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Hollywood is not the only place where the Virgin Mary makes pit stops. Since she was spirited -- untainted body and pure soul -- into heaven on August 15 just a few years after the death of Jesus, Mary has allegedly come back to Earth more than 20,000 times.
Those who believe the Virgin returns say she does it because she loves us as a mother does. While God and Jesus might want to punish our ever-sinning selves, Mary asks for mercy. She has special influence with Jesus. Who can say no to his mom?
Catholic popular history is full of stories about the holy Virgin. She gave the rosary in a vision to St. Dominic in the 13th Century, telling him that Christians should invoke her aid by praying with the beads.
In Mexico in 1531, Mary is said to have helped convert Aztecs to Catholicism. She filled a mountaintop with roses so that a peasant named Juan Diego could fill his cloak with them and convince his bishop that Mary wanted a church built on the spot. When he unveiled the flowers at the palace of the bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarrága was stunned to see an image of Mary swathed in light, her mantle adorned with stars, emblazoned on the peasant's cloak. The church was built, and in 1945, Santa Maria de Guadalupe was crowned the "Queen of Wisdom of the Americas." More than 12 million people visit her shrine annually.
While the number of reported Mary visits dropped off during the Reformation, in the 20th Century, she began appearing with dire warnings that the end of time was near. At Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, 1917, Mary gave three children tending sheep a glimpse of hell and warned that God was ready to punish Earth. She spoke out against communist Russia, asking that the country be consecrated to her so that its conversion back to Christianity could take place. Then she predicted the spread of communism, told them that World War I was about to end, and added that, if people didn't stop sinning, World War II would be unleashed. She appeared to the children on the 13th of the month for five months. During her final appearance on October 13, many of the 70,000 people who gathered around the children said they saw the sun whirl in the sky, pulsate, and plummet zig-zag toward Earth.
There are hundreds of other places in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America where Mary has shown up in recent years.
Sometimes Mary and Jesus leave only prints of themselves, messing with the molecules of ordinary objects to turn them into sacred relics. In December 1996, a multihued visage of the Virgin Mary bloomed on the glass façade of a bank building in Clearwater, on Florida's west coast. Although analysis of the image indicated a chemical reaction between the glass of the building and the bank's sprinkler system, devotees believed the Virgin had sent a message warning against turning money into an idol. They made the bank a shrine.
One of the best-known apparitions in the United States occurred in Conyers, Georgia, where Nancy Fowler began receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary in 1987. As at Fatima, Mary reappeared on the 13th of each month, and people who visited the site told of watching the sun spin in the sky, of seeing images of Mary in the clouds, and of smelling the perfume of roses. Mary delivered a decidedly modern message with a technical twist at Conyers. She spoke vehemently against abortion. Pilgrims who snap photographs above Conyers say they capture images of a rectangular shape in the sky, which they contend is the doorway to heaven. More than a million people have visited the shrine.
During the 14 years that Rosa Lopez has been receiving celestial messages -- sometimes daily -- Mary and Jesus have spoken of great catastrophes and cataclysmic events on Earth. On January 1, 1994, Mary first told Lopez that Castro would fall from power. On March 3, 1994, Jesus told her that great catastrophes would happen in America that would convince the world's population to dedicate itself to Mary. And on December 28, 1994, Mary said that a volcano in Mexico would "continue to blow like a furious lion until its roar awakens the conscience of its citizen."
In 1995, Lopez repeatedly received visions that her followers believe predicted the attack on the World Trade Center, says Christine Ruffolo of Sunrise. Ruffolo is secretary of a nonprofit organization, Our Loving Mother's Foundation, a group that helps Lopez spread the word. In a book recording Lopez's visions that the foundation published several years ago, Mary warned of an explosion of towering buildings and said that "the situation with terrorists is serious" on August 14, 1995.
Because there is no time in heaven, it was impossible to say when the warnings would come true or whether there was anything people could do to prevent them. "You can pray to change things," Ruffolo says. "Maybe even the most difficult or horrible things can be stopped completely or changed so that it is not so bad."
Tom Ryan, chairman of the department of religious studies and history at St. Thomas University in Miami-Dade County, says that the Catholic understanding of God may explain the seeming hocus-pocus of weeping icons, branding of objects, and visitations. God came into the world in the body of a man, according to the Bible. He parted the Red Sea. During Mass, Catholics believe that a simple wafer becomes the actual body of Christ and that wine turns into his blood. "Apparitions like this maybe kind of flow from that sense of God communicating through our senses," he says.