We exhort you to listen with simplicity of heart and honesty of mind to the salutary warnings of the Mother of God….
Bl. Pope John XXIII, February 18, 1959
Closing of the Marian Year
Contemporary humanity finds itself at the climax of what has been called the “Age of Mary.” The last two centuries have received more Church-approved Marian apparitions than any other time in the history of the Church. These Marian apparitions convey the urgent call of a Mother’s heart for humanity to return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to become more generous in prayer and penance in reparation and for the conversion of sinners; and to offset through prayer and sacrifice any conditioned purification that may face contemporary humanity due to its rejection of God, his law, and his love.
Nature and Purpose of Private Revelation
Public revelation—Latin, revelare, “to unveil”—consists of God’s manifestation of divine truths for humanity’s salvation, the revelation of which ends with the death of St. John, the last Apostle. These divine truths are transmitted through Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, which is then safeguarded by the Magisterium of the Church and comprise the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church.
Private revelation constitutes a revelation given by God to an individual for the spiritual benefit of the person, a specific group or the entire Church. In contrast to public revelation, private revelation has as its God-intended purpose not the revelation of new doctrine, but rather to encourage and lead the faithful to a more committed living of the Gospel in conformity with the revealed truths of Christian public revelation, as well as the proper development and understanding of Christian doctrine.
Bl. Pope John XXIII refers to this purpose of authentic private revelation in his 1959 address at the close of the Marian year:
The Roman pontiffs…if they have been constituted the guardians and interpreters of the Divine Revelation contained in Scripture and Tradition, also have the duty, when after mature examination, they deem it necessary for the common good of bringing to the attention of the faithful those supernatural lights which it pleases God to dispense freely to certain privileged souls, not for the purpose of presenting new doctrines, but rather to guide us in our conduct (1).
The specific function of private revelation then is to urge humanity to begin or return to lives committed to the most challenging Gospel calls of generous prayer, fasting, conversion, penance, sacrifice, and overall Christian holiness. Authentic private revelation can also serve the Church’s development of doctrine, by highlighting certain doctrinal elements already contained in Scripture and Tradition in order that they be more greatly emphasized in a given period of Church history. For example, the Divine Mercy private revelations to St. Faustina Kowalska has led the Church to accentuate even more profoundly the scriptural and traditional teaching of God’s infinite mercy for our present day.
Between the Old Testament revelation to the people of Israel and the full revelation of God’s Word in the person of Jesus Christ given to the Apostles, God revealed all that was necessary for the salvation of humanity, and therefore there would be no need for new doctrinal additions through private revelation. However, the challenge to live wholeheartedly the Gospel messages of continual faith, hope, prayer, penance, conversion, and Christian love will always remain. The value of authentic private revelation, then, is to encourage the faithful to incorporate into their lives the challenging aspects of the Gospel message or, in the words of Bl. John XXIII, to “guide us in our conduct” and understand and incorporate more deeply into our lives the doctrinal truths revealed by the Lord Jesus.
Theology of Private Revelation
Theologically, private revelation is associated with the gift of prophecy (cf. 1 Cor 12:10; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11), whereby God grants the bearer a special revelation in order to encourage the faithful to seek a more dedicated adherence to the Gospel. The reality of authentic private revelation as a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is scripturally verified in the prophecy of Joel: “And it shall come to pass after this, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:31). Accounts of prophecy are recorded in Scripture itself, for example the four daughters of Philip whom Scripture says prophesied, and Agabus, a prophet from Judea, who prophesied of St. Paul’s impending arrest in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 21:9-10).
Throughout Church history, numerous private revelations have been reported and approved as authentic by the Church. For example, private revelations were reported in Saragossa, Spain to St. James the Apostle in (40 A.D.) (2); in the early Christian text, the Didache (approximately 60-120 A.D.) (3); Pastor Hermas’ The Shepherd (second century) (4), to St. Gertrude (d.1301) (5), St. Bridget of Sweden (d.1373) (6), St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (d.1690) (7), not to mention Guadalupe and the number of the approved Marian apparitions of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
St. Thomas Aquinas rightly taught that the revelation of new doctrine ended with the death of John the Apostle, but that private revelation will always be present in the Church in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of human acts toward God:
At all times there have not been lacking persons having the spirit of prophecy, not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts (8).
These special revelations granted by God are referred to as “private,” not because they were necessarily to be limited to the knowledge of a few individuals, since their general purpose is for the upbuilding of the Church, which is sometimes local and sometimes universal, but to distinguish them from the public or official deposit of faith entrusted to and safeguarded by the Church. Among private revelations, theologians usually distinguish between three general kinds of visions: 1) “corporeal visions,” or visions with a bodily appearance which are perceived by the external senses and are usually referred to as “apparitions“; 2) imaginative visions which are perceived by the internal sense of the imagination, either during waking hours or during sleep; and 3) intellectual visions which are directly perceived by the mind. Some visions can exhibit several of these characteristics at the same time. Locutions are words spoken by a supernatural source that can be received corporally, intellectually, or by the imagination. Both visions and locutions can come from a divine Person of the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, saints, or even from souls in Purgatory (9).
Response of the Church to Private Revelation
How does the Church respond to the domain of private revelation? The Church obviously acknowledges the existence of authentic private revelation by her history, but at the same time exercises a proper balance in its regard. Technically, the Church does not need private revelation in light of the Gospel, but she has always remained open to its possibility for the great fruits of encouraging the faithful to live the Gospel to its fullness.
The Church, in her wisdom, avoids the presumption of being closed to any additional graces which Christ wishes to bestow on the Church in any given historical period. At the same time, the Church does not want to risk the loss of confidence in her office as guardian of public revelation through any premature or hasty approval of a particular private revelation that may not be of supernatural origin. Consequently, the Church is, to use the expression, “open, but cautious” to the realm of private revelation.
Criteria for Evaluation of Reported Apparitions
What norms or criteria does the Church use in evaluating a reported private revelation? The general criteria used by the Church can be summarized in three categories: 1) message content; 2) ecstasy and other concurring phenomena; 3) spiritual fruits (10).
Any message content reportedly revealed in a private revelation must be examined in light of the public revelation contained in Scripture and Tradition as safeguarded by the Church. If any reported message conveys a substantial doctrinal or moral error against Church teaching, the reported revelations are deemed to be false. The Holy Spirit, the same divine source of inspiration for public revelation and authentic private revelation alike, cannot contradict himself. Since private revelation is at the service of public revelation, then the “guidance of conduct” given by private revelation must correspond to the “revealed doctrine” of public revelation.
It is also noteworthy that even in the case of an authentic private revelation, it often happens that some minor error in the receiving or the transmitting of the revelation may occur because of the ever-present human nature of the visionary. Several authentic private revelations that have received official Church approval have also had some secondary elements of human error, even when the visionary has been a canonized saint (11).
Secondly, the nature of the ecstasy experienced by the “visionary,” or recipient of the reported revelation, is another principal factor in the process of Church investigation. Oftentimes, the visionary or recipient of a major private revelation experiences a state of ecstasy whereby the person is at least partially removed from an ordinary time and space experience during the supernatural revelation and brought into the temporal-spatial experience of the giver of the revelation, whether it be Jesus or Mary, a saint, etc. The visionary is brought into an ecstatic state where his or her external senses are suspended in part, and that at least partially transcends his normal sense experience.
A medieval means of testing the authenticity of a reported visionary during ecstasy was injecting a large needle into the arm of the alleged visionary to test the legitimacy of his or her ecstatic state. The much improved modern means of medical-scientific testing during a reported ecstasy (which includes EKG, EEC, and other technological data) has been a great help to the Church in empirically evaluating a legitimate state of ecstasy (12).
Other phenomena related to private revelation and worthy of examination include reported physical signs, such as solar miracles (as exemplified at Fatima), or miraculous springs (as at Lourdes), which cannot be explained by natural means, but only by the direct intervention of God.
Thirdly, the spiritual fruits constitute a major criterion for determining the authenticity of a private revelation. This cornerstone criterion is based on the teachings of Christ that, “the tree is known by its fruit” (Mt 12:33). One of the best indications for the authenticity of a reported private revelation is when the resulting devotion manifests true and ongoing Christian conversion, such as a return to the prayer and sacramental life of the Church, for example, Sacramental Confession, the Mass, the Rosary, a life of Christian charity, etc.
Although it is possible for some spiritual fruits to result temporarily from a false private revelation because of its partial conveyance of the truths of Christianity, nonetheless, a revelation of either human or satanic origin cannot manifest substantial and ongoing spiritual fruits comparable to the qualitative and quantitative spiritual benefits of a true revelation which has God as its ultimate source. The work of God in comparison to the work of man, or even of the devil, can never have identical spiritual fruits.
If, after proper examination, which is typically initiated at the local diocesan level under the guidance of the bishop, the Church is satisfied with the indications of authenticity and has excluded probabilities of error or fraud, she can grant her official approval. Typically the examination of the reported private revelation takes place within the diocese where the revelation is reported. The bishop, if he discerns the reported revelation worthy of an official investigation, will contact the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the official guidelines of evaluation used by the Church for investigating a reported revelation. He will then establish a commission of investigation, which is usually made up of experts from the fields of theology, psychology, and medicine. Although the commission will arrive at a conclusion, the final judgment for authenticity at the diocesan level rests with the local bishop.