Knock priest welcomes new Vatican rules which tighten rules on supernatural phenomena

Vatican says old rules were no longer useful or viable in the internet age

The parish priest of Knock has welcomed new Vatican guidelines for evaluating alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary which tighten rules on supernatural phenomena in response to the rising volume of claims on social media.

The Vatican’s doctrine office, in an overhaul of rules last issued in 1978, recommends that incidents of phenomena should be carefully assessed to make sure that they are not fraudulent or an attempt to make money. It will have the final say in whether events are worthy of popular devotion.

Fr Richard Gibbons, who is spiritual leader of the shrine at Knock – where locals claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the gable wall of the parish church in 1879 – said “anything which strengthens the authentic investigation into apparitions” is to be welcomed.

He said church inquiries in 1879 and 1936 concluded that the testimony of witnesses, taken as a whole, was “trustworthy and satisfactory”.


“These were good, honest, ordinary people who saw something extraordinary ,” he said.

Knock is now one of the most visited places in the State and receives an average of 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists annually, particularly in August when the national novena takes place.

Fr Gibbons said church authorities were as “thorough they could be” in investigating the sightings at the time and the site has since been formally designated by Pope Francis as an international eucharistic and marian shrine.

The Catholic Church, he said, has been vigilant over claims of apparitions and endorsed only a small percentage of those claimed. “You can see conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation on social media. You have to be careful,” he added.

Last year, Pope Francis said apparitions of the Virgin Mary were “not always real”, in what appeared to be an indirect reference to a woman who drew thousands of pilgrims to a town near Rome to pray before a statue that she claimed shed tears of blood.

“Don’t look there,” the pontiff said during an interview with Italian broadcaster Rai 1, when asked about apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

The new norms reframe the Catholic Church’s evaluation process, by essentially taking off the table whether church authorities will declare a particular vision, stigmata or other seemingly divinely inspired event supernatural.

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favourable being that the church issues a non-committal doctrinal green light, a so-called “nihil obstat”.

Such a declaration means there is nothing about the event that is contrary to the faith and, therefore, Catholics can express devotion to it.

The revised norms allow that an event might at some point be declared “supernatural” – and that the Pope can intervene in the process. But “as a rule” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin. – Additional reporting: AP

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent