New Mexico - Inside a Catholic church in New Mexico, a 7-foot tall bronze statue of the Virgin Mary appears to be "weeping," according to church leaders.
The sculpture, known locally as Our Lady of Guadalupe, is not crying human tears; an investigator with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces said her "tears" have the same chemical makeup as olive oil treated with perfume - a substance that, when blessed, would be chrism, a sacred oil used in the Catholic church to anoint the parishioners. But, church leaders say, the rare occurrence has prompted people from all over to come for conversions, confessions and to watch the statue of the mother of God cry.
The question, one expert says, is not merely how it's happening (or, whether it's happening naturally) but how people are responding to the phenomenon and why they may want to believe in it.
"The Catholic church has a long history of believing in supernatural signs," John Thavis, who wrote the 2015 book "The Vatican Prophecies," said Tuesday in a phone interview. "There's a kind of curiosity and enthusiasm when something like this happens because it seems to confirm the traditional belief that God works in our own world and sometimes the supernatural is visible in our world."
It started on Pentecost Sunday on May 20, when parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Hobbs noticed that there appeared to be tears streaming from the Virgin Mary's eyes, Judy Ronquillo, the business manager for the church, told The Washington Post. She said the statue continued "weeping" the next day - something that she said has since occurred several more times.
Ronquillo translated questions into Spanish for the priest, the Rev. Jose Segura, who was quoted as saying that in his 12 years of priesthood, he has never seen anything like it and that he first struggled to believe it was real. But, Segura said, there are cameras in the church and no man-made explanation could be determined; if there were evidence of that, he said, he would not allow it to continue, according to Ronquillo.
"It's something extraordinary for him," Ronquillo said about the priest. "He has no words for it."
"There was a moment when it happened that he didn't believe," she added, "but now he believes."
Photos and a video released by the church shows the statue with what appears to be liquid inside the eyes and down the cheeks, mouth and chin. In one photo, it looks like the tear trail may have started on the upper eye lids.
Deacon Jim Winder, vice chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, said there was enough liquid - about 500 millilitres - that it had run down the statue. He said that he and other investigators examined the statue and the surrounding area, including the ceiling, and there were no signs it had been altered in any way.
Winder said that investigators also spoke with the manufacturer in Mexico, dispelling any theories that the statue - which is cast bronze and hollow - may be leaking or secreting some substance.
The investigators collected about 5 millilitres (or a teaspoon) of the "tears" and had them tested, Winder said. He said that the results showed it had "the same chemical fingerprint of olive oil treated with some kind of scent," like chrism, but he added that it was clear - not the brownish color that is associated with most olive oil.
"We don't believe chrism oil was taken from the church and used to adulterate this statue," Winder said. But he added that church officials have no answers. "We don't have an explanation for it."
Catholic church officials do not seem so much concerned with why the statue of the Virgin Mary appears to be crying oily tears or where the tears may be coming from - God, Satan or man - but, Winder said, the diocese is monitoring the response from the community. "That, in all honesty, is what's most important - that it's prompted people maybe to be closer to God," the deacon said. "That's what really matters."
The Bible talks about judging a tree by its fruit, Winder said, so "we want to judge this phenomenon by what's coming out of it."
Thavis, an author and journalist who has written about the Vatican and other religious matters, said when apparent supernatural sightings occur in the church, the reports draw Catholics, who come seeking favor for their prayers, believing that God may be "providing a direct link and people want to take advantage of it."
Thavis said that in these situations, the Vatican usually allows the phenomenon to play out without endorsing it and that it expects the same from local bishops because the occurrences "often turn out to be hoaxes or are explained by science." But it can take years to find the answer, he said, and then there are other times when, despite a thorough investigation, no explanation can be found at all.
Winder, with the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, said that at this time, the investigators have discovered no evidence that the events were man-made, but they are still monitoring the situation.
"If it's not man-made," he said, "that leaves two possible sources - Satan and God. All we can say at this point is what it is not."