Or are we just dismissive church-people?
A New Jersey woman claims to have discovered a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a natural scar on a tree trunk on a West New York street. Crowds have been gathering to view and venerate the image they consider miraculous. Indeed, there is a resemblance to the Virgin of Guadalupe, although it is the reaction and spontaneous devotion of the people which seems to me to be the evidence of the presence of something spiritual and supernatural. Like sheep without a shepherd, the people flock to the image they hope is a sign of Our Mother's love and protection.
Miraculous images and occurrences might be considered commonplace in the rich history of Spanish and Spanish Colonial Catholicism. Many miraculous images were discovered throughout the centuries, some dug up from the earth, others floating in a river, still others appearing in the trunk of a tree, or on the sides of cave walls. Were these images perhaps later embellished by artists to bring out the details or features only hinted at in the original? Or simply to decorate or embellish what was already there? Or did angels and saints do the artwork as legends suggest? The most famous image not made by hands is the tilma of Juan Diego, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Everyone agrees, no artist ever created that.
Don't be so smug.
Is it so unusual that Spanish Catholics continue to recognize the presence of the Holy Virgin in contemporary urban environments? The latest case of the Virgin's image on a tree trunk in New Jersey could be a modern version of a 13th Spanish miracle of El Rocio in Andalucia. What if the original statue of El Rocio had to be carved away from the tree wherein it was discovered, then finished and polychromed? There is another famous miraculous image found in a tree trunk in Mexico in the 16th century, revered as the Virgen of Ocotlan.
There are similar stories told over the centuries, attested to by miracles as well as spiritual conversions and vocations. Perhaps those occurring in our day are not always instances of pareidolia - random perceptions of religious imagery in nature or matter. What if the response of simple, ordinary believers leads to an increase of devotion and amendment of life? What if the image seen most recently, was extracted from the tree, embellished by fine artisans, and venerated in a shrine at the local parish, which would become a place of pilgrimage? I'm not saying it should be done, I'm just saying I think that may be what used to happen in ages past - perhaps in the cases of El Rocio and Ocotlan? .
And yet today - these days of declining church attendance, when even the traditionally devout Hispanic Catholics leave for more charismatic denominations, Church authorities seem to be embarrassed by such popular expressions of piety and devotion - spontaneous outbursts of hope and cries to heaven for help - on the streets where these good people live and work amidst hardship and discouragement. While the well-off travel on luxurious religious vacations called pilgrimages to European shrines, and promote excursions and unofficial tours to unapproved religious-commercial sites such as Medjugorje - a place far more curious than an innocent knot on a tree resembling the Blessed Virgin, which inspires devotion and prayer - in the public square.
No wonder many Hispanics do not feel welcome in predominantly 'white' Catholic parishes.