Appearances can be downright deceptive

A rash of dubious miracles and rival congregations is trying the Vatican’s patience


RELIGIOUS fervor swept southern California this winter when a statue of the Virgin Mary was claimed to be crying blood. A priest at the Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs in Sacramento tried to wipe away her tears but they reappeared, running down her face and on to her dress. While pilgrims dashed to the church, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento was in no hurry to make a pronouncement. “I’m letting it sit for now,” he said.

If the bishop was not as excited as everyone else, it is probably because this is not an isolated event. Last summer women visiting a church near Naples said that a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary had turned the “pinky” colour of human flesh and that it had moved. In May a statue of St Pìo of Pietrelcina wept blood in a church in Marsicovetere, southern Italy — although in this case the diocese excluded “supernatural intervention” when tests showed that the blood belonged to a woman.

Indeed, such “private revelations” have proliferated. Around the Millennium there was an explosion in claims of heavenly visions, messages, stigmata and Eucharistic miracles. But of the 295 such episodes reported since 1905, the Vatican has affirmed the authenticity of just 11, among them the appearances of the Virgin Mary to three children at Fátima, Portugal, in 1917, and the visitation of Jesus to St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun, in the 1930s.

While the faithful may accept or reject such revelations, most, according to the Vatican, involve false seers who are either deluded or on the make, and these are beginning to cause problems for the Church.

First, they create tensions between the faithful who believe in them and bishops who do not. Secondly, unauthorised cults often congregate around charismatic seers who claim a direct line to God but who teach in opposition to the Church.

In September, for instance, Dominic Sanchez Falar founded the “Mary is God - Catholic Movement”, which claims that the third secret of Fátima revealed Mary’s divinity.  This secret was covered up, he says, by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  Rantings of this kind would be risible were they not gaining so much currency, particularly in the US.

Pope Benedict, for one, takes them seriously. Three years ago, while Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he said that private revelations posed a threat to the unity of the Church and warranted an “exemplary pastoral response” from the Holy See.

By that time the future Pope had already ruled against claims that Mary appeared at Garabandal, Spain; forbade Catholics to go on pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Virgin Mary is also said to be appearing; warned the faithful against the apocalyptic murmurings of Vassula Ryden; and ordered Father Stefano Gobbi to stop using Our Lady Speaks to Her Beloved Priests as the title for books containing similar eschatological content.

Benedict is now already moving against private revelations in a way his predecessor did not. Two cases signal his intent. Barely a month after his election, the CDF issued two documents. One was a decree removing Father Gino Burresi from active ministry, and the other was a letter to the Filipino bishops effectively declaring as false the claims of Ida Peerdeman, a Dutch seer, that the Virgin Mary had revealed new truths about her status.

Burresi had founded the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary which now numbers 150 priests, including Father Angelo Tognoni, an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State who was often seen by John Paul’s side during the weekly General Audiences in Rome.

He claimed to have received the stigmata and was compared by his followers to St Pìo, a 20th-century monk renowned for his piety. Burresi exuded the “odour of sanctity”, it was said, and had the ability to “read souls” and produce works of art miraculously.

But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger thought that Burresi was a fraud, was guilty of “pseudo-mysticism” and “asserted apparitions, visions and messages attributed to divine origins”.

The CDF stripped Burresi of the right to hear confessions, preach, give interviews, publish or broadcast. The process had been initiated when Ratzinger was at the CDF, and he made the ruling his own as Pope by confirming it forma specifica and denying Burresi any right of appeal.

Days later the CDF took the unusual step of overruling the decision of Bishop Joseph Maria Punt, of Haarlem in the Netherlands, to approve claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Amsterdam under the guise of “Lady of All Nations who once was Mary”, sounding the death knell for an international movement to redefine the Virgin as “coredemptrix, mediatrix and advocate”.

Critics say such a status would have made Mary virtually the fourth person of the Holy Trinity, jeopardising not only the interior unity of the Catholic Church but also prospects of closer union with Orthodox and Protestant communions. The initiative to stamp it out, Vatican sources say, came from the top. Furthermore, they point out that “old cases of dubious apparitions” are likely to be reopened and dealt with in a similar way by Benedict and his like-minded officials in the CDF.

But by far the biggest challenge to any efforts by the Pope to deal decisively with the phenomenon of private revelations are the claims of six seers from Medjugorje who say the Virgin Mary has been visiting them for more than 20 years.

In that time the Madonna has allegedly dispatched 40,000 bland messages, given 57 secrets (none of which has been revealed), performed countless miracles (none of which has been confirmed), and has toured the world with the seers, appearing on demand even in the backs of vans.

Between four and five million pilgrims have visited Medjugorje, including the Spanish tenor José Carreras, who performed there, and the American actor Jim Caviezel, who sought inspiration while filming The Passion of the Christ.

Yet the only rulings to date on Medjugorje — made by the local bishops, the competent ecclesiastical authorities — are that the claims are false and that the seers are lying.

There is a mounting expectation that Benedict will eventually move against this un-authorized Marian cult, some of whose supporters, like those of Father Burresi, hold high office in the Church and were rumored to have persuaded John Paul not to intervene.

But the Burresi affair has shown Benedict’s resolve to deal with factions who have their own agendas.

The Pope is about to reform the Curia, and so far the signs are not very promising for those who prefer miracles and wonders to the simple darkness of faith.