The Churche's Position

By Geoffrey A.P. Groesbeck

It’s time to set the record straight, once and for all.  One of the most misunderstood matters regarding Garabandal is the Church’s true position on it. Opinion as to what it has been, is, or will be, has see-sawed relentlessly in the nearly five decades since the apparitions began in the tiny hamlet of San Sebastian de Garabandal in northern Spain. There are those who are convinced the Church is disposed to look favourably upon it, and those who believe the opposite.  And there is a large camp in the middle, uncertain as to which side to join. It is time to set the record straight, once and for all. Plainly put, these are the actual facts.

The Church’s Criteria

An excellent introduction to the Church’s criteria for reviewing Marian apparitions was provided not long ago by the late Fr Jesu´s Castellano Cervera, OCD, a professor of theology and specialist in Mariology at the Teresianum in Rome, who was until his death in 2006 a consultant to no less than the seven dicasteries, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church’s agency that investigates reports of Marian apparitions.

In response to being asked what are the key criteria for discerning alleged apparitions, Fr Castellano replied, “The first criterion is cordial communion with the Church and her magisterium.

Garabandal certainly meets this criterion. Its messages time and again have been pronounced in complete accordance with Church teachings by all levels of the clergy, including canon lawyers, theologians,and some of the highest-ranking members of the Roman Curia.

No Definitive Pronouncement made by the Church

Although the evidence suggests an increasing receptivity towards Garabandal, as of August 2008, the Church absolutely has not made any all-encompassing pronouncement upon the matter.  Equally important, the Church has not, in any way, condemned it. Perhaps we should start by asking what constitutes an “official” position, who declares it so and to what extent it is binding upon the faithful. To answer these questions, we must first sound the Church’s feelings as to the status of Garabandal within the larger context of apparitions in general. In other words, we ask whether Garabandal meets the Church’s criteria for consideration as a valid apparition, before assuming a definitive position on the matter.

The Church’s Process

From here, the formal process of ruling on an apparition is both painstaking and time-consuming. Given the enormity of the consequences, the Church is justifiably extremely prudent on this matter. How prudent?  After the famous Marian apparitions at Lourdes, there were more than 150 alleged appearances in just the next five years none of which was approved by the Church. In statistical terms, the odds of an apparition being declared true are slightly above zero. Just as it is important to note that the criteria are extremely challenging, it is equally important to remember that the Church teaches that no one is obligated to believe in private revelations, regardless of whether they are approved of or not. This point cannot be emphasized enough:  Acceptance of apparitions on a personal level is a matter of private faith, not a mandatory command of the Church. Unfortunately, some believe that unless the Church pronounces a verdict within a certain time span, the apparition in question cannot be real. Nothing could be further from the truth! By the same token, if people automatically assume a negative attitude towards an apparition simply because it has not been approved, this in no way implies that the message should not be heeded, assuming it is in conformity with the Church’s teachings.

Establishing Procedural Authority

There are three levels of authority with regard to investigating alleged apparitions:  first, the local bishop (in this case, that of Santander);  second, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome;  and finally, if deemed appropriate, the Pope himself.  Determinations at the local level are not final, but are always subject to the higher authority, which can either ratify the findings made at the diocesan level or reserve judgment.

So who has the final say?  The Pope himself.   As the authors of Star On The Mountain note, “According to the doctrine of the Fifth Lateran Council and Pope Leo X (1512), the Holy Father is the only judge of revelations of this kind (prophecies)“.

Many readers may not know that there have been three investigations into Garabandal at the local or diocesan level and a fourth one still underway. The first one (1961-62), was held under the auspices of the then apostolic administrator Bishop Doroteo Fernandez. Yet it can hardly be called an “investigation” at all, due to the obvious prejudicial attitude shown by the investigators and amply documented since.

What do we know for certain of this initial query?  The commission visited the village briefly and only three times, and never questioned the visionaries, their parents or the parish priest, and carefully avoided anyone who might have given favourable testimony.

No questions regarding the apparitions themselves were put forth; those that were asked were of a general nature, e.g. the way of life in Garabandal, the social activities of its inhabitants, and so on.  Not only did the priest on the commission resign, but two decades later its chief medical examiner, Dr Luis Morales Noriega – with the permission of the bishop at the time (the late Juan Antonio del Val Gallo) – publicly reversed his original negative position, after having received and asked for a miraculous sign. A second and a then third study (1986-91) were commissioned by the same Bishop del Val (ironically who was the priest on the original commission). The findings of the first of these two commissions were neither finalized nor sent to the Vatican. The results of the second investigation – started by Bishop del Val and transferred, upon his retirement in 1991, to the former bishop – Jose Vilaplana, eventually were sent to Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) at the Vatican, and have not yet been made public. The investigation continues, with additional materials having been sent to the Vatican within the past few years.  However, no official pronouncement has been made, although recent rulings at the local level by various bishops on aspects of Garabandal (e.g. lifting of the ban on saying Mass at the Pines, declarations of theological conformity of the messages of Garabandal with the Church’s teachings) have been uniformly positive. For the actual process of discerning the validity of apparitions, we turn to an article written by Bryan J. Walsh, a member of the Eternal Word Television Network and a well-known author on apparitions.   (For the text of the entire article online, please go to

The Four Categories of Apparitions

According to Brian Walsh, all private revelations, such as Garabandal, fall into one of four categories.

Questionable: very purported apparition starts in this category. The Church assumes that nothing unusual is occurring until a thorough evaluation takes place. False: After careful evaluation, almost all questionable apparitions are determined to be “false alarms” even though the individuals involved may be mentally healthy and sincere in their statements. Fraudulent: A few alleged apparitions are have proven to be false.  On rare occasions an element of satanic involvement was uncovered. Authentic: Very few private revelations have been determined to be authentic in that they appear to involve supernatural intervention and act to strengthen the faith of those who follow them. The Four Stages of Authentic Apparitions Those few apparitions considered authentic then are subjected to another level of the Church’s scrutiny, as follows. 1. After thorough evaluation by the local bishop, he issues a statement of support for the event by stating the apparitions contain nothing contrary to faith or morals, that it appears to be supernaturally inspired and that it is worthy of devotion by the faithful. 2. Once approved, a lengthy period of devotion by the faithful that results in a deepening of faith and a return to a life of self-denial and prayer, is then permitted to develop. If it develops, then the next stage becomes possible. 3. Papal acknowledgement. The Pope states publicly that he is favourably disposed to the events and contents of the apparition. 4. Liturgical recognition by recognizing the apparition officially on the Church liturgical calendar. Most Catholics know that only four Twentieth century apparitions have progressed to the fourth stage:  Fatima (Portugal, 1917);  Beauraing (Belgium 1932-3);  Banneux (Belgium, 1933);  and Amsterdam (1945-59);  although there are others (e.g. Akita, Japan; Betania, Venezuela) that have passed the first two stages.

Towards An Official Position

From the above, we see that not only is the process a lengthy, multi-part one, but also that almost no apparition – including authentic ones – has made it to the ultimate stages of papal acknowledgement and inclusion in the liturgical calendar. It is essential to remember that not reaching these final two stages does not signify that the apparition is not authentic.

Indeed, far more important in determining the apparition’s authenticity are the first two stages:  Episcopal support after a thorough investigation; and a lengthy period of devotion. The italics in the previous sentence are deliberate: One of the areas regarding Garabandal about which there is universal agreement is that the initial investigation of 1961 was anything but thorough, let alone canonically valid.

Consider the comments of the long-serving parish priest at Garabandal, Fr Valentin Marichalar, who witnessed literally hundreds of apparitions. It is inconceivable that the one person who could speak most authoritatively to the matter would not be questioned by either the local bishop at the time (Doroteo Fernandez), or the commission he established to investigate the matter!

Yet, this is exactly what happened.  In a 1976 interview with Needles magazine, Fr. Marichalar remarked that the commission wanted only to get the job over with quickly, and that virtually nothing was done in accordance with proper custom.

In fact, every single major work published on the history of Garabandal has underscored this unavoidable point.  The glaring lack of thorough enquiry on the part of the original commission was so noticeable that the enquiry was re-opened by the local bishop, an almost unheard of event in Vatican circles. As such, Garabandal’s file is in no way closed – it has been re-opened – and no pronouncement has been made from Rome.

The only official pronouncements to date have been those from the succession of local bishops occupying the bishopric of Santander, under whose jurisdiction lies San Sebastian de Garabandal. None of these have ever condemned Garabandal outright.

In the past, they prudently urged caution, and one went so far as to prohibit saying Mass there without diocesan approval (although this restriction has since been lifted).  Bishop del Val removed all restrictions on Garabandal, and any priest is free to say Mass there now, including saying it at the Pines.

These notas oficiales, as they are termed, may have been circumspect, but they never explicitly condemned Garabandal. To the contrary, since 1965, these notas have very clearly affirmed that there are no grounds whatsoever for ecclesiastical condemnation. Equally important, the most nota, that of former Bishop Vilaplana, explicitly stated that he was in agreement with the position taken by his predecessors, including   Bishop del Val, who did so much to keep Garabandal front and centre in the eyes of the Vatican.

From Initial Skepticism …

Much has been made of the first nota’s statement, published in August 1961, that “Nothing up to the present obliges us to affirm that the events occurring … are supernatural.”  This should not be misinterpreted as meaning the events of Garabandal were considered by the bishop not to be of supernatural origin.  A careful reading of the text indicates quite clearly that he reserved the right to withhold judgment until later, nothing more, nothing less.

… To Increasing Acceptance

In the intervening years, the tenor of these notas shifted dramatically, starting with the one of 1965 from then-bishop Eugenio Beitia Aldazabal, which again explicitly stated that Garabandal was not condemned at all. Further, in 1972, Bishop del Val reiterated that Garabandal was not to be considered condemned, a position he stated again in 1992.

His exact words in the 1992 statement underline the importance of not misinterpreting the Church’s prudence by using it as an excuse to jump to false conclusions: “The previous bishops did not admit that the apparitions were supernatural, but to condemn them, no, that word has never been used.”

Along the way, the evidence in favour of Garabandal has mounted steadily. As noted above, a second (and subsequently, a third) official investigation was opened in 1987, and again in 1991, at the request of Bishop del Val. The bishop nominated four groups of experts to look into the sociological, psychological, theological, and scriptural/spiritual aspects of Garabandal.  These findings have since been sent to Rome along with additional material.

The Occasional Negative Voice

There have been dissenting voices, of course, most of whom have focused their attention upon wildly inaccurate pieces that have circulated on the internet. Almost all of these can be traced to a single source:  a badly flawed translation of a spurious letter purported to be from the former Bishop Vilaplana.  Needless to say, its views have long been discredited, although the rumour remains.

This version of Bishop Vilaplana’s letter is flawed in that it fails to accurately translate key text that designate the status of Garabandal. This is a very important point. Whenever bishops address private revelation or mystical phenomena in which they are required to render a judgment, they use very specific terminology, signifying the classification in which they place the event. There are three classifications, similar to those used by Walsh earlier.

1. Constat de supernaturalitate – It is certain that the events are of supernatural origin.
2. Non- constat de supernaturalitate – It is not certain that the events are of supernatural origin i.e. the supernatural origin has not been established. Here the events in question are still open to eventual recognition as being authentic.
3. Constat de non supernaturalitate – It is certain that the events are not of supernatural origin.

The key word in all of these categories is constat, which has the meaning “to be certain, sure, or evident“. So long as a manifestation is in the second category, it is in the safe zone. Garabandal is in this second category. In fact, the purported letter used to discredit it confirms its status as such. The Spanish verb constar is derived from the Latin constat and has the same meaning. In Bishop Vilaplana’s original letter, he uses the expression no consta (“not certain”), thus clearly assigning Garabandal to the second category.

There remain those who will insist upon interpreting the Church’s silence as a condemnation. This is all the more the pity, as such self-proclaimed views do little besides obscure the matter and usurp the Church’s position as the final arbiter on such matters.

 Papal Acknowledgement

There is a very interesting conjecture – nothing more – that Garabandal may already have received a tacit acknowledgement from the Vatican itself. It should be stressed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has yet to issue a statement on Garabandal, and has not taken away jurisdiction from the local hierarchy. At the same time, one of the principal visionaries, Conchita Gonzalez, was summoned to Rome, first in 1966 by Cardinal Ottaviani, and then again in 1968. It is difficult to imagine there would be such interest at the highest levels of the Vatican in a teenager from rural Spain were there not some compelling reason! Popes Paul VI and John Paul II met with Conchita and Mari-Loli respectively, and issued their blessings to them.

Where Now?

The road to open acknowledgement of Garabandal as an approved apparition is far from finished. In truth, it is still premature to expect a definite pronouncement, by either the local ordinary bishop or the Church hierarchy. We must remember that even the positive judgement of a thorough and fully canonical investigation cannot alter its current status as long as certain prophesied events are still pending. The Blessed Virgin herself may have anticipated this, and made the necessary provisions. Indeed she predicted that one day Garabandal would be promoted, with the permission of the Church. “She will give time for the Message to be spread with the permission of the Church.

This already has come to pass in large degree, with the abrogation in 1967 of Canons 1399 and 2318. These permit, without fear of ecclesiastical censorship, the publication of information on alleged manifestations, and further permit visits to the sites of alleged Marian apparitions, as long as there is nothing in the events contrary to the Church’s teaching on faith and morals.   As noted earlier, Garabandal clearly passes this test.

Thus, the status of Garabandal is the same as it always has been and will remain, pending the fulfillment of the prophecies of The Warning, the Miracle and the Permanent Sign. During this waiting period, all Catholics are free to learn of Garabandal, visit it, and most important of all, heed and follow its messages without fear of ecclesiastical censure.