Mary appeared thrice in Wisconsin, bishop says

December 15, 2010

In 1859, a Wisconsin farm woman recounted three mystical meetings
with the Virgin Mary, who told her to pray for the conversion of sinners
and teach children the Catholic faith.

More than 150 years
later—December 8, to be exact—the Catholic bishop of Green Bay
sanctioned Adele Brise's visions as both supernatural and "worthy of
belief." It was the first officially approved Marian apparition (the
Catholic Church's term for paranormal appearances by Mary) in the United
States.

Of the many questions kindled by Bishop David Ricken's
announcement, two seemed particularly apt: How does the church
investigate mystical visions? And why does it take so long to approve
them?

Brise was 28, partially blind and far from her native
Belgium when she reported speaking with a woman wearing a brilliant
white gown and starry crown who seemed to float above the fields.
Calling
herself "the Queen of Heaven," the vision gave Brise a mission: "Gather
the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know
for salvation." For the rest of her life, Brise did just that, trudging
across the untamed frontier to catechize children, build a school and
found an order of Franciscan sisters.

Since Brise's visions, tales
of miraculous healings attributed to Mary have become commonplace in
Champion, Wisconsin, where crutches and other tokens of cured injuries
fill a shrine built on the site of the apparition, said deacon Ray
DuBois, a spokesman for the Dio­cese of Green Bay.

Ricken opened a
formal investigation into Brise's visions in January 2009, appointing a
committee of three Marian experts who followed guidelines issued by the
Vatican in 1978 for judging apparitions and revelations. These
committees typically consult experts in psychology, church law,
scripture, history and theology, as well as take testimony from people
familiar with the visionary.

In general, church investigators are
more "history detectives" than "ghost hunters," to use a television
analogy. Supernatural events are almost impossible to prove, said Johann
Roten, a priest who has served on committees assessing apparitions, so
the church is more interested in the consequences of the vision.

"It's
not only the moment of seeing Our Lady that is important to determining
whether a vision is true, but also what the seer actually does with
that experience," said Roten, director of the International Marian
Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

The
Vatican guidelines require an investigation into visionaries' moral and
mental character—crackpots, degenerates and money-grubbers need not
apply. Extra points are given for visions that inspire abundant
"spiritual fruits," such as works of charity, intense prayer or
conversion. Alleged apparitions that encourage disobedience toward the
church or its doctrines are dismissed.

Bishops have the authority
to ap­prove apparitions in their diocese, though occasionally national
bishops' conferences or the Vatican will step in if there is a dispute,
such as the ongoing one in Med­jugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Thus
far, the church has approved only about 12 Marian apparitions worldwide,
said Roten, with Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal, among the most
famous. Others—including some in the U.S.—are under investigation,
Roten said, but he declined to name them. "You don't want to start
publicizing things because you are not sure they will go anywhere," said
Roten.

Alleged apparitions in Bayside, New York; Emmitsburg,
Maryland; and Marl­boro Township, New Jersey, were investigated and
declared false by the church.

In the 1950s, a farmwife's visions
of Mary in Necedah, Wisconsin, about 150 miles southeast of Champion,
attracted one of the largest religious gatherings in the state's
history, said Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, a scholar at the University of
Kansas. The church, however, dismissed the Necedah apparitions.

In
general, the Catholic Church approaches stories of supernatural visions
with a mixture of excitement and caution, scholars say.

On the
one hand, mystical experiences can inspire believers and spark vast
spiritual movements, such as in Mexico after the Virgin of Guadalupe
reportedly appeared to peasant Juan Diego in 1531. Millions of
pilgrims—particularly Catholics—trek to Lourdes and Fatima each year.

But
Catholic leaders are also wary of hoaxes, ridicule and diviners who
boast of a hotline to God. Hundreds of visions—from spotting Jesus in a
grilled cheese sandwich, to weeping statues, to more sustained
spiritual experiences—have been reported and dismissed over the
centuries.

"I think the church quite properly plays a waiting game,"
said Brian Britt, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Tech
University. He compared the long lag time in approving apparitions to
the church's lengthy process for canonizing saints. "Better late than
wrong" is the prevailing ethos.

"Once the visionary is dead and
gone, if the pilgrimage site continues to have meaning and value for the
church, it becomes less risky," Britt said, "and even sometimes
desirable for the church to offer its endorsement."  —RNS