Vatican urges caution over ‘apparitions’
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Vatican urges caution over ‘apparitions’

Catholic church updates decades-old rules on religious phenomena such as weeping Madonnas

People gather at the site where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared in Medjugorje, Bosnia, in June 2020. (Photo: Reuters)
People gather at the site where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared in Medjugorje, Bosnia, in June 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican issued new guidelines on Friday recommending a cautious approach to supposed supernatural events such as weeping Madonnas and blood-dripping crucifixes that have for centuries whipped up the Catholic faithful.

Pope Francis has been sceptical of such phenomena, telling RAI TV in Italy last year that Virgin Mary apparitions are “not always real” and that he likes seeing her as “pointing to Jesus” rather than drawing attention to herself.

Incidents reported by the faithful, including the appearance of “stigmata” or Jesus’ crucifixion wounds on the hands and feet of saintly people, have often become the basis of shrines and pilgrimages.

In a document replacing 1978 rules, the Vatican’s doctrinal office (DFF) said such incidents should be assessed very cautiously, as they may be fraudulent and exploited for financial gain or the creation of personal cults.

“The discernment may also deal with problems, such as delicts (wrongdoing), manipulation, damage to the unity of the Church, undue financial gain, and serious doctrinal errors that could cause scandals and undermine the credibility of the Church,” it said.

The DDF said that as a rule in such cases, bishops should normally issue a “nihil obstat”: essentially a go-ahead for worship that leaves open the issue of whether the phenomenon might be formally recognised by the Vatican as “supernatural”.

Such recognition is, however, extremely rare.

It added that many places of pilgrimage are linked to purported supernatural events not authenticated by the Vatican, but this poses no serious problems for the faith.

Though not mentioned in Friday’s document, one example is the popular shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia where repeated apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported since 1981.

The DDF said bishops can issue five other decisions, including rejection of an event as supernatural, or steps to ban or limit the worship of controversial or manifestly fake phenomena.

Bishops should always seek Vatican approval before publishing their verdicts, the DDF said, noting that in exceptional cases the pope or the department itself can intervene directly, bypassing local Church authorities.

The proliferation of supposed religious phenomena, some obviously fake, was one factor behind a split in Christianity and the emergence of Protestantism in Europe in the 16th century.

Pope Francis told an Italian TV interviewer last year that Virgin Mary apparitions are “not always real”. (Photo: Reuters)

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