It's now official: the Virgin Mary has never been to Germany. After a six-year investigation, a Catholic Church commission found no proof that supernatural events had taken place in the German town of Marpingen.
A disappointment for the faithful: it wasn't really the Blessed Virgin that they saw
In 1876, three girls from Marpingen, a town in Saarland, now a southwestern German state, witnessed the appearance of the mother of God, while picking berries on a summer day. The Virgin Mary brought a message of peace and promised to come back "in times of distress."
More than a century later, she fulfilled her promise and returned -- no less than 13 times, according to witness accounts. After three women first spotted her on May 17, 1999, the news that the mother of God was hanging out in an obscure German town spread more quickly than a bushfire. Thousands of pilgrims descended upon Marpingen, and the town -- in the heat of religious fervor -- almost collapsed under the unexpected population influx.
When the Madonna was last seen in Marpingen in Oct. 1999, 35,000 pilgrims were there to bid her adieu. Some witnesses reported being surrounded by a wonderful and intense rose scent, others saw a path of glowing light descending from heaven and heard angelic music around them. Some saw the figure of the Virgin, full of grace, blessing the pilgrims, her veil standing motionless in the wind. Others saw absolutely nothing.
No definite proof
The church expressed "justified doubt" about the Marpingen Madonna
After six years of investigating the case, the Catholic Church announced on Wednesday that "there was justified doubt about the supernatural character of the alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary." The special church commission did not go as far as proclaiming a pious fraud, but it also stopped short of explaining why the miraculous appearance of the mother of God could not be proven.
"The vote now says that we're not sure," said Reinhard Marx, Bishop of Trier, who lead the investigations.
The bishop encouraged believers to continue venerating the Virgin Mary at Marpingen, but stressed that miracles were not essential for those who believe.
"Not miracles, but the revelation of evangelism is the basis of faith," the bishop said.
Despite the official church position, Marpingen will remain a popular pilgrimage site
Some believers, nonetheless, were hoping for a miracle. Father Jörg Müller, a therapist and author who also served as counselor to the Marpingen visionaries, analyzed the alleged apparitions and observed the three women in moments of religious ecstasy six years ago.
"Normally, the pupils contract when light is shone into them. Yet, in this case, the contractions are non-existent. Only after the apparition is over do the reflexes, such as blinking, return. One could not stage these by an act of will. That is out of the question," said Müller.
Having performed various psychological tests with the three visionaries, Müller also concluded that the women did not suffer from neurosis and were not involved in any kind of manipulation. He submitted his findings to the commission investigating the Marpingen apparitions, but the commission reached a different conclusion.
Better luck, next time
"We are satisfied with the decision," said Marpingen mayor Werner Laub on Wednesday, but stressed that the infrastructure in the region had to be reinforced to deal better with some 60,000 pilgrims who still visit the town each year.
Germans seem to be out of luck, as far as apparitions of the "Mother of God" are concerned. There has been over 170 recorded sightings of the Blessed Virgin on German soil, yet none of them have been officially sanctioned.
Many a German Catholic will be disappointed that the Madonna, who reportedly introduced herself as the "mother of Germany" and explicitly said she wanted to "regain Germany for heaven," has been given no official approval -- especially now that a German is, for the first time in five centuries, the infallible occupant of St. Peter's throne in the Vatican.
They may be able to find consolation in the fact that, with Angela Merkel as "chancelloress," Germany is lucky to have another -- increasingly confident, if overwhelmingly stern -- mother figure to lead the country in times of distress.