Catholics dedicate the month of May to Mary, our spiritual mother. I remember the special celebration my Catholic school held every year: the May Crowning, when we placed a floral crown on the head of a Mary statue. At the time, my family had recently moved from Miami, FL to a small, predominantly white Catholic town. There was a lot that I was learning and that I had never heard of before – but hand in hand with Catholic traditions was a heavy emphasis on and preference for European Catholicism. Being Colombian, I struggled with the culturally Euro-centric Catholicism I encountered. And as I grew into a young woman, Mary became another stranger, now with fair skin and golden hair.
Docile and Silent or Courageous and Strong?
Mary had always been perfect, but the emphasis on her stainlessness, her purity, and her silence seemed to overshadow the warmth, joy, and strength I had once envisioned her to have. And so I loved her from afar; no longer with the tenderness I felt when I first came to know her. I found myself wanting to know more about Mary. Had my Hispanic notion of La Virgen, or Mamita Maria (as many affectionately called her) really been that off?
It was hard to make sense of Mary’s more “docile” features. Growing up, every praise-worthy Latin mother I knew worked herself tirelessly to the bone, danced throughout times of joy, and faced difficult times head on with a fiery passion and strength. These features were beginning to seem completely opposed to the “new” Mary I was learning about. In my classes and all around me, Mary was meek, soft spoken, solemn, and almost unassuming.
Mary’s Passionate Prayer
This overwhelming disconnect came to a head when I read the Magnificat prayer. It is one of the few quotes from Mary in the Bible, and I believe it to be one of the most impactful:
“And Mary said: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’”
This is not the unassuming, soft spoken Mary I was learning about in the classroom. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, demonstrates who she really is: Mary – the young Jewish woman, who without a doubt had brown skin, darker hair, and North African features – speaks out with a proclamation of praise.
The Lord her God, the God of Israel, has come to fulfill the generational promise to His people – who are also her people – through her sacrifice. She made her great “yes” and began to actively participate in God’s plan for the salvation of all people.
I have no doubt this proclamation was made with the passion of any faithful Jew, a passion that enabled Jews to tear their garments and burst into song and ululate. It’s a passion similar to that of King David, her ancestor, who danced wildly before God in the Ark of the Covenant. Mary proclaims her rejoicing, her fervent praise, and her loyalty to God – and her words are immortalized for thousands of years.
The Many Depictions of Mary
If we are to know Mary for who she is and what she can be for us, we must know her humanity, as it really is. If we choose to see Mary in only one way – in the context of a single culture or heritage – we should ask ourselves why that way seems most suitable to us.
Why do many people in America prefer depictions of a fair skinned, blonde Mary with light eyes? Is a European Mary “more” Mary than a Middle Eastern Mary? Are we trying to make her fit into a mold based on Euro-centric beauty standards? Is it okay to present Mary with an appearance that’s different from the way she really looked in order to suit our needs?
These questions carry a lot of implications, and I have no doubt the responses would be complex with many factors in play. However, could it be that, at the heart of the matter, the reason is as simple as people preferring what they know rather than what they don’t? It might seem rather simplistic, but I think sometimes the truth is simple.
But, why does it matter? And what might Mary have to say about it?
Mary has appeared to people all across the globe, and her apparitions have played a crucial role in the conversion of millions of people to Catholicism. When we take a look at Mary’s apparitions, we learn that she sees and presents herself as the mother of all peoples.
Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico)
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparition alone resulted in about 9 million conversions.
Mary appeared to Juan Diego as a beautiful, native Mexican calling him in his native tongue Nahuatl: "Juanito, Juan Dieguito." Her image on the Tilma (which has countless miraculous properties) depicts her in such a way that the Aztec people could understand who she was. She stands in front of the sun, showing that she is greater than their sun god Huitzilopochtli. She wears the stars on her mantle, showing that she is greater than the stars above. The moon beneath her feet shows that she is greater than their moon god Tezcatlipoca. Mary donned the Spanish cross on her neck, the flowers of quincunx and yoloxochitl on her gown, and the black ribbon over her stomach, signifying her pregnancy. She used their symbols and imagery to teach them – and she presented herself as one of their own.
During a trip to Mexico City, I visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and was struck by the profound reverence displayed by the Hispanic pilgrims. I saw hundreds of people walk on their knees for miles while praying the rosary and singing all the way to the shrine. Inside the church, there was a clamor of voices singing and wailing, the sound of hundreds of people letting out a cathartic cry. Many cried out, “Mamá!” before the Tilma. This made me realize that I had not felt like I knew Mary because I only knew her through one lens. I believed that Mary was meant to look and be only one way.
Our Lady of Akita (Japan)
In 1973, Mary appeared to Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa just outside of Akita, Japan. Sister Agnes was deaf, but she was cured and able to hear Mary speak. Sister Agnes received the stigmata and many messages from Mary, mostly apocalyptic in nature, warning about the persecution of priests and heavy punishments for those proclaiming heresy.
Here, Mary appeared by animating an existing Japanese wooden statue of herself. The statue was seen weeping 101 times and having the stigmata. In December of 1973, a Japanese television station filmed the tears coming from the statue's eyes.
Our Lady of Kibeho (Rwanda)
Mary also appeared to three young girls in Rwanda: Alphonsine Mumureke, Nathalie Mukamazimpaka, and Marie Claire Mukangango.
Alphonsine saw Mary first and would see her the most frequently from 1981-1989. Mary appeared to Alphonsine by the name “Nyina Wa Jambo,” which means “Mother of the Word.” Alphonsine immediately recognized her as Our Lady.
Mary asked Alphonsine to spread her message, but Alphonsine was met with skepticism and prejudice because she came from Gisaka, an area known for practicing magic. Alphonsine asked that Mary help her to overcome these challenges by appearing to others so that they would listen to her words. Mary then appeared to Nathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango, the latter of whom was staunchly opposed to Alphonsine’s stories about the apparitions.
Mary’s mission was to encourage them to pray the rosary without ceasing, and to warn them of future catastrophe and violence. Five years after the last apparition, the tragedy of the Rwandian Genocide occurred.
Our Lady of Vailankanni (India)
It’s believed that Mary appeared to several unrelated people in Velankanni, India. Most notably, she appeared to a young boy selling buttermilk, presenting herself as a beautiful woman carrying a child. She asked him for some milk to feed her child, which he gave to her.
She then asked him to seek a specific Catholic man in a nearby town and request that he build a church in her honor in Velankanni. The boy, who had previously been unable to walk, was cured and he ran to the town to find the Catholic man. The basilica that stands there now is dedicated to Our Lady of Vailankanni, also called Our Lady of Good Health.
Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnam)
Mary is also thought to have appeared to a group of Catholics in Vietnam who fled from persecution to the Lavang jungle. She appeared to them dressed in the traditional Vietnamese áo dài, with the child Jesus in her arms. She instructed them to boil medicinal leaves to treat their illnesses from the contaminated water and she comforted them in their hardships.
Though the apparitions in India and Vietnam have yet to be fully approved by the Church, both shrines were elevated to Minor Basilica in 1961 and 1962 respectively by Pope John XXIII.
Mary, Mother of All Peoples
As any good mother does, Mary comes and makes herself known to her children in a personal and familiar way.
Every mother knows how to best connect with her children, how to speak to them in a way they understand, and how to encourage and guide them. If anything, these apparitions prove that her methods are effective and that she can’t be bound by any one depiction.
That being said, are we missing anything by not recognizing Mary’s heritage and cultural context with images that show a more realistic appearance?
I believe that we are. It’s important to recognize that there might not be an objectively “better” representation of Mary than what she looked like in her earthly body. There is speculation that St. Luke, who was close to Mary and knew her well, painted The Black Madonna, otherwise known as Our Lady of Częstochowa. Even then, we know through the story of Our Lady of Częstochowa that the miracles from this image have comforted and strengthened the faith of the Polish Catholics who received them. Mary doesn’t put herself in a box, so why would we?
The most important thing I have found in learning about Mary is that God and His plan are bigger than what we can imagine. He gave us His mother to be our mother, and as such she comes to meet us where we are – in our own language and culture, and with a familiar face.
When it feels hard to know her, I think back to her words to Juan Diego: “Am I not here, I, who am your mother?”