"These acts of popular devotion have been an integral part of the life of the church over the years," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "The clergy is very careful in its response, because they represent a challenge but also a tremendous reinvigoration of faith." Although some instances -- such as the apparition at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 -- have entered mainstream doctrine, hundreds more each year fail to win the church's seal of approval. Fowler plans to move to Florida next month. Beatification may have to wait a while.
The Catholic Church may gently pooh-pooh her claims, but that hasn't stopped tens of thousands of pilgrims from flocking to the Georgia farm of Nancy Fowler -- after all, if the clergy are wrong, then staying away would mean missing a rare public message from the Virgin Mary. More than 100,000 people from all over the U.S. and Latin America are expected at Tuesday's event, in which Fowler plans to channel the words of the Virgin. The 47-year-old former nurse claims to have delivered annual messages from Mary for the past seven years, although she has told her followers that the Virgin has indicated that this year's message will be the last.