OPELOUSAS, LA. -- Opthamologists are warning some Roman Catholics here that they may harm their eyes if they stare at the sun in hopes of seeing a religious phenomenon.

Some Catholics have been staring at the setting sun for 15 minutes or more the past couple of weeks, hoping to see "the miracle of the sun," or "the dancing sun."

The faithful were told to look into the sun by south Louisianians who returned June 21 from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to some children.

"The travelers reported seeing the miracle in the sun at Medjugorje, where they saw the sun change colors and discs moving and covering the face of the sun," said Joyce Prejean, director of home health care at Opelousas General Hospital and one of the participants in the pilgrimage. "They were able to look at the sun without pain or damage to their eyes just as though they were looking at a picture. I have seen it personally several times since their return without discomfort or after-effects."

At least one opthamologist, however, believes sun gazers need to be aware of the potential for eye damage.

"I don't want to belittle the religious experience, but I feel people need to be warned," said Dr. Kenneth Lafleur, also a Catholic.

"Fleeting glimpses is all someone should give the sun, if the eyes are unprotected, and five to 10 minutes is too long. Permanent, lasting damage can be the result."

Lafleur saud sunglasses are useless for eye protection when staring at the sun. The only glasses that offer any safety are federally approved welder's goggles.

According to the eye doctor's handbook, "Systems of Opthamology," a person looking at the sun can experience dazzling sensations, diffuse clouds floating and sparks and occasionally colors.

Lafleur said his partner, Dr. Merrick Wyble, treated a teen-age boy last week who was suffering from a burned retina after gazing at the sun for religious reasons.

Dr. Edard Graul, a Eunice opthamologist, said he, too, is treating patients with burned retinas. "I saw a 31-year-old mother and her 11-year-old daughter who both had burns on the back of the eye after gazing at the sun for over an hour," Graul said. "They were surprised it happened."

Anti-inflammatory drugs can help make some patients more comfortable, but the damage can be permanent, the doctors said.

"The best treatment is to prevent it, Lafleur said.