DES MOINES, Iowa — Devotion to the Virgin Mary, long a staple of Roman Catholic worship, fell out of fashion in the United States after church reforms of the 1960s.
But veneration for the mother of Jesus is back, undergoing a powerful resurgence in a grass-roots movement that is sweeping the country.
Fueled by more than 11 years of reported appearances of Mary in the tiny village of Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, and fired by a hunger among conservative Catholics for traditional church rites and teachings, the movement has exploded in recent months. In city after city, individuals and small groups are joining to organize Marian conferences. In recent months, similar gatherings have regularly drawn between 5,000 and 10,000 participants.
The new movement is "trying to counteract the negativity and decadence across the society," said Regina Morin who, with her husband, Jerry, helped organize the May 1-3 Heartland of America Marian Conference here, which drew more than 9,000 people from 36 states and three Canadian provinces. "The movement is like a slow brush fire trying to cleanse this country," she said.
Reports of miraculous events attributed to Mary have multiplied in recent months--from weeping statues in the Washington, D.C., area to a configuration taken as a Marian likeness on a "weeping" tree in the Denver area.
But here, the focus was on Medjugorje, where six young men say the Virgin Mary has visited and spoken with them daily since the purported apparitions began in June, 1981. The small mountain village, which has drawn an estimated 17 million pilgrims over the last 10 years, has been closed to travelers in recent months because of civil war in that country. Lack of access to the site, however, seems only to have increased the determination of believers.
Regina Morin believes the proliferation of Marian gatherings is "tied to the conflict in Medjugorje. If we want Mary to be known in this country, if we want her messages known, then it is all of us who have to bring her here."
The Catholic Church teaches that Mary, as the mother of Christ, is deserving of special honor and veneration. The Second Vatican Council, in its "Constitution on the Church," urged that devotion toward Mary be "generously fostered" but cautioned against excesses in Marian piety, especially any suggestion that she is equal in stature to Jesus.
In Des Moines, throngs pressed into Veterans Memorial Auditorium for three days of devotions, prayers and preaching centered on the Virgin Mary. The stage had been transformed into an elaborate sanctuary with a traditional white statue of the virgin, arms outstretched and her head ringed in a crown of tiny lighted bulbs, on a pedestal fronted by a lavish spray of red roses. Banners bearing likenesses of Mary were hung throughout the auditorium.
In an atmosphere thick with personal piety and devotion, participants spoke of Mary in intimate terms as a warm, coddling mother who "loves her children."
At the same time she was portrayed as calling those same children to prayer, fasting and repentance--a call common to Marian apparitions reported throughout the ages--in urgent, almost apocalyptic terms.
Such traditional effects as rosaries and scapulars--tiny bits of cloth bearing a likeness of Mary and worn around the neck--were in abundance. T-shirts declared "Mary's People" and announced the miracles of Medjugorje. Buttons backed with refrigerator magnets bore a likeness of Mary that is said to have been miraculously photographed by a nun during one of the claimed apparitions at Medjugorje.
Participants spoke matter-of-factly of apparitions, such as those occurring in Medjugorje and with unprecedented frequency throughout the world, with only a nod now and then to "doubters" or "skeptics."
This was not a place for intellectual discussion of a reported apparition's authenticity.
The church has not ruled on the authenticity of the purported apparitions at Medjugorje or any of the countless other apparitions reported in recent years, though it is widely held that Pope John Paul II regards the reports from Medjugorje favorably. The Vatican usually delays making a ruling until reported apparitions in a particular place have ended and officials have conducted a lengthy investigation.
Before a ruling is made, Catholics are free to believe in apparitions that have not been refuted by the church, but are not required to believe them. Nor are Catholics required to believe in reported apparitions that have gained approval from the church, like the ones at Lourdes or Fatima. These days, Marian enthusiasts have a wide choice.
The Medjugorje conferences, as these new gatherings are commonly called, began with the first major gathering on the subject at Notre Dame University in 1989, followed by similar meetings during the last three years from Los Angeles to New Orleans.