Archbishop Arguelles felt so passionately about the devotion that on Nov. 12, 2009, on the 61st anniversary of Mary's alleged final appearance to Sister Teresita, he officially lifted the 1951 ban on public veneration of the image, and formed a new commission to re-examine the apparition and related phenomena.
Once again, about a year later, the Vatican shut it down.
"We, the undersigned Archbishops and bishops, constituting for the purpose a special Commission, having attentively examined and reviewed the evidence and testimonies collected in the course of repeated, long and careful investigations, have reached the unanimous conclusion and hereby officially declare that the above mentioned evidence and testimonies exclude any supernatural intervention in the reported extraordinary happenings – including the shower of petals – at the Carmel of Lipa. This declaration is the official communication of the final decision on the matter, as approved by the Holy See," the bishops said in a statement.
But Archbishop Arguelles' personal faith in the devotion did not budge. After declaring in another homily his personal devotion and belief in the apparitions, he released an official statement of approval of the apparitions on Sept. 12, 2015 declaring "that the events and apparition of 1948 also known as the Marian phenomenon in Lipa and its aftermath even in recent times do exhibit supernatural character and is worthy of belief."
Which brings the saga to this past Spring, when the archbishop once again had to revoke his statement of official approval of the supernatural nature of the apparitions.
It's likely the first time ever that the Vatican and a local bishop have had so much back and forth over a supposed apparition, O'Neill said.
"This is completely historic that the archbishop flipped over a Vatican confirmation of a previous judgement, and historic that the Vatican has come back over and flipped back a statement of the local bishops; those two things have never happened before," he said.
What's the problem?
What makes the alleged apparitions and related phenomena – the rose petals – so contentious?
O'Neill said that while it is not known for sure, there are a few reasons that the Holy See may be hesitant to declare the apparitions as supernatural.
One of these reasons, he said, may be because Sr. Teresita's first mystical experience was actually an encounter with the devil.
"There has always been the question of whether the devil was disguised in further apparitions," he said.
Another issue could be the complexity of the various related phenomena surrounding the apparition, O'Neill said, including the shower of rose petals and a claim from several children who said they saw the statue come to life.
"So when you look at this - do you approve the whole thing? Or do you approve just the apparitions? Or what's true or what's a hoax? It's a little bit of confusing territory when you have to deal with these many different types of mystical phenomena," O'Neill said.
So many mysteries remain with this supposed apparition.
Where are these affidavits of the supposed deathbed confessions of bishops who claim they were coerced into the negative judgement? How thoroughly did the original committee of bishops examine the case - and what led them to the negative judgement? Archbishop Arguelles, as well as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
If the document surfaced that confirmed Pope Pius XII's approval of the negative judgement in 1951, there would be no way to reopen the case. But such a document, if it does indeed exist in this case, would be in the archives of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which only releases documents to the public, with few exceptions, once they are more than 80 years old.
On a recent visit to Lipa, O'Neill said he was able to visit the convent where Sr. Teresita supposedly had visions of Mary.
The sisters there, he said, remain privately devoted to Mary, Mediatrix of all Grace. Though they remain obedient to the Holy See, they, as well as many of the faithful, quietly hope the case could be reconsidered in the future.
In a country with 33 canonically recognized icons of Mary, the country's Marian devotion is "incredible," O'Neill said.
"So there's a great amount of disappointment among the people of the Philippines who followed this devotion, but they remain obedient to the Holy See."
Update 6/22, 1:47 p.m.: A previous version of the story said a negative Vatican judgement drove Sr. Teresita out of the convent. The judgement instead was signed by local bishops, and subsequent suppression of the devotion likely led to her leaving. Also, the line: "This declaration is the official communication of the final decision on the matter, as approved by the Holy See" has been included to the bishops 2010 statement to show the Holy See's ruling.
This article was originally published on CNA June 18, 2016.