near large bodies of water, such as a river or swamp, lest the pendant loses its power. Conjure doctors and rootworkers in the South also utilize single alligator teeth as an ingredient in mojo bags, typically for its protective and good luck qualities. When I was younger, alligator teeth were sold as earrings and it was common to wear just one. I still have my alligator tooth earring, tucked safely away with other conjure materia medica.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. (n.d.). General Alligator Information. Retrieved October 2, 2014 from http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/general-alligator-information.
Welcome to the American Rootwork Association (ARA), the formal place to unify practitioners and practitioner scholars in the areas of rootwork and southern folk traditions. I am excited to finally begin this journey and invite anyone interested in the preservation of traditional southern rootwork, rootdoctoring and other folk traditions to join along in this endeavor.
American rootwork has been studied on the periphery of academia, and scant information is available by scholar-practitioners. I know there are many rootworkers, conjure doctors, conjure workers and practitioners of other African-derived traditions who hold degrees, even advanced degrees, but have yet to contribute significantly to the published body of knowledge. My hope is that ARA will catapult some of these individuals out of the shadows and into the public narrative so that a more balanced and authentic representation of the traditions will be available to the general public.
Denise M. Alvarado