The apparitions received no clear support from the local parish priests who visited Palmar de Troya on a regular basis, though one of the nearby curates publicly stated that that something “strange was going on in Palmar de Troya,” and he did not know what to believe. However, another, younger parish priest was more critical, but the basic way of handling the stories was silence (ABC 27 April 1968). Thus, although there was some initial clerical interest, or at least bewilderment, the Palmarian seers could not rely on local ecclesiastical support.
Still, according to church law it was up to the diocesan bishop to decide whether the apparitions should be regarded as veracious. The official church’s reaction was quite typical (Bromley and Bobbitt 2011). Their basic way of dealing with the matter was to remain silent. However, seeing the growing popularity of the cult and realizing that it would not fade away the ordinary took a decidedly negative position, claiming that the apparitions were false. This was in line with the new policy from the 1950s onwards,
when the number of apparition stories increased exponentially and bishops were more likely explicitly to publically condemn them (O’Connor 2009).
Palmar de Troya belonged to the archdiocese of Seville and it soon became clear that the Palmarians could not count with any support from the archbishop, Cardinal José María Bueno Monreal (1904-1987; r. 1957-1982). By the 1960s, Bueno had become increasingly critical of the Franco regime and led a group of bishops, who met with the Generalissimo. Their criticism was unusually concrete and harsh. Based on Catholic social doctrine, they pointed out that the state’s politics were a source of injustice. They emphasized the harsh conditions for day laborers in southern Spain and the widespread poverty on the countryside. At Vatican II, Bueno was one of the few Spanish bishops who stood out from an old and conservative episcopacy, unprepared for the changes. He was no theological radical, but he wholeheartedly embraced the conciliar reforms, and systematically implemented them in his archdiocese. Thus, he was certainly no ideal partner for a group of traditionalists, who saw the Vatican II as the main root of evil (Callahan 2000:501-20).
For two years, between April 1968 and May 1970, Archbishop Bueno made no official statements about the events at Palmar de Troya. The ecclesiastical authorities received information about the messages and the growing cult, but it seems that there were no large-scale investigations into the matter. It was the bishop’s choice to consider if apparition accounts were worthy of such an enquiry. At this time, a steady stream of pilgrims kept coming to Palmar de Troya and it was reported that as many as 40,000 people were present on May 15, 1970, including many sick and handicapped people in search of a miracle. Three days after this all-time-high, Bueno finally published a document, where he briefly commented on the purported apparitions, stigmatizations and prodigies. He did not mince words when stating that they did not have a supernatural origin, but were signs of “collective and superstitious hysteria” and forbade Catholic priests to celebrate mass there (Archbishop Bueno’s letter, dated May 18, 1970, in Vidal 1976:62-63).
The Palmarian group was naturally not pleased with the decision and shortly after, Clemente allegedly received a number of messages from Christ and the Virgin, stating that the Bueno and the Spanish episcopacy at large were modernists (Alfaro 1975). After the cardinal’s decision, they wanted to involve the Holy See. In early July, Clemente was at a papal audience in Rome. There, he ran forward and fell on his knees before the pope handing over a note about the apparitions to a prelate that was present and asked him to forward it to the Holy Father (El País May 9, 1976; Vidal 1976:65).
In 1970, there were no established criteria for the Holy See’s handling of reports about private revelations and apparitions. It was a matter for the diocesan bishop to investigate the possible supernatural nature of such events, even if he could consult the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (earlier, The Holy Office). A “qualified group of
faithful” could also approach the Holy See in this matter. However, in special circumstances the Holy See could intervene on its own initiative. Having discussed the matter for a couple of years, in 1978 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued their “Norms regarding the manner of proceeding in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations.” It was approved for internal use alone and not officially published by the Holy See until 2012, even if parts of the content had been known for a long time.
The document includes many of the traditional criteria used by twentieth-century Catholic bishops to judge the veracity of apparitions. The positive criteria have to do with the “moral certitude” or “probability” of the events as well as the personal quality of the seer (e.g. psychological status and morality). They also include the requirement of coherence with church doctrine and that the event should have given rise to “healthy devotion and constant spiritual fruit” in the form of conversions and increased prayer activity and charity. The negative criteria include manifest error concerning the facts, doctrinal errors, but also evidence of a search for personal profit or psychological disorders, as well as tendencies of collective hysteria (Sacred Congregation 1978).
The gist of the archbishop Bueno’s statement on Palmar de Troya was reiterated in 1972. In a decree, printed in several newspapers, he explicitly forbade all kinds of public worship at the Alcaparrosa field, ordering Roman Catholic priests not to be present, let alone celebrate any religious services there (Vidal 1976:81). As an answer to the second declaration, Manuel Alonso drew up an extensive letter, which was signed by more than 300 pilgrims. It included a summary of the apparitions to a number of seers, but with particular focus on Clemente’s role. The author claimed that the archbishop’s decision had been made without prior investigation and that some of his assistants were part of a conspiracy hostile towards them (CESC). However, the diocesan hierarchy did not change its opinion; the purported apparitions and other supernatural events were not to be supported by any Catholic as they led people astray from the true faith.
There is clear evidence that individual Catholic priests were present at Palmar de Troya, both before and after the archbishop’s denunciation and that Tridentine masses were celebrated regularly at the site from 1969 onwards. The clerical support group included both Spaniards and foreigners, who were critical of the post-conciliar developments and attracted by the anti-modernist and apocalyptic messages. Still, the seers and leaders of the growing Palmarian movement were laypeople and so were almost all pilgrims. Clemente’s supporters formed prayer groups (cenacles) and began to refer to themselves as Marian apostles or Apostles of the Cross (MC, messages January 29 and September 24, 1974).