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Piety and gullibility too often go together

When seeking answers on faith rely on Scripture, not on apparitions

  • Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • November 18, 2013
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A Japanese Catholic explained how the Church in Japan and his own faith have changed since he was baptized shortly after World War II. Back then, he said, Catholicism was often more focused upon Mary than upon Jesus. Lourdes and Fatima were more a lived part of faith than Galilee and Jerusalem. Devotional practices were Marian. Time at worship, by definition a public communal activity directed toward the Father, was usually given over to private prayer, often the rosary.

Then, after Vatican II emphasized a return to the most ancient traditions of the faith, Catholics in Japan began to develop familiarity with Scripture. Many were surprised to see how little biblical support there was for attitudes and practices that had been a mainstay of their Catholic life.

And so, as my friend put it, a Marian Church became a Christian Church.

The official attitude toward apparitions and messages from Mary and others is a skepticism too seldom found among some individual laity, priests and bishops. Claims must be evaluated, and the burden of proof is on people and events that would claim to supplement or even supplant what has been believed and taught in all times and climes. That is a healthy response. Piety and gullibility too often go together.

A prime example of gullibility is seen in news accounts of yet someone else who has found an image of the Virgin on a greasy window or in a vegetable. But anyone who has looked at fluffy clouds in a blue sky knows how easy it is to see faces and figures that are not there. And how do these “visionaries” know that what they see is actually an image of Mary? It’s not as if we had ancient photos of Mary or her expired driver’s license. It might be her next door neighbor.

Recently, the Vatican reminded American bishops that purported messages from Mary at Medjugorje have not been endorsed by the Church and therefore formally organized pilgrimages and other activities (as opposed to private ones) are not allowed. About a week later, Pope Francis criticized fascination with visions and messages from Mary as dangers that can draw people “from the Gospel, from the Holy Spirit, from peace and hope, from God’s glory and God’s beauty.” He went on to apparently single out Medjugorje, where people claim daily messages from Mary. The pope said Mary is “not a postmaster of the post office, sending out messages every day.”

One skeptical view of those “appearances” came from a priest who is from the Medjugorje area. In an interview, he pointed out that if Mary had indeed visited Yugoslavia, she failed to point out that within a short time the country would descend into genocidal chaos. She might have at least given a message that it’s not nice to kill your neighbor’s children, as was done by Christians engaged in “ethnic cleansing.”

Akita in Japan attracts pilgrims, especially from Korea, who visit a statue that reportedly cries. Connected with the statue are “revelations” that claim that Mary and Jesus are united in holding back the anger of the Father who would otherwise destroy sinners. There is no theological terminology for this, but Freud did name it. It is the Oedipus complex, where a son and his mother unite to oppose the father.

That may be orthodox psychology, but as theology it is heresy, denying the loving unity of will within the Trinity and presenting the Father who so loved the world as to send the Son as our savior to be instead a hate-filled monster. It is not Christian, and I am disappointed that Japan’s bishops remain reticent about it, apparently hoping it will just go away without their having to proclaim our Trinitarian faith.

Mary should, I assume, be familiar with what her son did and said, yet those who claim to be her messengers show little or no familiarity with the ministry and teaching of the Lord or of his Church.

Why do people find such a fascination with private revelations that, when compared with the Word of God, are trite if not actually pernicious?

A chief reason, of course, is terrible ignorance of Scripture on the part of many Catholics, and as St. Jerome said, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Even a half century after Vatican II “earnestly and specifically” urged “all the Christian faithful ... to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8),” too many Catholics look to visions and private "revelations" for their knowledge of God.

The warning of Timothy 4:3-4 even applies to many clergy who have no excuse for such ignorance: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from the truth and wander away to myths.”

Isn’t it about time that more Catholics imitated so many of our brothers and sisters in Japan and committed themselves to using the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church to evaluate claims? Let Mary and the saints be examples of how we might live the Gospel in our time and place and no more. We have enough to marvel over in the Incarnation and Redemption.

Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo

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