News broke recently about the final ruling of six bishops involving the supernatural origins of the supposed apparitions of Our Lady of America. These supposed apparitions of Our Lady were given to Sister Mary Ephrem Neuzil, a member of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. The apparitions started on September 25, 1956 in Rome City, Indiana, as part of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. These events extended over a three-year period until December 20, 1959 and occurred to Sr. Neuzil at various places she was stationed within the confines of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Diocese of Phoenix, and the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.i
One interesting question is: why was this apparition ruled to be not an objective apparition when Archbishop Paul F. Leibold, and later Cardinal Raymond Burke, endorsed the content of the messages of Our Lady of America? The bishops’ recent Decree notes that such endorsements of the messages were not a endorsements of their objective supernatural character, but only a recognition that their content is consistent with the constant teaching of the Church as pertaining to devotion to Our Lady, the sanctification of the family, and the fostering of purity of heart. This initial ruling is consistent with the first part of the investigation of an alleged apparition as to whether or not its message is consistent with the teaching of the Church regarding faith and morals, not as to its objective supernatural character.ii The investigation as to the alleged character and messages of an apparition is started by the local bishop and he has the authority of making a final judgement on the nature of such an apparition, with appropriate assistance as needed.iii
Multiple bishops, as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops itself, got involved with the final ruling on the supernatural origin of the apparitions because of the various places where these apparitions occurred. Another reported reason for this was because of the purported request of Our Lady of America to process with a statue in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then gave its permission in November 2017 for the second part of the investigation to proceed, which deals with the question of whether the apparitions were of supernatural origin. The final conclusion of this investigation, decreed by the Most Rev. Kevin Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend and cosigned by five other bishops was the following:
Therefore, I must come to the conclusion that the visions and revelations themselves cannot be said to be of supernatural origin in the sense of objective occurrences (non constat de supernaturalitate); thus further, I cannot approve or support public devotion or cult.iv
This recent ruling by Bishop Rhoades may lead some to wonder what is the objective standard that the Church uses to rule upon the supposed supernatural nature of an apparition of Our Lord and Our Lady. Such questioning would revolve around two main points: first, if Sister Neuzil was of sound mind, good faith, and did not lie about these occurrences, then what actually happened? Secondly, how can a claim of an apparition be ruled as not objectively a supernatural occurrence, but also be a truth of subjective experience that defined a person’s own life and walk with the Lord?
The decree notes that Sr. Neuzil was “honest, morally upright, psychologically balanced, devoted to religious life, and without guile.” Despite these signs of goodness, there were signs of imperfection but no evidence that she was a perpetrator of a hoax or the victim of delusion. She also communicated her alleged experiences, what she believed to be true, and “her communication of these alleged experiences [is] filled with humility and forthrightness.” The decree also notes that “looking at the nature and quality of the experiences themselves, we find that they are more to be described as subjective inner religious experiences rather than objective external visions and revelations.”v
It is necessary at this point to understand what is meant by “subjective inner religious experiences” and “objective external visions and revelations.” The Church distinguishes between three types of visions: bodily (the physical eyes), imaginative, and intellective.vi Sr. Neuzil described the experiences of her visions of Our Lady as “inner visions.”vii Thus, we are speaking of the second type of vision: imaginative. In this type of vision, one’s imagination and intellect can have a notable and decisive role in the formation of one’s experiences.viii
Saint John of the Cross describes these occurrences as when imagination, without the use of the exterior senses, presents to the intellect an image or perception and the person then makes a judgement about them. God can use the imaginative faculty to convey messages and particular wisdom to people.ix The devil can also do the same thing with the interior senses in order to deceive a soul. The resulting effect can be an overstimulation of the imagination and intellect, in which there is difficulty discerning human action from divine action. This discernment is typically done on a personal level with one’s spiritual director/father. Instances that have a more public character might require the intervention of higher authorities.
The above explanation helps makes sense of the anthropological and ecclesial dimensions but does not explain the intention of the person. On this point, the Church recognizes that, in such matters, the person experiencing these things might not have ill intentions, such as to deceive people or to gain fame or fortune. They can, however, be fooled by his or her own imagination and still be virtuous individuals. Simply put, they honestly mistook the origin of their experience(s). Even in good and holy people receiving an extraordinary grace, human faculties may be overwhelmed to an extent where they struggle to both understand and interpret what the Lord is showing them and how to apply it properly within the life of faith.x This is what Bishop Rhoades et al. meant when they spoke of “subjective inner religious experiences”, even while upholding Sr. Neuzil’s personal integrity.xi
Such subjective visions that come in the course of deep mystical prayer and ecstasies are not considered by the Church to be apparitions per se but as meditations. They can be an extraordinary gift from the Lord, given as a profound grace and consolation, but often they are not rooted in authentic supernatural movements within the soul and can often be embellishments of mystical experiences. Despite this fact in some cases, these events may contain some interior truths that can help people enter more deeply into the essential truths of the faith and the life of Our Lord. For this reason, many people have found Sr. Neuzil’s writings to be helpful in their spiritual lives, and that is good. It must, however, be tempered with the Church’s judgment.
Bishop Rhoades concluded his investigation on a positive note. He stated that it is possible to have a private devotion to the apparition of Our Lady of America, but that “such private devotion should in no way imply approval or acceptance of purported revelations, visions, or locutions attributed to Sr. Mary Ephrem Neuzil other than as her own subjective inner religious experiences.”xii Such decision may seem like a dismissal of what Sr. Neuzil experienced, but actually is the opposite. Due reverence is being given without distorting the gifts and graces that were actually given to Sr. Neuzil by the Lord through the hands of the Blessed Mother.
The decree attests that Sr. Neuzil did experience something profoundly mystical and life-changing. As the apparitions of Our Lady of America have been tested by Our Lord and the Church, let us hold onto what is good (cf. 1 Thess. 5:21) in its private devotional context if we find that personally helpful. Yet as Saint John of the Cross reminds us, let us not become too fixated on visions and apparitions, lest they become a roadblock of pride and personal preference that risks derailing us from entering into the full divine embrace of Our Lord in all its mystery and truth.
i Most Rev. Kevin Rhoades, Statement Regarding the Devotion to Our Lady of America and Singular Decree, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. April 24, 2020.
iiIbid; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations (February 25, 1978); Most Rev. Raymond L. Burke, Letter to the Bishops of the USCCB Regarding Our Lady of America (May 31, 2007).
iii Rhoades et al., Statement & Singular Decree.
vii Rhoades et al., Statement & Singular Decree.
viii The Message of Fatima, 36-38.
ix John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 16, n.1-3. Taken from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otillo Rodriguez. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991. For examples from scripture of God influencing people through imaginary images, please see Is 6:2-4, Jer 1:11, Daniel 7:10. For example of demonic influence through imaginary visions in Scripture, please see 1 Kgs 22:11-12, 21-22, and Mt 27:19. As noted in the Singular Decree of Bishop Rhoades, Benedict Groeschel also speaks of imaginative visions and the difficulties they pose in A Still Small Voice (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 129, 130-132 and a more recent one can be found in, Donald Haggerty, Contemplative Enigmas, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020, 113..
x John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 16, n. 6-7 & Ch. 17, n.7
xi Rhoades et al., Statement and Singular Decree. The decree notes that “it seems that these were authentically graced moments, even perhaps of a spiritual quality beyond what most people experience, but subjective ones in which her own imagination and intellect were constitutively engaged, putting form to inner spiritual movements.” Such experiences are powerful but not objective visions and revelations of the type seen at Fatima, Guadalupe, and Lourdes.
xii Rhoades et al., Statement and Singular Decree. See also CDF Norms II:2.