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“The Vatican Prophecies”: Balancing What is Known With What is Weird

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John Thavis follows up his best-selling "Vatican Diaries" with an inside look at miracles, apparitions and more

In his earlier book, The Vatican Diaries, John Thavis introduced readers to the rather ordinary people who quietly keep the Vatican humming through good times and bad. It was released — by sheer coincidence, or the eeriest luck — almost simultaneously with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and was therefore considered “required conclave prep” by many intrigued Catholics.

Two years later, Thavis is back with another Vatican-focused book, this time looking into extra-ordinary; those supernatural events and spiritual properties that inform (and sometimes over-inform) the faithful, and over which the Church works strenuously to keep an intellectual and spiritual balance. We are a church of “faith and reason”, and how the Vatican perceives, explains and ponders everything from sacred images showing up on pieces of toast to real demonic possession serves for fascinating reading. Aleteia was happy to be able to chat with John Thavis about The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age.

ALETEIA: The Vatican Diaries gave readers a fascinating and grounded look at the people who move in and around the Vatican, and make it work. In this book, you’re taking readers on a tour through what some call the “oogedy-boogedy” of Catholicism: apparitions, miracles, relics, exorcisms and the like. What made you want to focus on all of that?

JOHN THAVIS: Having covered the Vatican for more than 30 years, I perceived a tension over how to approach the supernatural in its various forms, including miracles, apparitions and private visions. On the one hand church authorities are, of course, open to the possibility that God works in this world and that mystical experiences are real, yet at the same time the Vatican is extremely cautious about publicity surrounding these events and “sign-seeking” among the faithful. I wanted to dig deeper into all this, because – as always at the Vatican – there are many different voices that reflect a variety of theological understandings and practical considerations. Media treatment of these topics is often sensationalist or dismissive, and I wanted to show how the Vatican is really trying to find a balance on questions that involve reason and faith.

We live in a pretty skeptical world, and yet, if You Tube is any indication, there is an almost Fox Mulderesque instinct within humanity that says, “I want to believe”. How does that instinct make the Church’s job of verifying and balancing their investigations more difficult? Or does it help?

The Vatican and other church authorities often have to deal with excessive enthusiasm among devotees or excessive publicity among the curious. Crying statues, private messages from God, reports of demonic possession – all these things, which in past centuries might have been guided quietly by a spiritual advisor, now have the potential to go viral well before the church can investigate and authenticate them. Yet the underlying desire to believe in something that transcends our daily lives and gives it meaning is essential to faith. Church leaders generally try to direct that desire away from the paranormal and the spectacular, toward the sacramental and spiritual practices of Catholic tradition. This is not always an easy task.

That sounds like you have an anecdote or two — can you share an example of how difficult it can be?

For example, in Naples the blood-liquifying “miracle of St. January” regularly draws an overflow crowd to the city’s cathedral. The cardinal-archbishop often reminds Catholics on these occasions that this wondrous sign points the way to Christian hope, or should lead people to acts of charity. But most Neapolitans are there to see whether the blood liquefies or not, and then gauge whether it portends good or bad for the city’s fortunes. On these occasions, Naples priests encourage those in attendance to come more often to Sunday Mass, a suggestion that often goes unheeded.

Your chapter on exorcisms seemed pretty harrowing. The church has a healthy skepticism of demonic possession, and yet Pope Francis has continued the emphasis on exorcist training begun by his predecessor: what does the church see happening, in the real world?

Pope Francis talks a lot about the devil, and his approach is actually very practical: He sees the devil as a real force leading people into evil, often through bad habits like gossip. He does not describe Satan as a figure that possesses people against their will. Vatican officials generally downplay possession, too. When the new rite of exorcism was unveiled several years ago, one Vatican official said cases of true possession were “very rare.” Many exorcists, on the other hand, believe that possession is fairly common, and that people need the ministry of exorcism to free themselves from this form of spiritual suffering.

What I see changing, especially among U.S. exorcists, is a willingness to work with psychological sciences in evaluating cases of suspected possession. They are more open today to the possibility that they may be dealing with an emotional or mental problem, instead of or in addition to a spiritual problem. Modern exorcists are also constantly reminded not to exaggerate the devil’s influence. The Vatican does not want people to forget that Christ came to destroy the work of the devil, and that Satan’s power is not infinite, but is subject to God’s providential design.

Okay, let’s talk end-times prophecies: the Vatican has said that if we encounter aliens from other worlds, they could conceivably be ripe for conversion and baptism. Some people read the Malachy prophecies and actively try to determine which pope will be “Peter the Roman”, or the “last pope” before “the end”. What do people at the Vatican say among themselves, when they hear or read such open speculation on popes and the future?

People at the Vatican generally roll their eyes when asked about end-times prophecies and “last popes.” But they also recognize that such speculation strikes a chord in popular imagination, for good reason: it makes for a compelling story line, one that ties together this world and the next. What popes and other Vatican officials have emphasized is that the story of salvation is just as dramatic, but without the unnecessary bells and whistles of apocalyptic countdowns. The idea is to live in readiness for judgment, but not to obsess over the hunt for end-time clues. For that reason, church authorities have occasionally warned the faithful about self-proclaimed prophets – including some who, for example, denounce the current pope as an “imposter” whose election was a sign of the Apocalypse.

The Vatican, as much as she tries to lower expectations when it comes to supernatural phenomena, also lives within deep realities of the supernatural everyday: there is a language to it that the West is increasingly unable to speak. How does an inability to process the language affect our mission?

The language of the supernatural is very important, and the nuances are often missed. The Vatican frequently tries to draw distinctions between the Church’s traditional beliefs and popular perceptions, for example, noting that the veneration of relics does not imply some kind of “magical” qualities in the bones of saints. I also found that theologians who describe what happens in an apparition are generally talking about a grace that occurs in the mind of a visionary, not a spectacle for public viewing. The very term “miracle” is undergoing some re-thinking at the Vatican, too. I believe the church is moving away from the focus on scientific support for medical miracles (in sainthood causes) to a wider understanding of the miraculous, including acts of forgiveness, conversion or reconciliation that may also involved answered prayers. In all these cases, I think the point is that the Church is trying to talk about the supernatural as elements in people’s daily lives, and not as religious theater or fundamentalist ideology.

Can you expand on that? Saint Maria Goretti’s story is striking because she was willing to show mercy, and to beg mercy, for her killer. Would her forgiveness be an example of the “miraculous” that you’re talking about?

Saint Maria Goretti, whose relics are currently touring the United States, is a very good example of this. Her act of forgiveness and mercy for her killer, along with his repentance, may have been just as miraculous as the headings attributed to her intercession.

In recent years, some people at the Vatican have quietly made the case that the Church should find a way to recognize these “moral miracles,” even though medical or scientific evidence is not possible.

Now that you’ve guided us through the day-to-day workings of the Vatican, and shown us how the church balances what is knowable with what seems impossible, where do you plan to take your readers, next?

I’d like to take a closer look inside the world of Vatican art, which combines the beautiful and the spiritual with politics and economics.

Thanks for talking with us, John. Enjoyed both the book and the chat.

Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia

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