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APPARITION BEAT: RUMORS, CONFLICTS, AND SENSATIONAL REPORTS MUDDY 'VISIONS'
In the prophetic realm are many notions of apocalypse -- made more strident, of course, by the current gyrating state of the world, especially the economy. Some of the prophecies seem far-out -- claims of everything from an approaching rogue planet to concentration camps in the U.S. (in the event of great civil upheaval, terrorism, or massive influx of illegal aliens). Difficult it is to balance skepticism with openness. What to believe, as far as future events, at a time when we already have seen occurrences that are remarkable? It is wild out there!
It is also this way on the apparition beat. The great surge of private revelations initiated in the early 1980s remains with us, with reports through the week that the Vatican plans to clamp down.
It is actually old news -- the third time the same information has been re-circulated, this time by an English reporter who has an open disdain for the mystical and who picked up a story from a newspaper in Italy that was then misidentified by bloggers or e-mailers as a Vatican newspaper. By clicking the underlined hyperlinks, you can see the difference between that Italian newspaper, called Petrus, and the Vatican website, and also take a look at one of the other British tabloids that has been attacking apparitions by clicking on the underlined hyperlinks. "Pope orders bishops to root out false claims of visions," blared a headline in the Telegraph by the British reporter. "Pope declares 'holy war' against people who falsely claim to have seen the Virgin Mary," was another, although the Pope had declared nothing.
The new spate of articles, now spreading into the U.S., is based on a long-overdue document ordered years ago under John Paul II to give bishops a uniform set of standards in discerning and handling apparitions.
Called a vade mecum, or "ready reference," it is an update on standards issued in 1978 by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- which was directed, for a long while, from 1981 until his ascension to the Throne of Peter, by Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger).
The update reportedly will advise local bishops who are faced with mystical claims to form commissions that include psychologists, theologians, and even exorcists (to evaluate potential demonic involvement in apparitions, a very necessary aspect), while suggesting that seers and others claiming supernatural contact keep a discrete silence until an investigation is complete -- if this is the wish of the local bishop, who in most cases has jurisdiction.
Evaluations will include a psychological assessment, judgment as to possible economic motives, a careful comparison of messages with Church doctrine, and a search for possible chicanery.
That framework of evaluation has long been employed by bishops in the U.S., where no apparition has yet met with full canonical approval in the form of a definitive pastoral letter.
If the new strictures arrive as reported, it is a welcome standardization of guidelines, which vary from diocese to diocese and especially nation to nation -- with more conservative and less modernized Catholic countries tending quicker to approve supernatural manifestations. The supposed recommendation of silence during the inquiry remains a rumor that was sensationalized by the British, Irish , and then U.S. press both as a holy war and "gag order" on seers (and presumably locutionists). The reports were echoed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, the world's foremost atheist. Indeed, said the news accounts, psychologists who evaluate visionaries may even be atheists themselves.
"The bishops, having set up a commission of psychiatrists, psychologists, theologians and educators, should impose silence on the pseudo-visionaries," said the Italian newspaper. "In the directory, also, the bishops are asked to determine whether pseudo-visionaries have direct or indirect economic interests in connection with the pilgrimages and in the inevitable sale of religious souvenirs in the places where they say they see the Blessed Virgin Mary."
The report also reached Fox News and United Press International, which apparently were unaware or had forgotten that articles on the vade mecum had been reported on two earlier occasions. "Pope finally launches crackdown on world's largest shrine," blared a headline in the London Daily Mail by the aforementioned reporter the last time there was a British eruption against Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the most famous site of reputed apparitions. Actually, there was no such crackdown, but rather long-overdue disciplinary actions against a Franciscan who had left Medjugorje two decades ago after a brief stint at the local parish advising the seers.
The time before that it was a headline that shouted, "Vatican denounces group's claim of seeing Mary more than 40,000 times as 'work of the devil."
That spin was a greater stretch: the opinion trumpeted as Vatican judgment on Medjugorje came not from the Curia but from a bishop who once had an association with the Vatican and is now retired. His opinion was given enhanced credibility not only because he was a bishop but is said to have a background in exorcism. Although presented in highly questionable fashion by the initial news reports, his opinion is certainly worth weighing.
On the other side of the ledger, and also associated, to a degree, with the Vatican, is Father Gabriel Amorth, who strongly supports Medjugorje (even calling it a "fortress" against the devil) and once assisted John Paul II in a famous exorcism of a young woman. Father Amorth is famous as "Rome's exorcist" (although there is officially no chief exorcist in the Eternal City).
There long have been rumors that Benedict, as prefect of the congregation, had visited Medjugrje up to three times. We have never been able to definitively verify this, although the fact that Medjugorje was so prominent at the time that the Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was in charge of the Congregation, and in fact became prefect the very year that Medjugorje began -- to the acute interest of John Paul II -- gives one reason to consider it. The first report had come from nuns in the Midwest who said they saw him there during the 1980s and most recently from another sister in Bosnia, who says he has been there three times. It is all speculation, although no one doubts that Vatican observers visit the site on occasion. According to rumor, the Pope was once asked by a German woman who is a close friend why the Vatican had not approved Medjugorje said, "I don't need to interfere; what comes from God can stand on its own two feet and withstand all attacks." We can say that a well-placed and highly reliable source in the village who is close to both the parish and seers says that Cardinal Ratzinger visited Medjugorje at least once and met with a Franciscan, Father Slavko Barbaric, who is now deceased (and so can't verify it).
In his Fatima commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger noted that "the Apostle says: 'Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, hold fast what is good' (Thessalonians 5:19-21). In every age the Church has received the charism of prophecy, which must be scrutinized but not scorned."
On the other hand, Benedict has seemed more skeptical than John Paul II (who made no secret of his belief in the apparitions). In fact, in a commentary on the third Fatima secret, Cardinal Ratzinger hinted that he was not entirely convinced of the great Fatima sun miracle from a scientific standpoint. As a prominent Catholic newspaper columnist, Jon Allen, recently noted, "Widening the focus, the new guidelines are consistent with the Marian devotion of Pope Benedict XVI, who tends to accent the affective and maternal dimension of Mary’s role rather than alleged visions and healings. That approach, which I styled the Pope’s 'Marian Cool,' was on display during his September 2008 visit to Lourdes."
At any rate, we see how turbulent and confusing and rumor-filled (and spun) our times remain. According to Petrus, the alleged seers will be asked to turn over their computers to investigators to see if the visionaries have researched various miracles and wonders so they could mimic them. It is not clear if a new directive to bishops will affect Medjugorje, which has been taken out of the hands of local bishops and national commissions and placed with a special Vatican review panel.
The news reports were accompanied by a pamphlet on apparitions and other mystical issues released by Robert Abel, who writes books and booklets on spiritual warfare.
Abel, who takes a dismal view of many alleged phenomena (as well as certain practices, such as burying St. Joseph statues to sell real estate, or following an obligation to print favors from St. Jude following a successful novena), doesn't attack Medjugorje but does cite a number of other well-known mystical claims from Korea, Switzerland, Ireland, the Philippines, and the U.S. (particularly Ohio and Maryland).
The most serious charges are in his summary of a seer who will go nameless here because we are concerned about besmirching such folks without launching our own investigation. The problem: many claims come from -- yes, the European tabloids -- and are not readily verifiable from abroad, although there certainly have been issues with the local bishop. (To his credit, Abel, whose pamphlet is entitled The Seminarian's Guidebook of Unhealthy Devotions, relies mainly on statements from the bishops.)
Abel, whose books on spiritual warfare are insightful and highly popular, quotes reports that the visionary has amassed wealth and that "reporters have been following [the seer] around in her 110,000-pound ($160,000)-seven series BMW trying to get a statement.
"They have accused her of accumulating considerable wealth at the expense of the elderly," writes Abel. "The accusations arise from the purchase of a $4,000,000-pound ($5.8-million) mansion and another $1,000,000-pound property outside Ballina where her daughter resides." The newspaper published photos of the alleged "mansions." Unfortunately, it was a salacious tabloid. You can assess that newspaper for yourself. (Beware of graphic material.)
A shame it is, that such issues obscure what may be crucial evaluations and (in some cases) critical messages at a crucial time in history.
[resources: Medjugorje and the Church, The Day Will Come, and Queen of the Cosmos]
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