Miracles and Multiple Witnesses

A fairly frequent claim, often in connection with the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, although not only in that connection, is the claim that rosary chains have changed to gold, or become golden plated. Thus for example Fr. Francis Marsden makes this claim in a letter published in the Tablet on May 26, 1990:

Leaving for Medjugorje after Easter 1989, I decided I would take my own ordination pair of rosary beads (received from the Vatican in 1984). I had seldom used them but kept them as a memento. As I put them in a little cloth bag in my trouser pocket, I checked that they were silver. “If it does happen, I’d like it to happen to this pair”, I thought.

They remained in my pocket untouched down to Heathrow, and out to Zagreb, Split and Medjugorje, from Saturday night through to Monday lunchtime. Five of us priests were on top of Krizevac, the Hill of the Cross. I took out the rosary to say the Glorious Mysteries. To my shock and near-disbelief, the links by the medal glittered gold in the sunshine. Inspecting further, I found that all the links touching either a bead or the crucifix were now golden. “My God, it’s happened”, I thought, much moved.

The extra links separating the decades remained silver. The message for me was, “It is prayer which changes things”.

Later I checked the inside of the little cloth bag. The lining was clean. There were no signs of any metal having rubbed off. I also asked a priest friend with an identical Vatican silver rosary to try rubbing off the silver. He told me that after a long time scraping with a coin, he began to get a very slight dull bronze tinge to the silver. That degree of abrasion was impossible in my pocket.

Fr. Francis is here giving reasons for supposing that the change was not natural. Continuing in the same vein, he says:

So Mr. Falkiner’s theory fails to explain all the observed facts. Undoubtedly he is correct in some cases in suggesting that prolonged, sweaty use will cause tarnishing. But in my case and many others there has been no “hard use”. Nor has the trans-coloration been over all the links, but selectively and with a beautiful subtlety. I have seen several other patterns to the transformation.

Does air travel at 30,000 ft produce the change? Do some Medjugorje locals steal pilgrims’ rosaries from their pockets at night and spray them? Is it psychological wish-fulfilment? If so, please instruct me how to harness this power and, like Midas, I will try it out on some of our silver chalices and patens.

One Jesuit priest told me how he actually saw his rosary change colour. He and a friend were walking up Krizevac, joking about the phenomenon. taking 10p and 20p coins out of their pockets: “Has this one changed yet, Bernard?” “No, let’s have a look at this one . . .”. And as he was holding his rosary in his hand, he saw the golden colour come over it.

He has given some reasons for supposing that the change was not natural, but one could object that there is no external proof of the change. But in various cases people say that they experienced such a change, and confirmed it later by external testing. For example, William Simon says in his autobiography, A Time for Reflection,

After our first Mass at Medjugorje, I remember telling my son Billy, “That is the closest I’ve ever felt to heaven on earth.” I then pulled out the old, inexpensive rosary beads that I had bought about ten years earlier, and noticed that the chain was glittering in the sun. That was strange. The chain was just some cheap, dull alloy, yet it suddenly appeared radiant and golden and vibrant and remained so. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and upon my return brought the rosary to a jeweler for an appraisal. He confirmed that the chain, inexplicably, had turned to solid gold. I can’t explain the transformation, either of the rosary  or of my own life, except as a sign of divine intervention, and accept it as such.

The total number of people who have claimed to have observed such cases is probably at least many hundreds, or more likely many thousands. I have seen one such rosary myself and can confirm that it appeared a golden color when I saw it. And while most people do not appear to have had any specific tests done, a number did do this, like William Simon in the above quotation.

Like reports of meteorites in the 18th century, these reports should be taken seriously. However, note that although we have multiple witnesses, the witnesses are not all to the same event, but to different events, and this can make a significant difference.

Suppose we took one such rosary, and passed it from person to person, each of them taking it and having it tested, and each confirmed that the metal of the chain had actually changed. If several dozen people confirmed this without exception, without bias in the selection of persons, including persons that had no interest in such a miracle, such as Jews and atheists, there would be no reason to doubt that the rosary chain was now gold or golden plated. It would be quite wrong to follow Hume’s advice and to dismiss this as risible rather than a matter of argument.

However, the argument in reality is much weaker because in fact these witnesses are testifying to separate events. If we have the situation described above, where dozens of witnesses confirm the same event, without a bias in the selection of witnesses, then if they are all wrong, something very unlikely has taken place: either they are all lying, their tests were all mistaken, or some combination of these things. This would be very unlikely indeed, in the situation described, and could easily be made more unlikely to whatever degree one desired, by renewed testing.

But suppose that in the actual case of multiple witnesses attesting to multiple events, no rosary chain has actually undergone such a change. This still implies that all of our witnesses are mistaken or lying. But it does not imply anything extremely improbable: there may have been people who tested their rosaries, and confirmed that nothing had changed, but there was no reason for them to publish the matter. Instead, only those published who were willing to lie, were mistaken, or who received mistaken results from their jewelers or chemists.

Thus it is very possible that the latter situation is the actual truth, and it would be a mistake to reject this possibility simply on the grounds that it is distrustful of human testimony.

But it is also possible that some of these chains have in fact changed to gold or become gold plated.

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