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We have been discussing alleged apparitions of late and the crucial point that whatever our personal views, humility dictates that we remain strictly obedient to the Church.

It is important not to besmirch seers -- who often stand for their revelations in a fashion that is courageous -- at the same time that we heed what the local diocese states (unless that authority has been usurped by the Vatican). Our bishops deserve respect, whatever our private views. Obedience trumps even sacrifice.

But there is another point to be made, and it is that a crisis has arisen as far as our local bishops. Rightly or wrongly (and in our view it is always wrong to criticize a bishop), the faithful have lost faith in local diocesan authorities. This is due to several factors. One is the priest-abuse crisis: at least for the time being, that has undermined ecclesiastic authority. There is also the fact that bishops have been almost uniformly unwilling to approve reputed miracles, locutions, and apparitions in the West, particularly North America. In many instances, claims of the supernatural are not even investigated. Such undermines objectivity. And, thirdly, the devout often find vicars, spokesmen, or other diocesan officials as aloof as secular officials.

All this has dovetailed into a crisis whereby many Catholics in the U.S. have brushed off the discernment of the local diocese.

That's a dangerous lack of respect, and we urge the faithful to rethink their unwillingness to consider diocesan judgments while we also believe it is a circumstance (this lack of approval for anything supernatural) that needs to be addressed by the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, perhaps even urgently.

We say "urgently" because while many don't realize it, there is intense interest among the faithful in alleged miracles and private revelations, which make the news more often (and are far more interesting) than more worldly and bureaucratic concerns of the Church.

How to discern?

The fact is that in many cases, discernment -- on an intellectual level -- is nearly impossible.

One can take a set of standards and meet or miss them and still not have a total fix in a realm where a vision can be partly heavenly, partly from the subconscious, and partly from the side of deception.

We should take from visions only what is good, and leave the rest (as Scripture tells us).

We best discern through fasting. (Without fasting, one should stay clear.)

But there is a certain use for logic (despite the "illogic" of the supernatural) -- and a number of such standards are set forward by theologian Mark Miravalle of Franciscan University in Ohio, who -- in a new booklet called Private Revelation -- ably describes the paths of evaluation we must consider:

-- "the personal qualities of the alleged seer or locutionist -- in particular mental balance, honesty, and rectitude of moral life, habitual sincerity and docility towards ecclesiastical authority, and ability to return to the normal manner of a life of faith.

-- "their conformity with theological doctrines and their spiritual veracity; their exemption from all error.

-- "a healthy devotion and spiritual fruits which endure (in particular, the spirit of prayer, conversions, and signs of charity."

Humility in a seer is crucial (as is lack of rancor).

And yet, of course, there is no one "magic bullet" of evaluation. It is not something a computer can do!

Often, an apparition defies one set of standards, but meets another.

That's where prayer (after fasting) comes in.

A seer should not be humiliated. To repeat: these are often not only good people, but devout and courageous ones.

Rare is the seer who knowingly fakes an apparition.

Rather, the question is whether the visionary himself has been deceived.

Seers are not themselves experts at discernment. That's a separate "gift."

"Can an obedient member of the Catholic Church make a personal assent of belief regarding a reported revelation before the Church, local or universal, has made an official statement about its authenticity?" asks the theologian. "The answer, based on the Church's repeated precedent, is in the affirmative."

The means of evaluation? "A declaration of constat de non supernaturalitate states that the reported revelation has been declared to not be of supernatural origin and is normally accompanied by prohibitions concerning any further distribution of messages and devotion directly related to their reported revelation," writes Dr. Miravalle.

At the most famous site of Medjugorje in former Yugoslavia, the "local" Church rejected the apparitions, Dr. Miravalle has said, but the "universal" Church -- Rome -- disallowed local authorities from rendering the final conclusion. The matter is now in the hands of the Vatican.

[resources: Private Revelation, The Day Will Come, Tower of Light, and Sent To Earth]

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