"The Vatican Prophecies" by John Thavis. Photo courtesy of John Thavis

With Pope Francis, Catholic Church takes a new angle on the supernatural (COMMENTARY)

Pope Francis speaks in front the basilica of Saint Mary Ausiliatrice (Mary Help of Christians) during a two-day pastoral visit in Turin, Italy, on June 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TURIN, originally transmitted on June 22, 2015.

Pope Francis speaks in front the Basilica of Saint Mary Ausiliatrice (Mary Help of Christians) during a two-day pastoral visit in Turin, Italy, on June 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TURIN, originally transmitted on June 22, 2015, and RNS-THAVIS-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Sept. 11, 2015.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) When Pope Francis visits the United States this month, most Americans will welcome him as a plainspoken champion of the voiceless, whose openness to change has brought new energy to the Catholic Church.

Largely lost in this portrait is a devotional side of the Argentine pontiff that reaches back to some of the church’s most traditional beliefs -- and gives them a characteristic “Francis” twist.

Take the devil, for example. Francis has spoken repeatedly about Satan, describing him variously as a con artist, a dangerous manipulator who “knows more theology than all theologians,” or a sly charmer who often comes “disguised as an angel.”

What stands out is that, for the pope, the devil is real and not merely a symbolic or allegorical figure. “On this point there is no shadow of a doubt,” he says. “A battle exists, a battle in which the eternal salvation of us all is at stake.”

When Francis first began zeroing in on the “evil one” in his sermons, excitement spread among the small network of exorcists in Rome. These priests had been promoting the ministry of exorcism for years, often against Vatican resistance, and it seemed the pope was on their wavelength.

Their enthusiasm waned, however, when it became clear that encouraging formal exorcisms was not on the pope’s agenda. The devil described by Francis is not someone who possesses people violently, or announces his presence with smoke and sulfur. Instead, this is a devil who leads people into bad habits like gossiping or seduces them with moral compromises, temptations that are all the more insidious because they are so subtle.

When it comes to supernatural phenomena -- including demons, miracles, apparitions and private revelations -- Francis’ approach is far more practical than theatrical. That has placed him in the middle of an ongoing tension in the Catholic Church, between the predominantly dry, doctrinal approach of the hierarchy and the thirst among many faithful for something more tangible, and perhaps more spectacular.

For decades, Vatican theologians have de-emphasized the importance of private revelations and discouraged the hunt for supernatural signs. At the same time, however, officials in Rome cannot be seen as ruling out divine intervention in people’s lives. This is a religion, after all, that was founded by a man who cast out demons, healed the sick and appeared to his followers after his death.

As a result, the Vatican at times appears conflicted about the supernatural: Miracles are routinely investigated and approved for sainthood causes, yet personal claims of prophetic visions are kept under wraps; saints’ relics known for healing powers are sent on world tours, yet church officials discourage cutting up bodies for new relics; a handful of Marian apparition sites are officially recognized, while many more are downplayed or ignored.

Francis, who has a keen devotion to the Virgin Mary, shocked listeners two years ago when he dismissed the idea that Mary would send messages every day, like a “postmaster.” Later he said that Christians who constantly await divine dispatches were merely seeking novelty, not true faith.

Those words stung in the popular pilgrimage center of Medjugorje, the town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where since 1981 visionaries have claimed to see, speak with and receive daily messages from the Virgin Mary. The Vatican investigated those apparitions for years, and insiders say the pope’s judgment, expected soon, may encourage restrictions on the public activity of the seers, some of whom have become globetrotting celebrities.

"The Vatican Prophecies" by John Thavis. Photo courtesy of John Thavis

"The Vatican Prophecies" by John Thavis. Photo courtesy of John Thavis


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

At times, Francis seems to be redirecting attention from the miraculous to the more urgent, real-life demands of Christianity. Praying in June before the Shroud of Turin, which many believe to be the burial cloth of the crucified Christ, the pope avoided any mention of its much-debated authenticity. Instead, he said the image should inspire Christians to help all those who suffer or are persecuted.

Likewise, when he visited Naples in March, the city’s faithful proclaimed it a miracle when the blood of their patron, Saint Januarius, liquefied in the pope’s presence. The pope practically ignored the prodigious event, and then went off to meet with the sick.

Francis does believe in the power of saintly intercession, and has said that when he prays to Saint Therese of Lisieux, he “almost always” receives a rose in response -- a sign that those in heaven are listening.

Yet this is a pope who unexpectedly set aside the requirement of a verified miracle for several canonizations. His action prompted some Vatican experts to wonder if the church may be moving away from medical miracles as the presumed “stamp of approval” for sainthood.

Francis believes miracles do happen, but it’s a wider understanding of the miraculous. Modern miracles, he says, are more about patient struggle than sudden spectacle, and people who need miracles in order to believe are on the wrong path.

As he put it shortly after his election: “God doesn't work like a fairy with a magic wand.”

(John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, is the author of a new book, "The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age.")

YS/AMB END THAVIS

Comments

  1. “This is a religion, after all, that was founded by a man who cast out demons, healed the sick and appeared to his followers after his death.”

    The God ROMULUS?

  2. John Thavis,
    Seriously though, thanks for this commentary. It is very insightful.

    “Francis does believe in the power of saintly intercession…when he prays to Saint Therese of Lisieux, he “almost always” receives a rose in response…”

    The Pope needs to investigate “Confirmation bias” and learn about it.

    “Satan…comes “disguised as an angel.””

    Claiming the world is just a hall of mirrors and that evil “could be the beautiful person next to you” is incredibly unhelpful. The Pope needs to study the scientific method.

    “Science is how we make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves. And we are the easiest ones to fool” – Richard Feynman

    The Pope is a silly person promoting a fatuous philosophy – an Ambassador of Leprechaunia.

  3. “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just god when he’s drunk”

    Tom Waits

  4. Careful, Max. Feynman should have said, “Science is how we try to make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves. And we, scientists, are just as easy as anyone else to fool.” It’s all about a search for understanding. The Pope searches one way, the philosopher another, and the scientist still another. If there is one thing Post Modernism advises its that none of them has the final answer.

  5. “The Vatican investigated those apparitions for years, and insiders say the pope’s judgment, expected soon, may encourage restrictions on the public activity of the seers, some of whom have become globetrotting celebrities.”

    If this doesn’t say it all, I can’t imagine what does. Like the fabled visions of Fathima, where people saw the Sun dance, on a hot Portuguese afternoon, but no one else anywhere in the world saw the Sun dance. Meanwhile, someone’s making money off of it, or more accurately making money off the Credulity of believers.

    Globe trotting celebrities indeed!

  6. Tom Downs:

    “Feynman should have said…scientists are the easiest to fool”

    But he didn’t – he said WE ARE ALL EASY TO FOOL.
    Don’t put yourself outside of that circle or you completely missed his wisdom.

    And what do you think is a better way than science exactly?
    The Pope isn’t being metaphorical or poetic! He says you can’t tell where the devil is and you can’t figure it out by any particular means.

    That’s right!
    The AUTHORITY of the church is claiming life is no better than a hall of mirrors! So what do you have left? Follow Jesus? Which JESUS?

    “Kill them all” – JESUS (luke 19:27)
    “Forgive them all, they know not what they do” – JESUS

    Good grief!
    Religion adds nothing but foolishness and confusion.
    Science is a METHOD to dispel confusion. It doesn’t have the answer to every question – but neither do you.

    At least Science doesn’t say – “We can’t know anything”
    The Pope is just childish.

  7. This article is kind of interesting, because there is a new book out (Peace will have the Last Word; http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Will-Have-Last-Word/dp/B011SM8M7Q), which describes a miracle that occurred in the pope’s diocese prior to him becoming pope. It was a discarded host (Eucharist) found on the floor of the church, which after a few days began to bleed, and showing fragments of tissue in the host; it was later analyzed by a forensic scientist, who described the host as “living” heart tissue, of a man with Type AB blood, who experienced great stress, even though the bloodied host had been secured away for weeks prior to its analysis. It is hard to imagine the pope not being the slightest bit influenced by this event. There have been a series of these incidents throughout the last 2000 years in the Church, where Christ is apparently saying, Believe Me, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in you” (John 6:53).

  8. “Take the devil, for example. Francis has spoken repeatedly about Satan, describing him variously as a con artist, a dangerous manipulator who “knows more theology than all theologians,” or a sly charmer who often comes “disguised as an angel.”

    And now moving into the 21st century:

    Satan does not exist, never did and never will. It is all part of the Infamous Satanic/Angelic con pulled by founders of religion since time began.

  9. Greg1,

    Once again, John’s gospel is historically nil. You might want to review the reviews before using it again.

    And bleeding hosts? Give us break!!! Might want to check the credentials of said forensic “scientist”.

  10. Max,

    Again, you might want to check the authenticity of the passages you cite.

  11. Greg1,

    A book written by a brain-washed nun with no book reviews!! Very authoritative!!!

  12. She is only reporting the statements of those in the diocese, and the forensic report of what cannot exist in the natural world as we know it. You can deny all day long, but our Lord has done this numerous times over the last 2000 years to get the attention of persons such as yourself. Here’s another one:
    http://www.michaeljournal.org/eucharist3.htm

  13. All you have to do is google “communion wafer transformed into human tissue” to find more examples than you can shake a thurible at. It took me 30 seconds to find three of them.

    One of the “experts” consulted said it was “human myocardial tissue STILL BEATING”. Don’t that beat all? Tissue doesn’t beat.

    Like the miracles at Fatima, Guadalupe, and Lourdes– why does Mary or The Immaculate Conception always appear to illiterate peasant children far away from verification– if your god were actually interested in performing a miracle for anyone but the gullible, why a “piece of communion wafer” far away from someplace that could actually test it, with a verifiable chain of possession?

  14. Bernardo,

    “Check the authenticity…”

    I don’t think that is possible. As long as Christians use these preachments as their guide it won’t matter whether a real Jesus said them – I think it is more important to point out that they are violently contradictory.

    But if you have some information to clarify what Jesus actually said, I’m happy to see it.

    So far, every single thing Jesus appears to have said appears to be identical to things said in other Mystery Religions of the era.
    There are many reasons to think Jesus is a fictional character – I’m not saying he was – – I’m just saying there are good reasons to think he is an imaginary character from antiquity.

  15. She appears to the lesser educated, because they could not contrive of such a hoaxes and have it fool the best there is out there. Only the ones that stand up to scientific scrutiny, and rigorous analysis, are acknowledged by the Church.

  16. You are on your own after this:

    Gerd Luedemann

    Luke 19: 27
    Luedemann [Jesus, 235] recognizes a “genetic connection” between the versions in Matthew and Luke, and see them both as deriving from Q. However he does not consider that it is possible to reconstruct the original parable “in view of the numerous elaborations by the [post Easter] community”

    Luke 23:34 (might want to give the passage you are citing in the future) See Professor Ludemann’s conclusions in his book Jesus After 2000 Years,pp. 404-406 i.e. historically nil.

    The problem is that good atheists like us need to be factual in our comments.

  17. Bernardo,

    “Gerd Luedemann”

    Why is he your chosen authority on this question? You seem to be under the impression that there are hard facts somewhere in the Jesus story.

    I think Jesus was a fictional character. I don’t think any of the texts about Jesus are historically accurate on any question at all.
    In other words, a real Jesus didn’t say any of the things in the Bible as far as I can believe.

    Furthermore,
    I am addressing the claims of Christians. Not historians.
    If Christians claim they are following the preachings of a character in a Book it is my responsibility to show them at least where those preachings contradict.

    As long as Christians trap themselves int believing the New Testament is true, I will do my best to liberate them from the certainty of that ridiculous claim.
    And that is what a good Atheist does – he cares about people.

  18. ” Only the ones that stand up to scientific scrutiny, and rigorous analysis, are acknowledged by the Church.”

    Meaning those miracles with tourism industry value.

    The whole point of declaring something a miracle is to say it is beyond scientific scrutiny.

    The Fatima story has an interesting intersection with the bloodiest year of the Great War. A war which Portugal was a combatant in. Not exactly the most uplifting time for mankind. A ripe period for any kind of positive mythical news. Perfect for religious hysteria.

  19. Max,

    No, a good atheist shows Christians that their manual is full of embellishments and myths. But there was a Jesus with sufficient proof of it and actually more proof than a lot of historical characters in Jesus’ time and before.

  20. Bernardo,

    ” …more proof than a lot of historical characters in Jesus’ time and before”

    No. I can’t agree to that claim.

    We know much more about Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar than we know about Jesus. In fact, the name “Jesus” is used so loosely and in such contradictory ways – we don’t even know which Jesus of the era the Bible is referring to:

    These famous people lived at the same exact time as Jesus:

    Jesus ben Phiabi,
    Jesus ben Sec,
    Jesus ben Damneus
    Jesus ben Gamaliel.

    Which of them (if any) was the true Jesus?
    Please show me evidence and explain why it proves a particular Jesus existed.

    The more you read, the less believable it becomes…

    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/surfeit.htm

  21. Patient struggle – the way forward. May God reward us with the holy gift of patience in these times of speed and race towards nowhere.

  22. Nice words but your god does not exist. Never did and never will.

  23. We might actually see Fatima come to pass in our lifetimes; everything else stated in that apparition has come to pass.

  24. “everything else stated in that apparition has come to pass.”

    Well no. Everything has been altered to fit what has come to pass. Like all prophetic musings. When it turns out to be wrong, it just gets revised.

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