A century ago, three shepherd children named Lucia Santos and Jacinta and Francisco Marto first encountered a woman “brighter than the sun” in Fatima, Portugal, who urged them to pray the rosary to bring about peace and an end to war.
This famous May 13, 1917 sighting of the Blessed Virgin Mary – known now as Our Lady of Fatima – is one of the most well known instances of a Marian apparition.
But church officials didn’t immediately accept this sighting. The Bishop of Leiria-Fátima did not officially deem this vision and the children’s subsequent visions of Our Lady “worthy of belief” until 1930, after a canonical inquiry was done.
Church approval of such sightings is hard to come by. Of the more than 1,500 visions of Mary that have been reported internationally, fewer than 20 cases have been “worthy of belief” by the church in the past century, according to Catholic News Service.
The church has an extensive process when it comes to taking a critical eye to reports of Marian apparitions. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1978 created norms for discerning “presumed apparitions or revelations” that were sent to bishops on a case-by-case basis, but not made available to the public until 2011.
“The above-mentioned norms offer criteria for judging the character of the presumed apparitions or revelations,” says Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, judicial vicar with the Diocese of Orange’s Office of Canonical Services.
The evaluation process often starts at the local level where the alleged apparition(s) take place, according to Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, episcopal vicar for Divine Worship at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.
The bishop will form a committee or taskforce made up of priests and laity experts in theological matters — specifically the nature and purpose of supernatural phenomenon — and examine three critical factors: the person or persons to whom the apparition or apparitions appear; the content, if any, of what is said in the apparition; and the nature of the cult of veneration that has developed.
“The committee wants to determine that the individual is a person who is psychologically sound and a good Catholic, faithful in living out the mission of the Church,” Holquin says. “The person should be known of sound and moral character and hold to the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic faith.”
The message, if any, should be consistent with Catholic faith, dogma and practice.
“As regards the matters said to have been revealed to the subject(s), one must ascertain whether what the subject reports is theologically sound and immune from error,” says Doktorczyk.
Lastly, consideration is given to the cult of devotion that arises because of the alleged apparition.
“Does it lead to deeper faith and devotion in our Lady?” Holquin says. “Does it foster greater sacramental practice and prayer?”
After the Committee has completed its investigation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviews the results, and then offers additional input or establishes another committee at the Vatican level to pursue the investigation in greater depth, Holquin says.
The Vatican is currently evaluating the alleged apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje, in which she appeared to six children on a hill in the area now known as Medjugorje, Bosnia, and Herzegovina in 1981. Results of a study on the Marian apparition and Pope Francis’ decision on the matter have yet to be released.
Doktorczyk says there are three possible conclusions from any investigation: that the supernatural nature of the event is not established (non constat de supernaturalitate); that the supernatural nature of the event is established (constat de supernaturalitate); or that it is established that the nature of the event is not supernatural (constat de non supernaturalitate).
“In evaluating the authenticity of putatively divine apparitions, which often are focused on apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy See retains competence in determining the authenticity of such apparitions’ worthy of the pious veneration of the faithful,” Doktorczyk says.
Some well-known Church-approved apparitions include: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico; Our Lady of Lourdes, France; Our Lady of Knock, Ireland; and Our Lady of Kibeho, Rwanda.
In the United States, there is Our Lady of Good Help, who appeared to a girl named Adele Brise in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1859. Brise, who was told by the Blessed Virgin Mary to teach children in the faith, became a nun who inspired many to Christianity. Pilgrimages began at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help not long after Brise’s Marian sighting, which was officially confirmed in 2010.
And while Catholics are not obliged to believe in an apparition — it’s not a definitive Deposit of Faith, demanding belief by all Catholics — a confirmed apparition can deepen one’s faith.
“(A confirmed apparition means) that a proper investigation was done, that competent ecclesiastical authority has reached moral certitude that it was authentic and that people therefore might benefit spiritually by means of a healthy devotion to the apparition,” Doktorczyk says.