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Mary Becomes a Star, Spiritual and Secular

Icons: New seekers flock to the maternal and, increasingly, commercial symbolism of the Blessed Mother.


Today, her son's birthday has center stage. But the Virgin Mary is taking more than a supporting role these days in both the Christian and secular worlds.

The Blessed Mother has become an increasingly popular symbol of peace and healing in a hypercharged world. Pop culture has co-opted her image and is now selling it in many different forms; her face has materialized on teenagers' fashion crop-tops, surfboards and sequined handbags, among other items.

"There's a great sort of familiarity and ease with Mary," said Father Thomas A. Thompson, director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in Ohio, the largest repository of printed materials relating to the Virgin Mary and art devoted to her image. "She's very popular right now."

A growing number of Americans from all Christian denominations are reaching out to the Virgin Mary as a comforting conduit of spirituality and a symbol of peace in troubled times.

"If you can't listen to the call of a mother, who can you listen to?" said Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, who wrote a book called "Encountering Mary."

Reported sightings of Mary have steadily increased across the globe in recent years. The sightings have in turn given birth to Mary conferences and have spurred a fervor for Mary bric-a-brac.

"There's been an explosion of interest in Mary," said David Isay, producer of a National Public Radio segment last winter about Virgin Mary sightings. The segment, titled "Looking for Mary," has received more requests for transcripts this year than any other NPR story.

Some theologians attribute Mary's higher profile to feminism, while some cite an appeal that goes beyond institutional worship.

Since Mary was a mother whose son died before she did, she inspires empathy and compassion, said Victor Balaban, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in religion and apocalyptic movements.

"She had this pain and sadness that's much more human than God or Jesus," said Balaban. "Anyone who is having troubles in their life can identify with that kind of pain."

Something for Everyone

Some experts argue that the Virgin Mary's current prominence also is caused by the lack of other female role models in the Christian tradition.

"There's an interest in women clergy and an interest in finding Biblical stories that feature women rather than just men," said Donald E. Miller, professor of religion at USC. "One of the genius elements of the Catholic church is that it provides a strong feminine symbol in Mary."

But Mary's influence stretches beyond Catholicism, theologians say. Her maternal gaze seems to have ecumenical appeal.

"There is a hunger for mother imagery," said Zimdars-Swartz. "It's not just Roman Catholics who are interested in Mary and following the apparitions."

Each day, thousands of people bring their troubles to the sites where the Virgin is claimed to have appeared. And the number of such sites has mushroomed.

There have been more than 40 sightings reported in North and South America alone in the last 18 years, with Mary purportedly appearing on everything from shrouds to grottoes to oak leaves. Recent sightings have been reported in Cleveland, Scottsdale, Ariz., and California City.

"Mary's got quite an itinerary these days," said Father Gregory Coiro of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

She has reportedly even been to Orange County: the Virgin Mary was said to have materialized in a mosaic at the Our Lady of the Pillar Church in Santa Ana in 1991. The church has become a destination for many Mary pilgrims, said Father James McGuire of St. Benedict's Church in Montebello, who was a priest at Our Lady of the Pillar at the time of the apparition.

"Once the story started to circulate, hundreds of people from all over the United States called or came to visit," he said.

A Magnet for Her Followers

Devotees are also gathering for Mary conferences.

For example, more than 5,000 devotees of Mary came to UC Irvine this fall for the ninth annual Medjugorje Peace Conference. Medjugorje is a site in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six children claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary in 1981.

Since then, an estimated 15 million people have made the pilgrimage to Bosnia, hoping for a miracle and looking for redemption. The other best known shrines where Mary is said to have appeared are Fatima in Portugal, Lourdes in France and Tepeyec (Guadalupe) in Mexico.

Irma Andrade of Los Angeles, who attended the conference, lost one of her sisters to leukemia a few years ago. Her family subsequently lost its religious moorings, she said. But she feels anchored in her faith again after a trip to Medjugorje, where she said she saw the sun spin and rosaries turn to gold.

"Mary's the mother figure who keeps leading us back to Christ," she said, rubbing a gold medallion embossed with Mary's picture.

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