September 8 used to be a public holiday in England

Today is the feast commemorating Our Lady’s birthday. In honour of it, I have been praying a novena to her, organised by an excellent online apostolate called Pray More Novenas. Indeed, if I had not signed up to this particular apostolate I would never make any novenas at all; yet making novenas (the word means a nine-day prayer) is an ancient Catholic devotion and those faithful to it, my friends among them, report many answers to prayer as a result.

It seems that the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity has been celebrated for longer than that of her Immaculate Conception, which was subsequently fixed for December 8 i.e. nine months prior to her birth. Our Lady’s Nativity was introduced in Rome from the Eastern Church in the seventh century. In medieval times, the feast marked the end of the time when all were obliged to help with the communal harvest. After Our Lady’s birthday, which was a holiday (ah, the holidays and holy days we have lost since the Reformation!) each man could work on his own little cottage plot and harvest his own garden crops for his family.

I have gleaned this information from a very fat book entitled Daily Daily Sing to Mary: Celebrating with Our Lady Every Day of the Year by Fr Paul Haffner, published by Gracewing for £20. Apart from the well-known great feasts, such as Our Lady’s Assumption on August 15, and the Feast of the Mother of God on January 1, the book lists a huge number of other titles which have arisen from local apparitions and devotions, oral tradition and lore around the world throughout the centuries. They include the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11 and that of Fatima on May 13.

Reading through some of these stories I am reminded of how Our Lady has guided the Church down the centuries with her maternal love and solicitude, how she has given care and comfort to poor and humble people who have been privileged with a supernatural vision and how she has warned and pleaded with mankind to return to God and to practise prayer and penance.

The book, otherwise very edifying, has one strange inclusion: that of “Our Lady of Medjugorje” for June 24. As the Church has not (yet) given her seal of approval to the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje, on-going since 1981, it strikes me as somewhat premature to include her.

Fr Haffner does mention that a Vatican commission set up by Pope Benedict XVI, which concluded its findings in 2014, “noted a very clear difference between the beginning of the phenomenon and its subsequent development” i.e. the first seven presumed appearances between June 24 and July 3, 1981, and all that happened later. “The first seven appearances seem genuine, but what happened later may not have been,” he comments.

This strikes me as a very odd conclusion, so I asked Donal Anthony Foley, who has written Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Vision or Religious Fraud? (an expanded, revised and updated version of his 2006 book, Understanding Medjugorje) for his views. He directed me to what he has written in his revised book: “The implication of the Ruini report (that the early visions are genuine) is that Our Lady appeared to the visionaries in the full knowledge that once she stopped appearing to them they would fabricate further visions. And as she could foretell the future with regard to, for example, Russia, as at Fatima in July 1917, then she would surely have been aware of what the Medjugorje visionaries would do. This seems to be the fatal objection to the idea that the first visions were supernatural. How would the Church regard Lourdes or Fatima if either St Bernadette or the seers had gone on to falsify visions after the original and genuine ones were over?” This objection seems unanswerable.

The good news is that on June 24 this year, Mass in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a devotion closely associated with Fatima, was celebrated in Plymouth Cathedral. At present it is only an “optional memorial”. Many people believe it should have a permanent place in the liturgical calendar; as a friend commented to me, “There was nothing optional in the plan of the Holy Trinity in choosing the Immaculate Virgin to be the Mother of the Son of God.”