The Virgin Mary

It’s apparition time: 5.40 pm.

I am in the mountain village of Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, standing in a crowd.

We are waiting — hoping for a glimpse of the Virgin Mary.

In this small village, six people say that the Virgin Mary has visited and spoken to them regularly since June 1981. Some 30 million pilgrims have visited the site ever since.

This was my first stop in tracing the cult of the Virgin Mary, which is more alive today than in the early days of the Christian church.

But who is Mary and what exactly does she symbolize? 

In my search for her, I traveled to six corners of the world, where I looked for connections to Mary as a woman, a mother and as a global symbol who has influenced millions. 

In Egypt, Muslims as well as Christians consider Mary to be holy above all women. Her name appears more in the Qur'an than the Bible, and in the town of Minya, both faiths gather to celebrate her name.

When asked what Mary meant to Haitians, they cried out, “She is our Mama.”

2015

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 A photograph taken in October 1917 near Fatima, Portugal. As many as 30,000 to 100,000 people gathered to witness the spinning sun.

A photograph taken in October 1917 near Fatima, Portugal. As many as 30,000 to 100,000 people gathered to witness the spinning sun.

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 Anna Pidlisna, 32, of Ukraine, says she came to Medjugorje after receiving a vision of Mary.  "I saw myself beside her. She was in a royal blue dress."

Anna Pidlisna, 32, of Ukraine, says she came to Medjugorje after receiving a vision of Mary. "I saw myself beside her. She was in a royal blue dress."

 Since the beginning of apparitions in 1981, pilgrims have been drawn to Medjugorje, where they have witnessed visions of Mary.

Since the beginning of apparitions in 1981, pilgrims have been drawn to Medjugorje, where they have witnessed visions of Mary.

 A mass Marian apparition occurred in the Zeitoun district of Cairo, Egypt in April 2, 1968. Thousands were said to have flocked to the church to witness it.

A mass Marian apparition occurred in the Zeitoun district of Cairo, Egypt in April 2, 1968. Thousands were said to have flocked to the church to witness it.

 The event became known as the Miracle of the Sun. A local newspaper reported:  "The astonished eyes of the crowd...stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky."

The event became known as the Miracle of the Sun. A local newspaper reported: "The astonished eyes of the crowd...stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky."

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 Marinko Ivanovich, 77, lives in Medjugorje near Apparition Hill. He recalls running to the hill with the visionaries in 1981.

Marinko Ivanovich, 77, lives in Medjugorje near Apparition Hill. He recalls running to the hill with the visionaries in 1981.

 Marinko stood beside the visionaries on the hill, closed his eyes and bowed his head.  "She was floating on a cloud, wearing all white,” he recalled.

Marinko stood beside the visionaries on the hill, closed his eyes and bowed his head. "She was floating on a cloud, wearing all white,” he recalled.

 Thousands were said to have flocked to the church in Zeitoun after the first announced the phenomenon.

Thousands were said to have flocked to the church in Zeitoun after the first announced the phenomenon.

 Worshippers gather outside a monastery in Minya in anticipation of an apparition. Together they watch as doves, representing the Holy Spirit fly in the sky.

Worshippers gather outside a monastery in Minya in anticipation of an apparition. Together they watch as doves, representing the Holy Spirit fly in the sky.

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 Felipe Mendes, 24, has been walking for days, carrying a wish for his newborn daughter.

Felipe Mendes, 24, has been walking for days, carrying a wish for his newborn daughter.

 In the city of Puebla, pilgrims carry paintings and bouquets to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The roses point to Mary's first appearance in Mexico.

In the city of Puebla, pilgrims carry paintings and bouquets to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The roses point to Mary's first appearance in Mexico.

 Holding a statue of the Virgin Mary, Esther Silva, 16, treks to Mexico City as part of a pilgrimage from Puebla.

Holding a statue of the Virgin Mary, Esther Silva, 16, treks to Mexico City as part of a pilgrimage from Puebla.

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 In Lourdes, a small town in France with an outsize reputation for miracles and Marian sign, volunteers push the wheelchairs of terminally or chronically ill pilgrims.

In Lourdes, a small town in France with an outsize reputation for miracles and Marian sign, volunteers push the wheelchairs of terminally or chronically ill pilgrims.

 Volunteers help a man bathe in the ice-cold, spring-fed waters of Lourdes.

Volunteers help a man bathe in the ice-cold, spring-fed waters of Lourdes.

 Sister Marzena Michalczyck, 31, a nun from Krakow, Poland, pauses to pray during her weeklong walk to Częstochowa.

Sister Marzena Michalczyck, 31, a nun from Krakow, Poland, pauses to pray during her weeklong walk to Częstochowa.

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 Mary is a magnet for the young and old. On August 12, during a mass celebrating her assumption into heaven.

Mary is a magnet for the young and old. On August 12, during a mass celebrating her assumption into heaven.

 Catholic youth guard a life-size figure of the Virgin Mary in Kalwaria Paclawska, Poland.

Catholic youth guard a life-size figure of the Virgin Mary in Kalwaria Paclawska, Poland.

 Nuns make their way to the chapel at the Oasis of Peace convent in Medjugorje.

Nuns make their way to the chapel at the Oasis of Peace convent in Medjugorje.

 On August 12, during a mass celebrating her assumption into heaven, Roman Catholic youths guard a life-size figure in Kalwaria Pacławska, Poland.

On August 12, during a mass celebrating her assumption into heaven, Roman Catholic youths guard a life-size figure in Kalwaria Pacławska, Poland.

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 A vodou priest summons spirit of Ezrili during a cave ritual. The spirit is one of the most famous and honored Lwa in Haitian vodou.

A vodou priest summons spirit of Ezrili during a cave ritual. The spirit is one of the most famous and honored Lwa in Haitian vodou.

 Crosses on the Holy Mount of Grabarka, which is considered one of the holiest sites in Poland.

Crosses on the Holy Mount of Grabarka, which is considered one of the holiest sites in Poland.

 Mary has many faces. In Haiti she's Ezili Danto -- the Black Madonna. A fierce mother figure as well as a goddess.

Mary has many faces. In Haiti she's Ezili Danto -- the Black Madonna. A fierce mother figure as well as a goddess.

 Anna Bondaruk claims to have a personal connection with Mary and sees villagers throughout the day for healing in her home in Rutka, Poland.

Anna Bondaruk claims to have a personal connection with Mary and sees villagers throughout the day for healing in her home in Rutka, Poland.

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 Sketches of Mary created by a local artist to reflect visions.

Sketches of Mary created by a local artist to reflect visions.

 A mother and child bathe in the sacred Saut d'Eau falls in Haiti.

A mother and child bathe in the sacred Saut d'Eau falls in Haiti.