Clericalism, synodality, and the 1948 Lipa incident


NOW that Pope Francis has pointed to synodality as a way for the Church in the new century to achieve “communion” through “participation” in the joint “mission” of evangelization, there should be a re-investigation of the 1948 incident in the Carmelite monastery of Lipa City in Batangas, in which the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to a novice, Teresita Castillo (1927-2016).

A church commission composed of clerics from the ecclesiastical hierarchy found no “supernatural” basis for the reported apparition and banned the veneration of the image of the “Mary Mediatrix of All Grace” in the monastery. However, the same hierarchs had told their relatives and clerical associates in their death beds that they had been forced to declare the negative decision by the apostolic delegate, Msgr. Egidio Vagnozzi (1880-1967).

Noting that the devotion was achieving conversions and enhancing the Catholic faith of ordinary lay people, Lipa Archbishop Mariano Gaviola (1922-1998) encouraged the veneration of Mary Mediatrix. Ditto with Archbishop Ramon Arguelles (who served 2004-2017); he reopened the inquiry into the incident and ruled that the apparition was “worthy of belief.” When the Vatican doctrinal office overruled him in 2016, he resigned.

But in the same ruling, the doctrinal office said Pope Pius XII had already ruled in 1951 that the apparition had no supernatural origin. Lipa Archbishop (later Manila cardinal-archbishop) Rufino Santos had referred to the “pending final approval” by the pope in his decree banning the veneration in 1951, but since then, no such document of approval has materialized. Even the 2016 Vatican decree overruling Arguelles did not show the alleged document.

The recent discovery in Rome of the journals of the eminent Spanish Dominican psychologist Fr. Angel de Blas, who was tasked by the commission to investigate Castillo, should prod a reconsideration of the 1951 commission’s ruling. Father De Blas is widely considered as the father of psychology education in the Philippines, having set up the experimental psychology laboratory of the University of Santo Tomas as early as 1938, the first of its kind in the Philippines and Asia. He also set up the psychology program of UST in 1948, the first in the country. In his journals, Father De Blas said Castillo was an “authentic seer.”

The lay faithful have generally welcomed the continued veneration of the Mediatrix and pilgrimages to Mount Carmel in Lipa, but the clergy have been cold if not hostile.

Where does such an attitude stem from? The repercussions of the possible toppling of the negative decree of 1951 will not only stain the person of the clergy who were involved in the verdict but the entire hierarchy itself: the prelates tolerated the compromise, becoming in themselves accessory to the deceit.

To confront the negative judgment on the Lipa phenomenon would imply an attack on the hierarchy that gave the negative verdict. What is at stake is the credibility of a clerical institution long considered infallible in matters of faith and morals. The benefit of having the devotion vindicated will take as its price the esteemed reputation of their pastors. Obviously, this fear reeks of clericalism.

While the sensationalized definition of clerical scandals has long been associated with sexual sins, it cannot be denied that scandals in the Catholic Church are not merely confirmed in the faults committed in the flesh. Equally alarming and destructive are those acts which are suggestive of authoritarianism, religious entitlement, superiority, and unethical hierarchical claims and careerism rooted in clericalism.

The betrayal of truth renders one more despicable than when one yields to the inordinate demands of the flesh; for either way, one reduces one’s identity to the level of the irrational brute acting against truth knowable by reason.

This is perhaps why the writings of Fr. Angel de Blas on the apparition are worth considering. As an eminent psychologist, philosopher, and Dominican priest, he gives his expert opinion on the apparition as a person who sought only the truth and nothing more.

The alleged message of the Mediatrix on Sept. 14, 1948 to Castillo may be prophetic: “Please pray for priests and nuns and help me by doing some penance for them. Pray for them as you have not prayed before. The Sacred Heart of my Son bleeds anew [for] every fallen priest or nun. To some, pride was the obstacle to go back to the true fold and shame hardened their hearts.”

Could this be a suggestion of the elephant in the room: the issue of the ordained and consecrated who, despite their horrific infidelities to their sworn ways of life, continue to impose themselves as dogmatic despots? Or could it be a prophecy of the future: of how the very pastors, who are supposed to champion the cause of her heavenly pleadings, would turn out to be her arch-nemesis?

Could the Blessed Mother’s alleged visit be a re-introduction of a radical new way of thinking and behaving for the institutional hierarchy toward the marginalized laity and a reconsideration of the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) as a basis of the Church’s faith? Is this a reminder of what the Church is supposed to be: a teaching and learning institution that bears the mark of an eschatological entity, a reality in the making, a promise as yet unfulfilled, an instrument of service and not an end in itself?

A Marian devotee and Catholic lay leader, Harriet O. Demetriou is former chair of the Commission on Elections and a retired justice of the Sandiganbayan.

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