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Statue of the Virgin Mary at Ballinspittle roadside shrine which reportedly moved in 1985. Alamy Stock Photo

Vatican changes rules on recognising reported visions of Mary and other 'supernatural' phenomena

“As a rule” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin.

THE VATICAN HAS radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena, insisting on having the final say in whether the events are worthy of popular devotion.

The Vatican’s doctrine office overhauled norms first issued in 1978, arguing that they were no longer useful or viable in the Internet age.

Nowadays, word about apparitions or weeping Madonnas travels quickly and can actually harm the faithful if hoaxers are trying to make money off people’s beliefs or manipulate them, the Vatican said.

The new norms reframe the Catholic Church’s evaluation process, by essentially taking off the table whether church authorities will declare a particular vision, stigmata or other seemingly divinely inspired event supernatural.

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favourable being that the church issues a noncommittal doctrinal green light, a so-called “nihil obstat”.

Such a declaration means there is nothing about the event that is contrary to the faith and, therefore, Catholics can express devotion to it.

The revised norms allow that an event might at some point be declared “supernatural” – and that the Pope can intervene in the process. But “as a rule” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin.

The Catholic Church has had a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues purportedly weeping tears of blood and stigmata affecting hands and feet mimicking the wounds of Christ.

When confirmed as authentic by church authorities, these otherwise inexplicable divine signs have led to a flourishing of the faith, with new religious vocations and conversions. That has been the case for the purported apparitions of Mary that turned Fatima, Portugal and Lourdes, France into enormously popular pilgrimage destinations.

An Irish example was the reported movement of a statue of Mary in Ballinspittle, Co Cork in 1985, which drew flocks of people to the shrine and led to a boom for the local economy.

Church figures who claimed to have experienced the stigmata wounds, including Padre Pio and Pope Francis’s namesake St Francis of Assisi, have inspired millions of Catholics even if decisions about the authenticity of them has been elusive.

Francis himself has weighed in on the phenomenon, making clear that he is devoted to the main church-approved Marian apparitions, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, who believers say appeared to an indigenous man in Mexico in 1531.

But Francis has expressed scepticism about more recent events, including claims of repeated messages from Mary to “seers” at the shrine of Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even while allowing pilgrimages to take place there.

“I prefer the Madonna as mother, our mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who sends a message every day at a certain time,” Francis told reporters in 2017.

But the phenomena has also been a source of scandal. That was the case when the Vatican in 2007 excommunicated the members of a Quebec-based group, the Army of Mary, after its founder claimed to have had Marian visions and declared herself the reincarnation of the mother of Christ.

The revised norms acknowledge the potential for such abuses, and warn that hoaxers will be held accountable, including with canonical penalties. The new norms warn that claiming mystical experiences for profit or as a means to control others or to commit abuses against them “is to be considered of particular moral gravity”.

With reporting by David Mac Redmond.

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