In 1859, a Wisconsin farm woman recounted three mystical meetings with the Virgin Mary, who told her to pray for the conversion of sinners and teach children the Catholic faith.
More than 150 years later--December 8, to be exact--the Catholic bishop of Green Bay sanctioned Adele Brise's visions as both supernatural and "worthy of belief." It was the first officially approved Marian apparition (the Catholic Church's term for paranormal appearances by Mary) in the United States.
Of the many questions kindled by Bishop David Ricken's announcement, two seemed particularly apt: How does the church investigate mystical visions? And why does it take so long to approve them?
Brise was 28, partially blind and far from her native Belgium when she reported speaking with a woman wearing a brilliant white gown and starry crown who seemed to float above the fields.
Calling herself "the Queen of Heaven," the vision gave Brise a mission: "Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation." For the rest of her life, Brise did just that, trudging across the untamed frontier to catechize children, build a school and found an order of Franciscan sisters.
Since Brise's visions, tales of miraculous healings attributed to Mary have become commonplace in Champion, Wisconsin, where crutches and other tokens of cured injuries fill a shrine built on the site of the apparition, said deacon Ray DuBois, a spokesman for the Diocese of Green Bay.
Ricken opened a formal investigation into Brise's visions in January 2009, appointing a committee of three Marian experts who followed guidelines issued by the Vatican in 1978 for judging apparitions and revelations. These committees typically consult experts in psychology, church law, scripture, history and theology, as well as take testimony from people familiar with the visionary.
In general, church investigators are more "history detectives" than "ghost hunters," to use a television analogy. Supernatural events are almost impossible to prove, said Johann Roten, a priest who has served on committees assessing apparitions, so the church is more interested in the consequences of the vision.
"It's not only the moment of seeing Our Lady that is important to determining whether a vision is true, but also what the seer actually does with that experience," said Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
The Vatican guidelines require an investigation into visionaries' moral and mental character--crackpots, degenerates and money-grubbers need not apply. …