Q: How does the Roman Catholic
Church decide if claimed apparitions
and miracles resulting from them
are legitimate? What formal declarations
are used to describe the results of these
investigations? Do such declarations require
a Catholic to believe in an apparition?
A: Any investigation begins with
the diocese where the apparition
reportedly occurred. A national or
regional bishops' conference may be
asked to assist in an investigation.
The Church is very cautious about
reports of apparitions. At most, it will
declare that they are "worthy of assent"
but never that they must be believed.
The reason for this approach is that
even apparitions considered credible
cannot be public revelation, which is
reserved to the life of Jesus and the
canonical Scriptures. This means that
the apparitions at Lourdes or Fatima
or other places, for example, could not
cancel out any book of the Bible or a
The Church first developed its theology
about public and private revelation
to answer second-century Gnostic
Christians, who claimed to possess
secret writings and teachings about
Jesus, not intended for all his followers.
The Catholic Church concluded that
God's revelation is necessarily public. It
must be understood within the context
of the entire Church, under the
bishops united with the successor of
St. Peter. Genuine apparitions must
reinforce the Scriptures.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "Throughout the ages, there
have been so-called ‘private' revelations,
some of which have been recognized
by the authority of the Church.
They do not belong, however, to the
deposit of faith. It is not their role to
improve or complete Christ's definitive
Revelation, but to help live more
fully by it in a certain period of history.
Guided by the magisterium of the
Church, the sensus fidelium [sense of
the faithful] knows how to discern and
welcome in these revelations whatever
constitutes an authentic call of Christ
or his saints to the Church" (#67).
The apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima,
Guadalupe and many other shrines
have withstood the test of time because
their content has consistently reinforced
the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be
said about reported apparitions in some
other places. In Bayside, New York, for
example, Mary is said to have denounced,
among other things, receiving
Holy Communion in the hand and
other liturgical practices authorized by
I had the opportunity last October to
visit and celebrate Mass in Fatima and
Lourdes, as well as in the Shrine of the
Miraculous Medal and the Sacré Coeur
Basilica in Paris. Apparitions and miracles
have been reported in the first
three places. My fellow pilgrims and I
saw that these shrines clearly reinforce
the faith of the people who visit,
reminding everyone of God's generous
grace and their own need to keep
converting to the Lord's ways. Local
Church leadership is clearly respected
at these four shrines.
As for reported physical healings,
they are investigated in the diocese
where the person lives. Regarding miracles
submitted for someone's beatification
or canonization, there is an
investigation by local doctors and then
by a team of medical experts in Rome.
Countless spiritual or inner healings
also occur at many shrines. At least
one member of our group reported
such an experience. Genuine apparitions
and healings are always signs of
God's love for us.
Q: On August 29, 2009, Senator Ted
Kennedy had a Catholic funeral at
Boston's Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual
Help. How can I explain to my non-Catholic
friends how he could marry Vicki when his
first wife is still alive?
How could someone who voted many
times in favor of abortion be given a
A: Ultimately, it is the local bishop
who decides if a deceased Catholic
meets the conditions of Canon
1184 for people who may be denied a
Catholic funeral. Those include "notorious
apostates, heretics and schismatics;
those who chose the cremation of
their bodies for reasons contrary to
Christian faith" and "other manifest
sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical
funerals without public scandal
of the faithful."
Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley,
O.F.M.Cap., led the prayers of final
commendation at Kennedy's Mass of
Christian Burial. In his September 2
blog, the cardinal addressed Catholics
"who have voiced both support and
disappointment at my having presided
at the senator's funeral Mass" (www.bostoncatholic.org).
Cardinal O'Malley wrote: "Needless
to say, the senator's wake and Catholic
funeral were controversial because of
the fact that he did not publicly support
Catholic teaching and advocacy
on behalf of the unborn.
"Given the profound effect on
Catholic social teaching on so many of
the programs and policies espoused by
Sen. Kennedy and the millions who
benefited from them, there is a tragic
sense of lost opportunity in his lack of
support for the unborn. To me and
many Catholics it was a great disappointment
because, had he placed the
issue of life at the centerpiece of the
social Gospel where it belongs, he could
have multiplied the immensely valuable
work he accomplished."
Later in the same blog, the cardinal
explained: "As archbishop of Boston, I
considered it appropriate to represent
the Church at this liturgy out of respect
for the senator, his family, those who
attended the Mass and all those who
were praying for the senator and his
family at this difficult time. We are
people of faith, and we believe in a
loving and forgiving God from whom
we seek mercy.
"At times, even in the Church, zeal
can lead people to issue harsh judgments
and impute the worst motives to
one another. These attitudes and practices
do irreparable damage to the communion
of the Church. If any cause is
motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness,
it will be doomed to marginalization
and failure. Jesus' words
to us were that we must love one
another as he loves us."
Respected Catholic columnists such
as Father John Dietzen of Peoria and
Msgr. Frank Maniscalco of Rockville
Centre, New York, supported the cardinal's
position. So did Msgr. Anthony
Sherman, executive director of the Secretariat
of Divine Worship at the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At Kennedy's burial, Cardinal Theodore
McCarrick, emeritus archbishop
of Washington, D.C., quoted from
Kennedy's summer letter to Pope Benedict
XVI. The pope assured Kennedy of
Regarding your question about Senator
Kennedy's first marriage, it seems
that he received a declaration of nullity,
affirming that the marriage was legal
under civil law but, for reasons judged
valid by a Church tribunal, was not
truly a sacramental marriage.
Of course, having or not having a
Catholic funeral does not determine
God's judgment about a person's salvation.
I encourage all those distressed
about Senator Kennedy's funeral Mass
to entrust him—and themselves—to
God's loving mercy.
Q: As a child, I remember January 1 as a holy day of obligation, celebrating
the circumcision of Jesus Christ. Now it is titled "Solemnity
of Mary, Mother of God." When did that happen? Also, why
in the last two years was this solemnity not listed on my parish calendar
as a holy day of obligation?
A: The title "Mother of God" was given to Mary at the Council
of Ephesus in 431 A.D. According to Jovian Lang, O.F.M., in
Dictionary of the Liturgy (Catholic Book Publishing Company),
from the fifth century through the Middle Ages, this feast was celebrated
on January 1. Eventually, Jesus' circumcision was celebrated that day.
From 1961 through 1969, January 1 was celebrated simply as the
Octave of the Nativity. The 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar restored
the present title. The 44th World Day of Peace, originally proclaimed by
Pope Paul VI, occurs on January 1, 2010.
The U.S. bishops have decided that Catholics are not obliged to attend
Mass if the following holy days of obligation fall on a Saturday or Monday
that year: Assumption, All Saints and Mary, Mother of God. (That happened
last year.) The Ascension of Jesus is celebrated on Sunday in most
U.S. dioceses but on Thursday in the others. Christmas is always a holy
day of obligation. In the United States, the same is true for the Solemnity
of the Immaculate Conception, our country's patronal feast.
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