Posted by: Yseult | July 21, 2008

Popular devotion and the Magisterium of the Church: a complicated lovestory

Dominican Habit

Blessed Reginald of Orléan receives the habit for the Dominicans by the Virgin Mary

I have just been pulled into an interesting discussion. Or rather shall I say it was very revealing.

The main topic was the approval of Marian apparitions. The question arose around the question whether a pilgrimage location (Mariastein, Solothurn) was in fact an approved apparition site or not.

At first I was taken aback by the question. Then realised that I was talking to an American Catholic. (I don’t mean any disrespect when saying this like that, but it reveals something crucial to me to which I will come later.) The person in question argued that there only were 12 officially approved Marian apparitions, against how many non-approved ones. [Not to be confounded with an apparition of God, or Christ: the Theophany or the Epiphany]

Two things strike me as interesting here and that need noting.
Firstly, as a European I am used to local places of worship that have a tradition of several hundred years. Places of pilgrimage, apparitions, monasteries from the 11th century, Alp passages that have been blessed every year, year after year for the last 200 years etc. etc. I am of the firm belief that this forms a certain acceptance and reverence of places that seem dear and important to a local veneration. Rarely is the question asked whether it is a genuine apparition, condoned by the Church or not. Tradition and the numerous ex-voto plates speak for themselves most of the time. Together with the general rule of the Holy Church that nobody has to believe in private revelations such as Marian apparitions, leaves a large space for personal investigation and in the end decision on every believers own conscience whether he believes that a particular place was indeed blessed by an apparition, or a divine inspiration or not.

Philosophically speaking we decide such points (as a Catholic) by listening to the story behind the place, by witnessing the devotion of the pilgrims and by seeing the historical breacrums of the tangible influence of the place in the heart of other Catholics (again: the ex-voto for instance, but also texts and mentions in folkore culture etc).

It is not the first time that I had to remind myself that in other parts of the world Catholics do not share this… how shall I say it historical-genetically inherited attention to local points of worship. In Europe we grow up with that. Our story is full of it and the pilgrimage to Santiago is only the most widely and well known example of that culture of worship.

Secondly – and this might be the point that as a Historian worries me the most – I always feel uncomfortable when numbers are quoted. My first impulse is to have an official document to see what the Holy See or one of his Commissions really says. Maybe this is also a Euro-centric problem, since as European Catholics we are so used to prejuidice and half-baked statistics being thrown at us – the ‘high’ percentage of gay and pedophile priests is a long time runner and discussion ender over here. (This post in German on a forum I moderate may serve as an illustration.)
I have to this date never seen an official list published by the Vatican on how many Marian apparitions have been approved or not by the Commission of the Doctrine of the Faith. I doubt there is one, but would love to be proven otherwise.

Why do I doubt that there is such a list?

One needs to turn to the history of the position of the Church to understand why. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued the norms to which it bound itself in order to decide to approve of an apparitions only in the year 1973. (Norms can be found here or on Jimmy Akin’s page.) It’s main goal were current and future apparitions, not historical ones.
As someone that works in the history of texts and how they are transmitted from the Middle Ages to us through copies, quotations, and editions, for me it is clear why the Congregation would have a hard time pronouncing itself on Marian apparitions that date back to the 11th century for instance. The only sources we have of that are written ones that tell us of a local veneration or an ongoing veneration. Since however the texts that we have today constitute only about 10 -15% of the texts that existed in the Middle Ages, it is clear that a textual silence of such things does not warrant a judgment of non-validity or a non-approval. Simply because too much things have been lost between then and today (think of the masses of handwritten Medieval copies burnt by the French Revolution for instance when the monasteries were secularised and emptied).
So if there is no hard historical proof that lets us judge if an apparition is valid or not, the Church gives us other things to consider.

If we turn to the Guidelines of the Vatican Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy from 2001, it is clearly stated that a shrine needs to be a “place[s] dedicated to consolidating the faith, to growth in grace, refuge and consolation in affliction, by virtue of the sacramental life practised in them;…”
That for us as Catholics points to the authority of the tradition and rightly so, for who could claim that simply because Saint Dominic did not leave us a single written word, the Virgin Mary did not appear to Blessed Reginald of Orléans to show him the future habit of the new order of the Preachers? Or that the ball of fire did not appear to Saint Dominic himself to show him the place for his first women’s convent for reformed Cathar and Abligensian heretics?
In this particular example – which is close to my heart I admit – it is clear that any pronunciation of the Holy Church in this regard would undermine hundreds of years of grown history. Not to speak of the very holy Order of Preachers: the Dominicans.

This problem is similar to the Saints that have been declared as such through the ages until there even was a Commission for the Causes of Saints to research their claim. They are not any less Saints than the ones that have been declared such since the 19th century, nor will the Commission or the Holy See pronounce itself on those Saints that have been transmitted to us today by their devotional tradition. (Note that Saints that did present such historical problems have since not been taken out of the calendar, but only been retrograded exactly because of the reason of tradition. For even if one can doubt on the historical basis of such  a Saint, nobody can correctly and for sure say that a) he didn’t exist or b) doubt on the fact that there was a local tradition prior to his being taken into the Calender in the first place.)

And let us not forget that both occurences of Catholic faith are based on that: local veneration and tradition. Without it there would be no Saint today, for a local veneration cult is and has been at the basis for sanctity ever since the beginning of the Church. And similarly this can also be applied to shrines and places of pilgrimages and apparitions.
The Vatican or the Commission will only ever pronounce itself if there is conflict and the approval of an apparition or a local veneration does not depend on the voice of the Vatican. Rather the contrary. The principal responsible is the local bishop if there is doubt of the validity of a veneration. In history, the faith in the force of a local veneration was much bigger than it is today where we as humans have a heightened need for proof and confirmation.
Let us not forget either that until about the 19th century, Marian apparitions did not have any doctrinal messages or even never were vocal (again I am using only historical sources). They were savings in moments of distress and danger or great blessings when being lost etc. With Lourdes this has changed. At that moment a message has been added to the apparition itself. And this is where the Church needs to pronounce itself, because of it’s duty of the magisterium, to make sure that the content of the message is not contrary to the official teachings of the Holy Church, especially and primarily the Gospel.

In the end the Holy Church does not tell us to believe in any Marial apparition or local Saint veneration. We cannot invoke the authority of the Church in matter of personal devotion. This is what makes our Faith the richest denominations of all Christian Faith and our tradition is what guarantees that.



  1. A rich tradition indeed that provides room for different kinds of experiences if they fit within the theological framework of the Church!

    What came to mind when reading the post was the controversies surrounding the Medjugorje apparitions, which are not officially acknowledged on one hand but also not forbidden to go to on the other hand. It’s still under investigation by the Vatican.đugorje
    A priest in my former parish lead tours to Lourdes, Banneux and Medjugorje. Although it wasn’t my thing, a lot of people got inspiration from it.

    Another phenomenon I was reminded of while reading it was the controversial ‘Opus Angelorum’/’Engelwerk’

  2. Thank you for your input on this, Francis.

    You’ll find however that Msg. Zanic, Bishop of Mostar, does indeed not condone Medjugorie and has even condemned it.

    That is indeed the reason why the Vatican even has to investigate the apparitions in the first place.
    An investigation only ever is called when the local Bishop does oppose himself to the local devotional practices and emits doubts concerning the apparition itself.

  3. While Msg. Zanic letter and opinion are noteworthy, the view of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning Msg. Zanic’s letters reflected as follows (as of May 1998):

    “should be considered the expression of the personal conviction of the Bishop of Mostar which he has the right to express as Ordinary of the place, but which is and remains his personal opinion.

    Finally, as regards pilgrimages to Medjugorje, which are conducted privately, this Congregation points out that they are permitted on condition that they are not regarded as an authentification of events still taking place and which still call for an examination by the Church.”
    –Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone
    Secretary, Congregatio pro Doctrina Fideii

    I have no opinion on the matter other then caution and mild curiosity.

  4. In the context of aparitions and looking into Gabrielle Bossis I came accross this book:

    voices, visions, and apparitions, Michael Freze (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1993)

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