American protestants my age and older may remember a time when Catholicism was almost an ‘alternative lifestyle’. There was much surrounded by mystery, and without watching The Bells of Saint Mary’s or The Flying Nun, we might even have been unaware of catholicism at all.
Going to predominantly catholic France as a teenager was a learning experience in many ways. One of the things that puzzled me a great deal, and for which I received no satisfactory explanation was the ubiquity of Our Lady of SomeUnlikelyThing. It seemed that just about every town had some kind of Marian shrine. I knew that Mary was one of the more important gods in catholicism, but in France she seemed to be the most important of all.
It took a long time to puzzle out “why all the Mary sightings?” My intuition told me that sightings of Jesus would be much more important things to commemorate, but there seemed to be none. It wasn’t until I began learning about the Mormons that it became clear.
In the Bible, Saul of Tarsus was on the road to Damascus when he was struck with a vision. He had been persecuting Christians, but Jesus appeared to him, and afterwards he was Saint Paul. He hadn’t met Jesus in life, but the vision of Jesus gave him equal rank with the apostles. Peter, who was around when Jesus was crucified, according to the story, might have seemed something of an authority on Jesus, but the ‘vision’ of Paul alone was enough to give him equal status.
A vision of Jesus therefore, was treated by the church as an indication of divine favor which carried with it a hefty amount of authority. In the Middle Ages, claiming to have received a vision directly from Jesus was tantamount to declaring authority over the Pope. This was a matter treated by the church with great seriousness– burned at the stake seriousness.
Understanding that Jesus visions were something to be avoided, it is perhaps less surprising that presenting a convincing story of a vision of Mary, which could get you some attention of a much more desirable sort, were much more common.
I hadn’t made the link until I hear the story of Joseph Smith, the American Moses, who had a vision of BOTH the Heavenly Father AND Jesus. He was informed that all of the religions were wrong, and given guidance and an instruction book, supplemented by more visions at convenient times, to start his own religion. His vision of God and Jesus gave him even more authority that Saint Paul.
[For those who believe that someone who has a vision from Jesus gives them authority to speak on behalf of Jesus, it may be disturbing that someone who also spoke directly to God does not believe that God intends marriage to be one and with only one woman.]