Vatican announces new rules to authenticate miracles such as weeping statues, visions of


The Vatican has radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated.

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 make clear that such an abuse of people’s faith can be punishable canonically, saying: ‘The use of purported supernatural experiences or recognized mystical elements as a means of or a pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses is to be considered of particular moral gravity.’

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.

Pope Francis leads his weekly General Audience in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, 15 May 2024

Pope Francis leads his weekly General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, 15 May 2024

The Catholic Church has a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues that purportedly wept blood tears and stigmata that erupted on hands mimicking the wounds of Christ

The Catholic Church has a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues that purportedly wept blood tears and stigmata that erupted on hands mimicking the wounds of Christ

The body of Padre Pio is on display for the veneration of the faithful in a part-glass coffin in the crypt of the old Church of St. Mary of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Apulia region in southern Italy on April 24, 2008. The Italian saint is a cult figure for millions around the world as many Christians believe had permanent sores on his hands similar to the stigmata, or the wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion

The body of Padre Pio is on display for the veneration of the faithful in a part-glass coffin in the crypt of the old Church of St. Mary of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Apulia region in southern Italy on April 24, 2008. The Italian saint is a cult figure for millions around the world as many Christians believe had permanent sores on his hands similar to the stigmata, or the wounds of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion

Pope Francis in his popemobile leaves at the end of a Mass where he canonised shepherd children Jacinta and Francisco Marto at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, Saturday, Friday, May 13, 2017, in Fatima, Portugal

Pope Francis in his popemobile leaves at the end of a Mass where he canonised shepherd children Jacinta and Francisco Marto at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, Saturday, Friday, May 13, 2017, in Fatima, Portugal

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favorable 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 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 erupting on hands and feet mimicking the wounds of Christ.

When confirmed as authentic by church authorities, these otherwise inexplicable 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.

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

Pope Francis waves at faithful during his weekly General Audience in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, 15 May 2024

Pope Francis waves at faithful during his weekly General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, 15 May 2024

La Verna, Tuscany, Italy: statue of saint Francis made by Giovanni Collina Graziani (1820-1893). This statue is placed in the Chapel of the Stigmata church inside the La Verna sanctuary

La Verna, Tuscany, Italy: statue of saint Francis made by Giovanni Collina Graziani (1820-1893). This statue is placed in the Chapel of the Stigmata church inside the La Verna sanctuary

'The weeping' virgin has sceptics, believers and the curious flocking to El Canal in Colima, Mexico to witness what some residents believe to be a miracle

‘The weeping’ virgin has sceptics, believers and the curious flocking to El Canal in Colima, Mexico to witness what some residents believe to be a miracle

But the phenomena have also been a source of scandal, such as in 2007, when the Vatican excommunicated the members of a Quebec-based group, the Army of Mary. 

This came after its foundress 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 envisage a more articulated investigation process after a bishop receives word of a possible supernatural event in his diocese. 

He forms a study commission of theologians and canon lawyers to gather information and evidence, interview the alleged witnesses and come to a recommendation that he submits to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith for approval.

He can choose among six general outcomes: the green light ‘nihil obstat’ to allow and even encourage popular devotion, or gradually more cautious approaches if there are doctrinal red flags about the reported event. 

The most serious envisages a declaration that the event is not supernatural or that there are enough red flags to warrant a public statement ‘that adherence to this phenomenon is not allowed.’

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.

Pope Francis holds onto his cap as he gets on the Popemobile on the day of the weekly general audience in Saint Peter Square at the Vatican, May 15, 2024

Pope Francis holds onto his cap as he gets on the Popemobile on the day of the weekly general audience in Saint Peter Square at the Vatican, May 15, 2024

At no point are the faithful obliged to believe in the particular events, said Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Vatican doctrine office.

‘The church gives the faithful the freedom to pay attention’ or not, he said at a news conference.

Whereas in the past the bishop often had the last word unless Vatican help was requested, now the Vatican must sign off on every recommendation proposed by a bishop.

Fernández acknowledged that the Vatican’s previous way of handling reported apparitions often led to ‘considerable confusion’ among the faithful, as well as lengthy delays in reaching a definitive ruling. 

To date, fewer than 20 apparitions have been approved by the Vatican in its history, according to Michael O’Neill, who runs the online apparition resource The Miracle Hunter.

That confusion has been laid bare even in recent times concerning the purported visions of the Madonna at a Carmelite convent in Lipa, Philippines, which were said to have been accompanied by a shower of rose petals.

In 1951, Pope Pius XII confirmed a decision by the then-Holy Office that purported visions had ‘no sign of supernatural character or origin.’

The Vatican came to that decision after the convent prioress confessed to having participated in the ‘deception’ at Lipa, and some of her nuns testified that they had seen deliveries of roses to the convent and had received orders from the prioress to burn the petal-less stems.

Madonna of Trevignano, Italy, appearing to weep blood

Madonna of Trevignano, Italy, appearing to weep blood

But for decades, Filipino bishops glossed over the definitive nature of the Vatican ruling after the Vatican urged them to keep its role in the evaluation quiet. 

The bishops suggested in their communications to the faithful that the jury was still out, according to documentation made public last year by the Filipino bishops conference.

As a result, some Filipino faithful continued to venerate the image of the Madonna at Lipa, prompting the Vatican in a series of increasingly exasperated decrees to demand that the Lipa archbishop heed the original 1951 ruling and put an end to the devotional events.

The latest decree, from July of last year, demanded the Lipa archbishop cancel plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the purported apparitions, saying ‘it would not be advisable for you to authorize the aforementioned celebration under any form.’



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