On May 7th, 2020 Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend, along with 5 other Bishops where Sr. Mary Ephrem was alleged to have had apparitions issued these Documents (Singular Decree and Statement Regarding Devotion to Our Lady of America) following a multi-year study. Included, in these documents is a finding by all the bishops of competence approving this Private Devotion to Our Lady of America.
While the devotion was first approved (early 1960’s) by Archbishop Paul F. Leibold of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the question concerning the supernatural nature of the alleged apparitions had never been previously studied by a Bishop of Competence (a Bishop in the diocese where Sr. Ephrem had her alleged apparitions). Since Sr. Ephrem was frequently moved by her Order, this became a multi-diocesan question.
Most all authentic devotions go through a period of testing. Devotion to Our Lady of America is no different. In statistical measure, the odds of an apparition being declared as truly supernatural are slightly above zero. And those that are approved go through a time of testing which in many cases starts with a condemnation and only when the truth and fruits are fully revealed does it get this rarest of recognition.
As one example, the Divine Mercy devotion was condemned by the Church in 1959 and is now a source of hope, consolation, and conversion for many worldwide. This is one example (of many) showing the difficult path to declared authenticity.
The Our Lady of America Devotion has faced serious challenges over the years. First, with the death of Archbishop Leibold in 1972 the devotion lost its most ardent ecclesiastical supporter and it seemingly fell into dormition. Then, after the death of Sr. Ephrem, it emerged that a former nun, Patricia Fuller, claimed that she alone owned and controlled the devotion through copyrights and a trademark. Of her own admission, there was an expectation of profit from these.
During this period of about 15 years the devotion was outside the control of the Church. Francis Cardinal George, Archdiocese of Chicago (who was very supportive) told me around 2008 that this devotion was going nowhere until that claim of private ownership was resolved. After a 10-year Federal Court battle it was determined that the devotional materials were in the public domain (available to all). Fuller did not control the devotion! As one who personally lived through the litigation, I see its outcome as miraculous. During the litigation, the attacks on the devotion, Church and us were demonic.
Meanwhile, as the faithful have begun to see more clearly the widespread bad fruits from the breakdown of the family and a complete loss of purity in our society, the writings of Sr. Mary Ephrem started to resonate as an important antidote. Over the past fifteen years or more there has been a renewal of devotion to Our Lady of America and the writings of Sr. Ephrem, bearing increasing fruit in the lives of many souls.
A Discerning Church
Almost immediately upon the favorable completion of that litigation, the Bishops of Competence met to determine the course for this growing devotion, which had survived the decades, was gaining interest, and had produced good fruits. Since Sr. Mary Ephrem claimed that the devotion was the result of apparitions, the Church needed to determine if this was indeed the case. This led the 6 bishops to initiate the Church’s process for making such a determination by forming a Commission (led by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades) to follow the process as outlined in ”NORMS REGARDING THE MANNER OF PROCEEDING IN THE DISCERNMENT OF PRESUMED APPARITIONS OR REVELATIONS.”
This process was introduced by the Vatican in 1978, 6 years after the death of Archbishop Leibold. The process requires a Commission to investigate the virtue of the visionary, the messages in light of Church Doctrine, fruits, miracles and other matters (suffering). Much like the process of determining sainthood the standards of determining supernaturality are among the most stringent in the Church.
Why are the standards so high? Because Satan, the master of deceit, is very clever in leading the faithful astray. Hence, the Church has an innate duty to protect us against false doctrine and teachings. The Church would much rather fail to find an authentic apparition as supernatural than to proclaim a false apparition as authentic. This is for our protection and we must rely upon our shepherds for this discernment.
There are three possible outcomes from a study:
- “constat de supernaturalitate”, affirms the supernatural origin of the events;
- “non constat de supernaturalitate”, expresses a decision based on the insufficiency of facts and elements of proof to either affirm or negate the supernatural character of a presumed private revelation;
- “constat de non supernaturalitate”, negates the supernatural character of the facts/events which were examined.
The finding here is the second(2). Its meaning can be confusing. What it means: there is not enough evidence (at this time) to find definitively for supernaturality, but the possibility remains that it may be supernatural. Until there is reason to change this determination, the faithful may practice the private devotion as nothing stands in the way.
Here, from the Norms is the paragraph that most accurately reflects the outcome we have. “If the faithful request it legitimately (that is, in communion with the Pastors, and not prompted by a sectarian spirit), the competent Ecclesiastical Authority can intervene to permit or promote some form of cult or devotion, if, after the application of the above criteria, nothing stands in the way. They must be careful that the faithful not interpret this practice as approval of the supernatural nature of the fact on the part of the Church (cf. Preliminary note c).”
It is of great significance that the Decree and Statement held open the possibility that the origin could be supernatural. They also placed Sr. Mary Ephrem, Rome City, Indiana (site of the alleged first apparition) and the fruits of the devotion in a favorable light. These are extremely positive findings and provide a solid foundation for moving forward in faith.
Before this decree there was only one Bishop, Archbishop Paul F. Leibold (of happy memory) of Cincinnati that had approved the private devotion. Today there are 7! This includes all the current ordinaries of those places where apparitions had allegedly occurred. Do not underestimate the significance and encouraging nature of this!
Miracles play an important part in the determination of supernaturality, just as they do in the determination of sainthood. Why? Because after all the study and discernment, limited by the imperfect intellect of fallen humanity, only Heaven can tell us with certainty that which we cannot know any other way. As in the case of sainthood, since we have no way of knowing who has achieved this crown, we must rely on Heaven to tell us. Thus, the Church relies on miracles to know these truths that cannot be known any other way.
As science, technology and medicine continue to advance it is becoming increasingly difficult to judge something as objectively miraculous. For something to be deemed so, it cannot have any other explanation than being supernatural. In a court-of-law the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the case of a declared miracle, there can be no doubt.
As an example, one of the miracles confirming Our Lady of Guadalupe was the delivery from Our Lady via Juan Diego of Castilian Roses from Europe in the middle of the winter to the Bishop in Mexico. This was a miracle because at that time it could happen no other way. Today it would not be considered a miracle. Why? Greenhouses and overnight air transportation give a plausible explanation to producing fresh European Castilian Roses in Mexico City. In 1531 there was no other explanation than to be a miracle.
We are familiar with at least one of the alleged miracles that was investigated by the commission. While it is popularly believed that this healing was miraculous (and so does the recipient) given the state of modern medicine there is a remote, but plausible alternative explanation. This high standard is the same reason why only 69 miracles have been declared at Lourdes since 1858, where nearly 5 million pilgrims visit each year in search of healing, grace, and consolation.
Bishops have taken great care
As one who has been most privileged for 15 + years to work with many Cardinals, Bishops and Priests in promoting this devotion there is something that must be said. The Church has taken great care and exercised great kindness toward this devotion. During the litigation, there were many instances of bishops offering encouragement, cooperation and support. And many, who had official capacity, chose to act in ways that saved and / or protected it from evil’s design to destroy it. There were many opportunities where it could have been lost forever. Certainly, there were detractors along the way. But they were overcome by those in positions of authority who acted courageously, in truth and charity to make sure no harm was done.
The work of the commission is no different. Bishop Rhoades and the others have acted with extreme charity and love in relation to the broad spectrum of options that were open to them. From what I can tell, in all cases where the record could support either a negative or favorable light, they chose the favorable approach.
How to proceed?
With the Decree and Statement, the Church is now officially back in control of this devotion and has entrusted it to the faithful with encouragement as a private devotion. As such, the devotion is in a great position to grow and bear good fruit. The Bishops have laid a fecund garden for it to grow and flourish under the Grace of Heaven. They have cleared the way for God’s Mercy and Love to rise through the instrument of this devotion. They have shown a favorable light on the person of Sr. Mary Ephrem and the place at Rome City. They have also pointed to our nation’s history of love and devotion to Our Lady, The Immaculate Virgin, Patroness of Our Land. I expect the Church to continue to guide us with love and kindness.
We do not yet know what will be specifically allowed in terms of the practice of the devotion. While the Church has determined it to be a private devotion, that does not mean that it can only be practiced in private. As an example, The Holy Rosary is also a private devotion. We expect further guidance from Bishop Rhoades on what is allowed and what is not. We would be wise to follow his guidance. Obedience is of the utmost importance in these matters.
The Holy Family is the model for us as we fight against the attack on the family and loss of purity which has ravaged our nation and world. Our response will determine the future of the devotion and our nation. Let us take comfort and encouragement and move forward with Faith and trust. What has happened is a great mercy and blessing.
Continue to spread the devotion. The prayers and medals have been specifically allowed by the statement. Keep praying that we may all respond to her call and that Our Lady’s hope for our nation is fulfilled. Especially, pray for these Bishops!
More to come…