It took place while she was still on earth, prior to her assumption into heaven, in 40 A.D.
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Only a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in the year 40, the very first Marian apparition took place. The Blessed Virgin appeared to one of the apostles, St. James the Great, brother of St. John, in Spain. This apparition is known as Our Lady of the Pillar.
During the very early days of Christianity, James had traveled to the pagan lands of the Roman province of Hispania, today known as Spain. His evangelization efforts encountered great difficulty and it is said that the apostle had fallen into despondency.
One night, James was praying by the banks of the Ebro River near the city that is today known as Zaragoza. Suddenly a great light engulfed him. James knelt, staring into the light, and what he saw was beyond description. In the light was the Virgin Mary, surrounded by thousands of angels.
She told James that he should persevere, assuring him that ultimately his work for Jesus would have great results and many would turn to the Faith. She asked that a church be built on the place where she appeared and left behind a pillar of jasper to mark the spot where she had been. The Virgin Mary also left a small statue of herself holding the infant Jesus in her arms. The statue was sitting atop the jasper pillar.
Since the Blessed Virgin was still alive and living in Jerusalem — this was prior to her assumption into heaven — her appearance is considered an act of bilocation.
James immediately gathered some of his new followers and began work on a chapel on the designated site. The chapel is the first church ever dedicated to Mary and today, after many renovations, is known as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. It is located in the exact place Our Lady appeared some 2,000 years ago.
James participated in the dedication of the small church and returned to Jerusalem.
Ironically, he was the first apostle to die for the faith. In the year 44, Herod Agrippa had James beheaded. The disciples of James took his body back to Spain for final burial. The statue and pillar left by Our Lady were taken under the protection of the people of Zaragoza.
The many miracles surrounding the relic can attest to its heavenly origin. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, the left-leaning Republicans bombed the shrine, but the bombs that hit the church never exploded. No one is allowed to touch the statue except for the four priests assigned to its care and newborn infants, who can be lifted up to touch the image of their heavenly Mom.
Popes from the earliest times have attested to the authenticity of Our lady’s appearance at the shrine. Pope Calixtus III in 1456 encouraged people to make pilgrimages to Our Lady of the Pillar. The miracle of the shrine’s foundation was even acknowledged.
The most prominent miracle occurred in the 17th century. A beggar named Miguel Pellicer from the town of Calanda could not work due to having an amputated leg. He was constantly praying at the shrine for the Blessed Mother’s help and his leg was restored.
Over the centuries many controversial stories arose concerning the authenticity of this shrine. Pope Innocent III, answering an appeal from Spain, had 12 cardinals investigate all the data available. On August 7, 1723, the Sacred Congregation of Rites affirmed the original. In 1730, Pope Clement XII allowed the feast of Our Lady of Pillar to be celebrated throughout the Spanish empire. Eventually she was declared Patroness of the Hispanic World. Our Lady of the Pillar’s feast day is October 12.
One final thought. As a young seminarian, St. Josemaria Escriva, made daily visits to the shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar. He always prayed for guidance and eventually founded Opus Dei. The members honor her feast day each year.
Our Lady of the Pillar, please pray for us.
Read more about Marian apparitions here:
5 Lesser-known (but totally amazing) Marian apparitions
More on her appearance in Banneux, Belgium
The only officially recognized Marian apparitions in the United States