By Joseph A. Pelletier, A. A.
As everyone interested in Garabandal knows, there is considerable confusion concerning the position of the Church concerning the apparitions that took place in that Spanish mountain town from 1961 to 1965. It is not our intention to view and comment on all the various statements that have been issued by a number of sources. The letters issued from the various bishops of Santander and from Cardinal Seper are authentic and did come from these individuals. The interpretation given to these letters and particularly to the degree of finality that they represent is another matter. Without going into the details of these and other documents and statements relating to Garabandal, the following considerations could help to better understand and evaluate them.
Where does the Church Stand?
The local bishop of Santander, is the representative of the Church who should first examine the issue. It is his right and duty to study the matter and to pass judgment on the apparitions. Normally, his judgment, that is, his approval or condemnation, will settle the issue. It was this way at Lourdes and at Fatima. But it is not necessarily this way, as was pointed out by Cardinal Patriarch Cerejeira of Lisbon at the closing of the Silver Jubilee Year of of Fatima, in October, 1942. Referring to the approval of the Fatima visions by the Bishop of Fatima [Leira] on October 13, 1930, he said:
“This approbation is not irrefutable and the Holy See can either confirm or annul it.”
Indeed, the local bishop can be likened to a court of first or original jurisdiction. Above him is another Church authority that resembles a court of appeals, namely, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. This congregation, formerly called the Holy Office, is the organ of papal administration that represents the Pope in matters of faith and morals. However, it does not have the final say. This is reserved to the Pope, the “Supreme Court.”
This congregation could intervene and take over the investigation of the apparitions that would then be removed from the hands of the local bishop of Santander. It has persistently refused to interfere to this degree. It has entered into the matter only to say that it is leaving the responsibility of the affair including the issuing of directives in the hands of the local bishop. It has praised him for his zeal in handling the matter. It has declared that the reason for its not intervening more directly and taking over the investigation is that there has not been anything significantly new that has happened recently. This would seem to imply that if some important new development occurred, it might well intervene at that time. The Warning or the promised Miracle come to mind as events that could possibly prompt such action.
So temporarily, the Congregation is satisfied to do as it has done so often in the past, namely, accept the status quo and sit and wait. A long experience in matters of this kind has proven to the Congregation that if something is of God it will eventually prevail over any and all opposition.
If Garabandal were the only contemporary apparition requiring an investigation, the Congregation might well not be so reluctant to take it over. But there are reports of apparitions all over Spain and all over Europe, not to mention the United States and Canada. There are reports of 10 different apparitions currently going on in Spain alone. We can be sure that a large number of the contemporary events of this nature are being reported to the Congregation by various local bishops who would like nothing better than to have the Congregation assume the obligation of making the investigation and passing judgment. It does not take much imagination to see how utterly overwhelmed the Congregation would be if it attempted to take over all such affairs reported to it by bishops from all over the world. Each investigation would require a sizable staff of people working both in Rome and “on the spot.” And so the Congregation takes the only practical course left to it, which is to leave interim judgments on such matters in the hands of local bishops until there is a clear demonstration that their appointees are operating efficiently and adequately.
Congregation Has Never Issued a Statement
A very important point should be made here. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has never issued a statement of its own, that is, has never published any declaration given in the name of the Congregation and for the entire Catholic world, on the question of Garabandal. It has never spoken its mind, officially and publicly, concerning these contemporary Spanish apparitions. To be sure, the Secretary of the Congregation has sent letters to various bishops of Santander and more recently one to Archbishop Hannan of New Orleans. However, without attempting to deny the importance of these letters, it can be said that in no way do they compare in authoritative value to a statement issued directly to the Catholic world under the name and authority of the Congregation.
Another even more important point is that in the letters sent to the above persons, the Congregation has never made a positive statement affirming that it agrees with the judgment of the bishops of Santander. These letters have praised the prudence and pastoral zeal of the various bishops of Santander in their handling of the matter of the apparitions, but they have never explicitly affirmed that they accept the verdict of these bishops who have refused to admit the divine origin of the happenings at Garabandal.
Indeed, in the two letters published, both sent by His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there are very clear statements affirming that Rome and the Congregation have always refrained from passing any judgment on the heart of the matter, namely, the supernatural character or origin of the apparitions of Garabandal.
In 1970, the “Bishopric of Santander” issued a White Paper entitled “Official Declaration of the Hierarchy Concerning Garabandal.” The two letters by Cardinal Seper referred to above are published in their entirety in this document.
The first of these letters is dated March 10, 1969 and is addressed to the Bishop of Santander, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Jose’ M. Cirarda Lachiondo. The White Paper carried the original Latin text and a Spanish translation. The pertinent paragraph of this letter is translated as follows:
“As Your Excellency knows, up to the present time this Sacred Congregation has not wanted to take the place of that authority (the Bishop of Santander) which has initial jurisdiction for investigating and judging this kind of question, and it has not wanted to take the matter in hand. Through the letters that up to now it has issued, this Office (hoc Dicasterium) has only praised the prudence and pastoral solicitude of this Curia (the Office of the Bishop of Santander) and has never issued an authoritative judgment of the Holy See (nec umquam judicium Sanctae Sedis auctoritate latum est).”
The second of these letters is dated April 21, 1970 and is directed to the Archbishop of New Orleans, His Excellency, The Most Revered Philip M. Hannan. The White Paper has the original English text and adds a Spanish translation of the same.
The pertinent paragraph of this letter makes mention of “the note of May 10, 1969.” This is a reference to a news release concerning Garabandal sent by an American newspaperman from Rome with a Vatican City dateline and which was widely publicized. One part of this news release contained a statement or declaration that it presented as eminating from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is this statement or declaration that Cardinal Seper calls “the note of May 10, 1969.” Referring to it, the Cardinal says to Archbishop Hannan: “…Though this Sacred Congregation certainly agrees with the contents of the note of May 10, 1969 (as published in various countries and especially in the French magazine, La Documentation Catholique, Sept. 21, 1969, n. 1,547, p. 821), it must say that it is inexact to attribute the part of the text that deals with the lack of supernatural character of the events of Garabandal to the Sacred Congregation, which has always striven to abstain from any direct declaration on the question…”
It is quite clear; the first letter says that the Holy See has never issued an authoritative judgment concerning the apparitions of Garabandal; the second says that the Sacred Congregation has always striven to abstain from any direct declaration on the question of the supernatural character of the apparitions of Garabandal.
So how is it that, articles in our American Catholic press have affirmed that Rome has condemned Garabandal? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has carefully maintained silence concerning its own personal opinion on Garabandal. The strong backing it has given the bishops of Santander is one thing. An explicit and formal condemnation of its own (which it has never issued) is quite another. Until the Congregation decides to take over the entire matter of the investigation, it has no choice but to back the local bishop of Santander. However, this does not necessarily imply that it accepts and agrees with his judgment to the effect that the apparitions are not supernatural in character.
The Pope and Garabandal
But how about the Pope? Has he spoken out against the apparitions? It is not pointless to ask this question because, although the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith is entrusted with speaking for the Holy Father in such matters, it does not necessarily follow that it always speaks his mind and adequately represents his thinking. He is a busy man and cannot be fully briefed on all the pronouncements the Congregation makes for him. Statements and decrees are occasionally issued by the Congregation that do not truly reflect his thoughts. The same applies to the President of the United States in regard to statements emanating from the State Department, even to those coming from its head, the Secretary of State himself.
Something involving an issue very similar to that of apparitions is the case of the Capuchin stigmatist, Padre Pio who died in September of 1968. Between March 31, 1923 and May 22, 1931, five decrees were issued against him by the Holy Office. He was not allowed to receive visitors. He could not say Mass in public and could not even write to those who sought his spiritual advice and direction. But, happily for the Church, on July 16, 1933 Pope Pius XI annulled the decrees against this humble priest who had been deliberately maligned by vicious men who feared the bright light of his holy life. Those who knew Padre Pio well never ceased to believe in him. They were always confident that some day he would be exonerated and the ban against him lifted. Events eventually vindicated their views.
The Pope has never made any official declaration concerning either his belief or his disbelief in the apparitions. But has he done or said things privately and unofficially that might indicate his mind? Here are some facts that throw light on this question.
Conchita Goes to Rome
In February of 1966, Conchita went to Rome at the request of Cardinal Ottaviani, who was then Prefect of the Holy Office. She went with her mother and stayed in the Eternal City some ten days. She was received and interviewed very graciously at the Holy Office by Cardinal Ottaviani and others. Then, she herself asked to see the Holy Father. She was given an appointment, but this was later cancelled. However, the Holy Father sent a person of considerable rank to Conchita. He told her that the Pope gave her his blessing and with it that of all the Church. Finally, on the following day, the Holy Father actually received Conchita and repeated verbally what he had said to her the preceding day by his personal envoy. These are incontrovertible facts that can be substantiated without doubt. It is therefore true that the Pope said to Conchita: “I bless you and with me, the whole Church blesses you.” This cannot be interpreted as approval of Garabandal, but, particularly in view of the circumstances in which it was twice given, it is not without significance.
There has been much talk and confusion about public and private audiences during this visit of Conchita to Rome. The facts of the case are rather complicated and this explains the confusion. Conchita, as mentioned above, sought a visit with the Pope and was given an appointment for a definite rendezvous, but this was unexpectedly cancelled. She did participate in a public audience during which she was stationed at a spot and with individuals the Pope could identify. But nothing special took place on that occasion. The blessing of the Pope referred to above was not given at this time, as was once believed to be true. The blessing was first sent privately, as described above, and then repeated verbally by the Pope in a strictly private visit, which is not quite the same as what is called a “private audience.” Private audiences are really semi-private in nature and are listed daily in the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican Journal. They are called private simply because the number of persons involved is small and they take place in small rooms, occasionally in the Pope’s own office. Conchita’s visit with the Pope was private in the true sense of the word.
There are a number of other incidents involving Pope Paul Vl which indicate, to say the least, an openness in regard to the apparitions of Garabandal which is far from accepting without qualification the opinion of the Bishops Santander that these apparitions are not supernatural and divine in their origin.
In regard to Cardinal Seper, it is an established fact that he did tell the late Mrs. Helen E. Froelicher of New Jersey, in the fall of 1968, that she could talk of the apparitions of Garabandal as long as she mentioned that they were still under investigation. The interview between the Cardinal and Mrs. Froelicher is generally believed to have taken place in the spring of 1969. The reason for this error is undoubtedly the letter that Mrs. Froelicher sent to the editor of the St. Paul, Minnesota diocesan paper, The Wanderer, and which was published in the issue of April 3, 1969. After stating that she visited Garabandal in September of 1968 and “was deeply impressed to speak to the four children to whom the Blessed Mother was reported to have appeared”, Mrs. Froelicher added: “In Rome, I then received the permission of the friendly and fatherly Cardinal Seper, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (which now succeeds the Holy Office) to speak about Garabandal in America, but always mentioning that these apparitions are still under investigation.”
But what has transpired since the fall of 1968 to explain Cardinal Seper’s letter of March 10, 1969 and particularly the stern language of his letter of April 21, 1970? In his letter of March 10, 1969 to the bishop of Santander, the Cardinal states that the Congregation has re-examined the question of the apparitions. Then he adds: “As no new elements have been discovered, there seems to be no reason for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to become directly involved in the matter.” There was no new evidence in the matter of the apparitions. But there was considerable new pressure on the Cardinal to speak out and this came especially from the Bishop of Santander, as is clear from the correspondence of his which was published extensively in this country. But even this pressure, which was brought to bear on the Pope himself [Pope Paul VI] as well as on Cardinal Seper, could not get either of these two persons to issue a direct statement condemning the apparitions of Garabandal!