Take That, Ripley

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Miracles . . . But Were Afraid to Ask

Unlike the vast majority of our Western ancestors, we are very reluctant to take the notion of miracles seriously. Surely, we say, science has advanced to the point where miracles can be explained as natural phenomena. We do have, after all, information unavailable to our forefathers. Even bizarre or inexplicable events can be accounted for by the discipline of parapsychology —the study of unrecognized powers such as ESP and psychokinesis.

Today’s leading psychic scientist or para-psychologist is D. Scott Rogo, author of more than ten books in the field, including Parapsychology: A Century of Inquiry, The Poltergeist Experience, and Exploring Psychic Phenomena. He edited the scholarly anthology Mind Beyond the Body. He has been a research consultant at the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina, and at the Graduate School of Consciousness Studies, John F. Kennedy University, Orinda, California. His study of the “poltergeist” is fascinating and well worth the effort of reading it.

Scott Rogo’s most challenging study, however, is Miracles: A Parascientific Inquiry Into Wondrous Phenomena (New York: Dial Press). This book focuses on classic and traditional miracles that have occurred within the bosom of Catholic Church and attempts to resolve whatever enigmas these miracles may present to the modern, secular mind. Miracles considers three categories: “Miraculous Talents” —levitation, stigmata, and bilocation; “Miraculous Events” — the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, bleeding and weeping statues, and the liquefying blood of St. Januarius; and “Miraculous Interventions” — the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and supernatural healings.

A critical look at this interesting book is in order, for Rogo has launched an attack on Catholic miracles and hence on the Catholic faith itself. Though it is true that the Church does not require us to accept private revelations or miracles not mentioned in the Bible, still we are urged to believe many of these wondrous events, such as Fatima, and we might uneasily ask: what would happen to our faith if we were to suddenly disbelieve in all the miracles associated intimately with the Church? What would happen to our belief in the supernatural? It would surely be weakened, even though the supernatural may not be restricted to the miraculous.

No Village Atheist

Rogo’s attack on Catholic miracles is not like those of your typical atheist, humanist, or fundamentalist. He does not say these miracles are delusions, fraudulent plots by sinister Romanists, or pious legends. You’ll rarely catch him using the word “alleged.” He never ridicules either Catholic miracles or doctrines, even when considering accounts of miracles of the Middle Ages; he treats these just as seriously as the story of Garabandal in the 1960s. Rogo is well-read in Catholic hagiography and respectfully does research among TAN books, as well as more classic sources. Thus he pays, perhaps unwittingly, sincere tribute to the integrity of traditional Catholicism. As a writer, his strongest points are an honest attention to all details of a case or event, including those details unfavorable to his own position, and a finely-tuned ability to summarize the histories of the great classic miracles. (An unfortunate exception is his sketchy, five-page handling of the Shroud of Turin.) Never showing embarrassment or contempt, this parapsychologist is deeply interested in Catholic saints and what they do.

Rogo’s position is complex. He rejects the view of a Robert Ingersoll, a Bertrand Russell, a Hans Kueng, a Jimmy Swaggart. Instead, he claims that the great miracles really happened. They are genuine “paranormal” events. Yet, though they are in a sense objectively real, they are not divine, not caused by any celestial entity, either God or angel. Miracles are produced by man; they are only psychic events, and the saints who worked wonders, like John Bosco who multiplied bread, are nothing but psychically-gifted people who created the wondrous phenomena themselves. Rogo offers naturalistic, though paranormal, explanations of supernatural events.

Scott Rogo accepts the reality of saintly people floating above the floor, giving convincing accounts of the levitations of Sr. Maria Villani, St. Teresa of Avila, Francis Suarez, and St. Joseph of Copertino. Many people, skeptics and non-Catholics included, witnessed Joseph’s spectacular floating about. In 1651, Johann Friedrich, Duke of Brunswick and patron of Leibniz, went to Assisi and hid with two companions near a doorway to a chapel where Joseph was to say Mass. Soon, Joseph entered and drifted toward the altar. Next day, the saint levitated for 15 minutes. The astonished duke converted to Catholicism, while his two Lutheran companions, though not renouncing their faith, were deeply troubled. There is no way anyone can dismiss these facts. As Rogo puts it, “The evidence authenticating St. Joseph’s levitations is awesome.” His flights occurred in public places!

Rogo goes on to point out the levitations of those outside the Church, like D. D. Home, the nineteenth- century psychic, whose flights were truly wondrous. He then quotes from a Catholic scholar, Olivier Leroy, who sharply distinguishes psychic levitation from true mystical levitation. Leroy claims that mystics of the Church often radiate light when aloft and can levitate anywhere — in broad daylight, in public, even when sick. None of this is true of psychic levitators. Mystical levitation occurs during spontaneous ecstasy, while a psychic must invoke trance to do the feat. D. D. Home admitted, significantly, that he talked with spirits. Rogo accepts “most” of Leroy’s points as valid.

Nevertheless, for this parapsychologist, levitation is neither divine nor demonic, but is merely a psychic phenomenon. Rogo offers two theories: one holds that the mind of the levitator somehow suspends gravity, the other that an invisible force leaves the body and provides a support system. Rogo admits that “These theories are only tentative conjectures.” His naturalism rules out any causation by God, so the reader is left with vague speculation.

Stigmata of Christ

Since the time of St. Francis of Assisi, about 325 people have received the wounds of Christ: deep fissures in feet, hands, and side which bleed heavily for years, but do not heal or become infected. Of this number, only about 40 have been men. All stigmatists are Catholic, except two recent cases of Protestants, one of which lasted only six months, while concerning the other, Rogo gives very little information. Sixty stigmatists have been canonized or beatified. Rogo considers in detail the stigmata of St. Francis, St. Veronica Guiliani, Domenica Lazzari, Therese Neumann, and Padre Pio.

For example, St. Veronica Guiliani also had “heart stigmata” —insignia of the Passion, such as a cross, a crown of thorns, three nails — stamped directly onto her heart. An autopsy revealed this. After the death of St. Teresa of Avila, a deep, abnormal fissure was found in her heart. The fissure can still be seen today in the preserved heart of the saint in Alba de Tormes, Spain. Other saints have had their hearts wounded, yet this did not cause their deaths.

Furthermore, inedia, the ability to live without nourishment, often accompanies the stigmata.  A. Albert Vogl, in his book on Therese Neumann, writes: “It is an established fact that after that time [1922] she did not take any solid food in any way, shape, or form for the rest of her life; thus her total abstinence lasted 40 years.” From 1926 on, she drank no water. Yet Therese remained robust and healthy.

From 1834 to her death in 1848, Domenica Lazzari ate nothing. Also, the flowing of blood from her wounds defied gravity. Her doctors, as well as Lord Shrewsbury, saw her blood flow from her feet (in bed) upward and over the top, not downward on the side of the foot. Therese Nekrfiann’s foot wounds also bled counter to gravity on July 8,1927, as seen by a reporter from Berliner Hefte. St. Gemma  Galgani’s severe wounds would appear on Thursday evening and last until Friday at three o’clock, then would totally vanish by Saturday, or Sunday at the latest.

Skeptics who challenge the supernatural quality of the stigmata point out that these wounds have been induced by hypnosis and suggestions. Both Scott Rogo and Charles Carty, in his The Stigmata and Modern Science (TAN), discuss the difference between artificially-induced and genuine mystical stigmata. It comes down to the following: true stigmatists possess deep, severe wounds, which bleed either periodically or perpetually; the wounds never heal; and they cause intense pain. The blood-flow is sometimes copious. On the other hand, hypnotic stigmata have no true open wound; there is minimal, or no blood; hypnotic stigmata heal after a day or two and are apparently painless.

Nevertheless, Rogo will not accept the position that the stigmata is a miracle which is God-given. Instead, he is much impressed by the fact that the stigmata did not appear until the thirteenth century, with St. Francis. He therefore says all later instances of this phenomenon are “imitative in nature.” The problem with this is that it is a bit of a non-sequitur. Certainly if you believe in a God who is outside of time (the true meaning of eternity) it is no peculiarity for such a Being to cause miracles to happen in His own good “time,” whether it is 1224 or earlier (there is some speculation that Saint Paul had the stigmata).

Rogo also resorts to the well-worn invocation of “hysteria” when his argument weakens. He asserts that hysteria makes one stigmata-prone, especially in the devout. And because stigmatists often possess other mystical gifts, such as bilocation, he suggests they have psychic abilities which formed the wounds. Yet, he gives no proofs that St. Francis, Padre Pio, or Therese Neumann suffered from hysteria. Many scholars of these three mystics find that they were wholesome and satisfyingly human, though they had divine gifts. Rogo is particularly hard on Therese Neumann, trying to reduce her very real injuries and early medical problems to hysteria, and daring to say there was nothing wrong with her, that her problems were psychogenic in nature. According to Vogl, who knew the family well, Therese fell in 1918 causing partial paralysis of the spine. She fell again, and also developed severe bedsores. Later, she was miraculously healed.

Rogo suggests, as other skeptics have, that because the stigmatist always has wounds in the palms of the hands, not in the wrists where Christ’s nail-wounds actually were, the stigmatist has subjectively produced the wounds from meditating on traditional scenes of the crucifixion. But, as theologian Fr. Edward Atzert points out, this does not necessarily follow either; an alternative explanation is possible, that is, that God pays attention to the prayers and contemplation of the faithful. Stigmata in the palms is a divine accommodation to human expectations. Besides, it is unlikely that a human being with bleeding in the wrists could live very long; he would have to be kept alive with another miracle.

Moving Bodies

The duplication of the human body is a grace given to St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Martin de Porres, and others. The “second self” is able to carry out various physical acts of the body. Sometimes, great distances are involved, as in the case of Suor Maria de Agreda, whose transcontinental bi-location took her from Spain to Mexico in the seventeenth century, where she was seen instructing the natives. Rogo tells many fascinating and convincing stories of Catholic saints who were given this bizarre gift. His documentation is impressive. The accounts of the bi-locations of lay mystic Teresa Higginson, of Padre Pio, and of Natuzza Evolo (still living) are factual and quite believable.

Natuzza Evolo, also a stigmatist, even tri-located. In 18 cases, Evolo’s second self was seen by witnesses. During bi-location, she could start a clock, slam a door, and perform other normal actions. Teresa Higginson (her pedestrian surname is endearing amidst all the flashy, exotic phenomena of this chapter of Miracles!) once bi-located to Africa and took a crucifix which she left with a dying man who needed the comfort of the cross and Teresa’s presence. The documented wonders of this chapter ought to strengthen anyone with wavering faith, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Scott Rogo for his painstaking scholarship. You won’t see this material in your diocesan newspaper.

However, the author then presents examples of non-religious individuals who apparently possess the psychic ability to have out-of-body experiences (OBE), such as S. K. Harary at Duke University. In Rogo’s terms, the OBE is a “secular analogue” to mystical bi-location. Rogo does distinguish the classical OBE from saintly bi-location. The latter, for example, can last for a long time, and the saint can converse, carry objects, interact; the saints are instantaneously transported to destination, and they never experience leaving the body. On the other hand, the OBE voyage is of short duration, the psychic cannot interact normally with the environment, there is a sense of travelling through space and the body is left behind. Witnesses to a bi-location miracle feel that they are seeing a real, solid person, while on the rare occasions when people have seen OBE voyagers, the figure is like a phantom.

In Mind Beyond the Body, Rogo says (of certain cases only), “The OBE would seem to be nothing more than a hallucination.” As in so-called hypnotic stigmata, the OBE is a cheap imitation of the real gift from God, and suggests the presence of the diabolic. In saintly bi-location, you have solid people doing practical actions like teaching catechism or ministering to the dying, while in the psychic OBE you have at best a pale, watery wraith trying to blow out a candle and failing. (See Mind Beyond the Body, p. 356). Notice the incarnational aspect of true bi-location.

Rogo, in keeping with his notion that saints are only gifted psychics, suggests that true bi-location may be an extended form of the OBE, but concedes that this is unsatisfactory when the bi-locator brings physical objects with him. Nor is bi-location the same as teleportation, which does not involve the doubling of bodies, but only their transference. He ends up by confessing that bi-location is a mystery “beyond the paranormal.”

Images of Mary

Miraculous images of Christ or the Virgin Mary have suddenly appeared on church walls or windows. Orthodox Christianity can boast of a long history of these pictures; the most famous of them is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rogo says “The miracle of Guadalupe is one of the greatest miracles of the Catholic Church and has withstood the test of time and the scrutiny of modern science.” He adds: it is “not a legend.” In 1531, the picture of Mary appeared on a peasant’s cloak and is still on display. Science has shown that the colored image is not a painted figure, for it was not made by brush strokes, nor is there any underdrawn blueprint. Furthermore, the image has never faded or shown any signs of wear; nor has the cloak rotted, though it is made of a cactus fiber which disintegrates within 20 years.

Rogo begins his analysis by reminding us that the Guadalupe image has Indian features. One might say, then, that the image is a product of the minds of the Mexican people and of the “cultural consciousness” of that time and place. Rogo says it is possible that religious emotions had reached a peak in Mexico of 1531 (because of religio-political pressures), and the miraculous image of Guadalupe resulted from these intense emotions. In other words, “psychic blueprints” pooled from storehouses of psychic energy, might become realities with the power to create the image. Rogo admits this is only unscientific speculation. And who or what does the pooling? He’s trying to account for the modus operandi of the miracle, but has failed. Nor does his theory account for the non-fading of the image and the endurance of the cloak, especially since the emotions of 1531 have long ago dissipated.

Again, an alternative explanation is possible. Mary appeared with an Indian-like face to Juan Diego (an Indian, not a Spaniard), in order to put him at his ease and to give all Indians of that place a spiritual recognition of their dignity. This is, after all, what believers hold to be one of the purposes of miracles — to edify the faithful and establish a special intimacy between humans and divine. The Indian features were a divine accommodation to the human need for reassurance, a special recognition of Juan Diego as an individual and of the Indians as a people.

Rogo then gives more examples of mysterious humanlike figures which have appeared on walls of houses of worship, and two that appeared in private homes. One case was very bizarre. Faces began appearing on a Spanish kitchen floor in 1971. Eventually, the townsfolk dug up the kitchen hearth and found human bones buried there. “It was later learned that the house had been built on an old cemetery site that held the remains of Christian martyrs killed by the Moors in the eleventh century.” Rather gothic!

These seven cases are weird, inexplicable, even a bit spooky. It is unclear what to make of them. Perhaps, a Christian might say, they are the work of the Adversary trying to cause confusion among the faithful and undermine the influence of truly miraculous events, such as Guadalupe. But nothing in these seven cases detracts from what Rogo admits is the undeniability of Guadalupe.

Weeping Statues

The most common form of miraculous event within the Church are the many statues and pictures of Christ which bleed and those of Mary which weep. All sorts of people have witnessed these phenomena. Laboratories have again and again analyzed the drippings from the effigies and found them to be human blood or tears. Rogo documents many cases in meticulous detail. The facts are indisputable, non-debatable, yet no miracle more quickly evokes scorn among intellectuals and ordinary people. Probably, they find weeping Madonnas embarrassing, childish, emotionally overloaded, connected with bad religious art, something for the gullible. This attitude is poor science, for the facts should be faced and explained.

Rogo tries to explain these miracles by claiming that some of them (not all) are due to mild forms of poltergeist attacks on a person who lives in the home where the bleeding or weeping picture is. Because of emotional problems, coupled with religious devotion and, of course, “hysteria,” a person can actually create an “entity-poltergeist,” which then has an independent life of its own. The poltergeist makes the statue weep. Amazing!

In the Syracuse, Sicily case of 1953, Rogo’s charge of hysteria seems superficial. The local doctors could not diagnose precisely the cause of Signora Janusso’s medical problems. How then does Rogo, who lives in Los Angeles and is not a doctor, become convinced that the problem is hysteria? Rogo also speculates that because Janusso became pregnant soon after marriage, she may have had intense guilt over her pregnancy. Therefore, her unconscious mind produced the tears in the statue of the Blessed Virgin, as a divine sign of forgiveness.

But consider the believer’s perspective. First, the believer notes that, on this Rogo interpretation, the poltergeist is out of a job. Further, tears of Mary have always been more of a sign that one has not repented — they are a call to penitence, not a sign of forgiveness. Other cases involving similar phenomena testify to that. Finally, isn’t it generally easier to believe in miracles than to believe in Rogo’s poltergeist? Rogo is asking us to believe that man can create independently existing entities. Perhaps it is less credulous to believe that God makes strange things happen from time to time.

Liquefaction of Blood

An exciting chapter in this book is the story of the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius, who was beheaded by order of Diocletian in A.D. 305. Rogo’s excellent summary makes the miracle come alive. A serving woman had collected from the block of decapitation two phials of the martyr’s blood, which were buried with the body in catacombs near Naples. Later, the phials were placed in an urn and the blood eventually dried, but then began to liquefy periodically. It is still doing this.

Neapolitan ceremonies honoring the blood of the saint were first formalized in 1337. The first documentation of the liquefying of the blood came in 1389, by an anonymous traveler. Robert Gaguin, a French historian, reported favorably on the phenomenon in 1536. The Church has carefully recorded this miracle since 1659. The liquefaction still occurs twice yearly in Naples: on the first Sunday in May, commemorating the entry of the relics into Naples, and on September 19, the anniversary of the martyr’s death. On three occasions the blood failed to liquefy: in 1835, 1944, and May 1976, just before a devastating earthquake shook Italy. The ancient dried blood has also liquefied during certain other celebrations.

In 1970, Dr. Giorgio Giorgi, a doctor from Naples, was allowed to observe the blood turning to liquid. He published his report in the Italian journal Quaderni di parapsicologia. During the ceremony, Dr. Giorgi stood very close to the glass case containing the phials. He writes: “After about four minutes … I was disconcerted to see … that the clot of blood had suddenly changed from the solid state into that of a liquid. The transformation from solid into liquid happened suddenly and unexpectedly.” Dr. Giorgi then kissed the glass case, which is the custom, and found it to be cool. It had not been heated.

A French journal, Psi International, published a report which substantiated: (a) the miracle is independent of the temperature within the Cathedral at Naples; (b) the liquefied blood reveals great alterations in volume, thus the volume often either increases or decreases as liquefaction occurs, violating the laws of chemistry; (c) the weight of the phials will change. Rogo notes: “Amazingly enough, the weight of the phial sometimes increases when the volume decreases and vice versa!” The alterations in weight range over several grams.

As if all this weren’t enough, another weird mystery occurs at Pozzuoli, where St. Januarius was beheaded in a forum outside town. The very marble block on which the saint lost his head is now enshrined in a Capuchin church at Pozzuoli. When celebrations in honor of St. Januarius are held in Naples, the marble block turns deep red, and sometimes even drips blood. The Laboratory of Forensic Medicine at Naples analyzed it in 1926; it proved to be human blood. The phials themselves have never been opened, but in 1902 a spectroscopic analysis revealed that the phial contains genuine blood.

What does parapsychology say about this complex miracle? Dr. Hans Bender of the University of Freiburg went to Italy to study it. He believes that, as a house which has been the scene of violent emotion can become charged with a psychic force or “field,” and thus produce ghostly phenomena, so can an object. The emotions accompanying the beheading of Januarius charged the blood with a psychic field which, in turn, produces and regulates its liquefaction. The blood is a haunted object.

Rogo partially rejects Bender’s theory, since true hauntings deactivate over time, and here you have an ancient and still regularly recurring marvel. (This fact also discourages the notion of fraud.) Instead, he concentrates on the boisterous crowds gathered to witness the miracle in Naples Cathedral. They shout and invoke the saint to liquefy his blood. He writes: “The intense religious fervor of the crowds gathered to witness the miracle in Naples might catalyze a pre-existing psychic field dormant in the blood, thus causing the clot to liquefy.”

Furthermore, the elderly women who act as “cheerleaders” at the ceremony, screaming and calling out, inherit this honor which has been handed down for centuries, mother to daughter. Rogo thinks the original cheerleaders might have been gifted psychics who passed their gift on. As for the stone at Pozzuoli, long, public veneration has put a psychic field around it, which is sympathetically activated, long-distance, by the Neapolitan festivals.

These elaborate theories are incredible. What proof is there that human emotion, however violent, can charge an object with a “psychic field,” assuming that such a force exists? Just how can emotion, or the field, cause the blood to liquefy? Rogo plays his last card by noting that 20 other churches in southern Italy house blood-relics in phials which liquefy periodically, e.g. the blood of St. Bernardino Realino. He wants to leave the impression that these other cases somehow dilute the miracle of St. Januarius. Sometimes, he will speak of a “spate” of miracles, an “outbreak,” even an “epidemic” of them, as if their very frequency told against their authenticity.

Marian Apparitions

The author begins this section of Miracles by stating, “The major theme of this book has been that the human mind is ultimately responsible for creating the world of the miraculous.” The reader knows that the appearances of the Virgin will be reduced to subjectivity, even though Rogo admits they are, along with healings, the most difficult of all miracles to explain by this theory. He has done his homework on Marian apparitions. He’s read the right Catholic studies, and gives comprehensive and competent summaries of Paris, La Salette, Pontmain, Knock, Fatima, Garabandal, and Zeitoun. An interesting feature is his handling of Garabandal. These supposed apparitions of 1961 are still not approved by the Church, and they are the only ones attacked by Rogo as probably being outright delusions. His reasons are cogent.

In the account of Mary’s appearances at Paris, 1830, he lists three “prototypical” truths about visitations of Mary in general: (a) the witness was young (Catherine Laboure was 24); (b) the apparition was concerned with world affairs and made several accurate predictions (among these predictions: the violent death of the Archbishop of Paris in 1871); (c) the apparition wanted some of its messages to remain secret. Rogo says that accurate predictions show that Mary’s appearance to Catherine “was no hallucination.”

He also thinks the La Salette appearance of Mary in 1846 was no hallucination either because two children saw Mary and because she specifically predicted the failure of the potato, wheat, and grape crops. Yet Rogo warns that if anyone else had been there, say Jean-Paul Sartre, he wouldn’t have seen anything. Parapsychology calls this “perceptual selection”: the vision depends on a receptive subject.

So far Rogo may be on firm ground, but then he makes quite a fuss over the claim that Mary never appears as the historical Semite woman she was, but appears with altered facial features, and these alterations “fit in” with the culture wherein Mary is appearing. Thus, at Guadalupe she looks like an Indian, while she looks European when appearing in Europe. Her facial features are at least “partially generated … by the culture itself.”

Yet, except for Guadalupe (dealt with above) there is no evidence that Mary’s facial features have changed in her various appearances. The many children who saw her do not describe her face in any detail. Instead, they only say that she was young, radiant, dazzling, beautiful beyond imagining. The point is, no one can paint an accurate, or even a vague, portrait of Mary from the seers’ descriptions.

Rogo says that while Marian apparitions may be “the appearances of an actual being existing in some spiritual level of reality who is concerned with our welfare, it is also possible that they are projections of images latent in our minds which literally become temporarily real on rare occasions.” Following Jung, he says that because Mary appears in times of social or political crisis, the collective unconscious of the threatened culture may produce a “mass telepathic communication” which then causes the projection of the apparition. In other words, Catholic cultures project the image of Mary as protectress of the world.

There is no proof that such a process takes place; it remains conjecture. Then, too, how could a group mind predict the violent death of an archbishop and crop failures? Rogo himself concedes that times of crisis are precisely when Mary would most likely choose to visit earth. Rogo emphasizes that Mary mostly appears to children.

But, a believer will counter, it is precisely because children are not Humean skeptics, because they are open to new experience, because they will not keep the message inside them but rather spread it, because they are relatively uncontaminated by the world and thus less unworthy to see Mary, and finally, because God loves to confound the wise that this divine selection is made. Certainly it would not be the first time in Christian history that the weaker vessel has been chosen for special blessing. It is, in this view, not surprising that Mary has not appeared to Oppenheimer or Isaac Asimov.

A good instance of Rogo’s awkward and elaborate analysis of this subject is his interpretation of Mary’s appearance at Pontmain, France, in 1871. Many children of the village saw Mary floating in the sky for two hours. No adults saw the figure. Words formed in French under the figure, translated as “But pray. God will hear your prayers in a short time. My Son allows himself to be moved.” All the children saw the same words, which meant little to the adults.

At this time, France and Prussia were at war, and the people of Pontmain knew of the general danger of invasion. While the message was being formed in the sky, someone rushed up to the crowd and announced that Prussian troops were marching on Pontmain. Yet, amazingly, at the very time when Mary appeared over the village, German military officials, already close to Pontmain, suddenly decided not to advance any further into the west of France! The village was spared and the message became clear. As Rogo justly states, Pontmain is “one of the most astonishing of Marian visitations of all time.” The bishop of Laval, who had the authority to do so, declared in 1875 that the Virgin’s visit was genuine.

The simple truth is that Mary was revealing to the villagers that she had intervened in the war and caused the Prussian high command to spare Pontmain. Rogo’s explanation? The residents of the village were aware of the menace of the advancing Prussian troops. This menace “could have caused a vivid unconscious preoccupation with the Virgin Mother in her archetypal image as protectress and intermediary between Man and God.” The preoccupation may then have caused a mass psychic effect which in turn caused the image of Mary to be projected over Pontmain. How did the villagers know of the decision by the Prussians to spare Pontmain? Rogo suggests they could have picked it up by telepathy, and then the message in French was flashed on the sky. Again, isn’t Rogo the one being credulous here? If you can believe his theory, you can believe almost anything.

Miracle of Fatima

The six great appearances of Mary at Fatima are treated in appreciative detail by Scott Rogo, for whom the story of Fatima is bewildering and wonderful. The miracle of the sun in 1917 “was not a vision.” He writes, “Because of the large number of witnesses, the great miracle of October 13 cannot be explained as a mass hallucination or as the product of hysteria. It was a genuinely paranormal occurrence.”

Paranormal, but not divine. No spiritual being from heaven actually visited earth at Fatima, Portugal. The six apparitions were “thought forms.” They were psychic projections caused by spectators who were influenced by religious-political events of 1917, such as the war and hostile Marxist and Masonic forces in government. Still, other people at other times have been so obsessed, and they have not produced such wonders. Intensity of community convictions seems a weak hypothesis on which to found psychic reality.

Rogo points out cleverly that Mary seems always to have appeared in traditionally Catholic countries. This is true, but it does not prove much. Certainly it is not inconceivable that Mary would appear in Scotland or Norway, but from a theological point of view, that doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why should Mary appear to those who might reject her as another papist delusion? Aren’t miracles aimed at reinforcing faith, rather than inspiring confusion, horror, and ridicule? The traditional Catholic explanation for miracles — as authenticating signs of a supernatural reality — squares with the historical phenomenon of Mary appearing in Catholic lands.

Rogo is simply wrong when he writes that “when Mary’s role in the Church is being re-evaluated, or when Roman Catholic society in a particular country or village is preoccupied with her cult,” Mary appears to settle the issue! Rogo points out that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was made dogma only four years before Mary appeared at Lourdes in 1858, that her role was being re-evaluated.

But, in fact, Catholic people believed in that doctrine for many centuries; it had been a part of Church tradition. Nor is it decisive that the apparition at Knock occurred on the eve of the Assumption, and that the Pope issued a statement about Mary’s intercession to end the war only a week before the first Fatima apparition. What does that really prove? Not that the community was roused to a zenith of religious fervor. Holy days come and go; popes issue many statements; of those Catholics who even hear the statements, few seem to pay much attention.

Rogo’s last dart at Fatima is to claim it is not unique, since “orbs of light” appeared in the sky and zigzagged about at the scene of a religious revival in Wales in 1905. This is to ignore the unique wealth of phenomena at Fatima: the solar prodigy, its prediction, the predictions about Russia, the colored shadows, the white lobe descending, the rain of flowers, the people suddenly made dry and clean. Rogo likes to have it both ways; when he first describes a Marian apparition, the events are “bizarre,” “wonderful,” “astonishing,” “bewildering.” Such apparent awe suits his purpose of making his criticism more impressive, but when he later attacks the authenticity of the apparition — its objectivity and celestial origin — then it is suddenly reduced to one more psychic show; not much, really, a man-made tableau which is “real” but ephemeral. It’s the same with his handling of the healings at Lourdes: impressive case histories followed by denial of supernatural causation.

Another of Rogo’s major themes is that “most religious miracles have purely secular analogues that occur within the world of psychic phenomena.” Yet, we have seen that so-called psychic bi-location, hypnotic stigmata, and mysterious pictures are all paltry imitations of the real thing: the classic Catholic miracles. They are not in the same class as, say, Fatima, Lourdes, St. Januarius, or the wounds of Therese Neumann.

Why has Rogo chosen to write of Catholic miracles and of 60 holy people of the Church? Because these miracles are the true, complex, supernatural wonders that have powerfully taken hold of man’s imagination for hundreds of years. The difference between miracles and psychic phenomena is the difference between a living orchid and a dead toadstool, between a crystal fountain shining in the sunlight, and a muddy rivulet in a spooky ravine. Compare the brilliant, unfading image of the Virgin of Gaudalupe with the pale and weird image of a human head in an Oxford cathedral, and you have the contrast.

Ultimately Rogo’s study ends with a whimper. Brilliant and provocative though it is, it is also inconclusive. What we can learn from it is this: If your view of the world is thoroughly secular and materialist, you will reject miracles and come up with all kinds of fantastic explanations for them. But these theories are not likely to be more plausible or believable than their religious counterparts. The religious view, no less if not more convincing, is that there is a physical order and a divine order, and there are circumstances in which the latter invades the former. Miracles aren’t “proof” of God’s existence; rather they are authenticating signs which confirm God’s place in history, and His historical promises. Ripley was right: intelligent people can go either way on this, “believe it or not.”


  • Edward O'Brien Jr.

    Edward O'Brien, Jr. is an assistant professor of philosophy and literature at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Pa. He has also taught for Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. and Rider College in Trenton, N.J. Mr. O'Brien has written articles for Crisis, Fidelity, New Oxford Review, the Wanderer and HPR.

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