MANILA — The house where thousands of Filipinos flocked to see the Virgin Mary descend from heaven this month is sandwiched between an Italian restaurant and a house of ill repute in the modern Manila suburb of Quezon City.
It was, as many religious analysts later noted, less than an ideal setting for a miracle.
But just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 2, a handful of the devotees at the front of the crowd suddenly stood transfixed, gaping at the top of an olive tree in the front yard.
"The virgin is here!" cried one woman in the crowd, her eyes the size of saucers as she gazed skyward.
Thousands of other eyes quickly followed. Alas, the other devotees later concluded, they saw no virgin in the sky. But what they and thousands of others claimed that they did see that afternoon was even stranger.
The afternoon sun, they all agreed, was dancing and spinning in the sky.
Even in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, where most people believe in and live by miracles, that was too much. Cardinal Jaime Sin, though officially attributing the apparitions to hunger, has ordered the church's Permanent Committee on Extraordinary Visions and Phenomena to investigate.
And, ever since, the city's daily newspapers have been filled with reports of more sightings, as well as optimistic speculation and debate over whether Manila will become another center of religious pilgrimage akin to Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal.
At the very least, experts on religious matters say, the recent apparitions are signs of the times in this poor but pious country, which many say is desperately in need of a miracle. The story of the dancing sun on Quezon Boulevard is the latest vivid chapter in the long history of miracles and hoaxes. Both are as commonplace as the poverty that social scientists believe causes them.
Cardinal Sin himself told a group of foreign journalists soon after the reported miracle: "When you are hungry, you see visions. So my first advice is to eat. When you are not hungry anymore, you will not see visions."
Order to Ignore
But, as the news stories continued and speculation persisted, fueled in part by Christian evangelists who declared the visions were real and that they were the precursors of "three days of darkness," the cardinal and the church issued a stern statement, urging the country's 50 million Catholics to ignore the visions.
"Irresponsible mongers of sensationalism are trying to focus public attention on fantasies that caricature the apocalypse with predictions of bloodshed, darkness and other disasters," the statement warned. "We warn the faithful against a thirst for an easy acceptance of visions and visionaries with a concomitant danger of paying a less-than-prudent credulity to strange pronouncements, threats or promises.
"Ignore these rumors, and practice instead prayer and penance."
Finally, the statement thanked all the meteorologists and physicists who had come forward to explain that the dancing sun was a relatively normal phenomenon caused by cloud crystals and air pollution.
'Take a Long Time'
At the same time, though, the committee on miracles quietly launched its own formal investigation into the vision of the Virgin Mary and the dancing sun. A church spokesman, Father Socrates Villegas, conceded that "it will take a long time" to confirm or reject the authenticity of the vision.
In the case of Lourdes, he noted, it was four years before the reported appearance of the virgin was declared a miracle in 1862 by an investigating commission, and at Fatima, two decades passed after the first reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 before they were certified as genuine by the Vatican.
"Time is a criterion," Villegas said. "If it (the apparition) perseveres, it must really be from God."
There are many instances in recent Philippine history, however, when such phenomena were not from God.
Litany of Frauds
In explaining that the church's committee on miracles must be a permanent one, "because there are so many of these things reported in metro Manila," Cardinal Sin recounted a litany of frauds.
There was one recent case, he said, in which the committee sent a priest undercover to a Quezon City house, where a local businessmen was making a small fortune by charging pilgrims to see his "miracle," a statue of Jesus Christ that appeared to cry real tears.
"When the priest looked behind the statue of the Savior he found some small machinery like what you find in those toy dolls that cry," the cardinal said with a smile.
Another priest working undercover, he added, once exposed another fraud in which a con artist was charging admission to see a crucifix that appeared to shed real blood.
"We took a sample of the blood and sent it in for analysis," the cardinal recalled. "It turned out to be the blood of a chicken."