Can the Bishop Shut Down a Shrine?

Q:  Some years ago, a man in my diocese built a Catholic shrine, and it was visited by many Catholics. But the bishop ordered it to be shut down, and said that it was not a shrine and that Catholics weren’t supposed to go there.  The man said that it wasn’t a parish church and the bishop had no right to stop Catholics from praying there, but the bishop won. Did the bishop have authority to do this? —Jan

A:  Yes.

In casual parlance we often speak of shrines very loosely, when we describe a statue of Saint Francis in someone’s yard, or perhaps a Lourdes grotto on the campus of a Catholic school. But the term “shrine” is actually defined in a precise way by the Code of Canon Law. Canon 1230 is quite straightforward: a shrine is a church or other sacred place which has the approval of the bishop and which is visited by the faithful as pilgrims. There are a couple of key elements in this definition which merit a closer look.

Firstly, while a shrine is most commonly a church, it is not a parish church. Since it is frequented by people who come on pilgrimage, a shrine has some particular focus of devotion. Sometimes it is the burial place of a canonized saint, like the famous shrine of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy; other shrines have been established at the sites of Marian apparitions, like the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in Paris. More commonly, however, a shrine is established as a center for some particular devotion, like the shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, or that of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Unlike a parish church, which is built for the regular pastoral care of all the Catholics living within a particular territory (cf. c. 515.1), a shrine is erected with special pilgrimages in mind.

Secondly, the diocesan bishop necessarily plays a critical role in the erection of an official shrine. After all, making a pilgrimage is an external, public form of spiritual devotion. Since the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful of the diocese is entrusted to the bishop’s care (cf. c. 835.1), it is only logical that a bishop should have not only the power, but also the responsibility to ensure that if the Catholics of his diocese are making pilgrimages to a particular place to engage in a particular devotion, that devotion is theologically sound.

It is, unfortunately, all too easy to see what can potentially happen when a devotional practice that has not been properly vetted by church authorities starts to spread. Most of us are probably familiar with ongoing cases in our own day and age, of alleged
visionaries who claim to convey to the faithful messages that were given to them by the Virgin Mary or even Christ Himself. When word gets out, such extraordinary claims inevitably attract crowds of devout, sincere Catholics. It doesn’t take long for busloads of “pilgrims” to show up, maybe at the home of the alleged seer, or at the location where the apparitions reportedly take place. Erecting some sort of shrine is the next logical step!

As was already discussed in a different context in “Index of Forbidden Books,” it is for the diocesan bishops of these purported mystics to try to determine what exactly is going on. Is the seer really being visited by the Blessed Virgin? or is this a case of fraud, mental illness, or even diabolical influence? The bishop naturally has to be involved, since this is an obvious instance where the spiritual wellbeing of his flock is directly affected.

While the investigation is ongoing, a bishop will almost invariably urge caution in a very public way. He will warn the people of his diocese that it has not yet been established that this is indeed a supernatural occurrence that takes place due to divine intervention—and he will understandably discourage (if not forbid outright) Catholics from visiting the person and/or place in question.

There is certainly nothing procedurally new about this. We all know, for example, that the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima are officially recognized by the Catholic Church to have been authentic. But they were approved by the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima, Portugal, more than ten years after they had taken place. In the interim, an exhaustive investigation was being conducted and there was no officially sanctioned devotion—much less an approved shrine—at the sites of these Marian apparitions. When the bishop finally gave his approval, he permitted the construction of a proper shrine, commemorating the visits of the Blessed Virgin to the three children of Fátima.

Not all such claims of purported visionaries get the bishop’s approval, of course. To cite only one example, some years ago the Archbishop of Baltimore put a halt to gatherings in a church in Emmitsburg, Maryland, that centered around a woman claiming to be visited there by the Virgin Mary. Originally the woman had merely been attending the church on a regular basis, as is the right of any Catholic; but when word spread that the Blessed Mother was coming to speak to her there, throngs of well-meaning Catholics began showing up at the church too. Before anyone realized it, the church had become a place of pilgrimage for Catholics who believed that this woman was relaying messages from the Mother of God herself—and the archbishop was completely correct to put a halt to it, so that an investigation into the authenticity of these alleged mystical visits could be done first. The church had inadvertently been turned into a sort of shrine, but without the approval of the diocesan bishop.

Eventually the archbishop concluded that these purported visions were not supernatural, which put an official end to any possibility of establishing a shrine in Emmitsburg that might have been devoted to Our Lady and her messages to this woman. Without the archbishop’s intervention, many Catholics could conceivably have been led astray in some way by their devout adherence to the content of these inauthentic apparitions.

This is nothing unique to Maryland. How many Catholics realize that there is no approved Catholic shrine whatsoever in Medjugorje? Over the past several decades, the successive bishops of that diocese, located in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, have conducted investigations and examinations of the alleged messages of Our Lady, purportedly received by a number of young Catholics there—yet none has ever found these alleged events authentic and given them his approbation. Logically, therefore, there is no officially approved shrine to the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje either.

In some cases, bishops who are faced with large numbers of Catholic faithful who willfully ignore their directives have turned to Rome and sought another ruling on the matter at a higher level. Strictly speaking, there should be no need for this sort of confirmation by the Vatican, as the bishop already has the authority to make a final determination himself! The fact that this has to be done is, in reality, a sad commentary on the lack of obedience to church authorities by many Catholics.

We don’t know the full story behind the shrine that was erected in Jan’s diocese by the man she mentions, but it sounds like a similar scenario. No layperson has the authority, on his own initiative, to erect a “shrine” to be visited by the Catholic faithful on pilgrimage. No matter how good his intentions and how orthodox his theology may be, a member of the faithful who is convinced that he should establish a shrine has to defer in these matters to the bishop of his diocese.

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