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    Over the past 500 years, the number of reported Marian apparitions is somewhere in the thousands, although the Vatican has authenticated fewer than 20.

    Such a wide gap indicates how the official church exercises not just caution but vigorous detective work in its investigations.

    Mary's apparitions call us to believe in Christ.


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    Marian apparitions: Determining what is 'worthy of belief'

    By Mike Nelson

    Catholic News Service

    A recent case involving alleged Marian apparitions in the Philippines -- which the Vatican effectively denied as "supernatural," after a local archbishop had declared them "worthy of belief" -- reflects the centuries-old caution with which the church regards reported appearances, real or imagined, by Mary, the mother of Jesus.

    Over the past 500 years, the number of reported Marian apparitions is somewhere in the thousands, although the Vatican has authenticated fewer than 20. Such a wide gap indicates how the official church exercises not just caution but vigorous detective work in its investigations.

    And that's understandable, since church leadership is acutely aware of its own people's desire to find tangible signs of faith, but also mindful of the skepticism, cynicism and even scorn that many inside and outside the church hold for "supernatural" phenomena, including that connected to religious belief.

    So it can take decades, even centuries, to reach a decision -- some 300 years, for example, for the church to approve the apparitions of Our Lady of Laus in France that took place between 1664 and 1718. By comparison, the approval by Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay in 2010 of a series of Marian apparitions that occurred during 1859 in Champion, Wisconsin -- the first time apparitions in the U.S. received official approval -- happened in the blink of an eye.

    The church is also well aware of human nature, and specifically the longing many have to be close to Mary, as indicated in the "lineamenta" (or preliminary document) of the 1997 special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America.

    "Within the church community," the document noted, "the multiplication of supposed 'apparitions' or 'visions' is sowing confusion and reveals a certain lack of a solid basis to the faith and Christian life among her members. On the other hand, these negative aspects in their own way reveal a certain thirst for spiritual things which, if they are properly channeled, can be the point of departure for a conversion to faith in Christ" (No. 33).

    Four years ago, the Vatican translated and published procedural rules approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978 that had previously been available only in Latin. "Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations" was published to help bishops determine the credibility of alleged Marian apparitions.

    The process of verifying apparitions -- like that of beatifying and canonizing saints -- is generally long, meticulous and sometimes contentious, beginning with the local bishop.

    In 1555, Archbishop Alonso de Montufar of Mexico approved the vision of Mary as reported by St. Juan Diego in 1531, on Tepeyac hill in Mexico.

    And on Sept. 12, 2015, Archbishop Ramon C. Arguelles of Lipa, Philippines, stated that the alleged 1948 appearance of Mary 19 times to a novice in the Carmelite order in Lipa City had, in fact, exhibited "supernatural character and is worthy of belief."

    A few months later, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith nullified the declaration of Archbishop Arguelles.

    And 35 years after six young people first reported seeing Mary appear in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Holy See has not reached a final decision on their authenticity, even as droves of pilgrims journey to the site annually, and several of the young "visionaries" give presentations around the world.

    The church's official position on Medjugorje, stated in 1990 by the Yugoslavian bishops' conference at Zagreb, and reiterated most recently in 2013, is: "On the basis of studies made to this moment, it cannot be confirmed that supernatural apparitions and revelations are occurring here."

    Yet, the bishops added, "the gathering of the faithful from various parts of the world to Medjugorje, inspired by reasons of faith, requires the pastoral attention and care of the bishops ' so that a proper liturgical and sacramental life may be promoted, and so manifestations and contents which are not in accord with the spirit of the church may be prevented and hindered."

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while not using the term "Marian apparitions" explicitly, nonetheless points out that, "even if revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries" (No. 66).

    Acknowledging that some "so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the church," the catechism adds quickly, "They do not belong ... to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the church, the "sensus fidelium" knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the church" (No. 67).

    Which is why there is a process for investigating, reviewing and approving or disapproving Marian apparitions -- a process ultimately aimed at nurturing a healthy spirituality and belief among all of God's people.

    (Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)


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    Miraculous Medal reminds us to stay close to Jesus

    By Kelly Bothum

    Catholic News Service

    I received my first Miraculous Medal almost 30 years ago. I was 12 years old, and it was a confirmation gift from my mother.

    Petals of gold wrapped around the medal itself, which bore the familiar image of the Virgin Mary atop a globe, her feet crushing the serpent and rays of light descending from her fingers. It had belonged to a great aunt, but now it was mine.

    The gift came with a lengthy explanation from my mother about the history of the Miraculous Medal and Mary's promise of blessings to those who wore it, as revealed by St. Catherine Laboure, who was visited by the Virgin Mary two times as a novice in 19th-century France.

    "Don't lose it," my mother warned, roping the gold chain around my neck.

    I never took it off. But truth be told, I did lose it eventually. When I was about seven months pregnant with my third child, it slipped from my neck, bounced off my belly and disappeared into the water during a vacation in Florida.

    The medal itself is gone, but I've never lost my belief in the power of Marian apparitions like the one witnessed by St. Catherine.

    I believe these appearances over the centuries have provided a needed nourishment of our faith, both on a larger scale and individually. They remind me that even on days when the struggle seems all too real, I have an infinite supply of spiritual support to lean on.

    (To be clear, I'm talking about Marian apparitions that have been approved by the church, not the random declarations of those purporting to see Mary on their slice of buttered toast.)

    The way I see it, these apparitions -- like those at Fatima, Guadalupe and Lourdes, among others -- are a nonsecular shot in the arm for the faithful. They offer a surprise for a world that thinks it already has it all figured out.

    And perhaps that's why many people are quick to dismiss these apparitions. They want something tangible, but faith is rarely that easy. We may believe a groundhog can predict an early spring but dispute the idea that the mother of Our Lord would present herself to someone.

    Mary's appearances may be unexpected, but her message is not -- that penance and prayer are powerful antidotes to evil. By all accounts of these apparitions, it's never Mary proclaiming her own awesomeness.

    Rather, she reminds us that Jesus is always the answer to even the most confounding questions. And she offers to advocate for us through prayer.

    One of the things I love about Mary is that she's like the really cool friend who sees a better version of ourselves than we do, and who wants to help us get to where we need to be.

    We may wonder what we did to deserve it. It's simple -- we believe in her Son.

    That she has appeared to people who are poor, young and disadvantaged -- those who lack the traditional trappings of the material world -- makes it even more powerful.

    As a little kid in Catholic school, I loved hearing the story of Our Lady of Fatima because she appeared to Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta -- children just like me.

    For a girl who spent much of the fourth grade wanting to be a saint, I was hopeful that Our Lady might grace me with her presence. (She didn't, for the record.) But her appearance to children made her more accessible in my mind.

    Obviously, I'm the not only one who feels this way, judging by the millions of people who have made pilgrimages to the sites of these apparitions. And that connection to others also can help us grow in our faith.

    I remember feeling a kinship with strangers when I attended Mass at the Knock shrine in Ireland on my honeymoon. We all experience our faith in different ways, yet here we were together celebrating Jesus because of what his mother did.

    That's the great part about Mary's apparitions. They don't call us to believe in her.

    They call us to believe in Christ.

    (Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.)


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    Devotion to Mary

    By Daniel S. Mulhall

    Catholic News Service

    The important role that Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays in the salvation of the world has been recognized by the church from its earliest days. And since those earliest days a cult of devotion to Mary has developed to give her honor and praise, and to recognize her role as the Mother of God, a title bestowed on her by the Council of Ephesus in 491.

    The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ("Lumen Gentium") says that Mary is "justly honored" by this cult (No. 66).

    As part of this cult, feast days honoring Mary have been established by the universal church, by local dioceses and by national bishops' conferences. Thus, the Virgin Mary in the Immaculate Conception has been declared the patron saint of the United States, and Our Lady of Guadalupe has been declared the patron saint for the Americas (North and South combined).

    Over the centuries, Mary has reportedly appeared to numerous people in countries all over the world. While the church has rejected the legitimacy of some Marian appearances, it has not made judgment on most of them.

    Some appearances, however, have been recognized by the church as legitimate, including those at Tepeyac, Mexico, in 1531; Siluva, Lithuania, in 1608; the appearance to St. Catherine Laboure in Paris in 1830; and those in Lourdes, France, in 1858 and Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

    The appearance of Our Lady to Adele Brise in Champion, Wisconsin, in 1859 was officially recognized by Bishop David L. Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay in 2010 and proclaimed "worthy of belief" under the title Our Lady of Good Help.

    All Marian apparitions fall into the category of private revelations, meaning that the faithful are not required to believe in them, even those apparitions recognized by the church as valid. Private revelations are considered to be inspirational messages that encourage Christians to live so as to draw closer to Christ.

    The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in December 2001 establishes guidelines for how Catholics should appropriately honor Mary.

    It notes that devotion of Mary "is an important and universal" phenomenon throughout the church, throughout its history and across the world. Christians are encouraged "to develop a personal and community devotion" to Mary (No. 183).

    All Marian devotions should "give expression" to the Trinity, meaning that Marian apparitions help us to better understand the love that exists with the Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    Apparitions also should be rooted solidly within the tradition of the church and be compatible with the church's profession of faith as expressed in ecumenical dialogues. They also are to reflect a true concept of humankind and present a "valid response" to our needs.

    Finally, these apparitions are to be missionary in tone and spirit. They are to encourage the Christian faithful to bear witness to the saving message of Jesus, as is appropriate for those who are disciples of the Lord (No. 186).

    (Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.)


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    In February, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

    The basilica is located near Tepeyac hill, the site of Mary's apparitions to St. Juan Diego in 1531. With some 12 million people visiting each year, it is Catholicism's most popular Marian shrine.

    In his homily, the pope said Mary's humility led her to appear to a poor indigenous man. "Just as she made herself present to little Juan, so too she continues to reveal herself to all of us, especially to those who feel, like him, 'worthless,'" the pope said.

    Pope Francis calls on us to approach Mary in our littleness and ask her to draw us nearer to her Son.


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