Fiddling while Rome Burns
Sacred image or flaming fake? When Gregorz Lukasik photographed a bonfire lit during a Polish service on the second anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death, he didn't expect to capture an image of the late pontiff himself. Nevertheless, Lukasik's local bishop apparently believes that the firey silhouette is more than a coincidence, noting that JP II made many pilgrimages during his life -- and may still be at it.
But should the faithful rush to download this image as a holy screensaver? Ultimately, that's up to officials with higher authority -- and more facility in detecting telltale traces of Photoshop manipulation -- than Counterfeit Chic. Even if the photo is unaltered, however, the human mind's tendency to pareidolia warrants caution. One may not wish to nonchalantly eat a tortilla in which Jesus' face has appeared or accidentally burn a grilled cheese sandwich consecrated with an image of the Virgin Mary, but neither is every suggestive cloud formation a sign from above.
If the photo is real, does Lukasik stand to gain more tangible benefits than a blessing and 15 minutes of fame? Well, 500 years ago there was a brisk business in alleged splinters of the True Cross and other holy relics -- and in 2004 that grilled cheese sandwich sold for USD $28,000 on eBay.
While modern canon law absolutely forbids the sale of relics, a recent image probably wouldn't fall under the prohibition -- although c.1190, section 3 also places restrictions on the transfer of "images which are honored in some church with great reverence by the people." The rule is limited, but commentary commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America further notes, "Authorities should be watchful lest relics or sacred images fall into the hands of those who do not appreciate them or who might even ridicule them."
Point taken. No ridicule here. But if the photo really does depict a postmortem visit from JP II, why exactly is he burning?