September 10, 2015 5:50 AM EDT

In recent years, the Internet has lauded a Jesus apparition in a piece of toast, a Virgin Mary on a tree trunk and a Facebook user claiming she speaks directly with God. For the Catholic Church, this is beyond blasphemy; the rise of such viral phenomena (as well as myriad claims of miraculous deeds) threatens to create “confusion and doubt among the faithful” and “make religion itself look foolish,” argues John Thavis, a former Catholic News Service bureau chief. In his behind-the-scenes look at how the Vatican investigates supernatural signs, Thavis also highlights the steps it has taken to reassert its authority. Among them: convening a commission to verify select apparitions and enabling trusted lawyers to argue cases of sainthood. Its most challenging task, however, may be streamlining its labored decisionmaking process. “In an era of instant global communications,” Thavis writes, “it can no longer wait years or decades to reach a judgment.”

–OLIVIA B. WAXMAN

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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