HOLY

Vials of Magical Blood, Visions, and Exorcisms—The Sometimes Unbelievable Side of Catholicism

A new book details the more hard to believe practices of the Catholic faith.

On the 19th of September every year, hundreds of well-dressed Neapolitans gather to watch the contents of a tiny vial of blood belonging to Saint Janarius turn to liquid. No, they aren’t part of some secret underground sect, they are Catholics—devout and otherwise—who think missing the spectacle is just as unlucky as the blood not liquefying. “The miracle doesn’t always occur, however, and on those occasions the city’s populace fears the worst,” writes Vatican expert John Thavis in his new book, Vatican Prophecies, out this week. “Selective memory may be at work, but Neapolitans point to outbreaks of plague in 1527 and 1656, the beginning of World War II in 1939, and a deadly earthquake in 1980—all events, they say, that followed the failure of Saint Januarius’s blood to liquefy.”

Thavis’s new book, which is a follow-up to his 2013 bestseller, Vatican Diaries, could really be considered a guidebook to the sometimes crazy Catholic customs many normally sane people follow as part of their faith. In it he covers everything from modern miracles, the worship of finger bones, to the mystery of the Shroud of Turin, giving a measured insight into things some people might consider a little kooky.

“When it comes to miracles, I think most Catholics have a mixture of belief and skepticism,” he told The Daily Beast. “My impression is that many Catholics just don't know, but are curious and do not rule out supernatural events. What is striking is that wherever you go, Catholics have stories about a local event or someone they know who experienced something ‘other-worldly.’”

Thavis says that during his extensive research, which took him around the world to investigate some of the most well known Catholic myths, he was most surprised by the number of people who had a personal experience with something bizarrely inexplicable. “I was surprised at the number of people who told me they were convinced they knew someone miraculously cured,” he says. “In that sense, I think belief in these supernatural phenomena is greater than might be imagined at the Vatican.”

His chapter on exorcisms, for example, reads like a true-crime thriller, but the fact that the events described are real make them even scarier. He gives several in-depth examples of recent exorcisms, including one priest’s experience with the occult in Indiana and the possession of a woman named Latoya Ammons whose children were apparently levitating and climbing the walls—literally. The local priest somewhat reluctantly intervened and told Thavis about the experience. “They excavated the area and unearthed a number of strange objects, including a fingernail, a shoehorn, and a pair of boys’ socks, but nothing that seemed particularly portentous,” Thavis explains. “It was important that they determine the identity of the demon inside her, so that they could summon him and get him to speak.”

Thavis then explains how Latoya recalled that when the perceived possession began she had gone to the computer and Googled “how to get rid of demons.”

“On a spiritual ‘symptom checker’ site she found a description of a possession that seemed to correspond to her family’s afflictions,” Thavis explains. “But when she tried to click to find the name of the demon responsible for it, her computer had crashed.”

Beyond the titillation, Thavis does a fine job parsing the Vatican’s trouble with the devil, including a good explainer on the struggle the Church hierarchy has with what to do about him. “There is strong resistance in Catholic intellectual and academic circles to any discussion of the devil as an actual entity,” Thavis explains. “As a result… most priests are unprepared to respond to the thousands of Catholics who need the help of an exorcist.”

Thavis also breaks down the Vatican’s view on angels, arguing that they, like the devil, aren’t meant to be the core of the faith. “In recent years,” he writes, “the Vatican has repeatedly intervened to curb what it considers extreme and unfounded beliefs about angels and their role in human affairs. Arguably church officials have given more attention to excessive angel worship than to Satanic cults.”

He goes on to say, “Whether its focus is on angels or demons, the Vatican’s chief concern is that Catholics might believe that the world is caught up in a supernatural struggle between good and evil spirits over which human beings have no control.”

Thavis also gives a thorough explanation of the Vatican’s miracle-making machine and the process of certifying medical miracles, which most often lead to eventual sainthood. He includes a fascinating interview with Andrea Ambrosi, a postulator for the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes. Ambrosi is a sort of saint consultant who has written the required “positio” referral letter for more than 500 would-be saints being considered by the Vatican. “Ambrosi is known for his blunt appraisal of a sainthood candidate’s virtues and an unerring eye for identifying credible miracles,” Thavis writes. “He is above all a canny strategist, knowing what kind of evidence will sway the [medical consultant] and which arguments will carry weight with the [theological consultant].”

Thavis takes a good look at Catholic apparitions, or ghostly sightings most often of the Virgin Mary, explaining that the more educated the person with the vision, the less likely they will be considered credible. “If Barack Obama or Silvio Berlusconi says he’s seen the Madonna, the church wouldn’t give it much credence,” Thavis writes. “The more a person is young, simple and ignorant, the more the event is credible, because there’s no cultural influence, no influence by theology or literature, no knowledge of the mystical experiences of others.”

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Finally Thavis dissects Pope Francis’s often mixed messages about the otherworldly side of the Catholic Faith, explaining how the pope warned, in November 2013, that Catholics should follow “the spirit of wisdom in their lives, avoiding an unhealthy ‘spirit of curiosity’ that seeks signs, messages and supernatural prognostications.” Though at the same time, this pope does invoke the devil’s ill-intended work and, as Thavis explains in the first passage of the book, had performed what amounted to some, including Rome’s most famous exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, as a spontaneous exorcism in St. Peter’s Square in his early days as pope. While the Vatican press office denied that the pope performed an exorcism, Amorth—who would know—says otherwise. “Father Amorth weighed in, saying the pope had definitely pronounced a prayer of exorcism, even if he had not completed the formal rite,” Thavis explains, putting an end to the controversy once and for all.

Thavis then explains how Latoya recalled that when the perceived possession began she had gone to the computer and Googled “how to get rid of demons.”

Thavis’s book is the kind of conversation starter that could keep a dinner table talking for hours. And is as much a compulsory read for any Catholics who may think they understand the mysterious side of their faith as it is for the skeptics who criticize the Catholic customs. It offers an explanation of what are largely inexplicable. Thavis, who is a veteran on the Vatican beat, found a few surprises himself. “As for me, I didn’t really set out to witness or experience miracles, but to tell the stories of the people who do, and the church officials who investigate them,” he says. “In my interviews with ‘miracolati’ who believe they are alive today because of heavenly intervention, I was most of all impressed with their humility. They were not trying to cash in on this, or paint themselves as religiously special.”

He says he also came away from the project with a broader concept of what may constitute a miracle. “There are many hidden changes, conversions and reconciliations that may never be documented, but that people carry in their hearts as miracles,” he says. “I believe the church’s appreciation of the miraculous is tending toward this broader understanding, and is not solely focused on the spectacular miracles of past centuries.”