In apparent stigmata, a question of belief

The Buffalo News, June 15, 2003
By JAY TOKASZ, News Staff Reporter

Lilian Bernas stood beneath an icon of the crucified Jesus, gripping the lectern, speaking smoothly and matter-of-factly about what happened to her on Good Friday.

Her hands and feet were blistered when she awoke the morning of April 18, Bernas explained, and by 11:30 a.m., they began spontaneously to bleed.

By the afternoon, her forehead started bleeding, too, as did a wound in her side and on her shoulder.

Then a series of intensely bright white lights appeared, out of which emerged four saints, she said. One of the saints recited the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and delivered the Eucharist to her.

By 5 p.m., the wounds disappeared, and Bernas visited her church in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Stations of the Cross.

“That was my Good Friday. Marvelous. Beautiful,” Bernas said to the captivated audience inside St. John the Baptist Church in the Town of Tonawanda in early May.

If Bernas has stigmata – the five wounds of the crucified Jesus – they were not apparent during this speaking engagement a few weeks ago.

Her hands showed no blood when she raised and lowered her glasses to her face. Her temples didn’t bleed.

Small marks of healed skin were visible on her hands, but the only other evidence of her Good Friday experience were the photographs on a small table in the front of the church – snapshots of her bloody palms and feet and of blood oozing down her forehead.

A group of parishioners invited her to speak at St. John the Baptist on “Peace in a Broken World.” Bernas, since her first stigmata claims in 1992, has typically drawn a crowd to the churches she has visited, despite little publicity. The May 13 visit was no exception.

About 250 men, women and children came for a glimpse and an opportunity to embrace her after the 90-minute talk. It was a small group for Bernas, who is quietly gaining a following in Western New York and beyond.

Growing crowd of believers

On April 27, the Sunday following Easter, an estimated 800 people filled the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, in the Rochester suburb of Webster, to see her. In November 2001, she drew 1,000 people to St. Michael Parish in Buffalo, and she has attracted hundreds at churches in Florida.

Many of them walk away hailing Bernas as a humble prophet, with little doubt that the wounds are authentic.

“It has to be real, in my way of thinking, because nobody wants to suffer in this way just for the glory of people,” said Lise Farnand of Webster, who has seen the open wounds. “Lilian wouldn’t be suffering this much to have people around her. It’s not worth it.”

Farnand believes God “is sending us consolation” through people like Bernas.

It’s unclear exactly how many people have actually seen the bleeding wounds, but for some, simply hearing Bernas speak has been a moving experience.

“I’ve never witnessed this whole thing actually happen, but I guess I don’t need to,” said Marleah Close, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Buffalo who has met Bernas several times. “What she has to say just reaffirms everything I’ve been taught and have known. The fact that this is happening to her gives you a feeling that she’s some kind of messenger. It’s kind of an awesome thing what is happening to her.”

The Rev. John G. Sturm, a Jesuit priest who serves as parochial vicar of St. Michael Parish, admits he was skeptical about claims of stigmata and visions of Jesus.

“You say, “Oh, sure.’ You’re really like (doubting) Thomas in a way,” he said.

Sturm met Bernas about four years ago in Naples, Fla. He recalled “her extreme humility” and the simple way she answered questions.

“It was a very casual meeting. It wasn’t like meeting an ordinary person, in a way. Her manner was just different. It just amazed me,” he said.

The two became friends. Sturm said he has witnessed Bernas’ bleeding wounds four or five times.

“For a while, she had it every first Friday,” said Sturm. “It’s very, very strange. The blood . . . sometimes it spurts out, and sometimes it drips.”

Even a photojournalist, taking pictures for the Ottawa Citizen, was amazed by what he saw during two visits with Bernas in 2001: deep wounds in her hands and feet, teardrops of blood from her forehead, and the sweet smell of roses emanating suddenly from her.

“It was pretty remarkable,” said the photographer, Simon Wilson.

A history of the blood

Bernas first began to experience her wounds during Easter in 1992. She also claims to have had visions of Jesus, who addresses her as “my sweet petal” or “my suffering soul.” She has written about these experiences in two self-published books.

The Archdiocese of Ottawa, where Bernas lived prior to Niagara-on-the-Lake, set up a special commission to investigate her claims, but diocesan officials are reluctant to talk about it.

“It doesn’t really concern the general public. It just creates propaganda,” said Gabrielle Tasse, spokeswoman for the Ottawa Archdiocese.

In the foreword to her books, Bernas maintains that the commission concluded she was neither lying nor crazy.

The Ottawa Archdiocese will say only that it recommended Bernas be “well-guided spiritually.”

“The inquiry did not make a judgment on the authenticity,” said Tasse.

Since the inquiry, Bernas, a convert to Catholicism who once worked in a nursing home in the Ottawa area, has spoken at several local churches.

At St. John the Baptist, she dressed simply in an olive green sweater and checkered pants, with a chain and pendant hanging from her neck.

Her brown hair was cut short, and she appeared to be in her early 40s. She spoke clearly and lyrically, like a polished preacher, her words flowing seamlessly and never stumbling into each other.

Bernas’ talks have been advertised in church bulletins, and she was profiled in Western New York Catholic, the region’s Catholic newspaper.

Church is wary

But officials at the Diocese of Buffalo said she is not supposed to be discussing the stigmata and visions in churches.

“We are following the policy of her home archdiocese (Ottawa) that she is not to speak publicly because her faith journey is private,” said diocesan spokesman Kevin Keenan.

Keenan said it was possible that Western New York parishes were not aware of the Ottawa Archdiocese’s policy.

“This is the first time this has come up, so we’re responding to that,” he said.

Officials in the Diocese of St. Catharine’s, where Bernas now lives, have not returned phone calls seeking comment.

It’s not unusual for the Catholic Church hierarchy to resist publicity regarding claims of the supernatural, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America, a weekly Catholic magazine.

“The church rarely comes down and says, “Yeah, it’s legitimate,’ ” Reese said. “The church is very skeptical of these things.”

Many bishops struggle with how to approach phenomena such as stigmata and apparitions – which stir intense interest among many devout Catholics, but are difficult to verify and aren’t integral to the practice of the faith.

The Vatican reportedly is working on new guidelines for bishops.

In January, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged a steady increase in claims of visions of Mary, messages, stigmata and other miracles, according to a report by the Catholic News Service, the media arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith plans to update its 25-year-old guidelines regarding the authenticity of such occurrences, which sometimes have pitted reluctant bishops against insistent believers.

“People are always looking for extraordinary things. They find their faith strengthened by such manifestations,” said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. “People are after intense religious experiences,” said Cunningham, author of several books on spirituality.

Joe Nickell saw the bleeding Bernas, too, and isn’t convinced.

Nickell, a former detective and magician, investigates claims of the supernatural and paranormal for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, based in Amherst. In 1993, he wrote a book on the topic, called “Jesus most likely was nailed to the cross through his wrists.

Once the notion that Jesus was nailed through the wrists became accepted, some stigmatics began to display wrist wounds.

“Here’s my logic: Stigmata are supposed to be a reflection of the wounds of Christ, whatever those were like. If these were true manifestations, they ought to tell us where the wounds were,” Nickell said.

Instead, stigmata appear “all over the place. There’s every kind of variant, and they keep changing.”

A matter of personal belief

Sturm, the Jesuit priest, isn’t concerned by skeptics or the lack of interest church leaders have in Bernas.

“It’s up to each person to believe it or not,” he said. “The church won’t move unless many, many, many people are touched by her. She’s really not that widely known. The church won’t act until loads of people are asking, “Is it true or not true?’ “

Church leaders haven’t found any fault with Bernas’ theology or her sincerity, he added.

“If she’s for real, it will last. If not, it will die out quickly,” said Sturm.

Supernatural or not, Bernas’ stigmata could benefit the faithful if she uses it “to lead people to Jesus Christ and to the sacraments, to the church and to works of charity,” said Reese.

“But,” he added, “to the extent it becomes a magic show or a cult of personality, it’s a distraction from the central message of the gospel, which is that Jesus is our savior and has mercy on us.”

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