December 21, 1977, was an occasion for rejoicing for those who accept the apparitions of Garabandal and especially for those who are spreading the message. For on that day the Most Reverend Juan Antonio del Val, Bishop of Santander, gave public witness to the openness of the Church at the present time regarding the apparitions of Garabandal.
This public witness took place in Garabandal itself, as the Bishop was making a pastoral visitation to the village. At the conclusion of that pastoral encounter, he raised the issue of a new investigation of the apparitions. He began by recalling the negative attitude of his predecessors and affirming his own official position.
“The bishops who preceded me in the diocese did not admit the supernatural character of the phenomena that occurred, beginning in 1961, in this parish of San Sebastian de Garabandal.
I am in communion –in communion- with those bishops, my predecessors.”
The above quotation and the ones that follow are from the official Spanish press release issued by “the Bishopric of Santander” and sent to the Madrid office of the Associated Press. The wire service release was dated “April 2, 1978.” The translation is our own. It is evident that everything in the press release is very carefully worded. The expression used by Bishop del Val to express his official position at the present time is the best example of this. He said, “I am in communion with those bishops, my predecessors.” To be in communion with someone can mean many things. It does not necessarily imply agreement with that person. Especially, it does not necessarily imply full agreement with that person’s views and judgments. If the Bishop had wanted to imply that kind of agreement, it can be presumed he would have said so more clearly.
In fact, the Bishop, in that same talk to the villagers, made it clear that he was not in that kind of full agreement with his predecessors, some of whom were more strongly opposed to the apparitions than others. Indeed, and we quote again from the April 2, 1978 press release:
“On that same date, Bishop del Val concluded, stating that, faced with the suggestion of so many of the supporters – partidarios- of the phenomena mentioned above, he personally had no objection – no tenia inconveniente, por su parte – to having a pontifical commission, working out of the Holy See – desde la Santa Sede- examine these phenomena in collaboration with the diocese of Santander.”
There was the good news, stated publicly by the person responsible today for the apparitions of Garabandal in the eyes of the Church. Bishop del Val affirmed that he personally had no objection to Rome instituting a new commission of investigation in which the diocese of Santander would participate. The press release went on to point out that what the Bishop had said in the village of Garabandal did “not signify that the Bishop is planning to reopen the process (of investigation) of the events in question that was concluded in its day by this bishopric.”
Whether the Bishop of Santander was planning or willing to institute a diocesan commission of investigation to review and carry on further the work done by his predecessors, or whether he would only consider a new commission in Rome, under the responsibility of the Holy See but with the collaboration of Santander, is not the real important point of what he said in Garabandal on December 21, 1977. The important point is his publicly expressed willingness to a new investigation. Where it might be conducted and even who would conduct it are matters of less importance.
Bishop del Val’s preference for an investigation conducted in Rome and under Rome’s responsibility is quite understandable. It would be a very delicate matter for him to initiate and conduct an investigation in his own diocese where his predecessors have refused to approve the apparitions and especially since his immediate predecessor is still alive and active as bishop in the same general area of Spain.
Center for Receiving Testimonies
What the Bishop has done is to tell us loud and clear that he does not consider the apparitions of Garabandal a closed issue, that he does not consider his predecessors as having said the final word and their judgment as definitive and irreversible. In other words it can be truly said that Garabandal is still an open matter and could eventually be approved.
That Bishop del Val considers Garabandal an open matter is confirmed by the fact that he has entrusted Don Juan Gonzalez, who resides in Puentenansa but is pastor of both that village and Garabandal, with the task of serving as a center or clearing house for receiving testimonies relative to the apparitions.
This information is certain. The people in the village of Garabandal have been aware of a local center for receiving testimonies since early 1978, though the existence of this center does not seem to have been publicized in any general way. In September, 1978, a Spanish priest who is a close friend of mine, received the above information about Don Juan Gonzalez directly from Bishop del Val.
This gathering of information must not be construed as a first step in a diocesan investigation. The press release made it clear that the Bishop is not presently planning to reopen or review the old diocesan investigation. What he did express willingness to, was a Roman centered investigation.
Those familiar with the niceties of Church protocol and procedures realize that, before saying what he did in the village of Garabandal on December 21, 1977, Bishop del Val can be presumed to have sounded out the Holy See beforehand and also to have received some indication of its willingness or openness to the idea of a joint but Roman led commission of investigation.
Those who were hoping that the Bishop’s December 21 talk might be followed in the near future by the establishment of a joint commission were to soon know disappointment. Some of those opposed to Garabandal, fearful that this commission would indeed come about, reacted strongly. Deplorable tactics were even resorted to. It was publicly rumored in certain Spanish newspapers that the Bishop of Santander was to be replaced. The name of the candidate who was supposed to replace him was printed in some papers. I have newspaper clippings from Spain to substantiate this. Unfortunately, there was also some imprudent reaction on the part of some of the over-enthusiastic supporters of the apparitions.
The result was that Bishop del Val, in the same April 2, 1978, official press release, stated that the reaction provoked by his December 21 talk revealed that the climate was not suitable for pursuing the project of the joint commission he had mentioned. Here is the carefully worded portion of the press release that relates to this.
“The reactions provoked by the statements of the Bishop at San Sebastian de Garabandal, indicate that circumstances are not suitable for a special commission concerning this matter at the Holy See – deconseja como no oportuna la comision especial para estos asuntos en las Santa Sede.”
This statement gives us some insight into how explosive and divisive the issue of Garabandal is in Spain and what a delicate problem it poses for the Bishop of Santander and for Rome. It does not imply repudiation by Bishop del Val of the openness to a new commission of investigation that he manifested so clearly in December 1977, in his talk to the people of Garabandal.
To be sure, this openness on the part of the Bishop does not tell us anything about his own personal belief in the apparitions, whether he accepts or rejects them. He does not seem to have ever openly expressed himself on this matter. All it tell us – but that is all that we need to know – is that he does not consider that the statements of his predecessors have settled the matter of the Garabandal apparitions once and for all and that their negative stance is something final which cannot be changed.
Something else happened in 1971 that revealed that Rome likewise does not consider Garabandal a closed issue. It involves Don Jose’ Ramon Garcia del la Riva, pastor of Our Lady of Sorows parish, Barro de Llanes (Asturias) who was present at some 200 apparitions and became a close friend of the seers and their families. He has written an account of what he saw and heard at Garabandal entitled Memoirs of a Spanish Country Pastor.
Fr. De la Riva was called in by his Ordinary, the Archbishop of Oviedo, concerning the events of Garabandal. He met with him on May 21, 1971. The Archbishop told him that the Holy See had asked him for documents concerning Garabandal. These were supplied by Fr. de la Riva, who later commented on his visit with the Archbishop, saying that if the date of this visit were compared with other dates, “one would readily see that the Holy See has not yet closed the file on the Garabandal events.” What he meant by the comparing of dates was that his visit with his Ordinary indicated that Rome was still seeking evidence about the apparitions of Garabandal on May 21, 1971, which was two and one half years after the last negative “Official Note” concerning the events of Garabandal ever issued by the See of Santander. This note was promulgated on October 9, 1968, by “the Secretariat of the Bishopric of Santander, by order of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Bishop D. Jose’ Maria Cirarda Lachiondo.” Bishop Cirarda was still the Ordinary of Santander in May 21, 1971.
Bishop del Val, the present Ordinary of Santander, was installed at the end of 1971. He has never issued any “Note” concerning the events of Garabandal. The press release of April 2, 1978, was the first official statement ever published by him (through his bishopric) relating to these events.
So we find that neither the actual Bishop of Santander nor the Holy See consider “the file closed on the Garabandal events.” This is the present position of the Church concerning the events that took place at San Sebastian de Garabandal from 1961 through 1965. This is the message that flows from a careful analysis of the most recent statements and actions of the Church, especially those of the actual Bishop of Santander, who in the eyes of the Church is still the immediate authority presently responsible for the events of Garabandal.
Message Repeats Church Doctrine
Although the bishops who preceded Bishop del Val all refused to admit the divine origin of the apparitions that reportedly took place at Garabandal, none of them was critical of the message said to have been delivered there. In fact, Bishop Eugenio Beitia, in the negative Note which he issued on July 8, 1965, had this to say in that official document:
“We point out, however, that we have not found anything deserving of ecclesiastical censorship or condemnation either in the doctrine or in the spiritual recommendations that have been publicized as having been addressed to the faithful, for these contain an exhortion to prayer and sacrifice, to Eucharistic devotion, to veneration of Our Lady in traditional praiseworthy ways, and to holy fear of God offended by our sins. They simply repeat the common doctrine of the Church in these matters.”
Finally, it should be pointed out that the attitude or position of the Church concerning visions or position of the Church concerning visions and apparitions is not as simple as many presume it to be. It is not all black and white. There is much gray. It is far from always resolving itself into either approval or condemnation. Between these two extremes, there exists quite a wide spectrum of positions and the terminology most commonly used, at least in English, often lacks precision. The cult, v.g. Mass, at a place where apparitions occurred is approved or authorized by the Church. Medals, such as the Miraculous Medal of the Rue du Bac, are likewise approved or authorized. Visions and apparitions are not really approved by the Church. They are more properly said to be ‘recognized,’ that is, the Church after prudent investigation recognizes or acknowledges that according to this prudent human examination (which, of course, implies prayer), it seems that there was a divine intervention and that the faithful will not be misguided in accepting the even as coming from God.
This is the common opinion of theologians regarding the meaning of Church ‘approval’ of an apparition or vision. Likewise, apparitions are not technically ‘condemned’. They are not recognized or acknowledged as coming from God, as having a supernatural origin or character. It might also be said that the Church accepts or rejects apparitions. This too, would be a more adequate description of what the Church is doing when it ‘approves’ or ‘condemns’ such events.