Since the calamitous earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, followed by explosions at one of Japan’s nuclear power plants, the Catholic blogosphere has been buzzing with assessments of the disaster in light of the messages of Our Lady of Akita. 

In 1973, Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa, a Handmaid of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, reported several visions of the Blessed Mother. In the wake of the visions, there were reports that a statue of Mary at the Akita convent shed blood, sweat and tears, and that Sister Agnes bore the stigmata, the wounds Christ suffered in his hands, feet and side on the cross.  

The question debated on Catholic blogs and news sites is whether the current calamity is the beginning of the fulfillment of Our Lady’s prophecy, which appears even more urgent since Akita lies in the part of Japan hardest hit by the earthquake. 

In one of the visions, she delivered this warning: “If men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one will never have seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead.”  

Invariably, these online sites describe the Akita phenomenon as a Church-approved apparition, and state that in the 1980s the head of Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) judged the Akita apparitions and messages as “worthy of belief.” In fact, those statements are misleading. 

The bishop’s assessment 

In April 1984, Bishop John Shojiro Ito of Niigata, the diocese in which Akita is located, was ready to retire. Before handing over the diocese to his successor, Bishop Ito published a letter regarding the Akita case, in which he declared that on four separate occasions he witnessed the statue of the Mary weeping. He stated that he had known Sister Agnes for 10 years. “She is a woman sound in spirit, frank and without problems,” Bishop Ito wrote. “She has always impressed me as a balanced person. Consequently, the messages she says that she has received did not appear to me to be in any way the result of imagination or hallucination.” 

In this letter, Bishop Ito declared: “I recognize the supernatural character of a series of mysterious events concerning the statue of the Holy Mother Mary which is found in the convent of the Institute of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist at Yuzawadai, Soegawa, Akita. I do not find in these events any elements which are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. Consequently, I authorize, throughout the entire diocese, the veneration of the Holy Mother of Akita, while awaiting that the Holy See publishes definitive judgment on this matter.”  

In 1981, after studying the case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had reached a negative decision regarding the visions and messages of Akita, and the supposed supernatural events that took place there. After reading the report, Bishop Ito found that a number of details had not been submitted to the congregation, so he sent them to Rome, with a request that the case be re-evaluated in light of this new information. By the time Bishop Ito was ready to retire, the congregation had not reached a decision, which explains his statement about waiting for the Holy See’s “definitive judgment on this matter.”

No approval 

Nonetheless, statements that the CDF and Cardinal Ratzinger specifically had recognized Akita as an approved apparition circulated soon after Bishop Ito released his letter. Then, in 1990, Cardinal Peter Seiichi Shirayanagi, president of Japan’s conference of bishops, gave an interview to 30 Days, an Italian Catholic magazine, in which he said bluntly, “The events of Akita are no longer to be taken seriously.” 

Given all the conflicting information, in 1999 Christian Order, a British Catholic magazine, sent a formal query to the apostolic nuncio in Japan, Archbishop Ambrose de Paoli. He replied: “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has asked me to respond to your query re: Akita. ... The Holy See has never given any kind of approval to either the events or messages of Akita.” 

It appears, then, that Akita is not an approved apparition and the apocalyptic warnings we have read recently are not “worthy of belief.” 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV’s Catholic Cardlinks series and “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95).