They have been closely guarded for more than 30 years, but guidelines on how to deal with divine apparitions of the Virgin Mary and "supernatural phenomena" have now been released by the Vatican.
June 1, 2012
The "norms" on how the Roman Catholic Church should deal with mystical apparitions were initially drawn up in Latin in 1978 under Pope Paul VI and were intended for strictly internal use.
They shed light on the sorts of apparitions which have inspired the establishment of shrines such as those at Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, which attract millions of pilgrims a year, many in search of cures for illnesses or other "miracles".
The guidelines are intended to help bishops "in their difficult task of discerning presumed apparitions, revelations, messages or, more generally, extraordinary phenomena of presumed supernatural origin," Cardinal William Levada, the American prefect of the CDF, wrote in a preface.
Deciding whether a spiritual revelation is genuine or not is based on its "orientation to Christ Himself," Cardinal Levada wrote. "If it leads us away from Him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit." Determining whether a spiritual revelation is authentic or not is the responsibility of the local bishop, the Vatican said.
He is required to set up a special panel of theologians, psychologists and doctors to judge the "psychological equilibrium and rectitude of moral life" of the person or people reporting the apparition and whether it corresponds with Church doctrine.
The bishop should try to "discern quickly" the authenticity of an apparition, although his judgment could be impeded by "critical scientific investigation", the Vatican said.
A revelation would be dismissed if there was evidence that the person who had witnessed it was mentally unsound, whether the vision was the product of "collective hysteria" or if there was a suspicion that the whole thing was a fraud concocted for profit.
If the bishop cannot make a decision, the judgment can ultimately be referred to the Pope himself.
The Vatican decided to make the guidelines public, and to translate them into five languages, including English, because elements had leaked out into the public domain over the years.
They have been published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the powerful Vatican department which was headed by Benedict before he was elected Pope in 2005.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently investigating claims that a group of six Catholic children began to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, starting in 1981.
The apparition claims have been judged groundless by a local bishop, but that has not stopped an estimated 30 million believers from visiting the pilgrimage site.
Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, became a shrine after apparitions of the Virgin Mary were witnessed by a shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858.
The publication of the guidelines may provide temporary distraction from one of the worst crises of Benedict XVI's seven-year papacy – the leaking of confidential documents and the arrest of his personal butler, amid claims of vicious faction fighting within the Holy See.