After 60 years, can we finally have 20/20 vision on Garabandal?
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
May 13th 2020.
What really happened in Garabandal sixty years ago?
In the 1960s, a remarkable catalogue of events happened in the isolated hamlet of Garabandal in northern Spain. Of the long history of Marian apparitions in the life of the Church, none is as unique, disconcerting or baffling. The sheer variety of apparently supernatural occurrences has no parallel in other apparition sites: levitations, ecstatic marches, inexplicable weight gain during the visions, reading of thoughts, insensitivity to pain and bright light, locutions, healings, detailed knowledge on the part of the visionaries of the history of people and objects. But the vast number of such events is also astonishing. It is estimated that over two thousand separate apparitions occurred. Many individual ecstasies went on for hours without interruption. Virtually all of them had a multitude of witnesses, ranging from a handful of people to hundreds at a time.
In the face of these apparently bewildering occurrences, we set ourselves three tasks for this paper:
1. What really happened in Garabandal? Was it the scene of an elaborate hoax? If not, could the girls have been the victims of some type of self-delusion or group hallucination? Or was heaven really responsible for this unusual series of happenings?
2. If Our Lady really did appear, why were the supernatural manifestations so many and so extraordinary? The very strangeness of the events has given rise to some negative consequences, sensationalism and recurring prophecies of impending doom. Surely Our Lady’s message could have been communicated in more sober circumstances?
3. Finally, in what way might Garabandal be important for us today? Is it possible, as some of its followers claim, that the events prophesied almost sixty years ago are about to take place?
Before embarking, a preliminary description of the apparitions is in order. What follows is a quick overview that does scant justice to the depth, complexity and variety of the events (for the reader who wishes to learn more of the background story, you will find an accurate and balanced summary on the website of the new film “Only God Knows”: https://www.garabandalthemovie.com/en/garabandal/story).
In the early 1960s, Garabandal was still a tiny and almost inaccessible hamlet of about seventy houses in the Peña Sagra Mountain range in northern Spain. On June 18th 1961, four girls from the village – Conchita González, Mari Loli Mazón, Mari Cruz González and Jacinta González — stole some apples from the schoolmaster’s garden. The tree was outside the village, at the beginning of a steep and rocky road called “the Path”. While they were eating the apples, they heard a clap of thunder and, suddenly, Conchita fell on her knees, motionless. The others were scared at first, but soon fell into the same ecstatic trance as Conchita. An angel appeared to them. He did not say anything, but they learned later that he was St. Michael the Archangel. When they came to their senses, the girls were frightened and confused. During the following days, the angel visited them again and 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, they saw Mary for the first time, with the Child Jesus and two angels. The girls immediately began to communicate with the Virgin in a natural way and with complete trust.
These apparitions, in which the girls seemed to develop an intimate mother-daughter relationship with Mary, continued for more than four years. They were given two messages to be made public: on October 18, 1961, and on June 18, 1965. The theme of these messages was the urgent need for conversion, renewal of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament 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 in which God would move the world to a deep conversion of heart. The happenings consist of a Warning, a Miracle and the Chastisement. The Warning involves the direct enlightenment of the conscience of every person in the world at the same time. The event is to last for a number of minutes during which each of us will become aware of our great sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy. The Miracle will happen at Garabandal in the same year as the Warning. After the Miracle, an enduring supernatural sign will be left at the area of the village known as “the Pines” where many of the original apparitions occurred. This enduring sign will be indestructible and will remain until the end of the world. The Chastisement consists in a time of terrible tribulation and suffering for the inhabitants of the world, ultimately directed towards our conversion. It can still be averted if humanity turns back to God in time. Our Lady revealed to Conchita the exact date and time of the Miracle. Conchita, in turn, will announce it to the world eight days in advance.
In the aftermath of the visions, the seers have gone on to live quiet, and - to an outside gaze at least – relatively uneventful lives. One can imagine that the transition to an ordinary existence after a number of years of public visions could not have been easy. If these girls were indeed chosen by heaven, then that privilege included a burden that was not inconsiderable. There is some evidence that the expectations and demands of the public caused disorientation and, indeed, suffering in their lives. As we shall see later, the public fascination with the dates of the Warning and the Miracle has weighed heavily on the legacy of Garabandal, while its core message of repentance and conversion is often forgotten. Despite the circumstances, as far as this author can tell, the girls have gone on to lead impressively ordered and simple lives, devoted to the rosary and the Eucharist.
Now we turn to the three tasks of this paper.
1. Did Our Lady really appear in Garabandal?
The Church has made no official pronouncement on the visions of Garabandal. It is right and good that such prudence be exercised with regard to apparitions in general. Yet, given the striking nature of the series of events in Garabandal, perhaps heaven wishes the faithful to take notice and to examine what happened in the light of faith? Even for those among us (and this includes the present author) who have little time for esoteric visions and private revelations, a number of elements present at Garabandal point to the genuine heavenly origin of the phenomena:
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 some form of hallucination or self-delusion, we would not expect their behaviour during the trances to transgress the laws of nature, but this in fact is what was happening on a constant basis. 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 and others 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 certain occasions, the children were filmed in their ecstasies by professional camera crews, including the Italian state channel, RAI. The lights trained on the girls’ eyes were extremely powerful and normally could not be borne at that range without suffering permanent damage. However, the girls did not blink, grimace or close their eyes at any point while they were still in ecstasy. But as soon as the trances ended, they were immediately dazzled and shielded their eyes.
On hundreds of occasions, the girls engaged in ecstatic walks, either individually or as a group. They would move through the village in unison, 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, steep paths 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. The fastest and most athletic boys of the village were unable to keep up with them.
On various documented occasions, onlookers tried to lift the girls while they were in ecstasy. Their bodies were found to have taken on enormous weights, making it almost impossible for adults to move them. However, the girls themselves had no difficulty lifting each other during the ecstasies. It became customary for the girls to salute Our Lady with a kiss at the end of an apparition. They would raise each other up to a height of three or four feet in order to accomplish this kiss. Some photos show one or other of the girls lifting another up to Our Lady with, apparently, the greatest of ease. This was despite the fact that fully-grown men found it almost impossible to move the visionaries during the trances.
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 devotional objects to the girls in advance of the pre-announced apparitions. The only non-religious objects that were permitted were wedding rings (though on one occasion Our Lady kissed a powder compact that had been used to carry the Eucharist to prisoners). Often, the girls would place the rings on their own fingers and hang the rosary beads around their necks so as to have them ready to offer them to Our Lady when she appeared. 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 was the owner of that rosary, and place it gracefully around their neck. And 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 to offer to the vision. There is not a single recorded case where they returned a religious object or wedding ring to the wrong person. In order to test the authenticity of the events, some people tried to “trick” the girls. In one case, on October 2nd 1961, 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 striking. 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. Other examples of special knowledge also abound. On a few occasions, the girls dropped a rosary beads or medal during their frenetic ecstatic walks around the village (keep in mind that most of these walks happened at night). Still in a trance, they would retrace their steps and locate the missing object in the dark without the slightest difficulty. On one occasion, the object in question was a tiny medal that was lying among the rocks on the stony path. The visionary, upon noticing that the object was missing, retraced her steps out of the village, up the rugged path and picked up the lost medal without a moment of hesitation. The “vision” had told her exactly where to find it.
At Lourdes, St Bernadette would receive an internal “summons” which would impel her to go to the grotto where the encounter with Our Lady would then begin. In Garabandal, something similar happened. Before the arrival of Our Lady on each occasion, the girls would receive three separate “summons”. These were internal feelings of joy and expectation that forewarned them of Our Lady’s impending arrival. The first and second summons would occur in the hour or so before the apparition. When the third summons arrived, the girls would run with great haste to the place of the apparition, which varied every time and was only revealed to them internally at the moment of the third summons. Upon arrival, they would crash to their knees with a resounding thud and the ecstasy would begin.
In order to test the girls, some of the clergy had them separated and confined to their own houses without access to the time of day. Each girl would receive her first and second summons in their own homes in the presence of various witnesses. When the third summons arrived, the girls would run from their houses at great speed and arrive at the place of the apparition simultaneously. This behaviour has been well documented and completely resists any credible natural explanation.
iii) The accuracy and prophetic nature of the 1965 message from the angel
On June 18th 1965, Conchita was given a second message for the world. The message called people to reflect more on the passion of Jesus and to return to the Eucharist. There was also a severe admonishment to the clergy: “Many priests are following the road to perdition and with them they are taking many more souls”. It is probably difficult for us to appreciate nowadays how prophetic, or even outrageous, this last statement would have sounded in 1965. The Catholic priesthood at that point in history was one of the most respected institutions in the world. Child abuse was unheard of. Among non-Catholics, priests were widely considered to be prime examples of upstanding citizens and pillars of respectability. For the faithful, the priesthood was highly esteemed and cherished. I recall a few years ago seeing a testimony from the late sixties by a bishop who had visited Garabandal as a priest during the apparitions. This bishop was generally convinced of the authenticity of what he saw, but he still considered the 1965 message to be hard to swallow. “Priests on the road to perdition? No! Surely this message is over the top!”
Of course, we know now that the state of the priesthood worldwide in 1965 was very far from being as healthy and wholesome as had been generally believed. Child abuse, moral laxity, doctrinal heterodoxy and other grave matters were seething beneath the surface, but it would take some years for the real state of affairs to become manifest. In this respect, the 1965 message from Garabandal was prophetically accurate. That such an unexpected revelation issued from the mouths of pre-teen children is surely a signal that its origin was from a heavenly source.
iv) The general harmony of minute details with the larger picture of the events.
As an original sceptic regarding the happenings at Garabandal, one of the features of the apparitions that have most helped to convince this author of their veracity 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. After all, these girls claimed to be dealing with relatively complex theological and sacramental matters. We would expect any trickery to come undone rather quickly. But, 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.
At Lourdes, the voice of Bernadette couldn’t be heard while she spoke to the heavenly lady. By contrast, the voices of the visionaries of Garabandal could be heard while they were in ecstasy. The tone of the voices would be different - lower and huskier than normal - but still perfectly audible. Much of what the girls said was repeated or written down and recorded by onlookers. These comments provide us with fascinating details of what transpired during the apparitions and of the sort of communication that was taking place between the girls and their celestial visitor.
In the early days of the visions, people were trying to come up with a natural explanation for what was happening. Was it because the girls lived in such isolation that they had begun imagining these fantastic scenes? Was it some kind of elaborate scam? Could Conchita, possibly, be responsible for everything? She seemed brighter than the others and was known to have a lively sense of humour. To try to bring the events to a close, Conchita was taken for a number of days down to the seaside town of Santander and encouraged to enjoy herself. While she was gone, however, the visions continued just as before. In fact, as Conchita was being taken back to Garabandal, the girls were told in a trance that she was on her way home. When they came out of the ecstasy, they announced to the onlookers that Conchita would soon be with them, which she was. During the next ecstasy, Concita could be heard apologizing to Our Lady for having gone to the beach.
On many occasions, the girls were heard pleading with Our Lady to perform a miracle so that people would believe. They seemed oblivious to the fact that their behaviour during the trances was already an abundant manifestation of the supernatural - gravity-defying ecstatic walks, inerrant restoration of religious objects to their owners, and many other phenomena. If the girls were pretending to have visions, we might expect them to tailor their conversations with the alleged apparition so as to convince people that they were indeed communicating with a divine ambassador. Instead, their communication consisted in the most everyday of conversations, happy chatter about the events of the day and poignant pleas for miracles so that people would stop doubting.
Another characteristic of the visions that could hardly have been dreamt up by mere children was their unusual timing and the general strain they often caused to onlookers, though the girls themselves never seemed to suffer the slightest trauma from the ecstasies. The majority of visions took place at night and many of them continued into the hours of daylight. They took place 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 or curtailed 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, exhausted and, at times, stressed, but the girls would come out of their trances with a joy and freshness that the witnesses found remarkable. In fact, they exuded joy and 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? What sustained their strength and good humour during events that others would have found physically and psychologically traumatic?
The girls had a rudimentary education. If the trances were the result of hallucinations or a scam, we might expect some of their utterances to be at odds with Catholic doctrine or morals, as has been the case in other alleged apparition sites. Instead, at Garabandal there is not a single example. Early on, the parish priest instructed them to ask Mary if she was present to them in body and soul. During the next apparition, Our Lady replied that she was not present in body and soul but in a different way. This accords perfectly well with sound Christian theology. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the body. They were able to touch his wounds and he even ate with them. But Mary’s presence at an event such as Garabandal was different. She was not visible to onlookers in general. In fact, the girls only apprehended her through an ecstasy which seemed to transport them out of their normal surroundings to a mystical level of experience. If the events were a scam, the girls could have avoided this potentially thorny question by telling the parish priest that Mary didn’t reply when they asked, as she sometimes declined to respond to other questions. Instead, they immediately communicated to the parish priest the natural and plausible reply that Our Lady was present, “but in a different form”.
Similarly, 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 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 are used to 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 at that moment 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 is a hallmark of what genuinely emanates from heaven.
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.
In short, the sheer wealth of harmonious details and their overall consistency with the Catholic faith make it hardly credible that such behaviour might be the invention of a group of uneducated girls. Neither could such details be explained by hallucinations or the presence of dark forces. The reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary, the devout manner in which they made the sign of the cross, seem sufficient in themselves to rule out the presence of the demonic.
v) The scale and unanimous nature of documented testimony from eye-witnesses.
In 1965, Francisco Sanchez-Ventura y Pascual, a highly respected attorney who was also a professor at the University of Zaragoza, 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, apparent 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”.
In general, the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events at Garabandal was overwhelmingly favourable. However, there was one prominent negative response. The psychiatrist, Dr Luis Morales Noriega, was on the commission appointed by the Bishop of Santander for the study of the apparitions. On the basis of the reports of that commission— in large part, Dr Morales' studies— the diocese announced that the events of Garabandal were "not confirmed to be of supernatural origin". What prompted Dr Morales to have doubts about the authenticity of the apparitions? We do not know, but a clearly reasoned argument from the psychiatrist defending his critical attitude seems to have been lacking. At the time, local people complained that the doctor appeared to have made his mind up on the matter in advance. He showed scant attention to the trances while they were actually occurring. Whatever the real reason for his doubts, the report by Dr. Morales led to a generally negative appraisal of Garabandal on an official Church level and further afield. This situation persisted for almost twenty years. Then, on May 30, 1983, out of the blue, Dr. Morales convened a conference in the prestigious Ateneo de Santander under the title: "The appearances of San Sebastián de Garabandal”. The conference opened to a packed house, one of the largest crowds ever seen at an event of this kind in the university. To the surprise of many present, Dr Morales announced that the Virgin Mary had truly appeared in Garabandal, and that he had permission from the diocesan hierarchy to express his opinion in that way. The disavowal by Dr. Morales was utter and complete. He completed his talk "asking the Virgin of Garabandal that the years that I still have life pass in her shadow, and that She welcomes me later in her womb”. After the talk, in an interview with a journalist, he stated that the “Marian enthusiasm” exhibited by Pope John Paul II when he visited Spain recently had prompted him to re-evaluate what he had experienced. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales had fallen from the good doctor's eyes.
vi) The credibility of the visionaries and long testimony of their lives
As with all claims of visions, ecstasies, stigmata and supernatural phenomena in general, the credibility of the alleged event is inextricably linked to the credibility of the person at the centre of the event. Did Padre Pio really have the stigmata? An examination of his dealings with others, impossible hours spent in the confessional, utter devotion to the Mass, and personal sanctity all indicate a man who would not engage in sacrilegious deception of any sort. Did St Bernadette really see Our Lady at Lourdes? Again, we have the subsequent testimony of a life of heroic sanctity to confirm the reliability of what Bernadette claimed she saw. The fact that St Bernadette’s body was later discovered to be perfectly incorrupt, and remains so to this day, is merely a seal on what the Church already knew about the purity, steadfastness and reliability of this girl. In the case of Garabandal, we now have almost sixty years of history with which to evaluate the reliability of the witnesses. Of course, we all have free will, and the truth of an apparition does not guarantee that the visionary will go on to live a holy life. There are examples in Church history of genuine apparitions where the visionary did not go on to achieve any kind of noteworthy sanctity. The 1846 apparitions at La Salette in France were approved by the Church. One of the visionaries, Maximin Giraud, lived an unsettled and unremarkable life afterwards. Thus, the subsequent life of the visionary should not be taken as a decisive indicator of the reality of a vision. In the case of Garabandal, however, the girls claimed to have lived an intimate mother-daughter relationship with Our Lady for a period of many months. If the relationship was genuine, then surely we should see the fruits in the girls’ lives? And, indeed, that seems to be the case. They have all gone on to live stable and ordered lives, raising their families in the faith and doing nothing to discredit themselves or the Church. Those who have had contact with them reveal a constant devotion through the years to the rosary and the Eucharist. We can only imagine the sufferings that very likely accompanied the fact that they were once celebrated visionaries who quickly became objects of doubt and derision. Yet they have kept the simple faith and sought no recognition or vindication for themselves.
If the visions were a fabrication on the part of the girls, then we would expect some cracks to have appeared in their story with the progress of time. All of the girls did deny the authenticity of the apparitions at some point, but there were clear reasons for these denials, as the various websites devoted to Garabandal make clear. Conchita, for example, after being interrogated under duress for many hours at her boarding school in Pamplona, signed a denial that she had seen Our Lady. During the interrogation, she had been threatened with being buried in non-consecrated ground “like a dog” if she did not sign the statement. She retracted her denial afterwards, but the Church authorities still used her denial as the basis of a negative judgement on Garabandal that was issued in 1966. In a 1980 interview, in fact, Conchita says explicitly that she was forced to leave the village and emigrate to New York on account of the conflict between the demands being made on her by the authorities and what she knew herself to be true. When people would come to the village to ask her about the visions, she felt compelled by obedience to her bishop to deny the significance or reality of what she had experienced. But, whenever she did this, she knew that she was betraying what had taken place between her and the Blessed Virgin. In the end, she felt forced by this conflict to leave the village and live as a virtual recluse in a foreign country.
The impressive steadfastness and reserve exhibited by Conchita over the years is a powerful indicator of the authenticity of what she experienced. If she had fabricated the apparitions in order to gain attention, then we might expect her to continue seeking the limelight in the aftermath of the events. Instead, she has lived in almost complete silence and obscurity for the past fifty years, dedicating herself to her husband (recently deceased), children and grandchildren. If Conchita had engaged in a monumental effort of deception for those four frenetic years, then we could expect her to manifest further deceptive behaviour in the meantime. We know only too well that others who are involved in fraudulent activity constantly change their stories, engaging in defensive tactics, all as part of a rear-guard action to defend the original edifice of lies. But Conchita has never changed her story and has shown no inclination to defend herself at all. She has lived a life of impressive reserve and humility. In the 1980 interview, she said, simply, that she was “waiting for the miracle”.
2. Why the extraordinary manifestations?
In the Gospels, particularly that of St John, the miracles that Jesus performs are often referred to as “signs”. The miracles are never an end in themselves. Jesus does not multiply the loaves just to satisfy the people’s temporary hunger. He does not heal the paralytic just so that he can walk again. The real significance of these events is that they point to spiritual realities, to our need for conversion, for the forgiveness of our sins, to the necessity of abandoning ourselves to the Lord, trusting in him to give us the bread that leads to eternal life, the conversion of heart that permits us to walk in his light.
What do the prodigies of Garabandal signify? Why did so many extraordinary things happen there, both in variety and in number? As with everything that happens to us, the Lord expects us to use our reason, guided by faith, to contemplate such mysteries. So much of the ink wasted on Garabandal in the past fifty years has tried to predict the dates of the Warning and the Miracle! But the real call of these events has little enough to do with dates of future happenings. If the date of the Miracle is, say, 2021, then a person might think that the message of Garabandal has become more relevant in 2020 than it was in 1965, since the date of the event is almost upon us. But the real message of Garabandal, as we will now try to show, is something much more urgent and personal than the revelation of a future event. It is something that was as relevant in 1965 as it is in 2020, even if the foretold events are indeed now immanent.
i) The prodigies were remarkable because the date of fulfilment of the prophecies was relatively late
Why the remarkable series of events? It seems abundantly clear to this author that signs of this magnitude were considered necessary by heaven because the “delay” in the fulfilment of the prophecies would inevitably lead to growing scepticism and outright disbelief. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in today. Many people who were once enthusiastic “devotees” of Garabandal have fallen away because the prophecies did come true within their expected time frame.
The Lord knew in 1961 that these prophecies were referring to events sixty or more years in the future. Given our natural fascination with prophecies and apocalypticism in general, it was inevitable that many people would focus on this aspect of the messages and begin to lose heart when the expected fulfilment delayed in materialising. Therefore, the original events were validated with such supernatural wonders as to leave people in no doubt that their origin was indeed in heaven.
It is highly instructive to look objectively at what has happened to some former devotees of Garabandal. Many people were convinced of its supernatural origin and put much energy into trying to discern the dates of the Warning and Miracle, as a cursory survey of the many websites on this theme will show. Using reasoning that was more or less enlightened, they began to believe that the events ought to happen on such and such a date. When the predicted date came and went without a Warning or Miracle, these devotees (in many cases) then revised their reasoning and fixed on a new likely date for fulfilment. After numerous expectant waits of this sort, all of which ended in disappointment, the same people became disenchanted with Garabandal as a whole. But it should be clear that such an approach is simply wrong-headed from the start. Am I to become sceptical of the heavenly origin of the events just because a foretold future sign does not happen on the date that I deem to be most fitting? Garabandal was chock-full of supernatural signs from the outset! Anyone who doubts its authenticity must have a reason that is more convincing than the mundane fact that the prophecies didn’t materialize as I expected them to.
Having said all that, it is understandable that even the most patient of people might begin to wonder if the foretold events are going to happen at all. Almost sixty years have passed. This fact, as mentioned above, may well explain the dramatic character of the visions. The relative delay in the fulfilment of the prophecies was always going to lead to growing scepticism. Therefore, heaven deemed it essential from the beginning that the truth of the apparitions be manifest. And so they were: the most spectacular ecstatic walks and falls ever recorded; privileged knowledge of consciences, histories and ownership of objects; levitations, healings and a succession of other prodigies that can be consulted in any of the books on the subject.
The evident supernatural origin of the visions should be sufficient to sustain our faith, even until 2020, that heaven visited Garabandal. But we are hard of heart and our memories are short. When Moses was instructed to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so much that it would take a string of prodigies to prompt him to relent. Why did the Lord harden Pharaoh’s heart? So that the Exodus would be ever more clearly the work of God. The dramatic character of their liberation would become essential for the Israelites because its memory would sustain them through forty years in the desert before entering the promised land. The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the prodigies would have to be worked and the people would remember. At Garabandal, the Lord worked prodigies so that people’s hardness of heart would not prompt them to forget. They would have to journey on for sixty years without entering the time of promise, but no-one should forget that what happened could only have been the work of God.
Thus, the dramatic supernatural aspect of Garabandal was already a clue that the foretold events would not happen quickly, that patience, forbearance and faith would be needed. If the predicted events were due to happen within a few short years, then no miracles would have been required during the visions: the events themselves would have provided confirmation before too long. The very drama of Garabandal was an implicit pointer that its fulfilment lay in the longer term.
ii) The occurrences were dramatic because their meaning is dramatic
The fundamental message of Garabandal is identical to the basic message proclaimed in the Gospel: repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Unlike Medjugorje with its regular messages, there were only two announcements in Garabandal. Both call for sorrow for sins, penance and renewed devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Both announcements say that humanity will be punished if it does not turn away from sin. Given that the overall message is relatively simple, we might wonder at the exceptional nature of the signs that accompanied the message.
Again, the Gospel miracle stories of Jesus give us a vital clue. The real point of the signs that the Lord performs is not the works themselves but the spiritual realities that they point to. In John 14,11, Jesus wants to communicate a message to his disciples concerning his relationship with the Father: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” The meaning of the signs is always to facilitate reception of the message, from the very first miracle that the Lord performs in the Gospels: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (John 2,11). At Garabandal we have been given a wealth of signs so that we will believe in the message, repent of our sins and become devoted to the holy Eucharist. The convincing supernatural character of the signs is a powerful indication that the message too has a supernatural origin, that it too comes from God.
If the signs were unusually dramatic in this isolated Spanish village, then that is a indication that we are being encouraged to repent in a dramatic fashion. I am utterly convinced of this point. People have looked with scepticism on Garabandal and said, “What a circus! It was all over the top!” But supernatural signs never point to themselves. They point to a deeper spiritual reality, and how can deeply spiritual realities ever be “over the top”? The fantastic drama of Garabandal, the urgency and energy of the ecstasies, are a call to urgent and dramatic conversion on the part of the faithful. This is as true today as it was in 1965. The striking heavenly aspect of the occurrences is telling us: Turn away from sin and turn back to God! Do so completely and do it now!
iii) The dramatic supernatural aspect of Garabandal is a reminder that God’s ways are not our ways
As a college student, when I first saw images of the visions of Garabandal on a friend’s computer, I was struck by their “otherworldly” aspect - the unnatural angle of the girls’ heads as they looked vertically upwards during the trances, the peculiarity of the ecstatic walks, the look of strange joy on the faces of the visionaries. Though struck by these features, I was not impressed or convinced. Something about these images seemed “weird” or just plain “wrong”. Now, after an interval of more than two decades, I am convinced that what was wrong was with me, not with the images themselves. These girls were in communication with heaven, with citizens of a kingdom that is “not of this world”. For the past more than fifty years there has been a concerted effort on the part of many to conform the teachings of the Church to the spirit of this world. We see this particularly in the case of teachings on marriage, abortion and euthanasia. When we look at the behaviour of the girls during the visions in Garabandal, it is all too apparent that what was happening was not of this world. In fact, the character of the visions issued a challenge to the way that this world construes things. The very angle of the seers’ daze during the apparitions seemed to indicate that they were looking out of this world completely, looking into something that transcended material reality. In that sense, the otherworldly aspect of the visions is in perfect harmony with the message of Garabandal and that of the Gospel itself: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12,2).
iv) Garabandal calls for a healthy balance between reliance on signs and walking in faith
Some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a miracle, saying, “‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you’. But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah’” (Matthew 12, 38-9). Nevertheless, Jesus does perform many signs in the Gospels and these often lead to genuine faith. It is clear that there is a healthy balance between believing in the signs that the Lord works for us and being willing to walk in faith even when no signs are forthcoming. Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe”, yet Peter, Paul and the other apostles did not believe until they themselves had encountered the risen Lord!
In Garabandal, we get a unique insight into the dynamics of believing in signs and continuing to believe without signs. The prodigies were so many in this far-flung Spanish village, but the delay in fulfilment of the prophecies has been unexpectedly long! Reflection on these two aspects of the events – their dramatic miraculous aspect and the delay in the appearance of the great “Miracle” – can help to form a balanced attitude to the visions. During one of the visions, Our Lady told Conchita that the Miracle would be for those who do not believe. This is an important point. We - who are supposed to have faith already - should not need this Miracle, or any other for that matter. In fact, by abandoning ourselves into God’s providence daily, with or without miracles, we are living a privileged moment of grace.
The faithful Christian now finds himself in a blessed time, the time before the occurrence of the Warning and the appearance of the Miracle. Why were the prodigies many and the delay in fulfilment long? So that we - our faith aided by these original prodigies - would continue to journey towards God in faith when the prodigies were no longer evident. The objective of life is not just to come to the knowledge of God. If that were so, then God could just appear to humanity and make himself known immediately to everyone. The Lord does not simply want us to know him. He wants us to seek him out, to struggle on blindly in times of darkness, to learn to trust in him. Life is not just finding out truths about God, but learning to enter into a relationship of trust and love with him. Sometimes darkness and doubt are essential stages in learning to abandon ourselves to him.
When the Miracle eventually appears, less faith will be needed, that much is for sure. The lateness of the appearance of the Miracle is thus a prolongation of the time of blessing, this time when we can walk onwards in faith, believing against belief in the goodness and mercy of God, hoping against hope. The so called “delay” of the Miracle is a great blessing, a time of grace, a privileged time when we can choose the Lord in greater freedom, believe in him without seeing him, trusting him when everything around us tells us to do otherwise. When the Miracle comes, we will be also be in a time of grace, but of a different sort.
3. Garabandal’s importance today
There is no shortage of websites with speculative posts about the date of the Warning and the Miracle. Much of this material has little enough to do with the real message of Garabandal, although it is understandable that people have a tendency to be preoccupied with events of an apocalyptic sort. Looking coldly at the situation, if the fulfilment is going to happen, then it seems that it must happen soon. Mari Loli has already died (in 2009), whereas Conchita is now seventy-one years of age, and it will be her task to announce the Miracle eight days in advance. Next year is the sixtieth anniversary of the first visions and the fortieth anniversary of Medjugorje. It is perfectly natural that expectations will already be mounting in some quarters. But the real message of the visions is much more urgent than the discernment of the date of the Miracle! Indeed, to focus on this issue is to miss the point altogether. Humanity was visited at Garabandal with prodigious signs and wonders so that we would turn back to the Lord with all our hearts. Are we to ignore the meaning of these signs and wonders as we speculate idly about the details of a future sign? The future Miracle will have its function and value, but let not the function and value of the original prodigies go to waste!
It is very revealing to examine what happened in Garabandal on October 18th 1961. On that evening, the girls had promised to announce the first message that had been given to them for the world. Hundreds of people arrived from Spain and from further afield. Some of them expected a miracle. Others thought that they themselves might see Our Lady. The general expectation among the large crowd was that something remarkable would happen. At 10pm, up at the pine trees in driving rain, Conchita read the message to the huddled assembly in a weak voice. The anti-climax was enormous. There were general groans and grumbles. Some people said aloud, “This is the end of Garabandal!” What was the message which provoked such disappointment? It was a condensed form of the Gospel, a call to repentance, theologically flawless, scrawled on a grubby scrap of paper and poignantly signed by all four children with their ages written beside their names.
As we can see, by October 1961, just a few months into the series of visions, the message of the Gospel was already being made secondary to the unquenchable thirst for miraculous events. And the great irony of this entire situation is that genuine miraculous events were not in short supply. Contact with the supernatural was manifest on a daily basis in the behaviour of these four girls from the very onset of the happenings. Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, of twenty/twenty vision. We can observe that the message of Garabandal, which was nothing other than a distilled version of the Gospel call to conversion, was set aside on October 18th 1961 as the public hankered after something more titillating, and it has been set aside many times since. There is nothing titillating about the Gospel, but it alone will lead us to salvation.
Let us repeat it again. For no less than four years, a mountain village in the middle of nowhere was the scene of a startling manifestation of the supernatural. It is not something easy to admit. This author would prefer to maintain a sober distance from eccentricities of this kind which have given rise to much fanciful speculation. But the events speak for themselves. In fact, the very stones of Garabandal cry out. Any objective examination of these occurrences points to the direct participation of heaven in what happened. Let us never forget, however, that alongside the extraordinary prodigies was a simple message of repentance and conversion. Why were the events so extraordinary? So that the message would be embraced wholeheartedly and with urgency. And the prodigies were even more marvellous so that the message would continue to be embraced for the long vigil of sixty years while the world waited for the fulfilment of the promises of Our Lady. The wonders of Garabandal, surely, are all directed to one thing and one thing only: the reception of the message. Let us look at the events with the eyes of faith, heed the message and turn back to the Lord!
"Even now", declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning". (Joel 2,12)
If you would like to learn more about Garabandal, try Ed Kelly's book, A Walk to Garabandal: A Journey of Happiness and Hope