Recently someone asked me– in all seriousness– what the Church thinks of all the claims in the news of people seeing images of Jesus and Mary in all sorts of unexpected places. Well-publicized examples include the famous Mary-in-the-tortilla, Mary-in-the-grilled-cheese, and Jesus appearing in the salt stains of a Chicago highway underpass. None of these were what the Church would call an apparition: an actual appearance with a specific message. Instead, people claim to see an unexpected image, in an unlikely place. In many cases, these alleged images attract crowds of people, believers and skeptics alike.
The authority for evaluating miraculous claims of any sort rests with the local diocesan bishop. Not surprisingly, bishops tend to be very skeptical, and in modern times no appearance of a supposedly miraculous image has verified and judged worthy of veneration. So what’s going on here?
Psychologist use two terms to describe this phenomenon. The first is “pareidiola,” which is the apparently hard-wired tendency of human brains to identify human faces an images in random visual data. Some psychologists believe that this tendency is what helps babies identify and bond with their parents and caregivers. The second term that describes the phenomenon of religious image identification is “apophenia.” The word was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. Apophenia is seeing random visual data, identifying it as a religious image, and ascribing to the experience particular spiritual significance.
From a spiritual standpoint, these experiences might at best be described as a “personal revelation” not intended for or obligating the community of faith. The should be evaluated not based on their objective “truth,” which is indeterminate, but on their “fruits.” Are they a distraction? Do they bring ridicule to the faith? Have they been used for profit or gain? And what long-term good do they accomplish?