Believe It Or Not

The Vatican Propheciesby John Thavis

Viking. 288p $27.95

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor contrasts the enchanted world of our forbears and the modern world. The enchanted world is inhabited by spirits, demons and moral forces. Here the most powerful and important forces are outside what Taylor calls the porous self. With the modern age comes disenchantment and the emergence of “buffered selves” who perceive thoughts, feelings and spiritual élan as located in the mind. In John Thavis’s book we see the interplay of these two worlds and examine if the miraculous and the reasonable can peacefully coexist. The prophecies are related to objects, experiences and events that call for authentication from the Vatican. This book reveals behind-the-scenes struggles in the Vatican to keep tensions in balance and uphold order. Miracles that once forged solidarity are now often connected to ideology and can cause division.

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Many moderns still hunger for enchantment. Modern technology can feed this hunger and enable people to be instantaneously aware of miracles anywhere they may appear. Seers may use social media to spread their prophecies. Likewise, there are new avenues for profiting from the miraculous.

Chapter 1 looks at relics and offers some theology as well as short biographies of saints whose body parts have been taken. Throughout the book Thavis highlights the real people behind the mysteries. Aquinas claims relics correlate with Christianity’s incarnational nature. Others see modern interest in relics as an extension of the culture of celebrity. Online commerce makes dealing in relics complicated beyond anything Martin Luther could have imagined. The Vatican tries to regulate the hygienic procurement of relics as well as their ecclesial purpose: public veneration, not private collection. We meet Mezzadro Gabriele, the Vatican’s top art restorer, who uses modern technology on incorrupt bodies, a phenomenon in itself that is not necessarily miraculous.

Marian apparitions receive due attention. Enchantment is taken for granted in Medjugorje, where visionaries range from gentle Mirjana to the tougher Vika. The apparitions, which began 35 years ago, generated an apparition tourism industry that transformed the economy of the small village, multiplying shops, hotels and B&Bs. Thavis provides an informative religious history of the area, which gives insight into how the apparitions unfolded, the tensions between the Franciscans and the diocese and the relationship between Medjugorje and the Catholic charismatic movement. He also examines other apparitions, like Necedah in Wisconsin and Bayside in New York as well as Fatima. He excels in illuminating the theological, social and cultural contexts of these events. Consistently, the Vatican’s approach to apparitions is cautious.

Next he takes us to Turin, home of the shroud. We learn of its history and miraculous preservation from a fire in 1997. The shroud is unique because of the interest it inspires in both enchanted and scientific minds. The increasing capabilities of science have spurred the interest. Sturp (the Shroud of Turin Research Project) is a 30-member team that includes photographers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and forensic pathology experts. Even a group of Jewish scientists is interested in the shroud and what it may suggest about Jewish burial customs. The Vatican has not authenticated any miracles attributed to the shroud, even though both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are devotees.

Perhaps the discussion of exorcism best brings together the interaction of the enchanted and bureaucratic worlds. Pope Francis warns of the vitality and power of the devil; some suggest he is aware of this because he is from Latin America. The book provides sensational accounts and introduces a new breed of exorcist, who is not afraid to discuss his trade in public. He may also work with a team that includes psychological professionals. The Vatican approved the International Association of Exorcists in 2014, but before this, in 1999, it revised the rite, putting more emphasis on prayer to God rather than commands to Satan. However, some exorcists continue to use the old Latin rite, claiming the devil better understands it. Norms for the appointment of official exorcists for dioceses have also been revised. Thavis correctly notes that the Church, like other organizations, may embrace a movement and also offer some regulations to more effectively control it.

He explains the role of miracles in the canonization process. The Vatican defines miracles as objective occurrences that can be investigated in a systematic way. Here a systematic empirical process is the path to a theological declaration. Cardinal Lambertini established the criteria in 1734. The healing must be sudden and instantaneous, and there may be no relapse. Some believe control over miracles has been ceded to scientists. Thavis recounts wonderful stories of the miracles of Saints Damien of Hawaii and Marguerite d’Youville of Quebec as well as the cause of the Army chaplain Emil Kapaun. The stress is on how these miracles affect the lives of real people. Pope Francis has been more generous about waiving the miracle requirement for some canonizations, but some Vatican officials have reservations about this.

Finally, there is a look at end-time prophecies. Benedict XVI’s surprising resignation has been viewed as the fulfillment of such a prophecy. In some cases, the Vatican’s pursuit of the path of rationality may thwart the world of enchantment. Its judgments on private revelations fall into three categories: false or evil; lacking in evidence or credible; but the most common pronouncement is no judgment. The Vatican is cautious about authenticating the prophecies that come into its domain; officials do not want to make the church look foolish. Thavis’s book shows us that the Vatican may be more of a creature of modernity than we imagined.

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