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Vatican publishes 1978 guide to identifying false visionaries

The Vatican has published a document on how to deal with “presumed apparitions”, and how to proceed if it is presumed they are authentic. The guide was approved in 1978, but only just published.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Image: Riccardo De Luca/AP/Press Association Images

THE VATICAN HAS published a document that helps to identify people who are suffering from real apparitions or revelations, and those who are claiming to do so for some form of gain.

The document, Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations, was approved by Pope Paul VI in February 1978. However, it has only just been officially published.

Document

The document states that:

Today, more than in the past, news of these apparitions is diffused rapidly among the faithful thanks to the means of information (mass media). Moreover, the ease of going from one place to another fosters frequent pilgrimages, so that Ecclesiastical Authority should discern quickly about the merits of such matters.

But it notes that:

On the other hand, modern mentality and the requirements of critical scientific investigation render it more difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve with the required speed the judgments that in the past concluded the investigation of such matters (constat de supernaturalitatenon constat de supernaturalitate) and that offered to the Ordinaries the possibility of authorizing or prohibiting public cult or other forms of devotion among the faithful.

The document says that when Ecclesiastical Authority is informed of a presumed apparition or revelation, firstly it must judge the fact according to positive and negative criteria.

If this is favourable, it must “permit some public manifestation of cult or of devotion, overseeing this with great prudence”.

Finally, “in light of time passed and of experience, with special regard to the fecundity of spiritual fruit generated from this new devotion, to express a judgement regarding the authenticity and supernatural character if the case so merits”.

Criteria

There are a number of criteria for judging the character of the presumed apparitions or revelations. These are both positive and negative.

The positive criteria include moral certitude, or at least great probability of the existence of the fact, “acquired by means of a serious investigation” and “healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit”, for example, spirit of prayer or conversion.

The negative criteria include “manifest error concerning the fact”, “evidence of a search for profit or gain strictly connected to the fact”, “gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers” and “psychological disorder or psychopathic tendencies in the subject”.

Ecclesiastical Authority

If it is a presumed “supernatural” apparition, the Ecclesiastical Authority has the “serious duty” of looking into it without delay and of diligently watching over it, says the document.

The authority can intervene, if requested, to permit or promote some form of cult or devotion. But they are warned:

They must be careful that the faithful not interpret this practice as approval of the supernatural nature of the fact on the part of the Church.

The authority can intervene “to correct or prevent abuses in the exercise of cult and devotion, to condemn erroneous doctrine, to avoid the dangers of a false or unseemly mysticism”.

In doubtful cases that clearly do not put the good of the Church at risk, the Ecclesiastical Authority “is to refrain from any judgement and from any direct action”.

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