–– Sito di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA –– Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa A missionary look on the life of the world and the church –– VIDA y MISIÓN – VIE et MISSION – VIDA e MISSÃO ––
Much has been said and written about the inculturation of Mary in the New World and in Europe but little regarding the area of Africa. However this devotion, on the black continent, although only in recent times, has been warmly received and developed.
Speaking of Marian devotion in Africa it is necessary to make a distinction between contexts in north Africa, especially Egypt and Ethiopia where there has been deep devotion to Mary since early Christian times. We cannot forget her ‘journey’ with Joseph and the infant Jesus to Egypt, as mentioned in the Gospels, the first act of Marian devotion, and all the many other signs of the first Christian communities present in this lands since the beginning, as we see from sacred writings and other early Christian documents.
Sub Saharan Africa, instead, lived in parallel with the historical period of European colonisation, the birth and the growth of Marian devotion, together with evangelisation. Most missionary orders placed their activity under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the start. This was so in colonial times – when there was what we might call a ‘race for Africa’ which gave new impulse to the missionary activity of the various different Christian confessions – and in the previous centuries when Europeans made first, fruitful contact with the peoples of Africa. The maternal and compassionate figure of Our Lady was immediately proposed by Catholic missionaries to those to whom they taught catechism, as central and qualifying in the religion they preached, not rarely in open antagonism with the evangelisation of Protestant missionaries.
Generally, considering the formation of the missionaries, devotion to Mary was presented according to parameters and schemas of popular European devotion. According to some scholars, in systems of traditional African religion, at first, devotion to Our Lady found no precise resonance. Marian apparitions have been registered but they begin considerable late compared with the beginning of Christianisation.
Chronologically the first grounded Marian apparition in Africa was registered in 1955 at Nongoma, in South Africa, to a missionary nun. Whereas the first documented apparition to an African was in 1980 and concerned Felix Emeka Onah, to whom the Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared at Ede-oballa, in Nigeria. There have been many cases of Marian apparitions in Africa, but often these meet with doubts and ‘inculturative’ difficulties that is anthropological–religious in a Christian key, and the Catholic hierarchy and theologians are called to express authentic and authoritative criteria of judgement.
According to a recent study by Danila Visca, seven cases of Marian apparitions have been reported: in 1980 at Ede-Oballa, in Nigeria; in 1982 in Rwanda at Kibeho; in 1984 at Mushasa, in Burundi; in 1984 at Mubuga, in Rwanda; in 1985 at Yagma and at Louda, Burkina Faso; in 1987 at Muleva, in Mozambique; in 1998 at Tseviè, in Togo.
Of these events information is scarce, only on Kibeho we have documentation and above the canonical approval of the Holy See, given on 29 June 2001. This approval increased fame and interest for Kibeho, also because it was connected with the tragic event of the genocide between Hutu and Tutsi in 1994.
Marian devotion in Africa, and Christian faith in general, came into contact and at times in conflict with the reality of traditional African religions. Marian apparitions reveal this dialectic of inculturation, also very often it would appear to be an adaptation. Certain apparitions present a marked African context, for example “ an extremely spectacular character and long duration, hymns sung by the seers during the visions, blessings given by the seers, healing by imposition of hands, certain formulas of greeting”, but most are decidedly within the schemas and models of the European form: “the apparition of a Woman dressed in white, or in white with a veil ‘the colour of the sky’ with her hands folded or resting on her breast, or ‘extended as represented on the miraculous medal’. Ecstasy is dialogical, blessed water plays a central role, the recitation of the rosary is recommended (in the traditional form ‘the rosary of the seven sorrows’), the seers experience a vision of hell, Mary presents herself with familiar ‘titles’ (‘Mother of the Word, the name of the parish, ‘Immaculate Conception), the Blessed Virgin calls for prayer, fasting and penance, offering up of suffering, she gives messages.”
It would seem, according to the theory of assimilation that “the miraculous Lady in Africa must appear dressed in white, surrounded by stars, she must ask for a church to be built, for the Rosary to be prayed, she must warn sinners, ask for acts of fasting and penance and foresee the end of the world: in a word she must be the ‘canonical’ Our Lady – the one codified by the Council of Trent – for her to be recognised.” The path of evangelisation is long and difficult. Devotion to Our Lady would seem to express well the process of inculturation and the necessity to overcome the ‘eurocentric’ criteria.
One factor helps us to understand the necessity to study more deeply strategies of evangelisation, especially regarding Marian devotion. Churches dedicated to Mary are numerous since the beginning of missionary activity, a sign of the Portuguese missionaries’ deep devotion to the Mother of God, and also of the “impact of this devotion on the newly baptised.” Evangelisation on the continent was placed under the protection of Mary, but we can distinguish a period up to the Second Vatican Council when She was present as “Mediatrix of all graces, the Mother of all peoples and the humble handmaid”, and post-Council, when there is a move to “define her figure and her role with greater attention to the local socio-cultural bedrock, seeking to restore to Our Lady a series of founding elements of religious tradition, and in particular, the community aspects of Christian peoples.” Traditional African culture has helped us understand and accept the figure of Our Lady, because according to the popular vision, “all the members of African society must help to promote unity of life and increase descendance which comes from the ancestors: this is the role of the family, composed of men and women, or rather, mothers and fathers, because in African matrimony the parental aspect prevails over the conjugal aspect. In fact to be at the service of life– which is the task assigned by God to man and woman – means to be at the service of child bearing.” Women “are the pride of the community because they carry life, the life blood of love and unity. Their motherhood is a service to the community; and it is also for God that they fulfil their mission as mothers.” However the African woman is not only the bearer of life, and her essential role is not only to educate children. She is also the “privileged advisor for man, she protects peace, she nourishes the family and she has a privileged relationship with spirituality”. Still today, in fact, the woman-mother has a vital role in the balance and structure of African tradition and society.
Therefore we understand that devotion to Mary, Mother par excellence, is immediately accepted in the religiosity of the local people, despite the fact that dialogue between traditional religion and the eurocentric approach is not always easy. The spiritual and physical maternity of Mary helps us grasp real and profound similarities with the idea of the mother proper to African culture. This is why in ‘comparison’ with the African mother, Our Lady, in general, is “more mother than wife”, she too educates the son, accepts the sacrifices and sufferings of motherhood, lives in silence, she is the guardian of peace; Mary is first of all the daughter of the family of the Church and then the Mother of unity of all believers.” There is a path to further and deeper evangelisation and inculturation which must be travelled with courage and with fidelity to the Gospel.
According to recent studies, one of the first Marian apparitions in history took place in 270 AD when Our Lady is said to have appeared to Gregory Thaumaturgus. In the early High Middle Ages we have testimony of apparitions to Theophilus and to Maria Egiziaca. In the 8th century we have what is called the miracle of Saint John Damascene: Our Lady is said to have healed the Saint’s hand, which had been cut off by the Emir of Damascus. The most significant apparition of the modern epoch is that of Guadalupe, in Mexico. From 9 to 12 December 1531 a Lady appeared five times on a hill in Tepeyac, to Juan Diego, a Mexican peasant, who had only just been converted and baptised.
Apparitions in Europe started in the 19th century. Apparitions happened in 1830, in rue du Bac in Paris, to Catherine Labourè, 23 years old, born in Borgogne and a novice of the Daughters of Charity; at La Salette in 1846 on 19 September to two shepherd children Melani Calvat age 14 and Massimino Giraud age 11, officially recognised on 19 September 1851. The 18 apparitions in Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous, which happened from 11 February to 16 July 1858. Apparitions of Our Lady in the sky over France invaded by Prussia, 17 January 1871. Six apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima, in Portugal, which took place on the 13th of every month (except August) from May to October 1917, to three children: Lucia Santos, Francesco and Giacinta Marto. The last apparition, on 13 October was marked by the miracle of the sun dancing in the sky, witnessed by a crowd of 70,000 people. An apparition in Beauraing, in Belgium: from 29 November 1932 to 3 January 1933, five children saw Our Lady appear on a white cloud 33 times. The apparitions of Our Lady to a little girl Mariette Beco, in Banneux: nine, from 15 January to 2 March 1933, recognised by the Church on 22 August 1949.
“In two thousand years of Christianity it is estimated that there have been about a thousand apparitions of Our Lady”, according to Dominican Fr Mannes Ghizzardi, a Mariologist. The well known French theologian René Laurentin, has undertaken a mammoth work of cataloguing as many as 1,800. And the strange thing is that almost half the apparitions took place in the 20th century. Indeed since World War II, therefore close to our times. It can be said that in the past fifty years there has been an explosion of Marian apparitions. No longer only in Europe, as in the past, but also in America, Africa, in Japan, Korea, India and China.
When speaking of apparitions very often the terms “apparition”, “vision”, “audition”, “private revelation” etc are used in an ambiguous and polyvalent manner. It is true, apparitions, like visions and auditions, belong to the order of divine communication and God’s revealing activity, since they reveal certain aspects of the divine mystery, but they do not happen in the same way. Regarding “perception” of a supernatural object, for example, whereas the term “vision” is used to describe in an analogic sense an experience corporal (sensitive perception of a reality objectively invisible to man), or imaginary (imaginative perception of an object existing in the present), or mental (supernatural knowledge without any perception of an object), the term “apparition” may be used only for corporal or imaginary perception but not for mental perception.
Furthermore whereas “apparition” emphasises the essential role of the object manifested (Christ, Mary, a saint etc.), “vision” emphasises instead action of the seer who perceives the “invisible” nature of the supernatural object. Even more evident is the difference between “apparition” and “audition”. An apparition is the perception of a supernatural object, but an audition is the perception of the word revealing the will. Particularly in recent times these phenomena appear closely connected, in the sense that frequently the seer not only sees the supernatural object, he or she also hears words spoken, and therefore is not only a “revealer” of the supernatural object but also the object’s “messenger”. René Laurentin sees an apparition as the ” visible manifestation of a being, of whom the sight in that place or at that time, is unusual and unimaginable, according to the natural order of things”.
According to these definitions, an apparition would be marked by two elements: The “presence” of a person who is outside the normal experience of human senses and the “perception” of this presence through sensitive knowledge. The seers, who often fall into ecstasy, are sort of apart from the world around them while fully in possession of their senses, are convinced of being in direct and immediate contact with the being manifested, who is not a static image but instead has all the characteristics of three dimensionality.
Today the Bishops and the Apostolic See follow a customary practice which advises, when considering the event of apparitions:
When the Church approves apparitions it is because the latter are not contrary to Catholic faith and morals.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, Protectress of Africa, You have given to the world the true Light, Jesus Christ. Through your obedience to the Father and the grace of the Holy Spirit, You have given us the source of our reconciliation and our justice, Jesus Christ, our peace and our joy. Mother of Tenderness and Wisdom, show us Jesus, your Son and the Son of God. Guide our path of conversion so that Jesus might shine his glory on us in every aspect of our personal, familial and social lives.
Mother, full of Mercy and Justice, through your docility to the Spirit, the Counselor, obtain for us the grace to be witnesses of the Risen Lord, so that we will increasingly become the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Queen of Peace, pray for us! Our Lady of Africa, pray for us!
Extracts from Dossier – Agenzia Fides, 13 August 2009; Editor Luca de Mata