The Virgin Mary might live in a tree in West New York, New Jersey, some now claim.
Today’s New York Times has a report that religious pilgrims have been flocking to the site, “making the sign of the cross and weeping at the base of a Ginkgo biloba tree with a strange knot that they believe resembles the Virgin Mary.”
Of course, some have already accused said revelers of “witchcraft” and devil-worship. And the city is now paying $1,000 daily to protect the allegedly holy plant from vandals.
The Newark Archdiocese told us that it’s officially treating the alleged apparition as a natural occurrence and nothing more. Spokesman Jim Goodness said that it had been examined by priests, who determined that the knot simply has the appearance of the Madonna and is not a Vatican-sanctioned, verified apparition.
With these reports — as well as past incidences of Virgin Mary “sightings” on everything from commercial buildings to grilled cheese sandwiches — you might wonder: So how does the Catholic Church determine if a Madonna sighting is a Madonna sighting?
Well, we’ve got an answer for you!
As detailed by Religion News Service (via Washington Post), the Holy See published rules in May “to evaluate the authenticity of the dozens of apparitions of the Virgin Mary reported each year.”
Though these guidelines have been in place since 1978, they had previously only been available in Latin and were just released in English and made public in 2012.
That doc, the “Norms regarding the manner of proceeding in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations,” features quite a long list of “dos and donts” for the evaluation process.
What are some of them?
For starters, there has to be some good reason to believe (AKA “moral certitude”) that the Madonna sighting is actually a Madonna sighting and not something else (“at least great probability of the existence of the fact, acquired by means of a serious investigation.”)
The person making the claims about Madonna apparitions has to be a good, well adjusted person, too: “Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility towards Ecclesiastical Authority, the capacity to return to a normal regimen of a life of faith, etc.)”
The “negative” guidelines seem to talk about simple errors of fact and human manipulation.
In other words, an apparition will not get the greenlight if it seems like a human messed with a natural occurrence to give it the Madonna look: “Doctrinal errors attributed to God himself, or to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to some saint in their manifestations, taking into account however the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation.”
Also key: The validity of an apparition will get shot down if it seems like somebody is trying to profit off of it, or if the person making claims is psychologically unstable.
But as long as these things don’t seem to be the case, church officials have an obligation to look into apparition claims.
And that’s pretty much that.
If you want more info, though, do read the Vatican’s full regulations. Canonical law is super dense, so we def left out some details for clarity.