It started in December, when an otherwise ordinary priest at a Prince William County church told his superior that several statues of the Virgin Mary mysteriously had begun to cry. Now it seems that wherever the Rev. James Bruse goes, unexplained tears tend to follow.

When Bruse celebrated Mass at a Catholic school in Woodbridge, 450 children ended up taking notes home explaining that they had seen a statue cry. When he attended a family funeral in Oxon Hill last week, two statues and a stained-glass window began dripping water as he toured the church. When two Chantilly women visited him on Thursday to have their statues blessed, they came away convinced that they had seen the figurines cry.

Obviously, something is happening to inanimate objects in Bruse's presence, but what? Is it an unexplained scientific occurrence, a possible interaction of certain chemicals? Could it be a miracle? A magic trick? Is it a hoax?

The faithful at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge -- many of whom want to believe, but aren't sure what to think -- venture that this could be God's special way of communicating with His followers. Is that so far-fetched, they ask, in these troubled times? Don't things sometimes happen that can't be explained?

Scientists and those who make it their business to be skeptical of such incidents are openly derisive, certain there is a rational explanation. What kind of God, they ask, indulges in such small, pointless miracles, such parlor games? They say there are many easy ways to make an object seem to cry, requiring little expertise or expense. However, nothing in Bruse's past suggests that he is capable of such trickery, and by all accounts, he has been a hardworking and unassuming priest.

As for officials in the Roman Catholic Church, they are exercising the caution that the church always uses in these matters -- not wanting to discourage the thousands of people who in recent weeks have made pilgrimages to Bruse's church, but not wanting to make any kind of endorsement either. The only comment from the Arlington Diocese, which includes the Seton parish, has been a statement: "It should be pointed out that the church does not pass judgment on purely physical phenomena, but only on a purported meaning, message, or significance that may be associated with the events. In this particular case there is no determined message attached to the reported phenomena, and thus there is no ecclesiastical declaration to be made. . . . As always in similar cases, the church recommends great caution in forming judgments."

But, official sources said, the church has begun a quiet investigation into the weeping incidents. There is little expectation of a quick conclusion; it could be 10 years from now, 100 years from now, or never.

"The church moves very slowly on things like this," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and an instructor at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "It's not like we have an 800 line, 800-MIRACLE, we can call and people will come in to investigate."

Reports of miracles are on an upswing, church officials said. The news is full of supposed sightings -- the face of Christ in a plate of spaghetti in Georgia, sacred images in the crook of a California oak tree. In 1988, teenagers at a Pennsylvania summer camp reported seeing 19 icons weep after they had prayed for a miracle to strengthen their faith. A year later, thousands gathered in a Tickfaw, La., vegetable field to see if they could see what a pipe fitter had reported, visions of the Virgin Mary among the turnips.

The Rev. James Coen, director of the Catholic Information Service in Washington, said Bruse is only one in a long line of people who allegedly have seen or somehow caused crying in religious icons. "This weeping Virgin business has been seen in Texas, Chicago, New York and here, and they all have no message," he said, referring to the Catholic belief that a miracle includes a direct message to the recipient.

The concept of miracles has always presented a problem to the church, and church officials are reluctant to bestow an official endorsement on an alleged sighting or weeping episode. In the last two centuries, the church has recognized only 14 of thousands of such incidents, including the most famous: Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in France, where a teenage girl in 1858 said the Virgin Mary appeared, and Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, where in 1917, Mary was said to speak to three village children. But even the popular pilgrimage site in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where the Virgin is said to appear, has not received church sanction, and the Vatican has advised bishops not to sponsor trips there.

The Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a Jesuit priest and Catholic University professor who teaches canon law, said there is no formal procedure for the investigation of miracles, an undertaking that dates to ancient times. Usually, he said, the bishop appoints a committee to investigate, interview witnesses and examine the statues. Even then, the results probably would not be satisfying to those looking for a definite conclusion.

"The church will ultimately never say this is a miracle from God," Orsy said. "What it will say is that we can't find an ordinarily natural explanation, so you can consider it a sign from God if you want to. The church never binds anybody to believe in that miracle."

Often, an incident or sighting creates a huge sensation, then gradually interest dies. Thousands visited Our Lady of the Pillar Church in Santa Ana, Calif., in November after a glowing apparition supposedly appeared in the blue tiles of a mosaic. Then the pilgrims simply stopped coming. "I have no idea why. Most likely, because they didn't see anything," a church clerk said.

Sometimes there is a simple explanation. At St. Dominic Church in Colfax, Calif., hordes of people came in 1990 to see an image on the wall of the church that was purported to be the Virgin Mary. But later, it was determined that the play of light from a lighting fixture had created the picture.

Similarly, the Rev. Henry Karwel does not believe the Virgin Mary figure was weeping this Christmas in the outdoor nativity scene at St. Mary's Church in Ware, Mass. He appreciated the crowds who came to witness the alleged phenomenon, he said. But he never believed it for a second.

"It was melting ice and snow," he said. "It just looked like tears. People are looking for something extra, I guess."

If one wanted to make a statue cry, how might it be done?

Berkeley physicist Shawn Carlson, who likes to debunk so-called religious miracles, was dubbed by Newsweek magazine in 1987 "The Scientist Who Makes Icons Weep." Using salt crystals, he made a copy of the Mona Lisa cry on demand.

"When I first approached this problem, I thought about it for 10 minutes and came up with six totally different ways," said Carlson, who also is a professional magician and refuses to reveal all his gimmicks. "Not because I'm so clever, but it's very, very easy to do. I've learned that the best solutions are so obvious they're overlooked -- the kind of thing that involves a trip to the hardware store and spending no more than $5."

Carlson said that ordinary sea salt can do the trick, and so can calcium chloride, a substance that absorbs water out of the air until it liquifies itself. He also can make a statue secrete fragrant oils, he said, refusing to say how. But Carlson was quick to add that he was not accusing Bruse of anything and that he has not examined the statues in question. "The thing about these religious statues is that you don't get to touch them. That's blasphemous," he said. "You can't pick on religion. But I can honestly say that I've found fraud and I've found wishful thinking. I've never found a miracle."

Another well-known debunker of supernatural phenomena, the Amazing Randi, happened to be in Washington during the weekend in early March when news of the weeping statues broke, and he had a predictable opinion. "First of all, I think it's time we started to grow up," James Randi said last week. "Weeping statues are sort of the religious tooth fairies. I look at my calendar and I see 1992, but maybe it's really 1492."

It is difficult, however, to figure what the motive would be for staging a weeping icon. Cynics have pointed darkly to the fact that the church is in the middle of a fund-raising drive to construct a new church and that the new pilgrims have donated daily. But the fact is that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is one of the fastest-growing churches in Northern Virginia, includes 1,800 largely prosperous families and probably can afford a new building.

For many of the members, it has been a trying time, dealing with overflowing church services, constant media attention and their own personal questions about whether or not they believe. Pat Kofalt, 43, a Lake Ridge resident who works for the Army, said he's "a skeptical person, but I'd like to think it's a miracle." Nancy Lister, 29, a teacher who attends church each week for "the peace" it gives her, said she continues to be questioned by friends about the statues and doesn't know what to tell them. James Robinson, 17, said it "seems impossible, but who can say for sure?"

It is also hard for many to see what Bruse would gain from trickery. Bruse no longer is talking to the media, but in earlier interviews he said he understood why skeptics would question him, but added that whatever is happening, "It's Christ working through me."

Other priests said that being associated with a weeping statue can be dangerous to a priest's career. "People look at you with shining eyes, but it doesn't change your priestly priorities or the work you are assigned to," Coen said.

For Lucille Ienna, of Chantilly, the weeping icons have strengthened her faith.

Ienna, 45, and her friend Lisa Ross are both cancer patients, and they visited Bruse in the rectory on Thursday, bearing statues to be blessed. First, she said, Bruse pointed to a statue in his office and said, "This statue cried today." Then, as she watched, it began to shed tears again, and she smelled a fragrance in the air, like roses. She turned around and saw Bruse cradling her statue in his arms, and it too was crying. Her friend reached into her pocketbook to pull out her small figurine, only to find tears falling from its eyes, although Bruse had not touched it.

"I said, 'This is unbelievable.' He said, 'This is unbelievable.' He didn't talk much. We said, 'Thank you, thank you.' "

Two weeks ago, Ienna visited Lourdes and brought back several gallons of holy water. Next month, she plans to be present in Portugal for the 75th anniversary of the miracle of Fatima. Thursday night, she invited her neighbors to come and see the statue blessed by Bruse. She is a believer, she said.