Visions of Mary, other such ‘miracles’ put faith – and science – to the test

Seeing & believing

Gloria Fino led a devout but uneventful life – until several months ago, when she experienced something her Catholic priest could not explain.

The 34-year-old woman from Robstown, outside Corpus Christi, said she saw an oil-like substance streaming from the eyes of a portrait of Jesus.

That was all it took for the world to come to her door. And for her name to be added to the list of those who say they’ve seen weeping portraits of Jesus, images of the Virgin Mary on a variety of surfaces, rosaries turned to gold, holy statutes that suddenly start bleeding or developing heartbeats.

But is seeing actually believing?

What happens when miracles are subjected to scientific scrutiny?

Religious experts are skeptical of many claims of miraculous sightings. Still, they say, those claims can strengthen faith, even if they can’t be scientifically verified. Reports of spiritual apparitions abound, even in these modern, rationalistic times. Thousands are drawn to the sites of such claims, hungry, it seems, for a direct encounter with the divine.

Also among those attracted to such sightings are the so-called “miracle detectives,” scientific investigators who seek explanations grounded in physical laws.

“I really wish I would come across something that confounds science. I really do,” said Joe Nickell, who has investigated paranormal claims – from haunted houses to extraterrestrials – for more than 30 years.

The professional magician, with a doctorate in English literature, specializes in looking into reports of religious phenomena. He said he has never come across a “miracle” for which there wasn’t a rational explanation.

Mr. Nickell noted that such sightings far more often than not involve Catholics. (“Why don’t Baptists report seeing visions?” he asked). The church, in his view, doesn’t do enough to debunk such claims.

But some scholars of Catholicism said that’s not the church’s job.

“The Catholic Church is very hesitant to make statements about such events,” said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

“In the end, for those who don’t believe, no proof is sufficient. And for those who do, no proof is necessary.”

People of all religions, he said, draw from encounters with the mysterious – whether it’s faith healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy or communing with angels.

And pilgrimages to the sites where such events reportedly occur are attempts to have direct encounters with God, he said.

“Today’s religion is about experiencing God or being close to those who say they have. … These gatherings of people from all walks of life seeking a spiritual encounter create their own energy and are powerful magnets.”

For Randall Sullivan, it is possible both to doubt and to believe. A journalist raised by two atheists, he wrote The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions. The book examines several sightings of the Virgin Mary, including those in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, a tiny village where such apparitions have been reported since 1981.

“I was supposed to stay in Medjugorje a week and it turned into an entire summer,” he said. “Being there changed my life. The deep belief I saw expressed was transforming.”

He didn’t see the Virgin Mary – though he did write about a “mysterious” young woman who helped him up the mountain where Mary’s appearance was first reported.

Spending time with one of the Medjugorje “visionaries,” the people who claim to have seen the Virgin, affected him profoundly, he said.

“I was convinced I would meet a liar. But I had an absolute certainty she was telling the truth, that she was not crazy.”

Mr. Sullivan said he was so moved by the faith of the villagers, and those who came to Medjugorje seeking healing, that he later converted to Catholicism and had his children baptized.

His book has been criticized by some because he weaves into his detailed examination of holy visions an account of his own spiritual conversion.

Mr. Sullivan defended the ambiguity in what he learned about Medjugorje and himself.

“Because of my work, I have profound respect for the mysteries of the church. I want people to know you can have doubt and still believe,” he said.

It can take decades – or longer – for the church to rule on whether a sighting is authentic, said a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There are no formal written guidelines, he said, adding that each bishop decides whether an investigation is warranted and how it is conducted.

Mr. Sullivan’s interest in the process began in 1994, when a young woman in a rundown trailer camp near his hometown of Portland, Ore., claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. The reported sighting attracted people from across the country. He became curious about the interviews, field investigations and theological research that go into an official inquiry. His book, while focusing primarily on Medjugorje, examines 100 years of apparitions and related phenomena.

“There is an astonishing amount of physical evidence supporting the authenticity of these events,” he said. ” ‘Inexplicable’ is a tame word to describe them. They cannot be explained by medical science.”

Mr. Nickell disagrees. He works for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, established by the late astronomer – and noted atheist – Carl Sagan. (Mr. Nickell declined to discuss his own religious beliefs, beyond saying that he approaches his work with healthy skepticism.)

In Medjugorje, he said, “the bishop’s own investigative panel found that the children had been coached and had changed their stories a couple of times about who actually saw the Virgin.” He noted that the Catholic Church, after more than 20 years of looking into what happened in the village, has not added Medjugorje to its official list of “confirmed” Mary sightings.

Of the hundreds of reported Marian apparitions, the church has officially authenticated 22. The most famous are those by Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531; Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, in France, in 1858; and three children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. (Pope John Paul II is in Lourdes this weekend paying homage to Mary. The Feast of the Assumption, when Catholics celebrate her being taken up into heaven, is Sunday.)

In Medjugorje – which remains under study by the church – some see a miracle. Others see a profit motive.

“Here was this poor village that became a tourist destination with gift shops and hotels. Thousands were coming,” said Denis Janz, a religion history professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. “The local bishop did receive a report from a panel of psychologists and theologians that was quite damning. But it was suppressed for years because of the economic impact such disclosures would have.”

In 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego, the Aztec who said he saw Mary at Guadalupe. As proof for a doubtful bishop, she reportedly caused her image to be burned into his cactus-fiber cloak. Today, Juan Diego is revered by millions of Mexican Catholics.

According to Mr. Nickell, “An investigation of the cloth in 1556 said the image had been ‘painted yesteryear by an Indian.’ ” A later investigation by an art historian, he said, showed the fabric had been “prepared with a brush coat of white primer.”

Juan Diego’s story, he said, appears to have been borrowed from an earlier Spanish legend in which the Virgin appears to a shepherd. Other church critics have said the pope’s streamlining of the canonization process “rushed Diego into sainthood” without proper historical evidence that the peasant even existed, much less saw Mary.

Church officials have dismissed questions about Diego, which have flared on and off for centuries.

“There is no doubt about the existence of Juan Diego,” the Rev. Eduardo Chavez Sanchez of Mexico City told the National Catholic Reporter . Father Chavez was the Vatican’s investigator for Diego’s canonization. He told the newspaper there are two dozen documents, dating from the 1500s, that confirm the Aztec’s existence.

As is the case with most holy sightings, what really happened back in May in Ms. Fino’s Robstown home may never be known.

According to Catholic practice, the decision on how or whether to investigate the matter was left to the local bishop, Edmond Carmody of Corpus Christi.

Because the painting stopped “weeping” after two days as suddenly as it had begun, Bishop Carmody said, no investigation was warranted.

“We’re in a humid part of the country. If it had kept occurring, we would have changed the environment. We would have brought it to a climate-controlled place, an air-conditioned church, and then called scientists from the university,” he said.

“We are not saying it was a fraud. … But we aren’t ready to pronounce it as divine, either. Something physical happened. The reporters saw it; the priest saw it. We have to be careful not to attack people’s faith.”

Ms. Fino said she’d been praying for her grandson, who was hospitalized in Houston, when she asked Jesus for a sign. That was when the portrait, a gift she’d received three years earlier, started weeping, she said.

Word spread, and suddenly hundreds of people were streaming to her small house to see the painting and receive a piece of cotton soaked in the mysterious substance.

Her priest, the Rev. Gerry Sheehan of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Robstown, went to the Fino home.

“I saw the painting and turned it over. The back was not wet,” he said. “Gloria Fino is a devout person. You don’t have to take my word for that. Her neighbors describe her as faithful and not someone who would exaggerate or try to pull off a hoax.”

Some who claim to have witnessed miracles may engage in “pious fraud,” Mr. Nickell said. Their purpose is not to maliciously deceive so much as to give religion a little nudge. “They are normal people hoping to promote their faith,” he said.

Mr. Nickell has examined the Shroud of Turin, which some believe to be the burial cloth of Jesus, and a burial box that some claim held the bones of James, identified in the Bible as Jesus’ brother.

He’s been to Medjugorje. He’s inflicted cuts upon himself to show how stigmata can be faked. He’s checked for heartbeats in statues.

He has written several books, including Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures (Prometheus Books, $23) and regularly appears on television to discuss his work.

He did not examine the weeping Jesus in Robstown, but offered some insights into how such an effect might be achieved. He said, for example, that one could take a nondrying oil, like olive oil, put it in a dropper and squeeze it into the corner of the eyes. A “mysterious substance” could then run for days.

The Catholic Church, in Mr. Nickell’s view, “unwittingly encourages such activity by taking a passive approach to investigations and explanations. They may be very skeptical privately, but will tolerate it publicly if it brings greater understanding and strengthens their faith.”

Father Sheehan disputed that. “The church wants to be careful not to give fraud a seal of approval,” he said. He added, however, “If people are moved, their belief strengthened, we are not going to trample on their faith.”

Whatever others believe about Gloria Fino’s experience, her priest said, she never doubted Jesus.

Detective lingo

“Miracle detectives,” the people who investigate reports of religious supernatural phenomena, have a language of their own. A glossary of frequently used terms:

Apparition: Appearance of someone who is dead. Since the Middle Ages, most reports of spiritual apparitions have involved the Virgin Mary.

Ecstasy: A spiritual state in which one loses sense of time and location and does not respond to external physical stimuli.

Locutions: Supernatural words perceived as a clear, distinct message.

Simulacrum: An image, usually the face of Jesus or Mary, in such unexpected media as a stain, rust, a cloud, a tree trunk, a streaky image on glass, etc.

Stigmata: Wounds like those sustained by Jesus in the Gospel accounts of the Passion.

Visionary: The person who sees an apparation or otherwise experiences one of these inexplicable phenomena.

SOURCES: Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal; Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Webster’s New World Dictionary

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