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As Supernatural Claims Spread Online, Vatican Updates Its Rules on Them

The Roman Catholic Church has long been vigilant when it comes to supernatural apparitions like professed sightings of the Virgin Mary, weeping Madonnas or bleeding crucifixes. Over the centuries, it has endorsed only a small percentage of the thousands that have been claimed, in an effort to protect the faithful from charlatans, doctrinal errors or attempts to profit.

Yet the age of social media has accelerated the spread of unverified claims, leaving the Vatican fearful that such phenomena can easily spin out of hand and out of its control.

So on Friday, the Vatican unveiled new, comprehensive guidelines for evaluating visions of the Virgin Mary and other supernatural faith-based phenomena in a document that offers detailed instructions to bishops, who have been responsible for evaluating reported claims.

“The Church needs clear procedures,” states the document, whose guidelines were approved by Pope Francis this month, adding that the intention is not to deny all new claims that emerge. “The norms for proceeding in the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena that we now present here are not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit,” the document says.

Given that apparitions or other sightings are private experiences for individuals, the church does not require the faithful to accept the authenticity of such events. “The church gives the faithful the freedom to pay attention” or not, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, told a news conference on Friday.

But some of those that the Vatican has endorsed, like the 19th-century apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, and those in early-20th-century Fátima, Portugal, have become hugely popular — and lucrative — pilgrimage destinations and focuses of faith.

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Last modified: 19 May 2024
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