THE VISIONS OF GARABANDAL - PART I
Humanity has been blessed with many visitations of the Blessed Virgin. False “apparitions”, however, have also abounded. In the aftermath of the appearances at Lourdes, for example, dozens of visions were reported in the area. Why were these alternative apparitions soon dismissed? Because none of them had the striking humility and sincerity that made Bernadette’s testimony so convincing. In the case of Garabandal, is there compelling evidence that the happenings there had a heavenly origin?
The Story of the Visions at Garabandal
In case you are not familiar with the story, a remarkable series of events took place in the isolated hamlet of Garabandal in northern Spain during the 1960s. The sheer variety of occurrences has no parallel in other apparition sites: levitations, ecstatic marches, insensitivity to pain and bright light, locutions, healings, detailed knowledge on the part of the visionaries of the history of people and objects. In addition, the vast number of such events is also astonishing. It is estimated that over two thousand separate apparitions occurred. Were the visions genuine, or was Garabandal the scene of a very elaborate hoax? If the apparitions indeed happened, why were they accompanied by such a plethora of supernatural phenomena? Would the Mother of God – the most modest of figures in Scripture – really need to manifest herself with such dramatic overkill?
The events began on June 18th 1961, when four girls from the village – Conchita, Mari Loli, Mari Cruz and Jacinta — had an ecstatic vision of an angel. He did not say anything, but they learned later that he was St. Michael the Archangel. During the following days, he informed them of the impending apparition of Our Lady on July 2, which at that time was the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin.
The appearances of Our Lady would continue for more than four years. Two main messages were to be made public: on October 18, 1961, and on June 18, 1965. The theme of these was the urgent need for conversion, renewal of devotion to the Eucharist and to works of penance. The final apparition was to Conchita alone on November 13, 1965. Through the visionaries, the Virgin announced a future series of happenings which we will discuss in part 2 of this post.
The reaction of the Church to Garabandal
The Church has made no official pronouncement on the visions of Garabandal but there is widespread scepticism in some Catholic circles about the whole affair. Ed Kelly, who has spent entire years in the Spanish village and is something of an expert on the events, complains that it is very difficult to get the mainstream Catholic press to give the subject a fair hearing - or any hearing at all for that matter. The spectacular supernatural phenomena, he contends, are an indication that Our Lady really wanted to attract our attention. Ironically, the dramatic nature of the events, and the sensationalism that it has given rise to in some quarters, has dissuaded many Catholic commentators from a fair examination of Garabandal.
If Garabandal has its detractors, it also has an impressive list of supporters. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the godmother of one of the children of Conchita, the most prominent visionary. In 1966, Conchita was called to Rome and was received privately by Pope Paul VI, who blessed her and showed a very favourable attitude towards the apparitions. During the same visit to Italy, Conchita met Padre Pio. At various times, the Italian capuchin – whose prophetic gifts have been well-documented - made a number of striking testimonies and gestures that support the authenticity of Garabandal.
Evaluation of the Authenticity of the Events
There is no substitute, however, for a detached and objective examination of the events themselves. An impressive amount of eye-witness accounts and film footage are widely available. After the cold light of almost sixty years, does this evidence permit a decision on the truth of the apparitions?
i) Hundreds of documented cases of the suspension of the laws of nature
If the events were an elaborate hoax, or if the girls were the victims of hallucination, we would not expect their behaviour during the trances to transgress the laws of nature, but this, in fact, was a constant occurrence. During the apparitions, the visionaries invariably fell into a state of ecstatic trance. They would crash to their knees in unison, with their heads angled steeply upwards, bless themselves and begin conversing with the heavenly visitor. The fall to the ground invariably happened on rugged stone surfaces, without any harm resulting to the knees of the visionaries. During some of the visions, medical doctors shone bright lights into the eyes of the children and pricked their skin with needles. The children showed themselves completely impervious to light or to pain.
On hundreds of occasions, the girls engaged in ecstatic walks. They would move through the village, sometimes at great speed, their arms linked and their heads constantly angled upwards, fixed on the vision. Even though their gaze was directed heavenwards, they would still negotiate the narrow alleyways and rocky terrain faultlessly. On no occasion did the girls stumble or fall during these ecstatic walks. The swiftness and agility with which they moved was astonishing. Sometimes, they walked backways, up and down precipitous rocky paths, with absolutely no possibility of being able to see where they were going. Nearly always they were pursued by crowds of onlookers who struggled to keep pace.
ii) Manifold instances of supernatural knowledge on the part of the visionaries.
The most common example of supernatural knowledge involved the ownership of religious objects given to the girls to be kissed by the vision. Visitors to Garabandal entrusted rosary beads and other objects to the girls in advance of the apparitions. Often, the girls would hang the rosary beads around their necks so as to have them ready to offer to Our Lady. During the trances, the girls would be seen holding the rosary beads up to the vision to be kissed. Then, with their heads still inclined upwards at a sharp angle, the girls would walk towards the crowd of onlookers, go directly to the person who owned that rosary, and place it gracefully around their neck. All of this was done without once levelling their gaze to look at what they were actually doing.
In some instances, the girls had dozens of rosary beads and other objects to offer to the vision. There is not a single recorded case where they returned an object to the wrong person. In order to test the authenticity of the events, some people tried to “trick” the girls. In one case, a medal was given by its owner to three intermediate persons before eventually being passed to one of the visionaries. After offering the medal to Our Lady, the visionary walked into the crowd and returned it to its correct owner. On another occasion, a lady who had just arrived in Garabandal gave two wedding rings to one of the girls. After the blessing, the girl went back to the lady and placed her ring on the correct finger. Then, without hesitation, she went into the midst of the crowd, directly to the husband of the lady, and restored his ring to him.
The vast number of documented cases of this kind of privileged knowledge is impressive. The restoration of blessed objects to their correct owners occurred in the cases of medical doctors, priests, writers and others, many of whom had only arrived in Garabandal on that very day. It indicates beyond reasonable doubt that the behaviour of the girls cannot be explained in terms of hallucinations, mental illness or an elaborate scam.
iii) The general harmony of minute details with the larger picture of the events.
As an original sceptic regarding Garabandal, one of the features of the apparitions that have most helped to convince this author has been the harmonious consonance of seemingly unimportant details. If the visions were an elaborate hoax by a group of uneducated eleven-year old girls, we would expect some of the sayings and doings of the girls during the course of the events to betray their deception. On the contrary, the opposite is the case. The replies of the girls to questions from onlookers, overheard conversations among themselves, their attitudes towards the clergy, the blessed sacrament and their parents, all show an appropriateness, reserve and harmony that is quite striking.
A characteristic of the visions that could hardly have been dreamt up by mere children was their unusual timing and the general strain they caused to onlookers. The majority of visions took place at night and continued into the hours of daylight. They occurred in all kinds of weather - burning heat, bitter cold, driving rain. As many people have commented, people who have hallucinations are often brought to their senses by situations of discomfort, but the Garabandal ecstasies were never prevented by the lateness of the hour nor the inclemency of the weather. Sometimes the girls were literally up all night, but never showed the slightest signs of fatigue afterwards. Onlookers found themselves cold and exhausted, but the girls would come out of their trances with a joy and freshness that the witnesses found remarkable. In fact, they exuded happiness after seeing Our Lady. Again, we must ask: Would a group of eleven-year old girls choose such inconvenient times and circumstances for the operation of a scam?
The way the girls dealt with objects to be blessed by the vision was singularly appropriate. Rosary beads and medals were held up during every apparition to be kissed by Our Lady, whereas the girls would not normally accept ornamental rings and other jewellery. Wedding rings, however, were accepted. What is the difference between a gold wedding ring and an identical ring used to ornament someone’s finger? Physically, the objects are the same, but to a Christian, there is a world of difference! Wedding rings are blessed during the marriage ceremony and represent the relationship of fidelity between husband and wife. As the first chapter of Genesis makes clear, the covenant of marriage is a central element in God’s plan for humanity. It is entirely appropriate that Our Lady would make a distinction between wedding rings and other jewellery!
In the early days, one of the ecstasies ended quickly and the girls announced that they were being sent home to put on longer dresses. On another occasion, the apparition that day was cut short because of the “drinking and dancing” that was going on in the village. In general, the girls showed a commendable concern for personal modesty, respect for the Blessed Sacrament, and obedience towards their parents and clergy. Some of the first ecstasies took place in the parish church. Eyewitnesses recount that the girls would not turn their backs on the tabernacle during their trances, even walking backways to exit the church. When the diocesan authorities ordered that the ecstasies not take place inside the church, the girls complied immediately. Such deference towards the Blessed Sacrament and legitimate authority seems a hallmark of authenticity.
A touching feature of the apparitions was the devotion and reverence shown by the girls during prayer. Before an apparition would occur, the girls were often praying the rosary while they waited. Onlookers mention that the girls would recite the prayers “rather quickly” while not in ecstasy. When Our Lady was present, however, their recitation would become much slower and more fervent. The manner in which they would make the sign of the cross in the presence of Our Lady was markedly elegant and devout. On occasion, the girls sang the rosary while they walked in ecstasy around the village. Again, witnesses describe the otherworldly grace and celestial sweetness of this sung form of the rosary.
iv) The scale and unanimous nature of documented testimony from eye-witnesses.
In 1965, Francisco Sanchez-Ventura y Pascual, a highly respected attorney, compiled a book about the apparitions. It was later published in English under the title The Apparitions of Garabandal and reprinted in multiple editions. The book contains a long catalogue of eye-witness accounts, many of which were recounted
to the author at first hand. Of particular interest are a number of reports from paediatricians, neuropsychiatrists, and other members of the medical profession. These reports confirmed the complete normality of the girls and the fact that the trances couldn’t be explained by any pathological or physiological means. Furthermore, given the length of time that the events had been recurring, other symptoms should have made their appearance if the trances were really due to an underlying condition. In addition, it was noted that the parapsychological phenomena accompanying the trances (telepathy, levitation, clairvoyance, etc.) were a “veritable scientific miracle” (joint report of Dr Alejandro Gasca Ruiz and Dr Ortiz Gonzalez). Drs Ruiz and Gonzalez concluded: “We cannot find any convincing scientific solution to explain such phenomena”.
Why was Garabandal so dramatically “strange”?
An objective examination of Garabandal leads to the conclusion that the events were of supernatural, non-demonic, origin. This prompts the question: why were the visions accompanied by such a variety of unusual phenomena, such as the ecstatic walks? Was it because the message of Garabandal had a particular urgency? Or was it because the world in the 1960s was so distracted by new forms of hedonism that heaven was compelled to use dramatic signs to gain public attention? We will explore the possible answers in part 2 of this post.