Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary


Just in time for Christmas, National Geographic magazine has given us an article on “How the Virgin Mary became the world’s most powerful woman” for its December issue.

"Sounds like a great story," I thought. Then I saw the splashy graphics mapping Marian sightings around the world and the photos of various Marian devotees. I realized this article wasn’t about Mary, it was about the people who say they’ve seen Mary and those who pray to her.

Sure enough, a story that promised so much failed to deliver in a big way. Here’s how it begins:

It’s apparition time: 5:40 p.m. In a small Roman Catholic chapel in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Medjugorje, Ivan Dragicevic walks down the aisle, kneels in front of the altar, bows his head for a moment, and then, smiling, lifts his gaze heavenward. He begins to whisper, listens intently, whispers again, and doesn’t blink for ten minutes. His daily conversation with the Virgin Mary has begun.
Dragicevic was one of six poor shepherd children who first reported visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. She identified herself to the four girls and two boys as the "Queen of Peace” and handed down the first of thousands of messages admonishing the faithful to pray more often and asking sinners to repent. Dragicevic was 16 years old, and Medjugorje, then in communist-controlled Yugoslavia, had yet to emerge as a hub of miracle cures and spiritual conversions, attracting 30 million pilgrims during the past three decades.

For starters, having visited and written about Medjugorje in a previous post, I knew those kids were not shepherds and their families weren't poor. The National Geographic writer had them mixed up with the Fatima visionaries.

The Medjugorje folks were one child and five teen-agers living in a town known for its tobacco fields and vineyards. This being summertime, usually the able-bodied teens were helping with the tobacco harvest. It being about 6:15 p.m. on June 24, 1981, these kids were walking about outside or had snuck outside for a smoke when the first apparition happened. (If you want to read better and more factual pieces about the visionaries, try this piece about the early days of the apparitions and this 2012 Daily Mail article).

Also, the “30 million pilgrims” number for Medjugorje has been bandied about since 2009 and maybe before. Six years have passed, people. Do some math. A magazine of National Geographic’s stature should have gotten an update.

Continuing on, I noticed the writer showed a curious ignorance of the biblical Mary, who was a politically astute Jewish girl who wanted the Roman oppressors overthrown. Her song in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke makes that clear. The writer could have at least given some bibliographic information about Jesus’ mother; how she lingered by Jesus’ cross; how she and Jesus’ brothers thought the Jewish rabbi was out of his mind enough that they arrived in a delegation at one of his preaching sites and how she disappeared from Scripture after the first chapters of Acts. Or even the extra-biblical stuff, such as the traditional names of her parents, her burial spot and how ancient church tradition came to view her not as a Jewish mother of several children (as most Protestants believe, although not, long ago, John Calvin and Martin Luther), but as a perpetually virginal patron saint of the whole church.

Instead, the writer sums up the biblical narrative in one paragraph, then includes a quote from a priest at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio, saying one can’t believe what was said in the Bible because most of the material on Mary is from hearsay. His assertion that the Gospels (including all that we know on Mary) weren’t written until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death is suspect as it’s entirely possible they were written within 20 years. Also, in an oral culture with a high, high respect for tradition, a generation or two is the blink of an eye.

The rest of the article is not about Mary, it’s about her appearances. It wanders from touching on her purported present-day miracles, then her apparitions, then on Muslim thoughts about her (but nothing about what Protestants or Eastern Orthodox Christians believe). It doesn’t go into the “why” of some 2,000 Marian appearances since the Council of Trent in (1545-1563). It doesn't connect the dots to point out that two of the more famous Marian appearances in the early 1980s: Medjugorje in 1981 and Kibeho, Rwanda in 1982, both contained dire prophecies of future wars that came true.

Why are the daily messages (from Mary) at Medjugorje so apocalyptic and at the same time repeating the same thing over and over? Why does Mary constantly insist in spots around the world that the locals build churches in her honor? Where are the quotes in this story from the many serious scholars who study questions such as these?

I would have expected a better piece had National Geographic used a religion specialist to write this piece. Using a special correspondent to Vanity Fair tells me that the magazine wanted something glitzy with eye candy photos and little depth. Which is, sadly, what they got.

Near the end, the piece wanders off for five paragraphs on a segment about a retired female U.S. Army colonel who’s on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The tangent adds nothing to the article, which then wraps up on a wishful note that Mary is lighting the way for the Lourdes pilgrims.

The idea behind this piece –- that Mary is the world’s most powerful woman -– is intriguing. But the story lost its way early on and the result was a mishmash of anecdotes about visitors to her shrines. It certainly doesn't illustrate her influence in anything that matters. If Mary truly is that powerful a female, the right kind of article would have illustrated how vivacious and magnetic a personality she must have and how she's using all that power.

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