Weeping or not, there's no denying that the Madonna is a magnet.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Whether a statue of the Virgin Mary is crying or not, there is no denying the star power of the Madonna.
The mother of Jesus Christ made the cover of Time magazine earlier this year. Month after month, crowds journey to places around the world where the virgin mother is believed to have appeared.
Catholics are celebrating two feasts in her honor -- the Immaculate Conception yesterday and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monday.
"There is a tremendous appeal to Mary, and it is growing," said the Rev. James Murphy, rector of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, who noted that for centuries, great painters have made her a prominent subject.
In Sacramento County, an outdoor statue of Mary has become the center of attention at the humble Vietnamese Catholic Martyrs Church. Since late November, believers have come to view the statue, which has a red streak running from the corner of her left eye. A priest wiped the streak away Nov. 9, but when it reappeared Nov. 20, many viewed it as tears of blood being shed.
The "weeping Mary" has drawn crowds and national media attention.
No one has actually seen tears flowing. The Diocese of Sacramento has no current plans to investigate. Others consider it a common stain or possible hoax.
And still the people come.
They bring candles and flowers, bundled-up babies, and hearts filled with prayers and petitions.
"I believe it is a miracle," said Florence Champaco, 56, who has visited nearly every day since she first heard about the statue on television.
"I just come to pray," Champaco said, as she stood as close as she could to the fence line, about 10 feet from the statue.
According to author Joe Nickell, who wrote "Looking for a Miracle," the red streak is a hoax, but not without possible value. Such events often can draw believers and nonbelievers to the church.
"People are anxious to see something tangible," he said. "Rather than go to church and maybe hear a sermon, you could just go be near a miracle."
For Champaco, this was not the first time she'd sought a miracle. Fifteen years ago, she traveled to St. Dominic's Church in Colfax, about 50 miles northeast of Sacramento, to view what she and many others believed was an image of Mary. The phenomenon later was determined by a physics professor to be a reflection of sunlight.
Over the years, such sightings have been reported hundreds of times throughout the world. Sometimes the locations have been predictable, such as in stained-glass windows. Others have been bizarre, such as a Virgin Mary grilled-cheese sandwich that sold for $28,000 a year ago on eBay.
Most, Murphy said, can be explained by natural causes.
"The authentic ones are rare," he said, mentioning reported appearances by Mary in Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France. "The church is extremely careful."
In coming days, Catholics will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, another event considered authentic, Murphy said. The feast commemorates Mary's appearance to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531. Her image is said to have appeared on his cloak.
From experts to plain folks, some have a believe-first mentality, while others are much harder to convince.
Thomas Haselrig, a cook, wanted proof before he would drive miles to see a weeping statue.
"Has anybody gone up to touch the statue to see what it is?" Haselrig asked.
But Maryvic McCann was ready to believe, even before seeing for herself.
"If it's a hoax, I really feel sad, but right now, I believe it's true," she said.
Among experts, many are doubtful.
Nickell, a senior research fellow for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, in New York, called the event a "clumsy, obvious hoax."
He cited the fact that nobody has seen blood flowing, the presence of "tears" from only one eye, and the location of "tears" on the outside of the eye.
He took issue with the church for not acting quickly to test the substance.
"If a statue is a fraud or a hoax, or even just a mistake, it should be determined and that should be that," Nickell said. "If it's a fake, then it should be repudiated."
Murphy, however, said it is too early to do such tests. "For now we're simply going to wait."
Lorraine Warren, a Connecticut investigator of paranormal events for over 50 years, admitted to a believe-first approach.
"Until you can disprove it, look at it as real," Warren said. "Miraculous things do happen, but you have to be careful."
When told about the Sacramento County statue, she asked careful questions. When did it start? Where was the statue? Who discovered it? How often does it cry?
She found it intriguing that the alleged appearance of tears came near the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"I hope and pray to God that this is a miraculous thing," said Warren, who with her husband formed the New England Society for Psychic Research.
The desire for miracles runs deep within people, said the Rev. Michael Russo, professor in the Department of Communications at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.
"I think there is an enormous desire for some connection with the world around them that the creator exists and is good to them," Russo said.