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After new norms, will the Vatican make a ruling on Međugorje?

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on Friday issued new norms for the evaluation of supernatural apparitions, and set out new standards by which they might be acknowledged by Church authorities.

The revised rules provide for a more necessary, and necessarily public, role in assessing supposed apparitions, and brought in a new tiered system for categorizing them — ranging from, in essence, “fake” through to “no reason to object.”

According to the dicastery’s prefect, ​​Víctor Manuel Fernández, the new norms could clear the way for a final declaration on the purported apparitions at Međugorje, the village in Bosnia and Herzegovina which has become an international pilgrimage destination in the 40 years since several children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary the in the 1980s.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, pictured Sept. 30, 2023. © Mazur/

During a presentation of the new norms in the Vatican on Friday, Fernández admitted he was not up to speed on his own department’s investigation of the situation there, saying that “I haven't read the material available at the Dicastery, I know some details, but we need to study to reach a conclusion with these new norms.”

“Regarding Međugorje, we'll see,” the cardinal said. But he noted that “a phenomenon can be considered good, not dangerous at the origin, but it may have some issues in its later development.”

Fernández’s comments appeared to telegraph a possible formal resolution to the Međugorje situation, which has generated popular devotion and controversy in nearly equal measure since six children claimed to see a vision of Mary, identifying herself as “Queen of Peace” in 1981.

So what do the new norms say, and how could they help?

The Pillar explains.


Supernatural apparitions have been an aspect of the Church’s devotion and popular piety since the apostolic era. Throughout history, saints and “visionaries” have recorded encounters and apparitions, most notably with the Virgin Mary, often to impart some timely message or call to faith.

Shrines like Lourdes and Fatima draw millions of pilgrims every year and, in addition to acts of popular piety and spiritual devotion, miracles of healing have been reported.

Other alleged apparitions are also reported from time to time, and often treated with more skepticism — or even denied by the Church altogether — when Mary is said to have appeared in an office building window, a tree, or a pizza pan.

For most of the Church’s history, the investigation and discernment over local apparitions was largely left to the competence of the local diocesan bishop, who — as Fernández noted in his introduction to the new norms — is, in the best cases, encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of this spiritual proposal, and even to promote its spread.

But the Church doesn’t command the faithful to accept and believe in them as a matter of faith, even when the popular devotion is longstanding and the pope himself has promoted the observance of them. 

A case in point (other than the most famous international sites) would be America’s only Church-approved apparition of the Virgin Mary in Champion, Wisconsin, where a 160-year-old apparition of Mary was celebrated formally for the first time earlier this year, after the local bishop declared it “exhibits the substance of supernatural character” and is “worthy of belief (though not obligatory) by all the Christian faithful.”

Until Sunday when the new norms took effect, the Church had been treating claimed apparitions under a revised version of norms first issued by the Vatican in 1978, which were actually kept under the pontifical secret until 2011.

The 1978 norms gave the DDF the power to “judge and approve the Ordinary’s way of proceeding” or “to initiate a new examination,” as it deemed necessary in cases of alleged apparitions. 

But, the trouble was, globalization of mass media and travel began to reshape how supposed apparitions gained attention and traction — often far beyond their local diocesan community. 

Meanwhile the DDF could take years to make its own mind up, even after the local bishop had made his own call, and both would often have to wait for a few years to investigate and observe the popular piety which sprang up around such events. 

All in all, it made for some confusing results on the ground, especially as Rome would often give bishops instructions, but then order the bishop to leave the Vatican’s involvement out of any public declarations. 

Bishops have been for decades — as the DDF noted in the introduction to its new norms Friday — prone to making often stronger statements that the Vatican would like, affirming that an apparition either was or was not supernatural. 

While warning the faithful against obviously false supernatural claims is fine, the problem with making a positive statement in their favor is that, as Cardinal Fernández noted, “these expressions effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it when he was prefect of the then-CDF, “No apparition is indispensable to the faith; revelation terminated with Jesus Christ. He himself is the Revelation.” But, the future Pope Benedict XVI said, “we certainly cannot prevent God from speaking to our time through simple people and also through extraordinary signs.”

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In line with this understanding, the new DDF norms offer a more nuanced sliding scale of recognition for purported apparitions, all of which have to come from an investigation by the diocesean bishop, involving other local bishops as necessary, and in conversation with the local bishops’ conference, but with the dicastery in Rome giving the final approval of any decision.

While the norms give a detailed guide for how such investigations and assessments are to proceed, the most important change is the range of possible outcomes.

Instead of bishops declaring an apparition either proven (but not as a matter of faith) or unproven, the Church will now classify it as one of the following:

— Declaratio de non supernaturalitate, meaning it's been positively found not to be supernatural.

— Prohibetur et obstruatur, which allows that while there might have been some positive elements to the request, serious problems mean the bishop must declare it prohibited for Catholics to believe in or promote it.

— Sub mandato, literally “under mandate,” meaning that the dicastery has found serious issues not directly touching the supposed apparition itself but related a person, a family, or a group of people who are misusing it, with the local bishop ordered to try to resolve the problems.

— Curatur, in which case the dicastery has seen significant problems related to the phenomenon but recognizes that an outright ban would be problematic because devotion has already spread, and there are real spiritual fruits associated with it. As such, the bishop isn’t to encourage popular devotion and should do his best to redirect it towards some better expression.

— Prae oculis habeatur — basically “keeping an eye on it” — for apparitions with significant positive signs in its favor, but enough causes for concern that the bishops should keep in close contact “with the recipients of a given spiritual experience” to arrange for any clarifications that need to be made.

— Nihil obstat, when many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged “in the midst” of a given spiritual experience, and no obvious doctrinal or pastoral concerns are apparent, at least so far. This is not a declaration that an apparition is definitely supernatural, just that there’s nothing preventing the bishop from recognizing its pastoral value or promoting it.

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As all this relates to Međugorje, perhaps the Church’s most famously unrecognized supposed apparition of Mary in the last century, the new norms would seem to open up new ways for the DDF to deal with the situation, as Cardinal Fernández suggested on Friday.

And there are a few problems with the situation in Međugorje. But first a little background:

On June 24, 1981, two teenagers reported seeing a woman standing on a cloud who identified herself as “Queen of Peace.” 

Soon those teenagers were joined by a third, and eventually six young people in total claimed sight of the woman, who delivered a fairly benign message of reconciliation and prayer, and they became collectively known as the “visionaries” of  Međugorje.

The kids gained a rapid following and the little Herzegovinian town soon sprouted into an international pilgrim destination. But the local diocesan Bishop of Mostar urged caution from the beginning. He expressed concern about the amount of sway a community of local Franciscans had over the “visionaries” while also instructing successive investigations into their claims.

Following three different lengthy enquiries into the supposed apparitions — which the “visionaries” claimed to still be receiving regularly — the local bishops’ conference (of what was then Yugoslavia) issued a declaration in 1991 stating that “it cannot be affirmed that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations.”

But those conclusions did little to dampen wider enthusiasm for the place as a pilgrim destination — and local bishops were beginning to wonder what, exactly, the status of such trips was. 

In response, the DDF clarified in 1996 that since there had been no official approval of the events at Međugorje, and the assessment of the local bishops was not in its favor, there could be no “official” pilgrimages to the shrine which had been built there — meaning bishops, dioceses, priests, and parishes could not organize or sanction such trips, or otherwise give the impression the Church recognized what was meant to have occurred there.

By 1997, the Bishop of Mostar had downgraded the diocese’s own assessment of the supposed visions. While the bishops’ conference had concluded in 1991 it was “not proven to be supernatural” on the available evidence, the local bishop said he now found it to be “proven not to be supernatural.” But the people kept on coming — and the visionaries continued to claim they were getting regular apparitions.

By 2010, Pope Benedict ordered a new investigation and report, which took four years to compile before being delivered to Pope Francis, who has himself since expressed some incredulity about some of the now-adult “visionaries” continuing to receive regularly scheduled apparitions.

Nevertheless, the pope summarized the report’s findings during a press conference in 2017, saying that “Regarding the first apparitions, when [the “visionaries”] were children, the report more or less says that further investigation is needed. About the presumed current apparitions, the report has its doubts,” according to Francis. 

But the pope also noted, “the spiritual fact, the pastoral fact, [of] people who go there and convert, people who encounter God, who change their lives.” 

There is “no magic wand” for this, Francis said, and “this spiritual-pastoral fact cannot be denied.”

Since then, the pope has loosened things up a little regarding Međugorje. 

In 2018 he designated the Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser as Apostolic Visitor to the site, and he concluded that, whatever the reality or unreality of the original visions may be, the pilgrims coming there had a genuine devotion to Our Lady and manifested truly “Christocentric” theology lived in closeness to the Virgin Mary, venerated under the title of “Queen of Peace.” 

A year later, Francis authorized official parish and diocesan pilgrimages to the shrine there but the Vatican clarified at the time that in doing so clerics of any rank had to “avoid that these pilgrimages are interpreted as an authentication of the known events, which still require examination by the Church.”

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How much more examination by the Church the original Međugorje apparitions require is not exactly clear — or how much more original information and testimony there could be to collect, after multiple diocesan and Vatican investigations.

But in his press conference Friday, Cardinal Fernández gave a kind of indication. 

“I haven't read the material available at the dicastery, I know some details, but we need to study to reach a conclusion with these new norms,” he said. 

“Keep in mind that a phenomenon can be considered good, not dangerous at the origin, but it may have some issues in its later development.” 

The cardinal noted, as Pope Francis has previously, that “if I remember correctly, the Madonna there was giving orders, setting the schedule, the place, what the bishop should do, etc. That needs to be clarified.” He also said that clarification can mean “need to clarify that some details should not be taken seriously.”

There have also been criticisms of the conduct of some of the “visionaries” and those around them in the decades since the original supposed appearance of Our Lady, including allegations of attempts to commodify the supposedly ongoing appearances.

Without mentioning Međugorje in particular, Fernández’s introduction to the new norms also noted the potential for “serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful” around some unapproved phenomena, including “the use of such phenomenon to gain profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest —even possibly extending to the commission of gravely immoral acts or the use of these phenomena as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.”

Taken all together then, it seems highly likely that the DDF is mulling where best Međugorje fits in its new sliding scale of possible conclusions for it. 

Given the luke-warm at best and negative at worst assessments of the original apparitions by the local bishops, over decades, it seems impossible that Rome would consider granting it a nihil obstat

But on the other hand, with Pope Francis and his own designated apostolic visitor having made clear the genuine disposition of pilgrims to the shrine, and the real spiritual fruits which have come from popular piety around it, an outright prohibition seems equally unlikely.

The question then would seem to be where in its middle tiers of “some problems, so obvious good signs” the DDF will decide to place Međugorje. 

Underpinning everything is the pronounced skepticism of the original “visionaries” themselves by many, perhaps most, if not all ecclesiastical authorities to study the matter closely. 

Where the Vatican (including Fernandez and the pope) seem to have indicated the Church is coming down is less a validation of the supernatural as a recognition of the pious natural reality which has grown up around it — and the likely impossibility of suppressing it entirely, even if they determined there was no “lady in a cloud” in the 1980s or thereafter.

This being the case, the middle designation of curatur, officially defined in the new norms as having “various or significant critical elements” but “already spread widely” and with “verifiable spiritual fruits connected to it.” 

“In this situation, a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended,” the DDF says. “Nevertheless, the Diocesan Bishop is asked not to encourage this phenomenon but to seek out alternative expressions of devotion and possibly reorient its spiritual and pastoral aspects.”

But even if this definition seems tailor made to describe Međugorje — and even if it was specifically drafted to describe it — that may not mean the DDF will be in a rush to apply it. At least some of the people of God who would be “upset” by a ban on the shrine will likely be upset, too, at anything less than a Vatican validation of their devotion.

However nuanced the new rules allow the Vatican to be in its judgment, when it comes to someone claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary — or others supporting their claims — many treat it as a matter (not to say an article) of faith. 

While Rome remains clear that the Church never affirms Catholics must believe in supernatural apparitions, many want it to do just that and conversely would find it hard to accept any official denial.

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