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Gerard O’ConnellMay 17, 2024
Worshippers hold candles May 12, 2024, at the Marian shrine of Fatima in central Portugal. Thousands of pilgrims arrived at the shrine to attend the 107th anniversary of the first apparition of Mary to three shepherd children May 13, 1917. (OSV News photo/Maria Abranches, Reuters)

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has published new “norms,” approved by Pope Francis, regarding how the Catholic Church and local bishops are to deal with “alleged supernatural phenomena” such as “alleged apparitions, visions, interior or exterior locutions, writings or messages, phenomena related to religious images, and psychophysical phenomena.”

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the dicastery, presented the 13-page text, “Norms for proceeding in the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena,” at a crowded press conference in the Vatican on May 17. He described such phenomena as events that “seem to exceed the bounds of ordinary experiences and present themselves as having a supernatural origin.”

Cardinal Fernández noted that this question attracts much attention today because, thanks to social media, alleged supernatural phenomena that occur in one place quickly make news around the world. Hence there is a great need for discernment regarding such phenomena, he said, and for that discernment to happen in real time.

[Related: Why supernatural apparitions are a mixed blessing for the Vatican]

In his introduction, Cardinal Fernández reminded people that “God is present and active in our history. The Holy Spirit, who flows from the heart of the risen Christ, works in the Church with divine freedom and offers us many valuable gifts that aid us on the path of life and encourage our spiritual growth in fidelity to the Gospel.”

“This action of the Holy Spirit,” he said, “can also reach our hearts through certain supernatural occurrences, such as apparitions or visions of Christ or the Blessed Virgin, and other phenomena. Many times, these events have led to a great richness of spiritual fruits, growth in faith, devotion, fraternity, and service. In some cases, they have given rise to shrines throughout the world that are at the heart of many people’s popular piety today.”

At the same time, the cardinal said, “in some events of alleged supernatural origin, there are serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful” and so “the Church must respond with utmost pastoral solicitude.” Here he mentioned “the use of such phenomenon to gain profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest” or even for “the commission of gravely immoral acts” or “as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.”

In addition, he said, there is “the possibility of doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality.” He also warned that believers may be misled by “the product of someone’s imagination, desire for novelty, tendency to fabricate falsehoods (mythomania), or inclination toward lying.”

Cardinal Fernández underlined the importance of “discernment” in this area and the need for the church to have “clear procedures” for doing so. He emphasized that “the norms…are not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit.” They are meant to guide the bishops and the faithful in dealing with alleged spiritual phenomena. Speaking from his own pastoral experience as a priest and as a bishop, the cardinal said some such phenomena can be resolved at the local level by the priest, but these norms relate to those that require greater discernment, often because they are more complex.

He said the new text clarifies and defines the role of the diocesan bishop and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

He presented today’s text as the result of a radical and comprehensive revision of the norms that were approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978, which had remained secret until 2011 when they were made public by the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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

He revealed that the revision of the 1978 norms started in 2019 and, after several inadequate attempts and much discussion within the dicastery, a new text was finalized this year and presented to Pope Francis by Cardinal Fernández and the dicastery’s secretary, Monsignor Armando Matteo, at a private audience on May 4. The pope approved the new norms and decreed that they are to come into force on Pentecost Sunday, May 19.

Cardinal Fernández recalled that in the past, few clear determinations were made about alleged supernatural events. “In fact,” he said, “since 1950, no more than six cases have been officially resolved.”

To address this problem and “to prevent any further delays in the resolution of a specific case involving an event of alleged supernatural origin,” he stated the dicastery “proposed to the Holy Father the idea of concluding the discernment process not with a declaration of ‘de supernaturalitate’ [‘of supernatural origin’] but with a ‘Nihil obstat’ [‘No objection’] which would allow the Bishop to draw pastoral benefit from the spiritual phenomenon.” Pope Francis agreed.

Today’s D.D.F. text makes clear that henceforth, as a rule, the Holy See will not declare any alleged spiritual phenomenon, such as an apparition, as authentic‚ that is, “of divine origin.”

Cardinal Fernández recalled at the press conference that in the case of Lourdes, it was the local bishop who in 1862 recognized the supernatural nature of the apparitions, which occurred in 1858, but the bishop “prudently” added, “I subject my judgment to that of the Supreme Pontiff because he is the one who has to govern the church.”

Likewise in the case of Fátima, the cardinal said it was again the local bishop who in 1930 recognized the apparitions, which took place in 1917, but again he did so “in a very soft way.” The bishop declared “as worthy of credit” the experiences of the three children and “gave his permission for the cult” there.

Lourdes today attracts some five million pilgrims each year, Fátima between six and eight million pilgrims annually, while 20 million visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City every year.

Although the cardinal did not say so at the press conference, another D.D.F. official, who wished to remain anonymous, told America that no pope has ever declared any apparition authentic. He said this goes back to the Fourth Lateran Council. Indeed, down the centuries, there have been negative judgments by the Holy See regarding alleged apparitions but not positive ones. He said that while the Holy See has approved the liturgical feasts related to Lourdes (the Immaculate Conception), Fatima (the Immaculate Heart of Mary), and Guadalupe (the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary), it has not pronounced on the question of the authenticity of the apparitions at those shrines.

Today’s text offers a valuable and important guide to help bishops investigate, discern and reach a judgment, without undue delay, about “an alleged spiritual phenomenon,” in their diocese that cannot be easily resolved.

It offers important positive and negative criteria (Arts. 14 and 15) to assist the bishop in evaluating the alleged spiritual phenomena and making his discernment.

It makes clear, however, that after reaching a discernment, and before making any public statement, the bishop must send the results of the investigation to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith together with his judgment, and the dicastery “will either confirm or not confirm the determination proposed by the Diocesan Bishop.”

The new norms, approved by Pope Francis, also state clearly in Art. 12 that “[w]henever a Nihil obstat is granted by the Dicastery, such phenomena do not become objects of faith, which means the faithful are not obliged to give an assent of faith to them.”

The text states that the bishop’s discernment should reach conclusions that are preferably expressed in one of the six following terms:

(Note: The terms are given in Latin; I provide an unofficial translation or summary)

1. Nihil obstat (No objection)

“Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged ‘in the midst’ of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far.”

In this case, the text says, “the Diocesan Bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of this spiritual proposal, and even to promote its spread, including possibly through pilgrimages to a sacred site.”

2. Prae oculis habeatur (Worthy of note)

“Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the Diocesan Bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience. If there were writings or messages, doctrinal clarification might be necessary.”

3. Curatur (Needs attention)

“While various or significant critical elements are noted, at the same time, the phenomenon has already spread widely, and there are verifiable spiritual fruits connected to it.”

In this situation, the text says, “a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended. Nevertheless, the Diocesan Bishop is asked not to encourage this phenomenon but to seek out alternative expressions of devotion and possibly reorient its spiritual and pastoral aspects.”

4. Sub mandato (Requires special vigilance)

“In this category, the critical issues are not connected to the phenomenon itself, which is rich in positive elements, but to a person, a family, or a group of people who are misusing it. For instance, the spiritual experience may be exploited for particular and undue financial gain, committing immoral acts, or carrying out a pastoral activity apart from the one already present in the ecclesiastical territory without accepting the instructions of the Diocesan Bishop.”

In this situation, the text says, “the pastoral leadership of the specific place where the phenomenon is occurring is entrusted to the Diocesan Bishop (or to another person delegated by the Holy See), who, if unable to intervene directly, will try to reach a reasonable agreement.”

5. Prohibetur et obstruatur (Should be discouraged)

“While there are legitimate requests and some positive elements, the critical issues and risks associated with this phenomenon appear to be very serious. Therefore, to prevent further confusion or even scandal that could erode the faith of ordinary people, the Dicastery asks the Diocesan Bishop to declare publicly that adherence to this phenomenon is not allowed.”

At the same time, the text says, “the Diocesan Bishop is asked to offer a catechesis that can help the faithful understand the reasons for the decision and reorient the legitimate spiritual concerns of that part of the People of God.”

6. Declaratio de non supernaturalitate (The phenomenon is not authentic)

“In this situation, the Dicastery authorizes the Diocesan Bishop to declare that the phenomenon is found to be not supernatural. This decision must be based on facts and evidence that are concrete and proven. For instance, if an alleged visionary admits to having lied or if credible witnesses provide elements of proof that allow one to discover that the phenomenon was based on fabrication, an erroneous intention, or mythomania.”

Cardinal Fernández stated that “in light of the above six conclusions, as a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, even if a Nihil obstat is granted.”

But, he said, “It remains true that the Holy Father can authorize a special procedure in this regard.”

At the press conference, Cardinal Fernández said that the new norms should make it more feasible to reach a conclusion more quickly for cases that have been dragging on for years—such as regarding the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The case of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje has “not concluded yet, but with these norms we think that it will become easier to move forward and reach a conclusion,” he said.

The Medjugorje apparitions involved six teenagers who claimed Mary appeared to them in 1981, though several other seers have since claimed to see visions and receive messages from Mary at the site of the apparitions. Pope Francis has said the original visions are worth further study but has expressed skepticism about the ongoing events. In 2019, he authorized organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje.

Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

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