Dozens of parishioners at the modern church of San Pietro in the town of Acerra, on the northern outskirts of Naples, recounted seeing the simple plaster and marble statue of the Virgin Mary "become flesh" and move her legs "as if she wanted to approach us". The first sighting of the apparition was made two weeks ago by a group of elderly women reciting the rosary prayer.
The parish priest of San Pietro, Father Oreste Santoro, reacted cautiously to the claim, saying: "I wasn't present at what they saw and therefore am unable to judge."
One group of pilgrims to the church claim to have made a video of the Madonna's movements and will show the footage to the Bishop of Acerra, Monsignor Giovanni Rinaldi, who will decide whether the celluloid "proof", together with photographs purportedly taken with mobile telephones, warrant examination by a special church commission that investigates reports of apparitions.
Some parishioners speculated the apparitions might be a sign of the Madonna's displeasure at the recent terrorist attacks around the world. Whatever the case, local ecclesiastical authorities are not excluding that the apparitions may be authentic.
"You certainly can't stop the Madonna from doing anything she wants," said Don Antonio Riboldi, the Bishop Emeritus of Acerra. "However it is very early to talk of a miracle. I ask myself what it can mean that the Madonna has moved. The Madonna speaks to us wherever she goes. Her message is always the same - convert and believe in the Gospel. The aim of the Madonna is to lead men to God.
"If it is a true miracle it will be the Madonna herself to show it. But we must be careful. One must not give in to the temptation of easy popular religiosity.
"It will be up to the commissions specialised in this kind of event to show whether the Madonna really moved or if there really was a phenomenon that could lead one to think of a miracle."
Volunteers from Italy's civil protection department erected barriers in front of the 160cm (5ft 9in) statue.
"I saw her legs that were moving the dress and her knees that were bending, as if she wanted to walk toward the faithful," the newspaper, Il Messaggero, of Rome quoted a witness as saying.
News of the apparition quickly spread and as many as 2,000 people, many of them children, flocked to pray at the statue, many of them on their knees for several hours despite the intense summer heat.
* A statue of the Madonna was seen crying "tears of blood" at a church in Civitavecchia, in central Italy. The apparition was reported 13 times, most recently in March 1995. Pope John Paul II sent a golden rosary bead to the parish.
* Visions of the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of Portuguese shepherd children in Fatima in 1917. The Madonna spoke to the children, apparently predicting the rise of communism after the end of the First World War.
* Apparitions have been reported persistently since 1981 at the church of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, credited with miraculous healing.Reuse content