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John ThavisMay 13, 2024
The sun sets behind a statue of Mary on Apparition Hill in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in this Feb. 26, 2011, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For the Vatican, reports of supernatural apparitions have always been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, historic and “approved” Marian apparitions in places like Lourdes or Fátima have inspired devotion and pilgrimage by millions of Catholics—including several popes—and drawn words of appreciation from officials in Rome.

But for every Fátima, there are dozens of unverified reports of divine messages, “weeping” statues, healing relics and prophetic revelations that have vexed church authorities and challenged the Vatican’s ability to track and verify such events.

In the age of global communication, those challenges have multiplied. That is why the Vatican has prepared a new document on “apparitions and other phenomena.” It is expected to address traditional issues of spiritual discernment as well as new problems related to publicity and promotion, including the spread of misinformation on social media.

The Vatican does not weigh in on Marian apparitions frequently. Over the centuries, Rome has chosen to say very little, despite pressure from local bishops for clearer guidance. In 1978, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation issued a 1,200-word set of norms that summarized criteria for judging the authenticity of apparitions. It also delineated the levels of authority in investigating such occurrences—primarily local bishops but at times involving national bishops’ conferences and, in “graver” cases, the Vatican’s own offices.

[James Martin,S.J.: You don’t have to believe in Marian apparitions. But I do.]

In typical Vatican fashion, however, those 1978 norms were issued secretly and only in Latin, which meant they were widely ignored. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, concerned about the increase in reported apparitions and the risk of confusion among the faithful, ordered the re-publication of the 1978 norms in nine modern languages, along with an explanatory note that cited the crucial difference between divine revelation, which demands faith, and private revelations, which do not.

“Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation essentially means that its message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals,” Pope Benedict said. He said this type of revelation, received in apparitions or visions, can be a spiritual help, but “its use is not obligatory.”

Reissuing the document was seen as an attempt by Benedict to pump the brakes on a worldwide boom in apparitions. During a Synod of Bishops in 2008, the German pope heard several participants recount that the number of reported apparitions was spinning out of control, often creating pastoral problems. Some bishops wanted the Vatican to take charge of all such events, or at least publish a more comprehensive how-to guide on investigating the supernatural. Instead, Benedict encouraged bishops themselves to take a more proactive role in “managing” apparitions.

As the 1978 norms proclaim, it falls first of all to the local church authority to evaluate and monitor apparitions, and if necessary “to correct or prevent abuses in the exercise of cult and devotion, to condemn erroneous doctrine, [and] to avoid the dangers of a false or unseemly mysticism.”

It said bishops must also be attentive to positive signs of credibility, beginning with the honesty and sincerity of visionaries, and including the “spiritual fruits” evidenced among followers, in particular an increase in prayer, conversion and witness of charity.

The Vatican’s deference to local church leaders may surprise some, but it highlights a simple reality: The Vatican lacks the resources to investigate and verify the diverse apparitions, visions and private revelations that turn up every year. In fact, the Vatican does not even attempt to track them all. There is no “Department of the Supernatural” at the Vatican.

The one area in which the Vatican operates more methodically is in the verification of miracles involved in sainthood causes. These are almost always unexplained healings, and their evaluation relies largely on medical records. But no Vatican office is assigned to catalog alleged appearances of Mary or prophetic messages or visions of heaven and hell or rumors of levitation or the inexplicable fragrance of flowers near a saint’s tomb. On the contrary, most officials in Rome would rather not hear about any of this.

Local dioceses are usually left on their own to investigate these phenomena, and it is not easy. Bishops are expected to separate facts from rumors, look into the personal lives and virtues of the visionaries, consider the possibility of psychological disorders or delusional behavior, check for doctrinal errors in messages and look at the potential for economic exploitation. All this involves interviews of visionaries and witnesses, as well as consultation of experts. Above all, bishops are expected to practice patience and try to keep local enthusiasm in check until a judgment can be reached.

Given the workforce shortage in many dioceses and the financial toll of such investigations, it is no wonder that alleged apparitions often end up on the front page of newspapers or featured on websites before a bishop can determine whether they are authentic.

In the small Italian town of Trevignano Romano, located an hour north of Rome, a woman named Gisella Cardia began claiming regular apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in 2016, after she brought back a statue of Mary from the pilgrimage town of Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Mary is alleged to have appeared since 1981. Crowds began to gather on the third day of every month when Cardia would pray before the statue—which reportedly shed tears of blood—and receive divine messages that, among other things, warned against the practices of same-sex marriage and abortion.

For years, the local bishop avoided intervention, saying, “We need time.” Meanwhile, the crowds grew larger and tensions simmered among the Catholic community in Trevignano. Finally, in March of this year, a new bishop took a more aggressive approach and, after consulting with experts in Mariology, psychology and canon law, declared the apparitions were “not supernatural.” He cited several theological errors in the supposed Marian messages, including one that asked pilgrims to pray on a specific hillside where they would be “made invisible by angels.”

In the church’s eyes, this was a classic case of a personal spiritual experience that went too far, making outlandish demands on followers and broadcasting doctrinal errors. Yet it took eight years for authorities to shut it down.

The annals of church history are filled with similar incidents, and the number has risen in recent years. The dilemma facing authorities was reflected in the 1978 norms, which called on bishops to act quickly and decisively when faced with an alleged apparition or a similar supernatural occurrence, yet cautioned against a rush to judgment. Those norms also strongly recommended that such matters be handled at the local level, with Vatican involvement as a last resort.

The idea that an apparition can be corralled at a local level is no longer practical. That is a lesson learned from the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje, where six young people claimed to see Mary beginning in 1981. The visions and Mary’s messages have continued on a regular basis since then, drawing an estimated 40 million people to the site, many of whom profess to have been spiritually reborn by the experience.

By the time the Vatican got around to setting up a commission to investigate Medjugorje in 2010, the apparitions had been promoted in scores of books, in several movies and in a proliferation of websites, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and livestreams. Devotional groups inspired by Medjugorje were well established in thousands of parishes around the world. Officials in Rome realized that whatever the commission’s findings, it would be very difficult to erase Medjugorje from the apparition map without deeply disappointing millions of Catholics. Perhaps that is why the commission’s report has never been made public.

Medjugorje also illustrated another hazard in evaluating and managing supernatural events: the risk of internal divisions among the faithful and the hierarchy. In Medjugorje, the local bishop completed an initial investigation and determined that the apparitions were not supernatural. That did not deter the Franciscan friars who guided the young visionaries—and who, for years, had been battling the bishop over control of parishes in the region. Soon, Mary’s messages to the Medjugorje visionaries were said to clearly side with the friars against the bishop.

This caused alarm in Rome, which disciplined some of the friars but continued to allow pilgrimages to Medjugorje under certain conditions. In many other cases where apparition enthusiasts have clashed with church authorities, the Vatican has acted more decisively. In 2008, for example, Rome excommunicated a Korean woman and her followers after they defied an order to stop promoting her alleged apparitions, which warned that the devil was mobilizing priests to betray the church. In 2007, the Vatican excommunicated the “Army of Mary” movement that had used the visions of its founder to promote a fifth Marian dogma declaring Mary “Co-Redeemer.” For the Vatican, that crossed a doctrinal red line.

The Vatican’s approach reflects its concern about authority, especially on doctrinal issues, and about the dangers of leading Catholics astray with potential damage to their faith. At a fundamental level, church officials want Catholics to know that, whether genuine or not, supernatural visions and messages add nothing essential to the faith. As Pope Benedict said on more than one occasion, the role of such private messages is not to complete Scripture or make new demands on the faithful.

Pope Francis, who has a deep devotion to Mary, has been more ambiguous than his predecessor when it comes to apparitions and other supernatural events. He caused a stir early in his pontificate when he said Mary is not sending out messages like a “postmaster” and that Catholics who chase after such revelations were merely seeking novelty. He has cautioned that not all Marian apparitions are real, but in 2019 he loosened restrictions on pilgrimages to Medjugorje. More generally, he has said he believes that miracles are indeed performed by God, often acting through a holy person. But humility is an important sign of authenticity, he said, and those involved should avoid attention-seeking.

Over the last century, the Vatican has been moving away from authenticating Marian apparitions. Historically, in fact, fewer than 20 such events have drawn official statements of support from the Vatican’s doctrinal officials. Instead, Rome has preferred to allow the verdicts of local bishops to stand on their own. The Vatican’s strong message to bishops is to focus on the essential spiritual lessons of the apparitions and messages, and to downplay the more theatrical displays—like weeping statues—that often accompany these events.

Ideally, the Vatican would like apparitions and similar phenomena to inspire more prayerful reflection and less hype. That is a tough ask in an age when reports of the miraculous can go viral overnight.

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