Bishops grapple with reports of dramatic phenomena in Europe
Across Europe bishops and even the Vatican have found themselves grappling with a wave of supernatural claims that in many cases have eluded final determination. In the wake of Medjugorje, the famous apparitional site in former Yugoslavia, hundreds of others have claimed phenomena.
The proliferation began right in Medjugorje, where, in 1982, just over a year after the first reports of the Virgin, another youngster, 10-year-old Jelena Vasilj, began to claim that she too was the recipient of heavenly revelations. Soon there were 47 alleged seers in the diocese as well as elsewhere in Yugoslavia as visions spread from the hamlet of Izbicno to Gala near Split (where the visions were to Mirjam Munivrana, who became a nun).
Since then claims of apparitions or other mystical phenomena have been reported in Slovakia, Italy, Ukraine, Ireland, England, and virtually every European nation -- presenting a dilemma for bishops trained more for the daily grind of administration than discerning the supernatural. As they are aware, in many historical cases such claims have been either products of the imagination or deceptive spirits. We just carried an account of how at Lourdes, France, at least 48 seers erupted soon after Bernadette's first apparitions -- all but obscuring the Virgin's legitimate apparitions before they were condemned by the local bishop.
The question bishops in Europe and elsewhere now face is whether the proliferation in the wake of Medjugorje is similar to Lourdes or whether there has been a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Nowhere has this been seen more readily than in Ireland, where phenomena have been reported in virtually every corner of the island, from Armagh to Ballinspittle. By the mid-1980s, there had been at least 25 such situations. Melleray. Inchigeela. Bessbrook. The trend became similar to other parts of the West: while a bishop would express skepticism, at the other end the claims would be met by total belief among certain of the faithful.
Who's right? Are the bishops too "scientific"? Have they allowed secularism and intellectualism to quash the mystical? Or are they simply being careful? Do they know something the average person does not? Have they spotted hidden problems?
In Ireland the issue reached a peak at the western end of the country where a housewife began experiencing apparitions and other phenomena in 1988 and became situated on Achill Island. The archbishop, Michael Neary of Tuam, established a small commission to investigate in 1996, and after 18 months of monitoring the situation it concluded that while the seer was sincere, devout, and displayed goodwill, they could render no positive verdict on the phenomena. "While recognizing the difficulty involved in treating of such matters, I find myself obliged to state that no evidence has been presented which might prove beyond reasonable doubt the occurrence of supernatural phenomena of whatever kind in this situation other than that of faith," concluded Archbishop Neary.
The seer, Christina Gallagher, was not condemned or rejected, however, and while there are no current plans, according to Father Brendan Kilcoyne, the diocesan secretary, to revisit the case, the question, as far as competent ecclesiastical authority is concerned, "remains open and unproven," states the archbishop.
Since that time there have been claims of astonishing phenomena, including healings, stigmata, a Eucharistic miracle, and even levitation. In 1999 a medical doctor, Dr. Michael Anketell of Skagh in County Limerick, reported that on July 16 he watched as Christina "suddenly stood up and just as suddenly her hands jerked upwards in what I could only describe as a praying position. With that to my amazement her whole body arched backwards with the curvature of her thoracic spine entering a 45-degree angle. With both knees slightly bent, the lower lumbar region of her back and pelvis started to sway backwards and forwards. Thinking she was about to fall and crack her head off the floor, I leapt forward and found to my astonishment that her whole body seemed to be suspended as if in mid-air." At the same time Dr. Anketell claims to have seen a Communion host materialize on Mrs. Gallagher's tongue -- a phenomenon that also showed up on a videotape recorded by an American whose says it was visible for about 16 seconds.
Dr. Anketell has also acknowledged alleged cures, including a "complete disappearance of a highly malignant tumor and an amazing physical recovery" in a case of terminal pancreatic cancer. Others have asserted recoveries from arterial blockages and in one case a crushing spinal injury that had all but crippled an Englishman named John Garbutt. "I wasn't prepared for what I saw or felt when John arrived for his treatment," wrote Dr. Maria Fletcher of England, of seeing Garbutt after he went on pilgrimage to the House of Prayer. "I heard someone rushing up the stone steps outside the office. John had arrived, larger than life, standing in the doorway. He'd actually rushed up my steps, instead of the usual labored step by step ascent he usually makes... Full flexion/extension and lateral rotation restored... This is inexplicable in medical terms."
Christina also asserts prophecy, and claims that on July 16 and other dates she was told about a "seal" of protection against the "anti-Christ," a claim that has created a certain degree of controversy.
What are we to make of it all? In coming weeks we will be exploring a number of situations in other parts of the world. Please note that we will try to be objective, cautious, and yet at the same time open. We believe that these matters are too often ignored by society -- and even the Church -- at the same time that we believe there must be caution because there are many gray areas and often dangers. The only thing for certain is that it is a time for fasting, obedience, and prayer. Only that way should such phenomena be approached and only that way can we begin to discern.
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