In this series, condensed from a book written by Fr. Northcote prior to 1868 on various famous Sanctuaries of Our Lady, the author succeeds in defending the honor of Our Blessed Mother and the truth of the Catholic Faith against the wily criticism of many Protestants.
It has happened more than once during the reign of Pope Pius IX, that miraculous appearances have been reported with reference to pictures of our Blessed Lady in different parts of his dominions. In the year 1850, it was said of a painting of the Madonna of Mercy in the church of Santa Clara at Rimini (on the coast of what is now the Republic of San Marino), that the image of Mary had been seen to open and close its eyes repeatedly during a period of several months; and again, since that time, a similar statement was made about a picture in the little church of Vicovaro (about 45 kilometers northeast of Rome). There are probably few of our readers who are not more or less struck at first sight by the apparent strangeness of such stories. That a person who had been deaf and dumb from his birth should suddenly receive the powers of hearing and of speech, or that one who had been born blind should suddenly receive his sight, in the presence of some painting or statue of the Madonna, is of course miraculous; but it is not, in the sense in which we have here used the word, strange; on the contrary, it is a fact of very frequent occurrence in the history of these sanctuaries, and is sometimes acknowledged even by Protestants themselves, who conceive that they find a sufficient explanation of it in the earnest faith of the persons relieved. Such facts may be improbable, but they are not self-evidently absurd; neither is there anything grotesque about them, anything that looks ridiculous, which there certainly is to the Protestant mind, and indeed (we need not hesitate to say) to human reason unenlightened by faith, in the assertion that a fresco upon a wall, or a painting on canvas, or a statue of wood or stone, spoke or moved, or performed any other function of a living agent.
We cannot wonder then that English journalists should have greeted the tales to which we have referred, with the utmost ridicule and scorn; they treated them much in the same way as we might treat a man who should pretend to have received a revelation from Heaven assuring him that the Christian religion was false and the worship of Jupiter true. The Catholic, on the other hand, when first he hears of such stories, is struck by their apparent strangeness, and thinks them, perhaps, extremely improbable; still, he knows that they are not impossible, and since they are in no way opposed to the articles of Faith, but rather confirmatory of some of them, he does not refuse to listen to the evidence that may be put before him. He may be a man of a very hard, severe, and critical turn of mind; yet, even so, he will only require that the evidence shall be unusually clear, positive and unquestionable—because the fact which it is intended to prove is unusual also. He will not be satisfied with the testimony of a few witnesses, perhaps not even of a dozen; he will sift and resift, question and cross-question, to see whether it might not be some deceit, some fancy of an over-heated imagination, or some extraordinary optical illusion. But in the end, if he should find that there is no room for any of these conjectures, if the evidence should prove to be altogether beyond exception, he will not dream of withholding his assent, and in proportion to his previous incredulity will be the firmness of his matured convictions.
But is there, then, for any of these extraordinary stories, evidence of such a character? evidence really conclusive, and which could not fail to satisfy an impartial jury, even though the witnesses were subjected to the severest cross-examination at the hands of some clever and obstinate devil's advocate? We do not hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative; we assert that there is sufficient evidence positively to command the assent of any moderately candid person, even of one possessed by prejudices to the contrary, provided only that he does not refuse to listen to it, and that he consents to submit to those laws by which human testimony is ordinarily tried. In order to establish the truth of this assertion, we propose to examine—not the alleged miracle at Rimini, nor that of Vicovaro—but a large number of miracles of precisely the same character which happened simultaneously in the city of Rome towards the end of the 18th century. We make this choice, not the least from any doubt as to the truth of what was stated about the more modern instances, but simply because we have never had an opportunity of examining the processes by which the evidence for them was collected and sifted, whereas, as we shall presently show, we have all that the most captious critic could desire with reference to those of others of which we propose to speak.
It was in the morning of the 9th of July, 1796, that a movement of the eyes was first noticed in a picture of the Mother of Mercy, painted in oil, that hung over an arch in one of the streets near the Piazza Santi Apostoli. It was a well-known picture, one of the many in Rome before which might often be seen some humble client of Mary telling his beads, and making his silent petitions. In the course of the same day the same supernatural appearance was observed in six other pictures, either in the streets or in churches, in different parts of the city; in three others it was first noticed on the 11th, in two more on the 12th, in another on the 13th, in three others on the 15th, and so on, until the number in Rome alone exceeded sixty, not to mention others in Frascati, Todi, Frosinone, Ceprano, and elsewhere. In these latter places the Bishops instituted a legal examination of the facts immediately, sometimes on the very day on which they happened, or at least within a very few days afterwards.
In Rome, however, although the witnesses were at once examined, and depositions taken by the parish priests of the several parishes in which the miracles were witnessed, yet the subject was not officially brought before the higher tribunal, the Cardinal-Vicar, until the 1st of October. A sufficient reason for this delay, over and above the proverbially slow pace at which ecclesiastical matters in Rome are uniformly made to travel, may be found in the particular circumstances of the present case. The same phenomenon repeated over and over again almost indefinitely, caused it to be no easy task to know where to make a beginning; where there were upwards of fifty thousand witnesses, it required no ordinary powers of discretion and no trifling labor to select the most important and convincing.
However, at length the work was begun; Cardinal dell Somaglia named a very clever ecclesiastic and lawyer as his deputy, appointed an able notary to assist him in taking down the evidence, and desired them to proceed with all care and diligence to a legal examination of the whole matter. The investigation was continued, with many unavoidable interruptions, until the end of February, 1797—the miracle, in many images, still continuing all this time; and even then the enquiries were suspended only because of the public impatience to have some authoritative account and confirmation of what was in everybody's mouth, and because enough had been already ascertained to make further investigation only unnecessary labor.
The commission of enquiry sat on sixty days, and the examination of very many of the witnesses lasted so long (from three to four hours and more), that in forty-one sittings they only examined forty-one persons, in fifteen other sittings thirty persons, and five others fifteen—making a total of 86 witnesses in all, selected out of 501, whose depositions upon oath as to the very same facts had been previously taken before the inferior local tribunals. The depositions of these 86 concerned 26 images or paintings; and besides the 415 other witnesses whose evidence had been given with reference to these same images, there were 460 others who swore to the same facts with reference to 40 other images; so we have a sum-total of very nearly a thousand witnesses who actually deposed under the solemn obligation of an oath to those extraordinary phenomena which Protestants fancy themselves at liberty to reject and ridicule simply on a priori grounds of inherent improbability. But is it so, then, that the oaths of a thousand Christians are really of so little weight? If so, what is the value of history, which is written without the obligation of an oath at all? And what is the value of decisions in a court of justice, which have seldom so much as a fiftieth or even a hundredth part of this amount of evidence to rest upon?
But it will be said, perhaps, that the examination to which these witnesses were subjected was slight and unsatisfactory—not so strict and searching as that by which they would have been tried in a court of justice. We shall best dispose of this objection, and at the same time most conveniently bring to the knowledge of our readers all the main facts of these most interesting and important miracles, by giving in extenso every question that was proposed, together with a general abstract of the replies that were made (in italics), introducing as we go along a few brief remarks by way of illustrating the evidence which will be thus laid before us.
First, each witness knelt down, and took an oath upon the Holy Gospels to tell nothing but the simple truth, and was solemnly admonished by the judge of the scrupulous exactness to which he had thus bound himself not to depose to anything about which he had even the slightest doubt.
1. After this preliminary, they were questioned as to their name, profession, age, country, and such-like personal matters. These, of course, varied in every case; it will be enough to state generally that among the number of persons examined were men and women, laymen and ecclesiastics, young and old, nobles and plebeians, Italians and foreigners; or, looking into the list more closely, we may say that there were representatives of almost every rank in the hierarchy, from the Cardinalate downwards; of every rank of society, from princes to servants; of every variety of trade and profession—lawyers, physicians, surgeons, professors, officers in the army, artists, mechanics, and shop-keepers; and lastly, of well-nigh every country in Europe—France, Spain, Italy, England and Germany—not to mention a few individuals from Syria, Brazil, and other more distant parts.
2. The witnesses were next asked whether they knew for what purpose the were summoned before this tribunal, and whether they had been instructed by anybody as to what evidence they were to give. The first of these interrogatories was of course uniformly answered in the affirmative, the second in the negative; all declared that they were induced to give the testimony they were about to give from no temporal or human motive, but only for the glory of God, the honor of the Blessed Virgin, and the love of truth.
3. Do you know whether anything wonderful has lately happened in any sacred pictures or images in the city of Rome? And do you know this of your own certain knowledge, or only by hearsay from others?
Not only I, but all Rome knows well that most wonderful prodigies have happened during the last few months in very many sacred pictures and images throughout the city. I have witnessed those prodigies myself in one, two, five, ten, or whatever number of instances it might chance to have been; the rest I only know of by general report.
4. Speak only of those pictures or images in which you have witnessed the prodigy yourself; and describe exactly the figure or figures which they represent, where they are situated, what is their size and shape, of what materials they are made... in what act, or with what peculiar expression or meaning, is the figure represented? More particularly describe with accuracy in what manner the eyes are shown—whether open, closed, or half-closed; whether fixed on any definite object, whether cast down or looking upwards, or whether directed generally towards the spectators wherever they might happen to be standing.
As to the figures represented by the pictures or images in which the prodigy was observed, I do not know that there are any, excepting either Our Lord dying or dead on the Cross, or our Blessed Lady with or without Her Divine Son, or the same being taught by St. Anne. As to their situation, some were at the corners of the streets (see image, left, of Mater Providentiae), or over doors or arches in public places; some were in churches or chapels; some in private oratories, or even in shops—it being the custom of the Roman tradesmen, as all who have visited that city must very well remember, to suspend a sacred picture with a lamp before it in some conspicuous part of their usual place of business. There was, of course, every variety of size and shape; so also of material, and of the position of the eyes. Sometimes the face was represented in profile, so that only one eye was visible; or if not in mere profile, yet one eye could be much more easily distinguished than the other: one was in full light, the other in more or less shade; sometimes the full front face was exhibited, and both eyes could be seen alike. Sometimes the eyes were half closed, as though in silent meditation and prayer, or modestly bent towards the ground, as of the Virgo Fidelis or Mater Purissima; sometimes they were tearful and seeking consolation from Heaven, as of the Mater Dolorosa; sometimes contemplating the Divine Infant, as the Mater Christi; sometimes looking out upon the people, and as it were encouraging them to draw near and ask for help, as of the Mater Misericordiae or Mater Amabilis; in a word, there was every conceivable variety, both of form and expression, according to the attribute intended to be represented, and according to the ability or caprice of the artist.
5. When, where, and how did you see the prodigy? Were you the first to see it, or from whom did you hear of it? At what distance did you examine it? Were you in front of the picture, or on one side? Did you see it by day or by night? Was there much light or little? The light of the sun, or of lamps and candles, or of both together? Is your vision perfect or defective? Did you examine it with your naked eye, or had you spectacles, or did you use any kind of telescope, or other artificial glass? Was the picture itself framed and covered with glass, or was it without glass?
These questions are obviously among the most important in the series; and we must therefore enter somewhat more minutely into an examination of the answers to them. Of course, some of the witnesses examined were the first who had observed the prodigy in that particular picture or image concerning which they gave their evidence, whereas others had come to look at the invitation of a friend, or in consequence of the general report.
A priest was reciting the Office on Monday, July 11, in a private chapel belonging to the church of Nativity of Our Lord (or degli Agonizzanti, as it is more commonly called), and was leaning opposite an altar where there was a valuable picture of the Madonna and Child. He had heard of the six or seven pictures in which a miraculous movement of the eyes had been observed on Saturday, and in which it was still continuing, and he was extremely anxious to witness the extraordinary phenomenon himself; he had gone for this purpose, more than once, to visit some of those pictures, but in consequence of the immense crowd he had been unable to get near enough to see anything; and he was not without a secret hope that God would perhaps vouchsafe to grant him the desire of his heart in this picture, which hung in a chapel attached to his own church. He looked in vain, however; and he was thinking, with some humiliation, that doubtless his own sins and unworthiness were the cause of his disappointment, when his eyes fell casually upon another much older and less valued painting of the Madonna, hanging at the side of the chapel, over some stalls or benches of the confraternity who used to assemble there; and he saw... the eyes of this painting distinctly moving.
Should any critic be here disposed to object that men easily believe what they anxiously desire, we would answer in the words of a Protestant author, writing in defense of Christianity, that the very contrary of this seems to be nearer to the truth. "Anxiety of desire, earnestness of expectation, the vastness (or strangeness) of an event, rather causes men to disbelieve, to doubt, to dread a fallacy, to distrust, and to examine. When Our Lord's resurrection was first reported to the Apostles, they did not believe... This was natural, and is agreeable to experience" (Evidences, Paley, part i. prop. 2, c. 1 § vi.) And so it was in the instance before us. The painting was of a half-figure, rather more than three feet square; it hung only nine or ten feet from the ground, in a chapel thorougly lighted by two windows having a southern aspect and opening on the public piazza, and the hour was ten o'clock in the morning of a bright summer day; nevertheless, the priest feared to trust the evidence of his own senses; he would not go and tell others, until he had first turned his eyes away to some other object, and then brought them back again to a fresh examination of the picture. Again he saw the left eye (which was in full light, the right being in deep shadow) slowly moving upwards, until the pupil had entirely disappeared… and then as slowly return to its ordinary position. Still, he hesitated; he began to recite the Litany and other prayers in honor of Our Lady, the movement still continu-ing; then at last he called some of the clerics attached to the church, and they too declared that they saw the same extraordinary phenomenon.
Members of the confraternity, and others living in the neighborhood, were soon drawn to the church, and all acknowledged the miracle. The Superior of the church, a priest of mature age, just fifty, caused some steps to be brought, that the dust might be wiped off the picture, for it was very old and had no glass before it; indeed, it had long been retained rather as some sort of ornament to the bare walls than as an object of devotion. This priest mounted the steps himself, and so did the others after him, and examined the picture most closely, with the help of a lighted candle, and all remained perfectly satisfied of the reality of the movement.
Before noon it was necessary to call in the soldiers of the piazza, or, as we should call them, the police, to keep order in the going out and coming in of the crowds of persons who wished to see it; and the ecclesiastical authorities directed it to be carried into the adjoining church. This was immediately done; it was removed from the heavy cornice that had surrounded it, and the mere piece of canvas, with the frame on which it was stretched, was carried into the church, and benediction given with it to the assembled multitude. Both whilst it was being transferred from the one place to the other, and whilst benediction was being given with it, the motion of both the eyes was distinctly seen; and it had not ceased when the witnesses gave the evidence from which we have been quoting in October, nor even when another witness was being examined in the month of December.
The next specimen of the evidence which we shall give shall be one in which the witness was not the first to observe the miracle, but only came in consequence of the reports of others. Sr. Domenico Ambrosini, a layman, aged 37, and master of one of the choirs in Rome, was passing near the Piazza Santi Apostoli about 8:00 in the morning of Saturday, the 9th of July, when he heard someone telling another that the picture of our Blessed Lady dell’Archetto (the picture that has already been spoken of as that in which first of all the miracle was seen in Rome) was opening and closing its eyes. (See the image on the home page and at right: the present chapel of the Madonna dell'Archetto is known as Rome's smallest church.) Being in the immediate vicinity, curiosity induced him to step out of his way to look at it; he found seven or eight persons already assembled, amongst whom he recognized one of the religious of a neighboring convent, and a silversmith with whom he was acquainted. The spectators being few in number, they had every opportunity of looking at it quite closely and at their leisure; and after waiting two or three minutes they saw both the eyes of the Madonna gradually close. This witness, just like the former, at first doubted his own eyes; he tells us that he rubbed them, closed them, and then again looked steadily at the picture; but its eyes were still closed, and then, almost immediately, the upper eyelids returned to their place. "I was so overcome at the sight that I could not contain myself, but burst forth into tears and some exclamation; the exact words I cannot now remember, but I know that at the very same instant those about me burst forth into similar exclamations, so that I was satisfied that they too had witnessed the same prodigy as myself."
After he had recovered he considered the effect of the one single lamp that was burning there, but it hung so low that no reflection of its rays could reach the face of the figure; he considered also the rays of the sun, but the little vicolo was so narrow that these had not yet penetrated so far; in fine, he considered every cause that could have had any influence on the appearance of the picture; but the more he considered, the more he was convinced of the reality of what he had seen, and of its supernatural character. He soon went away in consequence of the increasing crowd; and in the course of a few hours it was necessary to station the police at different points of the adjacent streets to regulate the movements of the people. Numerous offerings of lamps and candles were brought and lighted before the picture, yet the appearance was in no way dispelled by this increase of light, but rather made the more evident; sometimes the eyebrows became more arched, the upper eyelids were raised, and the eyes were almost or quite closed, and sometimes the pupil of the eye disappeared, or very nearly so, under the upper eyelid.
It was this last phenomenon which was actually tested by a physical examination... A Piedmontese priest... first heard of the miracle from one of the lay brothers of his house on Saturday morning, soon after it was first observed. He did not believe it... in vain the lay brother urged the number and respectability of the persons who had seen it; his superior obstinately adhered to his own idea. At last curiosity induced him to go and see... he remained for upwards of an hour without once being able to detect any motion whatever in the eyes... All this confirmed him more and more in his belief that the whole thing was a delusion of an overheated imagination; and he determined... to remain there for three or four hours longer, that he might be able... "most authoritatively to contradict the popular report." Presently, however, whilst he was standing in this way with his eyes fixed on those of Our Blessed Lady, he saw their pupils gradually rising and disappearing under the upper eyelids until only the white remained, and then as gradually returning to their former position… Now at length he was constrained to acknowledge the facts, and he burst into a flood of tears, whilst at the same instant the people cried out... "Evviva Maria! Ecco il miracolo, miracolo!"
...On Monday he determined to try the daring experiment to which we have alluded... He went there about 6:00 in the evening... at last he clearly distinguished the same movement in them that he had before seen on Saturday, and at the very same moment the people saw it too, and shouted in their usual manner. Immediately he sprang up from his knees and began to ascend the steps, which he had previously placed in the proper position for his purpose, turned around to the people to explain to them that he had no evil intentions... and then proceeded to measure the eyes with a compass, which he had all this time held ready in his hands... The eyes of the picture... immediately moved upwards again, and when the pupil had almost disappeared under the upper lid, he applied the two points of the compasss, one to the lower eyelid, the other to the mere outer rim of the pupil, which could just be seen, and then removed them: the distance was about five mathematical lines, he says: the eye then returned again to its place, until the pupil actually touched the lower lid, and there was not even a thread of white below it...
We must not omit to mention another experiment of the same kind which was made elsewhere. Seven persons (three ecclesiastics and four laymen) obtained permission to spend the night between the 9th and 10th of December, 1850, in the church before the Madonna of Rimini (see image, left). By means of two needles fastened between the canvas of the picture and its frame, they stretched a thread horizontally across the painting, below the eyes of the Blessed Virgin. The line of this thread left no vacant space below the pupils whilst they were at rest; and the two spaces on either side became as it were two rudely-shaped triangles. Thus, it so accurately defined the relations of the several parts of the eye to one another, that the least movement could not fail to be readily and certainly detected. All these witnesses deposed upon oath, that whilst they were reciting together the prayers of a Novena, consisting chiefly of a paraphrase of the Salve Regina, as they uttered the words turn Thine eyes of mercy towards us, they saw a quick and repeated movement of the eyes, which caused them instantly to stop their prayers and to go up nearer the altar. Some of them knelt on the altar itself; and one and all of them saw, amongst other movements, the pupils rise so far as almost to disappear under the upper eyelid, and again return to their original position.
The following observations, taken from an author who has been already quoted, may help our readers to form a just appreciation of the importance of the facts. "It is not necessary," says Dr. Paley, "to admit as a miracle what can be resolved into a false perception... The cases, however, in which the possibility of this delusion exists are divided from the cases in which it does not exist by many, and those not obscure, marks... It is in the highest degree improbable, and I know not, indeed, whether it has ever been the fact, that the same derangement of the mental (or visual) organs should seize different persons at the same time—a derangement, I mean, so much the same as to represent to their imagination the same objects" (Evidences, vol. 1, p. 333, ed. 1811). Apply these remarks to the history we are examining, and how strikingly they confirm and illustrate the truth. The motion of the eyes in these material representations of our Blessed Lady were witnessed, not by one person but by many, by seveal hundreds, even thousands—by a whole city; they saw it not only separately, but together; not only by the light of lamps and of candles, but by the broad light of day; not only at a distance, but near; not once only, but several times; they not only saw it, but even, as we may most truly say, touched and handled it.
6. Was the movement of both eyes simultaneous, and according to the ordinary movement of the human eye; or was it extraordinary, and of one eye only? Did other persons see it at the same time with yourself? Was the movement slow and perceptible, or sudden and instantaneous? Did it seem to disfigure the countenance, or otherwise?
If this last item of enquiry should strike anyone as unmeaning or irrelevant, we wish that he would try to realize to himself what would be the ordinary effect upon his own mind of seeing a sign of life in this one feature—the eye—of some inanimate figure—say, a corpse, a statue, or a painting. Our own impression is that it would be something very frightful: we fancy that the incongruity between a living and a dead part of one and the same thing, life and motion in one place and the still rigidity of death in another, would strike us as a deformity and very offensive. Yet the uniform testimony of all the witnesses—excepting one only, who happened to have himself painted, about thirteen years earlier, the picture to which he gave his evidence—was directly contrary; one and all declared that even when the movements of the eyes were most unnatural, when the pupils were entirely hid under the upper eyelid, or when one eye moved and the other was motionless, still even then the aspect of the whole countenance was such as inspired them with the deepest respect, awe, and veneration. It seemed to be the countenance of one making a solemn appeal to their consciences; it spoke to their hearts, and moved them to tears; it never struck them as unsightly and repulsive. Some, indeed, gave distinct evidence that a change of color and expression was manifested in the whole face; others said their attention had been so fixed upon the eyes that they had not observed any other part. But all agreed in describing the general effect as that of a living, speaking countenance, such as they were satisfied no human art, even under the most favorable circumstances, could have succeeded in producing.
With regard to the degree of rapidity with which the eyes moved many witnesses answer this part of the enquiry by borrowing an illustration from the minute-hand of a watch—which, they said, though you may not be able to swear at any moment, 'I see it moving,' yet after an infinitely short space of time you can swear that is has moved. There seems, in truth, to have been the same variety in the degree of rapidity which was observed in different pictures as there was in the direction of the movement, sometimes perpendicular, sometimes horizontal, etc.; the same variety, in fact, that there naturally is in different eyes, or in the same eyes at different times.
7. Did you see this prodigy more than once? How often? Were you always equally positive about it, or did you sometimes doubt of its truth? At the times when you were quite positive about it, were other persons present, and were they equally satisfied? Did they at the very same moment express their conviction in any way? In what way? Give solid reasons to show that this conviction was not the result of any optical illusion, resulting from the reflection of the lights, the glittering or undulating surface of the glass or canvas, or any artifice practiced upon the picture itself.
As to mere excitement and enthusiasm, we do not believe that they are ever likely on any large scale to produce the effects ascribed to them. We can conceive a not very strong-minded individual being momentarily carried away, so as to imagine that he saw what he did not see; but we cannot conceive, we think it simply impossible, that hundreds and thousands of persons should have been so deceived, and deceived repeatedly and permanently, as to be ready (as many of these witnesses professed themselves to be) to lay down their lives in defense of their opinion. We are confident that the very number of the witnesses, the frequent repetition of the miracle, and, in a word, every circumstance of this most remarkable history, would have served to put men on their guard against yielding too ready an assent, would have led them 'to disbelieve, to doubt, to dread a fallacy, to distrust and to examine.'
In the case of the Madonna in the church 'degli Agonizzanti,' or rather in the chapel attached to that church, when a report was circulated that the miracle was being wrought there, those who first came to see it naturally turned their eyes to the larger and better painting which hung over the altar; they looked for the miracle there, yet not one was found to imagine for a moment that he really saw it: when the priest returned, and directed their attention to the older and less noticed painting suspended over the stalls at the side, all saw it and were satisfied.
Again, it sometimes happened that whilst the people were assembled in prayer before one of these pictures, some solitary individual, or some two or three perhaps kneeling together, would cry out that the miracle was happening when it really was not, and here and there a few simple pious souls scattered through the crowd might be betrayed by over-eagerness and haste into giving a response to the cry; but there it ended. Whereas, at other times, when the miracle really did happen, there would be a simultaneous shout bursting forth from the whole congregation, so that those who heard it could only compare it to a clap of thunder or the discharge of artillery. Very often, too, this shout consisted not merely of vague general expressions... but it accurately defined the precise nature of the change that was taking place—e.g. 'Look how She is raising Her eyes to Heaven... Look how She is closing them... or turning them to those on the right, or on the left;' and the unanimity of the shout attested its correctness.
Yet once more, had the phenomena in question been the mere false perception of a heated fancy, we should naturally have looked for them most in those pictures or images to which there was the greatest popular devotion; had they been manifested only in pictures or images that had fallen into neglect, we should have heard a plausible tale from the author of some new 'Pilgrimage to Rome,' that they were well-managed miracles, got up for the sake of recovering for those sanctuaries some portion of their lost popularity. But they first began in a picture which was neither forgotten nor extravagantly frequented; they were repeated in so many, that none was thereby brought forward into singular notice, so as to become the special favorite of the people; and lastly, in some to which there had always been great devotion, and to which this devotion still continues, they were never exhibited at all.
Then as to the theory of all these appearances having been the result of fraud and imposture, this is, if possible, still more inconceivable, more inconsistent with reason and with the facts of the case then the former supposition, which denied their reality altogether. In fact, contemporary writers tell us that nobody ever pretended that imposition was in this case possible. A whole city imposed upon by some clever contrivance—not exhibited once for all and in a single picture, in some obscure isolated corner, where none could come near to examine—but repeated day after day, and night after night, during a period of several months, in seventy or eighty pictures at once, and in the most conspicuous situations; in pictures that could be taken down, and handled, and subjected to the most minute examination, and which actually were so treated—what human head could devise, what human hand direct, such a machinery of fraud as this, so patent in its effects, yet itself so imperceptible, so multiplied, yet everywhere undetected? Surely everybody must acknowledge that such an imposition as this—if it be an imposition at all—far exceeds the power of man; that if it was not a miracle wrought by God, it can only have been a lying wonder wrought by the devil: and if any should hesitate as to which of these alternatives he must accept, what follows may perhaps be of some service in guiding him to a right decision.
8. What feelings and affections did the sight of this prodigy excite in your mind, and what do you gather to have been the impression produced upon others? What is your reason for thinking so?
On the day after the miracles began, the afternoon of Sunday, the 10th of July, the Pope ordered public missions to be preached in six of the principal places of Rome. They were continued until the 26th, and were so numerously and devoutly attended that not even the spiritual exercises given before the Jubilee were at all to be compared to them. The fruits of penance which they produced are described as something quite incredible. It is said that persons who had left Rome for a few days, and then returned to it, would have found nothing but the material buildings unaltered; in all the details of life, conversation and manners, nobody could recognize Rome's former self—Jesus and Mary were on every tongue and in every heart, tears of penitence and love were bedewing every cheek, and nothing was thought or spoken of but the important concerns of eternity.
But what was the purpose of God in all these extraordinary miracles which we have been considering? Without presuming to search into what is hidden from us, we may attentively examine all the circumstances of these miracles, so as to see how far it is possible from this consideration to ascertain the beneficent purpose for which they were wrought. In the present case, a hasty glance at the political history of the period seems sufficient to furnish us with a clue (if one may say so) to the Divine intentions. It was in this very year, 1796, that the French army, with Napoleon Bonaparte as its commander-in-chief, overran the north of Italy; and on the 4th of February, 1797, they took possession of Ancona (see the image, left, of Mary, Queen of All Saints of Ancona; Napoleon himself is said to have observed the movements in the eyes). We need not follow the army through all the stages of its progress until it occupied the Eternal City itself, and the Supreme Pontiff was a prisoner in their hands, because... it will at once be recognized, from this brief allusion to history, the merciful purpose which miracles wrought at such a moment may have been intended to serve... Almighty God, as a most merciful and compassionate Father, does not suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able. With extraordinary trials He also sends extraordinary assistance, that so we may be able to bear them. Who can doubt but that many a wavering heart was comforted… by a recollection of those signs and wonders that had been so abundantly vouchsafed in the metropolis of the Catholic world?
(Our readers will recall, from Issue No. 147, the history of the miraculous movement of the eyes of the image of Our Sorrowful Mother in the College of St. Gabriel in Quito, Ecuador—so similar to the miracles we are now recounting; and that this miracle took place in 1906, during a time of trial and persecution for the Catholics of that country.)
9. Do you know, or have you heard, of anybody who was present at these prodigies, and saw them, yet does not account them miraculous? Who is he, and what are the grounds of his opinion?
This was uniformly answered in the negative. There were some who had never succeeded in getting sufficiently near to any of the paintings to satisfy themselves that there was a real movement of the eyes; or who, if they succeeded in gaining an advantageous position, had not the patience to retain it very long—but these acknowledged that during the time they occupied this position neither did the other people profess to see any movement; they continued their prayers without interruption. There are a few, a very few, exceptions to be made to this statement, of persons who believed themselves to be sufficiently near at a time when the people did profess to see the miracle, and yet did not themselves see it, just as happened at first to a priest who was so hard to be persuaded—but even these confessed that they were perfectly satisfied both of the reality of the phenomenon and of its supernatural character by the concurrent testimony of hundreds of others whom they could trust as competent witnesses.
If any critic should be disposed to trust the bodily senses of these individuals, but to mistrust their judgment; to think them foolish for being persuaded by others against, or at least without, the evidence of their own senses, but to insist upon the fact that they were present on certain occasions when others professed to see the miracle, yet themselves did not see it, although (humanly speaking) they had the same opportunities of seeing as their neighbors had; if any, I say, should be tempted to lay great stress upon this negative argument, they should bear in mind a very obvious consideration, namely (to use the language of Sir Philip Sydney), that 'a wonder is no wonder in a wonderful subject.' We mean that the whole history which we have been engaged in describing is not natural, but supernatural; and that as it pleased God to supersede or reverse the ordinary laws of nature in one part of it, so it may have pleased Him to reverse or supersede them also in another part. There is no inconsistency in supposing that God may have wrought a public miracle, yet for his own wise and inscrutable purposes vouchsafed a clear and intimate sight of it to some persons, while He withheld it from others, as in the Resurrection, for example; or, still more appositely, the conversion of St. Paul. Anyhow, whatever may be the true explanation of the circumstance that these few (for they were very few) did not see the miracle, it cannot by any fair and candid mind be considered as an equivalent set-off against the evidence of the hundreds of persons who did see it. Had the phenomenon in question been seen only once, and in a single picture, and fifty persons that were present had sworn that they saw it, and five others that they did not see it, would the evidence of these last have disproved the evidence of the first? How much less, then, when the witnesses on the one side so infinitely outnumber those on the other, without in any way differing from them either in age, rank, ability, judgment, or any other quality which would have entitled their testimony to a superior degree of consideration! Surely both justice and charity require that as we do not misdoubt the veracity of the one class, so neither should we misdoubt that of the other.
We have now fulfilled our engagement of giving a copy of the questions that were proposed, together with a general abstract of the replies that were made in the judicial examination of these most interesting miracles, which was instituted in Rome by order of the Cardinal-Vicar, on the 1st of October, 1796; and we feel confident that our readers will at once recognize the justice of the sentence, which was formally pronounced on the 28th of February, 1797, after a most careful examination by His Eminence himself of the whole body of the evidence—viz. that their truth was most abundantly established.
Should this writing fall into the hands of any who are strangers to the Catholic Church, we would only ask them whether it has not been supported by such a body of evidence as they would themselves on any other subject admit to be irresistible; and if, as indeed they must, they should answer this question in the affirmative, yet should still refuse to believe the statement, because it is inconsistent with the doctrines of their own religion, because it seems to sanction the due honor and veneration of images, which they refuse, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose intercession they will not acknowledge—we would go on to ask them another question, proposed many years ago, and not yet answered by many whom it most deeply concerns: 'Which alternative shall the Protestant accept? Shall he retreat, or shall he advance? Shall he relapse into skepticism upon all subjects, or sacrifice his deep-rooted prejudices? Shall he give up his knowledge of times past altogether, or endure to gain a knowledge which he thinks he fully has already—the knowledge of Divine truth?'
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