Mary, the Mother of God, appeared to a French girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Although local Church authorities were highly skeptical, a number of events transpired, which eased all doubts that this uneducated peasant girl was telling the truth.
First, Bernadette was given inside knowledge about something she possibly couldn't have known about otherwise. She repeated the words, "I am the Immaculate Conception" to her parish priest, whom, up until that time, hadn't been supportive.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's soul when she was conceived without sin. At that time, theological discussions about this belief were taking place in Rome. Most people weren't privy to those conversations. So the priest realized Bernadette's knowledge must have come from a supernatural source.
Also, Bernadette was told by her Heavenly visitor that a spring would appear in a certain spot, at a grotto in Lourdes, France, the site of the apparitions. Bernadette was instructed to start digging in the dirt. Nothing happened at first, leaving her open to ridicule. However, just as the lady promised, water did flow, as it still does today.
Lourdes is now the leading pilgrimage destination on the entire European continent. This picturesque community in the French Pyrenees draws millions of people each year. The desperately sick go there seeking a miracle. Sometimes that happens. To date, there are more than 60 validated miracles. Each was scrutinized by a medical team, comprised of both Catholics and physicians from other religions. Atheists have also served on this review committee. It's widely believed that thousands of other cures, which were not investigated, have also occurred.
The Catholic Church is very careful in giving its stamp of approval to alleged Marian apparitions. That's because, over the centuries, there have been a number of false ones.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
So, how does one discern a fake visitation from the real thing? Actually, there are a number of things to look for. The first is whether the local bishop believes the visionary is real. Guided by the Holy Spirit, faithful Catholics believe he has the ability to do this. He'd look for evidence the seer is emotionally stable and is not trying to call attention to himself or herself. Evidence of financial gain is a negative.
Bernadette, who eventually entered a convent, renounced the world. At one point, after word got out about her experience, someone tried to give a toy to her younger brother. However, she wouldn't let him keep it, to avoid any hint of profiteering.
The bishop will also review all of the alleged messages. If anything conflicts with Catholic teaching, the entire experience would likely be viewed as fraudulent.
If a visionary were found to be lying, at any point, this would be ample reason to doubt their overall credibility.
Ruling out the Diabolical
Bishops are well aware that some visions and apparitions are diabolical. This is why they're especially careful before pronouncing any event "worthy of belief."
The devil can mimic miracles. He can also produce signs and wonders. Some people automatically assume that anything out of the ordinary, such as Rosary beads turning gold, is a sure sign that Heaven is responsible.
Many people get confused, after seeing outward signs of piety and devotion. There may even be conversions and an increase in prayer. However, along with that may exist a spirit of rebellion, infighting and disobedience. These are not good fruits.
Many False Apparitions
There's a long history of false apparitions in the Catholic Church. After Bernadette was graced with a series of Heavenly visits, dozens of other false apparitions were reported in the immediate vicinity. Each of these were investigated, but serious flaws were uncovered.
In the past, famous, but false, apparitions have attracted large groups of followers, despite the fact the local bishop warned people away. However, years later, it became clear the alleged visits either didn't happen, or were not of a Heavenly origin.
Some possibilities for fabrications include someone seeking to draw attention to themselves. A bishop would undoubtedly wonder about a seer who sought out the limelight. True visionaries, such as Saint Bernadette, and Sister Lucia dos Santos, associated with Our Lady of Fatima, later led retiring lives in a cloistered convent.
Or, a seer might have an overactive imagination. Even though he or she truly believes Jesus or His mother are appearing, it may not be true.
Then, there is a third possibility. This is where it gets very tricky.
Protecting Yourself from False Apparitions
There are some red flags to help guide you away from a false apparition, which will always, in one way or another, lead you astray, even if this isn't immediately apparent. Here's what to watch for.
- A particular apparition is condemned by the local bishop. This is a black mark, especially if the seers do not submit to his ruling and continue to promote this devotion. If these visits are truly from God, eventually, the bishop will rethink his position, or another bishop will later approve it. The Catholic faithful will obtain more graces by being obedient.
- A seer who still exhibits worldly behavior. This includes financial gain, as well as a focus on himself or herself.
- The statements contain doctrinal error. If the messages are in conflict with the teachings of the Church, the vision is not of Heavenly origin.
- A spirit of fanaticism. This includes the practice of visiting a particular apparition dozens of times, as well as uncharitable behavior towards those who don't share their enthusiasm for the devotion.