The Catholic Church Renews Guidelines to Help Local Bishops

Feb 04, 2003 01:33 PM EST

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith is updating a set of 25-year-old guidelines on judging 'Marian apparitions and other private revelations.' The renewed guidelines, while judging the verity of these visions will also act as a means to curb the enthusiasm of 'miracle followers'.

The recent boom in reported visions have wreaked havoc within the Catholic communities as groups have rallied around the reported sites, many times in defiance of local bishops.

"Persistent and worrisome tensions that threaten the unity of the local church" have risen in conjunction with "presumed Marian apparitions, messages, stigmata, sweating statues of the Blessed Virgin or Jesus Christ, eucharistic 'miracles' of various kinds, etc.," said the Vatican Congregation.

Vatican officials say the revisions are necessary to judge the phenomenons that are spreading faster than ever, through modern means of communications, such as the Internet.

The dangers of such visions lie in the basic church teachings, which say that all revelations have ended with the New Testament. Such reported private revelations therefore, cannot add anything essential to the faith. However, many times Catholics attracted to such apparitions have invested much of their faith in these private experiences, forgetting the core revelations taught in the Bible.

"One danger is that Catholics attracted to supposed apparitions will end up substituting the Gospel with some other message," said one official.

The Vatican worries that the groups that form around apparitions will provoke assertions of lay autonomy.

"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, noting the possibility of pastoral division.

One of the most controversial sites of Marian apparitions is in Medjugorje Bosnia-Herzegovina, where followers flock each year in an international pilgrimage to receive a 'message' from Mary. Local bishops have tried since 1981 to slow the migration, but were faced with severe criticism from the Medjugorje followers.

"We express our joy at the news of the doctrinal congregation's plans," said Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno; the diocese includes Medjugorje.

The upcoming guidelines will allow the local bishops to distinguish between an apparition, which may remain unproven, and a spiritual consequence among the faithful, which may be evident; under the guidelines, people may still go to the 'miraculous' site to pray, as long as they do not presume the apparition to be 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.

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

The criteria used for the last 25 years since 1978 include: 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 and healthy spiritual fruits of the apparitions.

The revisions, which began late January, will also include the Vatican's doctrinal congregation and the National Bishops' Conference in judging the verity of apparitions; the guidelines will be more selective in supporting the authenticity of an apparition.

By Pauline C.