Assessing apparitions

Vatican considers guidelines to help bishops
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In response to a boom in reported Marian apparitions and other "private revelations," the Vatican is preparing new guidelines to help bishops judge such phenomena and, in some cases, curb the enthusiasm of their followers.

Officials of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in January they were updating a set of 25-year-old guidelines because of new risks and a need for greater doctrinal clarity -- especially in places where lay groups have rallied around the apparitions in defiance of local bishops.

In a report last year, the doctrinal congregation noted a steady increase in reports of "presumed Marian apparitions, messages, stigmata, sweating statues of the Blessed Virgin or Jesus Christ, eucharistic 'miracles' of various kinds, etc."

In dioceses all over the world, the congregation said, local groups of faithful have pressured bishops to recognize the authenticity of such occurrences. When the bishop delays or says no, there can be "persistent and worrisome tensions that threaten the unity of the local church," it said.

The problem is not new; prophetic visions and apparitions have been reported throughout the church's history, and many saints have been on the receiving end of supposedly divine communications.

But Vatican officials said the phenomenon seems to be spreading, fueled by modern means of communications like the Internet and often characterized by apocalyptic warnings.

When a group of Brazilian bishops visited the Vatican in January to report on the status of their dioceses, almost every one of them spoke of local apparitions and the effects on their Catholic communities, one Vatican source said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, has described the multiplication of Marian apparitions as a spiritual "sign of the times," but evidently he also recognizes some dangers.

Behind the hierarchy's careful approach is a basic church teaching: that public revelation ended with the New Testament, and that no private revelation will add anything essential to the faith.

That's why even recognized apparitions are not "required belief" for anyone in the church.

News that the Vatican was working on new guidelines spread quickly on Internet sites dedicated to apparitions, prompting apprehension among some groups and gratitude among some bishops.

At the doctrinal congregation, the reactions were seen as premature.

"A new document is needed, but so far we haven't written a word," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the congregation was just beginning its study of the problem, with an aim not to replace the 1978 guidelines but to update and strengthen them from a pastoral point of view.

The new document probably will be addressed to bishops and the Catholic faithful and is expected to be made public.

The idea is not for the Vatican to take over the local bishop's authority in judging apparitions, but to clarify the criteria and remind everyone of the doctrinal issues involved.

One danger is that Catholics attracted to supposed apparitions will end up "substituting the Gospel with some other message," said one official. Sometimes Catholics can invest too much of their faith in these private messages and forget that faith is a much wider experience, he said.

The groups that form around alleged apparitions clearly worry the Vatican. Increasingly, Vatican officials said, such groups do public battle with reluctant bishops. The Vatican also believes they are using the Internet to network with other apparition enthusiasts around the world, holding meetings and exchanging ideas.

In some places, apparitions can provoke assertions of lay autonomy, the officials said.

"People say, 'If I think a local statue is crying tears of blood, I'll go and pray there, no matter what the bishop says,'" one official said. He said the search for prayer was understandable, but the risk of pastoral division was real.

One of the most controversial sites of Marian apparitions has been in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where several young people have been reporting messages from Mary since 1981. Local bishops have tried to slow an international pilgrimage movement to the site, provoking criticism from Medjugorje followers.

"We express our joy at the news of the doctrinal congregation's plans," Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, the diocese that includes Medjugorje, told Catholic News Service.

A key issue for Vatican officials and Bishop Peric is what to do when -- as in Medjugorje -- church authorities cannot affirm a "supernatural" element based on investigations so far, but have not said the apparitions are false, either.

The Vatican approach has been to distinguish between an apparition, which may remain unproven, and the spiritual consequences among the faithful, which may be quite evident.

That means that in places where an apparition is still awaiting church approval, people can go to the site to pray and receive spiritual gifts, as long as they do not presume the apparition is authentic.

"But this is not always a satisfactory situation," said one Vatican official. On one hand, suspension of belief is often difficult for pilgrims, who feel their devotion under those circumstances is incomplete. On the other hand, local bishops insist that the pilgrim flow is unwarranted. Many are simply confused.

"The church needs a clear formula on this, spelling it out," Bishop Peric said.

The criteria used for the last 25 years include a number of things that lend weight to a positive judgment on apparitions:

-- Verification of the facts of the case.

-- Moral character and psychological balance of visionaries.

-- No errors of faith attributed to supposedly divine messages.

-- No evidence of collective hysteria among people drawn to apparition sites.

-- Healthy spiritual fruits of the apparitions.

Judgment on apparitions rests with local bishops, but in major cases the national bishops' conference and the Vatican's doctrinal congregation are also involved. All this takes time, as experts sift through messages, interview witnesses and read testimonies from pilgrims.

Ironically, the longer alleged apparitions last and the more popular an apparition site becomes, the more evidence accumulates -- and the longer it takes the church to reach a judgment.


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