Every month Catholics make pilgrimages to Medjugorje, Garabandal, Betania, Fatima, and Lourdes. All manner of books, leaflets, and newsletters propagate ostensibly divine messages given to what have now become household names: Vassula Ryden, Father Gobbi, Sister Faustina, Maria Valtorta, and countless others. Several commentaries favorably disposed to these messages have been published to help sort through the reams of material. These fasten upon messages that are prophetic or apocalyptic in tone and attempt to synthesize them into a comprehensive interpretation of modern history. In short, something's afoot.
William James (1842-1910), the American philosopher and author of the classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, dubbed all mystics as "mystopaths," a term like "psychopath," the only difference being the kind of cloud each head is thought to be in. Today, some critics see "Catholic paranormal phenomena" as symptomatic of a desolate spiritual landscape: a kind of "compensatory mechanism" to make up for the meager spiritual fare in their parishes.
But this isn't the Catholic view. Though the Church is never without false mystics, she also recognizes that God mediates grace to his people in many ways, and she recognizes the role that private revelation has played in history. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find this affirmation: "Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church" (67).
The implication behind the statement is that God has granted visions, locutions, and the like to certain people for the greater service of the Church. What is tragic is not that some people believe the Lord may be speaking with them, but that so many do not believe that it's even possible. Amid the dim Christian witness, these revelations have sparked faith in countless lives. I've lost count of the number of people who've attested to significant religious conversions at these apparitions. The passing of the years has vindicated, for me at least, that these conversions weren't just emotional. Grace was at work.
Such grace is a direct counterstrike at the very heart of the detrimental effects of the Enlightenment, which banished the Lord from personal experience to the unreachable (and ultimately irrelevant) realm of the Supreme Being, the First Cause, and the Prime Mover. Powerful conversions embedded in private revelation have happened even in my area. Just the other day an older gentleman told me that as a result of the writings of one particular mystic, his faculty of imagination is now more active when he contemplates the Scriptures. I've seen the benefits in other ways: people reignited in faith, renewed in zeal and the desire to serve, inspired to fast and to pray, with a deeper concern for families and friends and a strengthening and fleshing out of doctrinal truths.
Alas, the scene also has its share of pitfalls. Some Catholics are unknowingly damaging their faith and that of others for want of discernment of the authenticity of the "messages." Others are taking fairly harmless messages—even those considered respectable—and bringing harm upon themselves because of the way they take them to heart. Because of our fallen nature, every spirituality has a weak spot somewhere, a specific point where disintegration begins and balance is lost, either by excess or omission. That's why we have Scripture, spiritual directors, other spiritualities, Tradition, doctrine, ecclesial authorities, and accountability.
To keep a sane view of private revelation, you must know first and above all that you do not have to accept any private revelation whatsoever, nor are you bound to it in any way except to that which already reflects the truths of Scripture and Tradition. Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) stated, "No private revelation is ever to be believed with Catholic faith." This refers even to those "approved" by the Church. Likewise the Catechism says, "[Private revelations] do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history" (67). The important difference between private and public revelation is this: You do not risk the judgment of God if you disagree with the contents of private revelation. The Church maintains these as private, and as such they elicit only "optional adoption" for the faithful; this is true even of the powerful messages we have from Fatima and Lourdes. The public or universal call to faith for all and for all time is Jesus Christ, the love of our lives. It's not belief in a message, however credible it might be, that will save you. Popes, bishops, and priests can encourage people to these, but they can't promote them as universally essential for salvation. All that the Church is allowed to conclude about a Fatima, a Lourdes, or another apparition is that the messages and associated experiences contain nothing that is contrary to faith.
We have to accept right from the start the very possibility that mystical experiences, even from reputable and "safe" sources, are fallible. Many people believe that, since mystical experiences are powerful manifestations of God's presence, they therefore must be unmistakably vivid and clear. The reality is that, because of our fallenness, this knowing by grace is always subject to error. Even the exceptionally gifted will not receive every revelation perfectly from the Holy Spirit. Paul says, "For we know only imperfectly, and we prophesy imperfectly. But once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with . . . Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then I shall know just as I myself am fully known" (I Cor. 13:9, 12). Therefore, as John says, we must always test the spirits.
To see the truth of this, we should note the many examples of "erroneous revelation" in the lives of the great saints. It is thought that Catherine of Siena believed the Lord told her that the Immaculate Conception did not happen. Joan of Arc had an interior locution concerning her death, but misinterpreted both the date and manner. Ignatius of Loyola determined through discernment that one series of mystical visions he experienced was generated from the "evil spirit," even though at the time they seemed to be from the Holy Spirit. Now, if these giants knew error, can others among us refrain from slipping into the same?
Scripture provides similar examples. Did Samuel understand the word he was receiving as he was lying in Yahweh's sanctuary? Were not Christ's disciples missing the bigger picture when, in the heat of witnessing the Transfiguration, they elected to pitch three tents? According to John's Gospel, was the theophany of the Father concerning Jesus received clearly by all? Did his disciples at once recognize Christ when he joined them along the road to Emmaus? In fact, not one of these movements of grace was perfectly received.
Spiritual experiences are still human experiences. Therefore, discernment and wisdom are our indispensable escorts in the mystical landscape. The people who insist upon this most loudly are the true mystics—such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola—who labored to devise means of differentiating the ways of the flesh, the world, and the devil from the ways of the Holy Spirit. Though they were closer to the Lord than any of us are, they were sufficiently wise and humble to know that it was murky and potentially hazardous in that Cloud of Unknowing, and one could easily get lost in it.
The whole private revelation scene can be a veritable zoo. Obviously, not every claim to divine inspiration is de facto authored by God. Simple criteria can be applied by anyone to any purported revelation. Some of these are straightforward: alignment with the gospel and Church teaching, the lifestyle and integrity of the seer or locutionist, submission to ecclesial authorities, proclaiming Christ's Lordship, and depicting a God who loves the world. I find people continually tripping up for want of other essential though less obvious criteria. I'll list a few of these:
1. Syncretism. Some sources are a hybrid of pagan, secular, and Christian ideas. The other day I picked up a booklet entitled something like Mary Speaks to the World and containing the following "quotation" from Mary: "I want to encourage you to continue to place your trust in God, whomever you conceive him to be." Such a statement can't be reconciled with Christian teaching. God is God, and "whomever I conceive him to be" must be conformed to the truth of his being, not to my preferences. Here we see a pagan idea wedded to a Christian figure.
2. Hidden agenda. Other messages are strongly ideological, promoting an agenda that reflects the anger and dissatisfaction of certain interest groups in today's Church, such as "messages" in which Mary demands exterior formalism and reduces every problem in the Church to the absence of Communion on the tongue, women wearing veils in church, and the Latin Mass. What is most disturbing is the claim that the Blessed Mother is lambasting the Church's change in discipline.
3. Anti-hierarchy. Other messages are not only critical of the Church hierarchy—and I'm not elevating the hierarchy above critique—but actually deny Church authorities their delegated responsibility of shepherding God's people. When this succeeds in turning people away from the guidance of pope, bishops, priests, and spiritual directors, there's no longer any objective means of safeguarding the Christian life. That's dangerous. Religious experience without theological objectivity is an accident waiting to happen.
4. Common sense. Some purported private revelations just seem to be ridiculous, plain and simple. I can't recall the exact details, but somewhere out there there's a set of messages detailing a future disaster for Canada. To survive, one is required to swallow a piece of paper upon which these or similar words are written: "Christ, save me." Doing so will save that person from the impending repercussions of the disaster, Give me a break!
5. Freedom to respond. Some messages invite a response from believers. I love what Mary is reputed to say at the end of locutions at some apparition sites, even after the most sobering of messages: "Thank you for responding to my call." Other "revelations," on the other hand, resort to emotional blackmail. I have in mind a pamphlet that put into the mouth of Christ these words: "Those people, who brawl against my religion and cast slurs on this Sacred Letter, shall be forsaken by me."
6. The messenger. Every message hinges upon the authenticity of the messenger. Who was the person directly involved, and what was his spiritual, psychological, and moral state at the time of the revelation? On the positive side, Sr. Faustina's authenticity and the beautiful devotions begotten by her life are watertight, almost beyond question. On the other side, there is the case of Maria Valtorta, author of The Poem of the Man-God. Her personal life raises serious questions. In the words of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who happens to be a trained psychologist: "Miss Valtorta was a very devout and intelligent person. She spent the last ten years of her life in complete catatonic schizophrenia, unable to speak to anyone. This disease came on her gradually. It's important to realize that the progress of a disease like that may take many years before the acute symptoms occur. Although this book is interesting to read and has a certain poetic beauty to it, Cardinal Ratzinger referred to it as 'a lump of theological absurdities."'
Ratzinger and Groeschel are nobody's fools. I'm aware of the unjust scarlet letter associated with mental illness. Still, we are irresponsible to ourselves if we discount these facts. Likewise, we do well to note, says Groeschel, that The Poem of the Man-God was on the list of "forbidden books and has never been given papal approval, contrary to popular belief." A challenge, therefore, should be issued to the "uncritical ease" with which this book and others like it have made deep inroads into Catholic living.
Some might object to such challenges on the grounds that they've experienced an inspiration from God through The Poem of the Man-God. Yet anything can inspire faith: music, art, sports, a starry night, literature, relationships, preaching, suffering, prayer, family gatherings, science, the Eucharist, gardening, religious books, a child playing, and the newspaper. Faith can be inspired from private revelation even if it is from a source that is imperfect or indeed highly suspect. Ultimately the question is not one of inspiration but of credibility and authority a person gives to a revelation. Ask yourself this question: "How do I quote these books?" Daily Bible reading might be kept, but what in fact has happened is a transference of authority from the Bible to the private revelation. Some Catholics have created a "Fifth Gospel" or a parallel bible. No book or personality should eclipse the living Christ of the Gospels.
Found here and there in private revelation literature are sobering messages that predict historic apocalyptic events.
Some mystic writings have created tides for events that have not yet transpired. We are familiar with many of them: "Three Days of Darkness," "The Chastisement," "The Purification," "The Catastrophe," "The Secrets of Medjugorje," "The Three Secrets of Fatima," "The Sign," "The Warning," "The Rapture," "The Return of Christ." Each term has different origins and levels of theological credibility. All are occasions for endless speculation.
With the exception of the science fiction and fantasy genres, this projection of tides into the future hasn't any parallel in our culture, and because it doesn't have a familiar cultural backdrop with which to make comparisons, extra caution is needed. There is great danger here, for, however sincere the desire to inspire or strengthen faith by an apocalyptic message, it's possible that the end effect will be a weakening of faith. Though the intent might be to strengthen it, often it is not faith being strengthened, but the feeling of control and security about the future. These messages are taken as knowledge, and knowledge, whatever its creed or color, is personal power.
The product is what I call "baptized astrology." The sin of astrology resides in placing trust in supposed knowledge of the future. Similarly, the possibility for sin with private revelation is trust not in the Lord but in a supposed knowledge of a future event. The only difference between this and consulting the horoscope is that one harvests knowledge from the stars and the other from a mystic. In both cases the Lord is put out of the picture, and this feeds spiritual pride. "I know something you don't know," we might be tempted to utter under our breath to family members. Or we might put our hope in these events as a personal vindication to the world that "we are right and you were wrong." The message can cause the Christian to lose his missionary dynamism. There's no need for that to happen.
Today's world is open to the transcendent. Consider the huge success of the "X Files," the imposing "New Age" sections in major book stores, and the hundreds of web sites devoted to the paranormal. People are searching for answers. Some of those answers are misleading and come from suspect sources. That is true even of some answers that come to Catholics through private revelations. We should not be surprised at this. Given the human condition, we should expect to see false apparitions alongside true apparitions, just as there were (and are) false Christs alongside the true Christ. Discernment and a spirit of humility will help us differentiate the one from the other.
Fr. Mark Slatter is a priest of the Companions of the Cross, headquartered in Ottawa, Canada.
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