Who is Catalina Rivas?

Every so often, you hear this name. She is a purported mystic from Bolivia, now living in Mexico.

Stigmatic. Seer. She says she has been having experiences with the Blessed Mother and Jesus since 1993.

Has she?

Some skeptics allege (in the rather harsh words of one) that she is "almost certainly a pious fraud" (though little evidence for that statement is presented). They point to what they claim were failed marriages and questions raised by various officials in the Church. They also accuse her of plagiarism with her messages.

Others point out that she has the backing of her bishop. An imprimatur was given to her messages from Archbishop Monsignor Rene Fernandez of Cochabamba, and there is recognition of supernaturality of bleeding statues associated with her. She is a mother and grandmother who has been very active and fruitful in her diocese.

It was in March 1993 that -- facing a family tragedy -- Catalina turned to God and underwent a "conversion journey." Later that year, she began to receive the messages. The following year, she traveled to a reputed apparition site at Conyers, Georgia, where a woman named Nancy Fowler, since deceased, claimed apparitions of the Blessed Mother and messages about the future -- similar to what Rivas now claims, though with the South American woman the words from otherworldly sources seem to flow through her pen.

"While kneeling on the Holy Hill, in front of the large Crucifix, I saw a light all around the Crucifix, a very strong light," she has recounted about her trip to Conyers. "Then I felt the necessity to offer my life to the Lord so that He can use it in whatever way He needed to use it and to give Him thanks for all that He did for me." Afterwards, Rivas went on to write a slew of books with the reputed messages and teachings which the Lord and the Mother of God continued to dictate to her.

On a website dedicated to her mysticism, Dr. Ricardo Castanon, who had tested Catalina a number of times, states that "Catalina did not finish high school yet in less than three years she has written eight books. In two weeks, she had written by hand 900 pages. The content talks about the theologies, sociology, the human life and Divine spirituality. When you see that she doesn't have the background, she has never written anything and then she comes with notebooks of 200, 300, 400 pages and there is no theological mistake, you know something special is happening.

"Catalina says Jesus will dictate to her and her heart will begin to beat very fast during this time. She says always when Jesus will tell her something, she will have this feeling. When she begins to write, she does not stop. She writes continuously, all the time. She does not have a moment to stop. Normally when you write a letter to a friend, you take time to think about what you want to say or even stop and she doesn't. She writes continuously, all the time. I will say that all together, she could write 4,000 or 5,000 pages, intelligent pages about theologies, sociology, the human life, and Divine spirituality and they are poetic pages. So many words she does not understand and the written Spanish is very elegant."

What to think of such an asserted phenomenon, which sounds like "automatic writing" -- known as a category of psychic phenomena? Historically, such a flow of words has been claimed of others in the Church -- presenting the notion that there are good and bad sides to every reported phenomenon: gifts that can come from the right or wrong side. Here is where comes the issue of discernment.

Catalina's local archbishop was kept informed of these matters, we learn, and apparently thought highly of them -- selecting Catalina as his executive secretary for the Sixth Eucharistic Marian Conference of the Boliviarian Countries. He is the one who gave his imprimatur to eight books of the messages.

There's that -- not Church approval of the phenomena itself, the stigmata, the visions -- but ecclesial regard, for sure. The Marian conference bore widespread fruits of conversion and fruits are one standard of discernment.

Then there was the matter of television.

In the spring of 1999, the Fox television network investigated the events in Cochabamba, including the bleeding statue of Christ, with the help of an independent medical facility in Mexico City.

The show was broadcast during the summer of 1999 in North America, Australia and New Zealand in a two-hour, prime time TV documentary entitled, "Signs from God -- Science Tests Faith," that was viewed by an estimate of over 27 million people. At one point she correctly predicted the exact day of stigmata for the television crew (a test showed the blood to be hers).

Catalina is especially known for an alleged mystical revelation of the power of Mass, which can be read here ("The Holy Mass Explained to Catalina by Jesus and Mary"). Here is a video clip of the eruption of "stigmata." It was described by the reporters witnessing it as "frightening" and "disturbing." It is hard to discern; Christ's Crucifixion would also have been disturbing. The wounds simply vanish afterwards and the next day -- after appearing close to death -- she was vibrant and attractive, no longer showing a trace of agony. A video called "A Plea to Humanity" contains footage from the Fox broadcast on Catalina's experiences as well as on the bleeding statue of Christ in Cochabamba.

We take it all in with the spirit of openness. While impressive, bleeding wounds do not inform us as to origin. The site of Conyers was the subject of a letter from Archbishop James P. Lyke of Atlanta in 1991,  in which he asked that priest-led pilgrimages from their dioceses to the site of alleged Marian apparitions in Conyers be discontinued. The letter, sent out by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its regular weekly mailing March 13, stated that, in the archbishop's judgment, "the authenticity of these alleged apparitions is in grave doubt." [Statement in full here; second statement here]

Does that reflect on Catalina? And is it the final word on Conyers? (While controversy swirled around the seer at Conyers, there were many reported fruits from the site, along with reports of remarkable sun phenomena and miracles.)

We leave this all for your decision. Like Fox, we'll report; you decide. We neither accept everything nor are quick to discount alleged phenomena. There is always the need for caution. One theme of the messages, as elsewhere, is that darkness is falling upon mankind and if there is not a turning back to God there will be a steady increase in natural disasters, something even Fox reported has been the case since the 1990s.

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[See also: Michael H. Brown retreat, spiritual warfare, our prophetic times, Cincinnati, September 19]