Following is my September column that appears on this month’s book page of the print edition of The Catholic Post.
One of the most marvelous things about Catholicism is the interesting tension between, one on hand, the Church’s strong intellectual and scientific tradition, and, on the other hand, the frankly astonishing phenomena that are part of Catholic life even to the present day, from Eucharistic miracles, to incorruptible saints, and beyond.
But, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “There can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” (CCC 159).
Award-winning writer and journalist John Thavis reports on these unusual Catholic happenings in his latest book, The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age.
The Vatican Prophecies is a thoroughly researched, engagingly written volume on how the Church handles miracles and other mystical events, confirming or debunking their veracity when they are presented.
Thavis’s first book was the well-regarded The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. The Vatican Diaries was a “grand tour” of Rome, the Vatican, and how he covered great and controversial stories and personalities as Vatican bureau chief for Catholic News Service.
Thavis brings this unique and privileged outlook to The Vatican Prophecies, using his wealth of sources and skills to explain how the Catholic Church approaches supernatural occurrences, from ancient times to the present day.
The “inside baseball” elements of these stories—how an exorcism works, how a saint is made, how the Shroud is scientifically examined, how Marian apparitions are approved or not by the Vatican, and how all that has changed with the modern 24-7 news cycle— is what makes the book so absorbing.
I especially appreciate how Thavis explains these incidents and practices through individual stories and narratives. So, for instance, in the chapter, “The Miracle Trail,” Thavis explains how the Church decides how to canonize a person a saint through confirming miracles, and discusses a few officially canonized or on-their-way to canonization saints. He focuses on two alleged miracles that have been proposed for one of my favorite Catholic heroes, Fr. Emil Kapaun, a Kansas priest who died while serving with soldiers in the Korean War.
Even if I weren’t Catholic, I’d find The Vatican Prophecies both accessible and intriguing. Miracles, otherworldly signs, and other inexplicable happenings are not at odds with the scientific tradition. In fact, the Church uses rigorous scientific and other methods as part of the process to determine whether something is supernatural, or has a more natural explanation.
Thavis makes these arcane processes easy to understand, and helps one to see how the Church is cautious and thorough in each case. Even though he is describing wondrous events, he has a sensible, investigative style that doesn’t exaggerate, especially with events and sights that need no dramatization.
In “Fides et Ratio,” the 1998 encyclical on how faith and reason are not only compatible, but essential together, St. John Paul II writes, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
The Vatican Prophecies helps readers to understand how these “two wings” work together, and also how our natural curiosity and yearning for “something more” is natural and normal, and can also be fulfilled.