There are many apparitions — appearances of a saint or the Lord Jesus — that have been recorded in the church over the years. Many of these apparitions have been of the Blessed Mother, such as her appearance as Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in Mexico or her appearance to Adele Brise in Champion in our own diocese.
However, there is only one appearance of Mary that is said to have taken place while she was still living on earth. And honoring it is connected with Christopher Columbus, whose discovery of the Americas while in service to Spain is marked on Oct. 12.
The feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar, is celebrated on Oct. 12. As Our Lady of the Pillar, Mary is patroness of Spain and, since Pope John Paul II’s declaration in 1984, patroness of “all Hispanic peoples.”
On 1492, on this particular feast of Mary, Columbus landed in present-day Bahamas, at a site he called “San Salvador.” A Mass was celebrated by Columbus and his crew on that day, a Mass often claimed to be the first celebrated in the Americas.
The feast of Our Lady of the Pillar honors an event that is said to have happened a long time before Columbus lived, on Jan. 2 in 40 A.D. It took place near modern Saragossa, Spain, which was then called Caesaraugusta in honor of Rome’s emperor.
While it is not very clearly documented, tradition says that the apostle James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, traveled to Spain not long after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. There James preached the Gospel, but with limited success. Discouraged, he sat down one day beside the Ebro River to pray. It was there that Mary, who was still living in Palestine at the time, is said to have appeared to him.
Mary was standing on a pillar of jasper (a form of quartz) and holding a statue of herself that depicted her carrying the Child Jesus and with a dove. Mary told James that he must return to the Holy Land. (He did so and was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.) She also promised him that the Christian faith would find a lasting home in Spain (then known as Hispania). Mary gave the pillar and the statue of herself to James and he placed it in a small chapel that he and his followers built on the site.
A larger church, now called the Basilica Cathedral of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, stands there today. The present church was begun in 1681 — and finally completed in the 20th century, after the earlier church was destroyed by fire in 1434. The original statue was destroyed in the same fire and had been replaced with a replica. The statue today is adorned with one of hundreds of skirt-shaped mantles (mantos) that have been donated by the faithful — especially those in Latin American — and which are changed regularly.
Today there is much controversy surrounding “Columbus Day” in many countries. So the date goes by several names: Discovery Day in the Bahamas; Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race”) in many Latin America countries, Native American Day in South Dakota and Discoverer’s Day in Hawaii.
In Spain, where the day is also called Día de la Hispanidad, there is no controversy about the celebration of Mary’s feast on Oct. 12. It is a national holiday. In fact, there is a week-long celebration, called the Fiestas del Pilar, leading up to the feast day. The celebrations include a parade with the statue of Mary being carried through the city. Later in the day, the “offering of flowers” takes place in the city plaza. There, a statue of Mary is surrounded by a metal framework that people then adorn with flowers, creating a large skirt for the Virgin of the Pillar. The next day, a similar offering of fruit and nuts is made. That night is time for the parade of the Rosario de Cristal, with lighted floats depicting the mysteries of rosary. The entire festival ends with fireworks.
Sources: Marypages.com; Catholicism.org; campus.udayton.edu; miraclehunter.com; Catholic News Agency; history.com; sacred-destinations.com; and washingtonpost.com.