Agoo: who needs miracles?

What is interesting about the Catholic Church’s position on the reported Marian apparitions in Agoo is that while it claims there was nothing supernatural in the occurrences, it did not say that miracles could not happen.

The Church Commission that investigated the Agoo phenomena and the devotees who are now protesting its findings actually share a common frame of experience, a common cosmology.  They both believe in supernatural interventions.  They both believe that Mary is the Mother of God, and that Marian apparitions are possible because in fact they have happened before.

But within this common frame there are disagreements.  The Church is saying that most reported apparitions of Mary are not real, and Agoo is one of them. That many  visionaries or seers who claim to be in communication with Mary are not authentic, and Judiel Nieva is one of them.

To disbelieve  the apparition at Agoo is not to disbelieve in Mary.  And to distrust Judiel is not the same as distrusting the 3 children of Fatima or Bernadette of Lourdes.

This does not seem so difficult to understand.  Yet, a number of Marian devotees think that to accept the Church Commission’s findings on Agoo is tantamount to denigrating Mary.  That to call the apparitions a hoax would be to undermine the faith that was strengthened by the pilgrimages to Agoo.  The Church’s pronouncements on Agoo have left them confused and devastated.

What could possibly account for such confusion?   Three things, I think. One, the view that faith is a matter of believing; therefore it requires no empirical proof.  Two, the belief that anything that strengthens one’s faith or gains new converts to the Church can only be good, and therefore it must be encouraged.  Three, the belief that the realization of one’s personal wishes serves to  confirm the truth of one’s belief.

If belief is a matter of faith, it is argued, why is the Church Commission subjecting the Agoo phenomena to empirical proof?  Why is the  Commission saying that the dancing sun could have been an optical illusion produced by gazing too long at the sun?  Or that the swirl of multi-colored lights  that attended Mary’s supposed apparition could have been produced by flashes from cameras?

The simple answer, I think, is that to have faith is to believe in God’s word and to entrust your life to Him.  It is not to suspend the natural frame of reference on everything.  I am not an expert on this question, and  the reader will forgive me if I have misunderstood this point.  But it is clear to me that what was under question is not  the devotion to Mary, but her reported apparition in Agoo.

It is interesting that the Commission itself refused to pass judgment on the factual status of the reported physical manifestations in the sky, preferring to focus its attention on the messages received by Judiel and on the  discernible effects of the entire event on his personal lifestyle.  His behavior was not at all “edifying”, the Commission said.  He acted like a “celebrity”, showing none of the  “spiritual serenity” associated with authentic visionaries.

On the second point, a point also raised by Inquirer reader Norman O. Miranda (Letters, Sept. 15): If the Agoo “miracles” have strengthened the faith of many and made them better Christians, why should the Church not “maintain(ed) the mystique of Agoo rather than demean it with its expose”? This point was precisely addressed by Msgr. Laxamana and Fr.  Ranada, two of the guests on Public Forum last Monday.  The answer is that the Church will have nothing to do with what is not true.  Faith does not mean the suspension of our natural standards for validating experience; it only means the readiness to look beyond the natural frame of experience when it can no longer furnish the answers.

By carefully comparing the texts of Mary’s alleged messages to Judiel with earlier Marian messages, the Commission was able to conclude that Judiel and his handlers had actually plagiarized the messages from other visionaries. The boy had apparently memorized the messages and attempted, during the supposed apparitions, to reproduce these on his notebook.  The copying was astonishingly verbatim, but due presumably to occasional lapses in memory, the messages — which were all in English — contained many grammatical errors.  These errors made the text incoherent in many places and, from the point of view of the Commission, fraudulent.

It was all that the Commission needed in order to establish the absence of any sign of the supernatural.  In all the apparitions approved by the Church, Fr. Ranada said, Mother Mary had spoken in the local tongue.  Judiel memorized translated messages culled from previous reported apparitions from all over the world and passed these off as new ones.  Natural commonsense sleuthing, rather than a resort to complex theological reasoning,  permitted the custodians of the Church’s cosmology to declare Judiel a fraud.

One of my guests on the show, a devout woman who gave up her profession to have more time for Mama Mary, listened to the pronouncement of members of the Church Commission in total disbelief.  She looked totally crushed.  “How can you say the Virgin of Agoo is not miraculous,” she demanded, “when she has granted everything that I had asked for?”   The veneration of Mary remains a good thing, she was told, but you should not need the Agoo apparition to sustain you in your devotion or for your prayers to be answered.  As Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”.

The Commission’s declaration of a non-miracle at Agoo  may have cost the Church a million potential returnees to the faith as well as the chance to establish a pilgrimage center in the country. But, on the other hand, I am sure it has bolstered the Catholic Church’s standing as a community of sensible human beings who do not require miracles to establish the truth of their faith.


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