The Apparition, written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, is a thought-provoking mystery that follows a young French novitiate named Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) who claims that the Virgin Mary appeared to her. The film is seen through the eyes of Jacques (Vincent Lindon), a reputable French investigative journalist, who is called in by the Vatican to help uncover whether this is an authentic visit from heaven.
Catholic Digest talked to author Michael O’Neill — aka the Miracle Hunter— about whether the film was faithful to the Vatican approval process, about hallmarks of a true apparition, why it’s good to be a skeptic, his thoughts on whether Medjugorje will get Rome’s official approval, and more.
Q: It seemed to me that The Apparition movie portrayed the investigative process accurately. Do you agree?
A: I do. I was looking at The Apparition to see if it was going to misportray the process, but the writer, Xavier Giannoli, really did his homework on this film. The official 1978 document, Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations — the current rulebook for judging a Marian apparition — was used in the movie. They also had little details about the list of approved apparitions, Eucharistic miracles, and the blood type found on the Shroud of Turin that were done correctly.
Q: I was impressed with the movie; it held my attention to the end. What did you think of it?
A: I wasn’t sure at first if I would like it because it’s a subtitled film. It does have a slow pace to it — it’s a prodding movie — but it moves with such power.
It’s a fascinating depiction of all of the attention surrounding the alleged visionary. All of the pressure that Anna experienced because she claimed to see the Blessed Virgin and how the faithful glommed onto her and elevated her to celebrity status. I thought it was a realistic take on what happens when someone makes an apparition claim and how the faithful are attracted to it.
Q: Considering your line of work, could you relate to the Jacques —the investigative journalist character?
A: I’m a skeptic just as much as I am a believer. I like to see the Church’s full approval before I get behind an apparition. The character of Jacques was not a believer at all. He didn’t come into the investigation with any preconceptions, which allowed him, in some ways, to be a better analyst.
Q: In the movie, there’s resistance from the visionary’s parish priest to cooperate with the Vatican. Don’t the priests of true apparitions usually comply?
A: Yes, one of the red flags that the Church looks at is when there’s a lack of obedience and a lack of humility. One hallmark of a true apparition is that the visionaries are very humble and obedient to Church authority.
Q: When you researched the approved apparitions was there ever any resistance at all from those involved in the claim?
A: Generally, at least the way the histories are written, everybody has been cooperative. In the case of the miracles surrounding Padre Pio there was plenty of mystical phenomena, so much so that the Catholic Church put him under investigation and told him that he could not say Mass publicly. Out of pure obedience, Padre Pio quietly went into private life.
Q: There’s a scene in the movie where you see all of these prayer cards of the visionary and statues of the Blessed Virgin. Do you think that the movie was making a commentary on the merchandising of a specific apparition?
A: The film makes a commentary on how there’s a natural tendency to commercialize an instance of divine intervention. Currently, there are other apparition sites that have a similar kind of commercialization. I am not sure if the movie was targeting a specific one, but I think perhaps it was a general statement. Anyone who has been to Lourdes knows that it’s a little bit like a Catholic Disneyland. When pilgrims visit they have the healing waters, the basilica, and the candlelight procession at night — it’s all so beautiful. But on the streets surrounding Lourdes, there are many people selling statues, et cetera.
Q: In the film, you see a huge archive of thousands of apparitions with no official ruling. Could you talk some about how an apparition becomes approved by the Vatican and why there are so few that are approved?
A: There have been 2,500 alleged apparitions throughout history, and only 16 are recognized by the Vatican. The vast majority get no recognition whatsoever. One of the key lines of the film — and I may not quote it exactly — is, “The Church would rather miss approving an apparition than approve one that wasn’t authentic.” That was such a wise commentary because the Catholic Church is careful to approve anything that can’t be established as worthy of belief.
Q: Do you think that when it comes to apparitions, it’s wise for Catholics to be skeptical?
A: I think the smartest thing is for Catholics to very careful and prudent about newly alleged apparitions.
Everybody wants to know about the latest and greatest. It’s natural because we want to know and feel that God is there — these signs of his presence are exciting. That being said, they don’t add anything to our faith in the sense that they don’t complete public revelation. It’s better to stay focused on those very famous and highly approved examples which are Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe.
It’s important to note that the Catholic Church never wants to approve any of these apparitions. Their motivation, more likely, is to quiet them down and make them go away. When the crowds start coming, that’s when the Church takes action and when the Church sticks its neck out and says, “It is established as supernatural. It is worthy of belief.”
Q: Do you think Medjugorje will be approved?
A: Medjugorje has been the case of the hot potato. It has gone from the local bishop to the bishops’ conference, to Pope Benedict’s commission in 2010, and, with his retirement, to his predecessor, Pope Francis, who seems to be personally questioning Medjugorje. He says that he doesn’t believe that the Mother of God appears on a daily basis — that seems more like a postmaster than as a mother would act.
He has commented on the commission studying Medjugorje; he said that commission’s work was done very well. He’s hinted about the results saying that they looked at the first apparitions and they are favorable to the initial seven appearances of the Blessed Virgin but are doubtful about the apparitions that have been appearing for 35 plus years.
It is possible for a mixed judgement — though it has never happened in the history of the Church — where the first few messages are approved, and the rest are condemned or left open to more study.
Q: How did you become the Miracle Hunter?
A: It traces back to my mother who had a great interest in miracles. When she was young, she prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe that her mother would return to the Catholic faith. She made a “deal” with Mary. “If you bring my mother back to the Catholic faith, I will become a school teacher and teach any child I have about the miracle of Guadalupe. My grandmother came back to the faith and my mother told us, every Dec. 12 the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Then when I got to college at Stanford, I took an archaeology class, and the professor assigned the class to write about an artifact in history that had significance. Of course, I chose the tilma — cloak — of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and when I got into the research for that paper, I just got so fascinated, not only by the claim of miracles throughout history but that the Catholic Church gets behind them and says some miracles are worthy of belief.
At graduation, I decided that I wanted to study miracles someday. It was Condoleezza Rice’s advice that stuck in my head when she said, “Whatever you do, become an expert in something. Find your sliver of the universe and own it.”
IF YOU GO:
The Apparition opened at select theaters Sept. 7; more showings can be found here.