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Catholicism is a religion that is practiced in nations all around the world and is currently the largest religion by number of followers globally. Followers of Catholicism place their faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Pope, believing that he has the supreme authority to lead the Church, tracing back his powers to Christ.
St. Peter's Basilica, one of the holiest sites in Catholic tradition
The Catholic Church is large and diverse, made up of 24 particular churches, with many Tamils who are practicing Catholics in three of these churches: the Roman Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The article I wrote about Tamils and Eastern Catholicism goes into more detail on why there are different particular churches and how followers in each of them are Catholics and a part of the Catholic Church.
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What has intrigued me about Catholicism is that, although the origin of this faith can be traced back to Jerusalem in modern-day Israel, there have been many reported instances of God’s intervention in human history throughout the world, also known as apparitions. Marian Apparitions in particular have intrigued me, referring to the appearance of Mary, seen as the Mother of God in the Catholic Church, to many diverse peoples throughout different periods of history. Some of these apparitions include Our Lady of Guadalupe in 16th century Mexico, our Lady of Lourdes in 19th century France, and Our Lady of Zeitoun in 20th century Egypt. Moreover, the entire month of May is dedicated to honour Mary, highlighting her profound impact on the faith and the Catholic Church.
What is most intriguing about the Marian Apparitions is that the depiction of Mary’s appearances seemingly reflects the demographics of the local population where she appeared. In the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary appeared as a dark-skinned woman speaking Nahautl, the native language of Juan Diego to whom she appeared. There are many paintings and depictions of Mary and the infant Jesus in black as well, known as the Black Madonna. The many ways in which the Marian Apparitions are depicted and documented are perhaps a testament to how the Holy Men and Women of God, as well as Jesus Christ, ultimately may not be confined to a particular visual appearance. In churches throughout the world, though we may see statues and depictions with a Euro-centric image, the apparitions show that these are not just Euro-centric in nature.
One Marian Apparition took place in Tamil Nadu with Our Lady of Velankanni (அன்னை வேளாங்கண்ணி), also known as Our Lady of Good Health (புனித ஆரோக்கிய அன்னை). Our Lady of Velankanni is depicted as Mary holding the child Jesus with a South Asian appearance, wearing a beautiful gold saree covering her entire body. She also wears crown with twelve stars, potentially symbolizing the twelve tribes of the Old Testament in the Bible and the twelve apostles in the New Testament.
The image of Our Lady of Velankanni that is commonly found in the prayer rooms (சாமி அறை) of Tamil homes and in many churches, having an important place in the lives of Tamil Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A shrine now known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health (தூய ஆரோக்கிய அன்னை திருத்தலம்) was built and dedicated to Our Lady of Velankanni following her apparitions. It is now known as the “Lourdes of the East” since it is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in South Asia, attracting around five million pilgrims and visitors from across the globe each year.
Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health
Oral traditions say that there were three apparitions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first apparition was to a shepherd boy from Velankanni (வேளாங்கண்ணி) who would deliver milk to a rich man in Nagapattinam (நாகப்பட்டினம்) everyday. The apparition happened at a pond where the boy drank water to cool himself from a hot day and Our Lady asked the boy for the milk for her child. The boy happily gave the milk to her and was prepared to go to the man afterwards and say that he gave the milk away; however, when he arrived and showed him his pot, there was milk inside. This story spread all across Nagapattinam and was believed to be an apparition of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The place where this first apparition appeared is now marked as a holy site.
The second apparition was to a buttermilk vendor, a young boy from Velankanni who was unable to walk. The boy would sell buttermilk in an area called Nadu Thittu (நடுத்திட்டு) and was brought there each day by a widow. It was said that one day when it looked as though there would be no customers, a woman and child appeared wearing impeccable white garments and asked the boy for buttermilk. The boy happily gave them the buttermilk and, while in awe, was cured and able to walk. The woman asked the boy to go see a rich Catholic man in Nagapattinam and ask him to build a chapel in her honour. The boy ran as fast as his legs could carry him for the 10 kilometers he had to go. Upon arriving and speaking to the man, the chapel that was built eventually became the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. A chapel has also been built at the site where the boy saw the apparition.
The third was to Portuguese merchants on a ship sailing from Macau to Colombo. The vessel carrying the merchants got caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal, and the merchants began praying to Mary once they believed that their lives would come to an end. If they were to survive the storm, they promised that they would build a chapel in her honour wherever they land. The storm suddenly subsided and the skies became clear; the ship would end up landing safely in Velankanni. Upon landing, the merchants fell to their knees and were grateful for their lives being saved. Two weeks later, the merchants built a chapel at the spot where they landed safely.
Following the apparitions that have happened in the sixteenth century and the construction of the chapels and shrine in Velankanni, millions of people have visited to pray for good health and marvel at the miracles that have happened. Our Lady of Velankanni holds a special place among Tamil Catholics as well as in the Tamil community at large because of the miraculous events that have taken place in Tamil Nadu and because this Marian Apparition reflects how the people in the area look and understand their belief in God. This, among other Marian Apparitions, shows perhaps that how God communicates with us is not limited to a certain look and demeanour as we may see in other cultures and communities. Everyone, regardless of where they are in the world, is invited to form a unique relationship with God.