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On the Feast of the Assumption, when we think so much of Mary -- and her physical presence in Heaven -- we think too of her apparitions.

Careful we must be to claim that this incredible presence appears visibly -- as a corporeal apparition. Careful too we must be not to offhandedly reject such.

Years ago, it seemed like Ohio (which, God willing, we will visit next month) was ground zero for U.S. apparitions. In the great upsurge during the 1980s and 1990s, that state harbored the widest range of Marian "hotspots."

There is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Euclid, not far from Cleveland, which seems to be a magnet for miracles. There was a well-known stigmatic in Canton. There were famous locutions to an anonymous housewife (known as the "apostolate of holy motherhood") near Steubenville (allowed to publish messages by the bishop). There was a seer who said she saw Mary on a farm just south of Cincinnati (technically in Kentucky), and a church in Cold Spring where strange lights were seen during the Mass and Rosary.

There was a priest who allegedly received locutions. There is an apparition site near Cleveland that has drawn a large following claiming potent miracles and truly impressive photographs (and also diocesan controversy). Long before, there were the "Our Lady of America" revelations in Fostoria. Controversy here, too. There is the Marian Library: it is in Dayton, and it is the world's largest. Virtually any major historical miracle of the Blessed Mother is on record there -- any that was recorded. (The volumes are endless.)

So widespread is fervor in this state that even an ex-convict (near Canton, a man who had been arrested for armed robbery) claimed to see the Virgin.

What to make of apparitions?

We believe it is better to believe than not to believe -- to be open rather than closed -- but we also believe that apparitions can be more deceptive (and dangerous) than commonly perceived.

Often, we're asked why we report on some but not on others. At times, we hear from followers who are disturbed. And we see their point: when one receives insights or grace from a circumstance, one wants everyone to receive the same.

When one believes in an apparition, one has trouble understanding why others can't see the merits.

And we sympathize with such. These are good people. By and large, they are terrific Catholics (and our friends).

But it must also be understood that -- whatever our own views -- we have to follow what the Church prescribes.

For example, if a diocese has sent letters to other bishops urging "extreme caution in giving credence to such claims," and the United States Conference of Bishops has added that "this group is not subject to the authority of any Catholic entity, and should be dealt with cautiously," you can see why we must maintain a distance.

Whatever our personal views -- and whatever our affection for those who subscribe to any such circumstance -- it is important to follow the discernment of the Church.

In the past century, and especially since the late 1980s, apparitions and locutions have been condemned, rejected, or indicated against in at least 13 states that we can think of offhand.

We don't like to specify specific ones. Most often, the seers are also very good people who sincerely believe they are receiving messages. They should not be embarrassed. Recently, we have received correspondence pertaining to the thousands who -- we are told -- have been flocking to a village one hour south of Saigon, Viet Nam, where an apparition has supposedly occurred and will end today, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption.

Also recently, back in the U.S., a newspaper recounted spectacular phenomena associated with a controversial site in Texas two decades ago -- one deemed not to be supernatural by a diocesan commission, which was -- and often is -- the Church's way of rejecting such.

It hurts to report on rulings that disturb the faithful. We ourselves are not masters of discernment, and so do not stand in judgment. But it is our duty to report.

What is one to do, for example, when an archdiocese reports -- on its official website, this in 2003 -- that an Archbishop has strongly rejected an apparition and that the ruling has been upheld, as stated on the diocesan website, by no less than "Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith," who said "that [the] archbishop is in a position to conclude the matter with a decree that the alleged apparitions are clearly not miraculous ('constat de non supernaturalitate'). Cardinal Ratzinger said his opinion on the decree was made after careful consideration of the report of a three-member theological Commission of Enquiry."

Cardinal Ratzinger, of course, is now Pope Benedict XVI.

The archbishop had said the apparition not only was suspect, but bore aspects that were against Church doctrine and possessed "negative elements."

In another case, a bishop sent letters to every diocese in America asking them to halt pilgrimages to a local alleged seer.

Our hearts break for those who sincerely and in good faith have found refuge in such messages. But we cannot go against the Church. No one should.

It says in the Good Book that (whatever our personal views may be), "obedience is greater than sacrifice."

"If he refuses to listen even to the Church," Jesus said (Matthew 18:15-20), "then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector."

So many controversies!

What does one do when one watches an apostolate follow a locutionist and then fall apart in bitter disputes?

Tough stuff, discernment. Impossible, without fasting. And difficult even then.

And so we love those who are open enough to receive messages (it is better to believe) while listening to the Church, which we will also do in the most famous case, that of Medjugorje, which the Vatican continues to study, having accepted no judgment as yet.

When it does, we shall adhere to it strictly. We will do so, as we have, in other cases, despite our own particular views.

It was at Medjugorje on the Feast of the Assumption in 1990 that an incredible light rose at noon between the spires of the church, a light that -- when it got closer -- looked like a huge luminous dove (but with only one flapping "wing," seen for ten minutes before it headed for apparition hill).

Such things can help one decide, for oneself, if something is unusual!

"Recent rumor is that just recently a meeting was held with many bishops and the Pope, and a priest from Rome who was there and is friends with [a community in Medjugorje] reported that when the Pope saw the Bishop of Mostar [who has been against the apparitions], his smile changed to a very serious stern look, and he said to him 'try building bridges rather than destroying them.' Very interesting, and he was believed to be referring to the conflict between the Franciscans of Medjugorje and the bishop."

Interesting indeed, and equally hard to confirm.

Let's say this: without love -- and humility -- we receive, and discern, nothing.

[print article]

[see also: 'Wait for Church to decide', John Paul II on Medjugorje, and Remembering alleged miracle site]

[resources: The Day Will Come and The Last Secret]

[see also: Cincinnati retreat, Michael Brown, September 20: prophecy, afterlife, miracles]

[picture of Mary at top left was drawn by Precious Blood nun after visit to Medjugorje]

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