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Mysterious signs are not the basis of our faith, but rather should help affirm it . . .
A consecrated host in Buenos Aires falls to the ground during Communion and is placed in water so that it can dissolve. Several days later, it has not dissolved and red stains have formed on it. The stains are tested and identified as human heart tissue.
A saintly priest mysteriouly acquires the wounds of Christ known as the stigmata and bears them throughout his lifetime. Witnesses claim he can bilocate and read souls. When his body is exhumed 40 years after his death, it is found to be mostly incorrupt.
Type a few key words from any of these accounts into your favorite internet search engine and you’ll get the full story about each one. But are these things true? And, if so, what do they have to do with the Catholic faith?
Miracles and hoaxes
As any Catholic knows, miraculous occurrences have been part of Christianity since the days when Christ healed the sick, turned water into wine and multiplied a small cache of loaves and fishes to feed thousands.
Miracles have occurred throughout Church history — from apparitions of the Blessed Mother to saints who bore the stigmata and whose bodies were found to be incorrupt after death. Recent examples of these phenomena involve St. Pio of Pietrelcina — better known as Padre Pio — who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002.
Not every miraculous occurrence, however, is authentic and from God. Jimmy Akin, senior apologist with Catholic Answers, said it’s important to distinguish between paranormal phenomena of divine origin and those that might come from another source, such as Satan.
“Certain tests can be used,” he said. “Sometimes this is difficult to apply, but if a paranormal phenomenon endorses ideas contrary to the Catholic faith, then it’s not coming from God. If it seems to have a tendency to corrupt the morals of individuals rather than build them up, it’s also a sign that this is not from God.
“Things can also be produced by the imagination, they can be misperceptions of things thought to be supernatural when they are not,” Akin explained. “And then there are outright hoaxes.”
For example, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a psychologist and author of several books on extraordinary phenomena, told Legatus Magazine that he has examined five reported cases of people who thought they might have the stigmata. In one case, he said, the wounds seemed to have been selfinflicted, and he determined it was a fraud. The other four looked more like blood blisters than the open wounds associated with authentic stigmata.
“The Church is very matter-of-fact when it comes to these things,” said Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, an exorcist and president of Human Life International. “It goes back to 1 Jn 4:1, which says, ‘Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’
“The Church follows that advice and asks the individual faithful to be very circumspect about spiritual things so they don’t fall into either superstition or the occult; and then the Church herself very seriously tests all alleged supernatural phenomena in order to protect the faithful.”
Even when the Church authenticates supernatural occurrences, it does not require that Catholics believe in them.
Father John Trigilio, co-author of The Catholicism Answer Book, said approved phenomena are merely there to help one’s faith. “The caution on the part of the Church when they investigate these things — besides authenticating them — is that they don’t want that to become a person’s principle of faith, that they believe because of these things.”
Extraordinary graces like the gift of miracles “are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2003).
Furthermore, even when a supernatural phenomenon is determined by the Church to be the real thing, it can take years to authenticate.
Maureen Digan was healed of Milroy disease (lymphedema) while praying at the tomb of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in 1981. But her cure was not accepted as a miracle until 1992.
“They didn’t even start investigating until five years after it occurred,” Digan said, who hails from Lee, Mass. Digan was examined by five different physicians, whose testimony was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The cure was accepted as a miracle and led to St. Faustina’s beatification in 1993.
Digan said that when she was healed, she felt an instant change in her leg. (She already had lost one leg to lymphedema, which causes swelling from excess fluid in the tissues.) At Faustina’s tomb, she said, “All of a sudden, I could feel the leg changing.”
However, Digan didn’t want to examine her leg right away, and waited until she was back in her room. When she did, the leg looked normal and the swelling and pain were gone. The next day, Digan showed it to her husband, Bob, who smiled and said, “We came here for a healing. You’ve been healed.”
Someone who thinks he’s experienced a miraculous occurrence should first “calm down,” Fr. Groeschel advised. Secondly, he should seek out a serious, prudent person for advice. Often, he said, unusual phenomena can be brought on by a person who is under pressure.
In his book A Still, Small Voice, Fr. Groeschel cautions that religious people often have a tendency to look for signs, but that most authentic visions occurred to simple people, usually children, who were not seeking them.
The best kind of religious experience, he writes, is found in reading of the gospel and in the example of those who care for the poor. “It brings together the ordinary events of life and transfuses them with the light of divine grace given through the gospel, the Church and the sacraments.”
Father Trigilio observed that Catholics looking for a genuine miraculous experience need look no further than Mass.
“Even if it is true that Mary is appearing somewhere, the greatest miracle is the Mass — the substantial truth of the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ,” he said. “It pleases the Lord more that we go to Mass every chance we get. That’s the biggest miracle of all, done by Christ himself.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.