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A Mother’s Caring Eyes

In the summer of 1796, one hundred and one images of Our Blessed Mother in Rome as well as 21 others in other towns and cities of the Roman province came miraculously to life. Our Lady’s eyes and lips moved and she shed tears.

In the summer of 1796 the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte was preparing to invade the Papal State and occupy the city of Rome. It was then, as we know from an extraordinarily rich collection of documents preserved in the archives of the Roman Curia, that an astonishing event took place. The phenomenon was observed by hundreds of thousands of people: Catholics, members of other religions and non-believers. 101 images of Our Blessed Mother in Rome as well as 21 others in other towns and cities of the Roman province came miraculously to life. Our Lady’s eyes and lips moved and she shed tears.

These were exceptionally difficult times for the Catholic Church. Napoleon Bonaparte was seeking to take control of the Church and destroy it by every means possible. Upon occupying Rome, he had the 81-year-old pope, Pius VI, arrested and imprisoned in a French fortress in Valence. Most of the cardinals were also imprisoned. The dicasteries of the Holy See were closed down. Napoleon seemed poised to destroy the Church. On August 29, 1799, Pius VI died in a wretched cell in the presence of a few common criminals. His death certificate, issued by a prison official and dispatched to the Revolutionary Council in Paris, stated: “I, the undersigned citizen, certify the death of one Braschi Giovanni Angelo, who practiced the occupation of Pope and carried the artistic name of Pius Vl.” To this he added ironically, “Pius sixth and last.” Thus triumphed and gloated those who breathed hatred toward the Catholic Church.

This was one of the most difficult periods in the history of the Church. It began in June of 1796, when young General Bonaparte, after defeating the Austrian and Piedmontese armies, entered Milan and occupied the northern part of the Papal State which included the cities of Bologna, Ravenna and Ferrara. The Pope was forced to sue for peace. Despite this, the French army prepared to take Rome and occupy the rest of the Papal State. The mercenary troops were greedy for plunder and burned with a desire to humble and utterly destroy the Catholic Church, which they saw as a bastion of the most hidebound superstition. In the conquered cities of Italy, the French troops behaved like barbaric hordes, pillaging and destroying precious works of art, sacred buildings and monasteries. Most of the plundered artifacts were transported to Paris. Such was the fate of the statue of Our Lady of Loreto after the shrine was sacked. The statue was taken to Paris where it languished among the Egyptian mummies in the repository of the Louvre museum.

The barbaric conduct of the occupying Napoleonic armies placed the local population in a terrible situation. On Saturday, June 25, crowds of the faithful gathered in prayer before Our Blessed Mother’s image in the Cathedral of San Ciriaco (northern Italy). Suddenly, the crowd saw Mary’s eyes open and close. She gazed down at them with an expression of infinite tenderness, as though she wished to give them courage and come to their aid. The miraculous event would repeat itself every day until February of the following year. Investigations carried out by church and civil authorities attested to the authenticity of the miracle, which was witnessed by over 50,000 people.

Reliable historical sources attest that between July of 1796 and the early months of 1797 Our Blessed Mother’s face on 101 images in Rome and 21 others in other cities of the Papal State “came to life.” The eyes and lips moved and she wept. The event is so well documented that historians today have no doubt as to its credibility. The phenomenon lasted for several months. It was witnessed by the entire population of Rome, i.e. over 200,000 people as well as by many visitors to the Eternal City from other countries. Tens of thousands more witnessed similar miracles outside of Rome, in 21 towns and cities of the Vatican State, stretching from Ancona to Grosinone, Veroli Ceprano, Frascati, Urbania, Mercatello all the way to Todi.

In Rome the wondrous events began happening in July of 1796. The faces of 101 images of Our Lady could be seen “coming to life” at various points throughout the Eternal City. Calling a special tribunal, the Vicar Cardinal of Rome, Giuglio della Somaglia, charged the judges with the task of registering and judging the extraordinary events according to the strictest juridical and canonical norms. Since it was impossible to investigate every alleged event, 75 images were chosen for close study, of which 26 underwent the most intense scrutiny and analysis to ascertain that these were not a hoax or instances of mass delusion. Hundreds of eyewitnesses were questioned. The records of the canonical proceedings are available at the archives of the Roman Vicariate. Among the hundreds of sworn testimonies collected, there is not a single instance of doubt cast on the credibility of the observed phenomena. All the witness testified under oath that on countless occasions they had seen Our Lady move her eyelids, lips or shed tears. Also testifying to the reality of these phenomena were members of other religions as well as scientists who, after observing the phenomena with the aid of various instruments, ruled out the possibility of these being optical illusions or instances of mass hysteria. Every day for several months the judges carried out firsthand examination at various points throughout the city. On February 28, 1797, the tribunal delivered its concluding report affirming the credibility of these miraculous events. Never in the history of the Church had events like these occurred in such great numbers and on such a scale. The church authorities called similar tribunals in other towns and cities of Italy, where for several months the inhabitants had observed Our Lady’s images coming to life.

In Rome the miracle first occurred around 8 o’clock in the morning of Saturday, July 9, 1796. The Madonna dell’Archetto was one of the many images painted on the walls of Rome’s tenement houses. It can be seen to this day at the same spot at the corner of the narrow via dell’Archetto and via dell’Umilta, near the Piazza della Pilotta, where the Gregorian University is situated. At the time this was the most densely populated area of Rome. As soon as the image came to life, a huge crowd gathered there. With great wonder and emotion they observed the phenomenon. Soon afterwards news spread that a similar miracle was taking place on many other images in various areas of the city. In all, 101 such images were observed. Leaving their homes and places of work, Rome’s inhabitants gathered in front of Our Lady’s images to pray and marvel at the event. It was as if Mary wished in this way to persuade the people that she was with them at this difficult time and was embracing them in her maternal love. It is significant that these events did not occur in Rome’s basilicas but on the walls of tenement houses, small chapels, oratories, public squares, street corners, etc. They took place where everyone could readily see the miracle.

Noteworthy is the sworn testimony of Rome’s chief architect, Giuseppe Valadier, It is also found among the documents of the Roman Tribunal. After observing the miracle many times, he stated categorically that in no way was this an optical illusion. No explanation other than that of supernatural agency could account for the fact. Collective hallucination has to be ruled out since psychology and psychiatry have long shown that such a phenomenon cannot exist in reality. Hallucinations apply only in individual cases. A hallucination shared by hundreds of thousands of people in so many places and over such a long period of time would be a greater marvel than the one investigated by the tribunal. Of the 101 Roman images “touched” by the miracle the most noteworthy was that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Church of San Nicola in Carcere, near teatro di Marcello (not far from Piazza Venezia). First the church bells began to ring of their own accord. This brought to the church a large crowd, which filled it to overflowing. Then before the eyes of all Our Lady’s face on the image came to life. The phenomenon repeated itself for several months, drawing huge crowds of people who prayed day and night in front of the image.

In anticipation of what was to be an extraordinarily painful way of the cross for the whole Church, Our Blessed Mother wanted to give the faithful a clear sign of her maternal presence and love as well as point out the one sure hope of victory over evil: union in faith with Her Son, Jesus Christ. In the most difficult moments of history, at times of great crises and peril, Mary shows us special signs of her solicitude for our eternal destiny. A call to conversion and the life of faith lived in accordance with the Gospel, the certainty of the final victory of good over evil — these are what Mary affirms through her extraordinary signs. This she did in Rome at the close of the eighteenth century. She would do the same thing again at rue du Bac in Paris in 1830, at La Salette in 1846, at Lourdes in 1858 and at Fatima in 1917.

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