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A statue of Mary is seen outside St. James Church in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in this Feb. 26, 2011, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)A statue of Mary is seen outside St. James Church in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in this Feb. 26, 2011, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

If the Catholic Church recognizes as "worthy of belief" only the initial alleged apparitions of Mary at Medjugorje, it would be the first time the church distinguished between phases of a single event, but it also would acknowledge that human beings and a host of complicating factors are involved, said a theological expert in Mariology.

Servite Father Salvatore Perrella, president of the Pontifical Institute Marianum and a member of the commission now-retired Pope Benedict XVI established to study the Medjugorje case, said that although Pope Francis has not yet made a formal pronouncement on the presumed apparitions, "he thought it was a good idea to clear some of the fog."

The pope's remarks to journalists on May 13 on his flight from Portugal to Rome "were a surprise, but he told the truth," Father Perrella told Catholic News Service on May 18. "For four years, the commission established by Pope Benedict investigated, interrogated, listened, studied and debated this phenomenon of the presumed apparitions of Mary" in a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The commission did not make a definitive pronouncement," he said, but in discussing the apparitions that supposedly began June 24, 1981, and continue today, the commission opted to distinguish between what occurred in the first 10 days and what has occurred in the following three decades.

"The commission held as credible the first apparitions," he said. "Afterward, things became a little more complicated."

As a member of the papal commission, Father Perrella said he could not discuss specifics that had not already been revealed by Pope Francis to the media. But he did not object to the suggestion that one of the complicating factors was the tension existing at the parish in Medjugorje between the Franciscans assigned there and the local bishop. In some of the alleged messages, Mary sided with the Franciscans.

In addition to cardinals, bishops and theologians, the papal commission also included several experts in psychology and psychiatry, a recommended component of any official investigation of presumed apparitions. A host of human factors and outside pressure -- not just mental illness -- can play a role in leading alleged visionaries astray.

Just as Jesus chose men, not saints, to be his apostles, God does not choose saints to be visionaries, Father Perrella said. The apostles were called to grow in faith and holiness and become saints, just like visionaries are called to conversion and to follow the Gospel more closely each day, he said.

Just as Jesus chose men, not saints, to be his apostles, God does not choose saints to be visionaries, Father Perrella said.

The Catholic Church's evaluation of alleged apparitions sees them as "a gift of God and a sign of God's presence at a certain time, in a certain place and to certain seers," Father Perrella said. "The mother of Jesus who appears, if it is real, as the pope says, does not and cannot add anything to the revelation of Christ, but she reminds people and calls them back to the Gospel."

Authentic messages are "simple and in line with the Gospel," he said. If they are "banal, superficial" they cannot be truly from God.

Father Perrella again said he could not discuss details about Medjugorje, but said the doubts Pope Francis expressed on May 13 about a Mary presenting herself as "a telegraph operator who sends out a message every day at a certain time" show his skepticism about an alleged apparition in which Mary is "verbose."

Throughout history, the Servite said, the church has reacted to reports of apparitions with extreme caution and even "painful reserve," but its first obligation is to protect the integrity of the faith and uphold the truth that no messages or revelations are needed to complete what Christ revealed.

The Medjugorje commission also recommended that Pope Francis lift the ban on official diocesan and parish pilgrimages to Medjugorje and that he designate the town's parish Church of St. James as a pontifical shrine with Vatican oversight.

Such decisions would be "an intelligent pastoral choice," Father Perrella said, and they could be made whether or not the church officially recognizes the apparitions as "worthy of belief." Allowing pilgrimages and designating the church as a shrine would be a recognition of the prayer, devotion and conversion millions of people have experienced at Medjugorje.

At the same time, he said, it would ensure that "a pastor and not a travel agency" is in charge of what happens there.

Alleged apparitions of Mary have been reported since the early days of Christianity, he said, and long before the church became "preoccupied with documenting and investigating" whether a certain apparition was true, it allowed time to pass. And, if devotion there continued, a church or shrine was built.

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