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Seeing and Believing : When it comes to apparitions, the Church is as skeptical as anyone. But an increase in activity is tough to ignore.


PHOENIX — Reyes Ruiz cleans his yard with a rosary clenched in his teeth, to keep both hands free for his work. But that's not the only unusual thing that happens around his house. Five years ago, he says, his wife, Estela, told him that she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, and the visions continue today.

On Dec. 3, 1988, the Ruizes were praying before a portrait of the Virgin that Reyes had painted. Suddenly, Estela Ruiz recalls, she saw a mist. "I thought I was going blind. The Blessed Mother appeared on a cloud. I started screaming and yelling, 'She's here, and she's beautiful.' Our Lady stole my heart."

That took some doing. Estela Ruiz is a woman with silver hair, a quick wit and a masters degree in education. She was director of a bilingual education program for the Phoenix public schools when she started seeing visions. "I was a skeptic," she says. "When the spiritual world enters ours, we think we must be going crazy."

Most people would agree. They'd say that visits from angels and saints rank right up there with visions of ghosts, seances and psychic predictions as the products of a hyperactive imagination.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church is as skeptical as anyone when it comes to supernatural events. "The Vatican gets 200 calls on apparitions each year. The vast majority are determined to be false" says Father Robert Faricy, a theology professor at the Gregorian Institute in Rome who has written three books on such events.

But too much has happened in recent history for the Catholic Church to overlook it all. Since 1981, when six children in the rural town of Medjugorje, Bosnia, told of meeting the Blessed Mother on a hillside, there has been a notable increase in reports of religious apparitions worldwide. About 15 million people have visited Medjugorje. Two of the six children are said to continue meeting the Virgin each evening and receiving her messages. Pilgrims report miracle healings and rosary beads that miraculously turn gold.

Dozens of similar encounters have been reported in recent years. Most reported visions are of the Virgin appearing to Roman Catholics. Many continue over several years and attract so many visitors that pilgrim sites spring up. Thousands of people have traveled to the Ruiz home during the past five years. Other pilgrim sites have flourished in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Santa Maria, Calif.; Conyers, Ga.; Cortnadreha, Ireland; Kibeho, Rwanda, and Akita, Japan.

Officially, the Vatican does not get involved in these events. But in 1978, a papal department prepared a letter updating guidelines for investigating apparitions, says Father Johann Roten, director of the Marian Research Institute for academic studies concerning the Virgin Mother, at the Catholic University of Dayton, Ohio.

It is up to the local bishop to decide when an investigation is warranted, Roten explains. The bishop forms a commission that includes theologians expert at discerning apparitions (as well as satanism), medical and psychological doctors, and the pastor of the local church.

The group looks for answers to two major questions: Do any of the messages the seers claim to receive agree with church teachings? And, how much good has come to those attracted to the site? Both spiritual conversions and physical healings qualify as good, Roten explains.

Another key question is whether the event can be explained by natural causes. Usually, the church favors that explanation. In Scottsdale, Ariz., where nine members of the St. Maria Gorretti parish believed that they heard messages from Jesus and Mary starting in the late 1980s, Bishop Thomas O'Brien's commission decided the messages could be explained by "ordinary human dynamics," the sort experienced during prayerful meditation.

Even sites that draw vast numbers of pilgrims over long years face official resistance. Medjugorje has been under investigation--in "discernment" to use church language--since 1985. Events at the Ruiz household are also in discernment.

Despite the extreme caution taken, a rise in official investigations signals a change in attitude, Roten says. "The church is loosening up. Concerning apparitions, it is more open than it has been." He believes the new openness reflects changing social trends. "People today are frustrated by rationalism as the only explanation of life," Roten says. "As a result we have a revival of religious spirit, of New Age spirituality; we have discussions about values. All this is telling us, 'There is a different approach to life.' "

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