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Apparitions True and False

by Fr. Peter Joseph

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  • Description:
    How can one tell whether a message one hears, or a vision one sees, or a dream one has, comes from God or from the devil? Father Peter Joseph, now serving as the chancellor of the Maronite diocese of Australia, gives us some wise guidance on this issue.
  • Larger Work:
    Inside the Vatican
  • Pages: 32 – 39
  • Publisher & Date:
    Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, March 2005

As a prelude, I should state my own interest in private revelations. I have visited Paray-le-Monial (where Jesus showed His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary in the 17th century). I have visited Rue de Bac (where the Miraculous Medal was given to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830). I have visited Lourdes, Knock, and Fatima, and also the two Belgian towns where Our Lady appeared: Beauraing (1932-33) and Banneux (1933). I wear the Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal. I have conducted Holy Hours to celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy since 1993.

I think, from all this, you can see that I am not opposed to private revelations. But I am opposed to false revelations; I am opposed to dubious revelations; I am opposed to disapproved revelations; I am opposed to obsession with private revelations. I am opposed to all these things precisely because I do believe in genuine private revelations and their role in the life of the Church.

The abundance of alleged messages and revelations in the past 40 years makes ever more necessary the traditional caution and discernment of spirits. Amid today's confusion and spiritual wasteland, many Catholics are seeking contact with the supernatural via new private revelations, regardless of whether or not they have been approved, or even whether or not they are in accordance with the Faith.

Private Revelations Occur

God may, and sometimes does, grant revelations to private individuals. Those who receive them, and are perfectly certain that they come from God, should believe them. But the Church never imposes on Catholics the obligation of believing anyone's private revelations, even those of the great saints. The Church gives her approval to them only when she is satisfied after rigorous examination of their spiritual utility and of the evidence on which they depend.

The Catechism

The new Catechism at #67 says: "Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They 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 . . . Christian faith cannot accept 'revelations' that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such 'revelations.'" (See St. Thomas, Summa II-II, q. 174, art. 6, ad 3.) Whom does the Catechism have in mind? Among others, Moslems and Mormons. Mohammed claimed that the Gospels misrepresent Christ, and Mormons believe there is a Third Testament.

Sources of Revelations

There are three sources, ultimately, of revelations, visions, prodigies, and suchlike things: God, man, or the devil.

Under the heading of God, I include God's holy creatures, such as Our Lady or another saint or an angel.

Under man, I mean any human knowledge or power or imagination, any human skill or trickery, or any human activity or device causing anything to happen.

Under the devil, I include the devil himself or any one of the other demons.

The Power of the Devil

Very few people are aware of the devil's full powers and his ability to deceive. Many Catholics think that as soon as any prodigy occurs, it must be the work of God. But, as I said, messages and prodigies can issue from three sources ultimately: God, many, or the devil. It is the work of discernment to identify who is at work in a given case.

It is knowledge of diabolical trickery which makes the Church cautious here. My next part on the power of the demons is taken from Father Jordan Aumann, a Dominican priest who taught for many years at the Angelicum University in Rome.

What the devils can and cannot do. The devils cannot do the following:

(1) Produce any kind of truly supernatural phenomenon.

(2) Create a substance, since only God can create.

(3) Bring a dead person back to life, although they could produce the illusion of doing so.

(4) Make truly prophetic predictions, since only God knows the future absolutely, and those to whom He chooses to reveal a portion of it. However, the devil's intelligent conjecture about the future might appear to mere mortals a prophecy.

(5) Know the secrets of a person's mind and heart. However, their shrewd intelligence and observation may enable them to deduce many things about a person.

But the devils can do the following:

(1) Produce corporeal or imaginative visions.

(2) Falsify ecstasy.

(3) Instantaneously cure sicknesses that have been caused by diabolical influence.

(4) Produce the stigmata.

(5) Simulate miracles and the phenomena of levitation and bilocation.

(6) Make people or objects seem to disappear by interfering with a person's sight or line of vision.

(7) Cause a person to hear sounds or voices.

(8) Cause a person to speak in tongues.

(9) Declare a fact which is hidden or distant.

Whatever nature or science can cause, the devils too are able to cause, according to what God may permit. See the Book of Exodus where the magicians and sorcerers of Pharaoh were able to accomplish some of the prodigies wrought by Moses and Aaron (Ex. 7:11-12; 7:22; 8:7; 8:18-19; 9:11). Close to 200 A.D., Tertullian writes, "First of all, they [the demons] make you ill; then to get a miracle out of it, they prescribe remedies either completely novel, or contrary to those in use, and thereupon withdrawing hurtful influence, they are supposed to have wrought a cure." (Apology of the Christian Religion, 22)

In the face of the fallen angels' power to deceive, it is no wonder that the Church is always very slow to declare a miracle or message authentic.

The devil has superhuman intelligence and is very clever, and to pretend that you can definitely judge in favour of something's authenticity, without help, is presumptuous.

To know if something is false, it suffices to know that it says something contrary to the teaching of the Church. Hence, it is easier to pronounce against visionaries than in their favour. But the mere absence of doctrinal error is not enough. There have to be other positive indications.

The following quotations are from the final chapter of the rock-solid book Spiritual Theology (Sheed & Ward 1980) by Father Jordan Aumann.

Signs of the Divine Spirit

"The following characteristics are general signs of the divine spirit:

1. Truth. God is truth and cannot inspire anything but truth in a soul. If a person believed to be inspired by God, therefore, maintains opinions that are manifestly against revealed truth, the infallible teaching of the Church, or proven theology or philosophy or science, it must be concluded that the individual is deluded by the devil or is the victim of excessive imagination or faulty reasoning.

2. Gravity. God is never the cause of things that are useless, futile, frivolous, or impertinent. When his spirit moves a soul it is always for something serious and beneficial.

3. Enlightenment. Although one may not always understand the meaning of an inspiration from God, the effect of any divine movement or impulse is always enlightenment and certitude rather than darkness and confusion. This is true both for the effects on the individual who receives the inspiration and its effects on others.

4. Docility. Souls that are moved by the spirit of God accept cheerfully the advice and counsel of their directors or others who have authority over them. This spirit of obedience, docility, and submission is one of the clearest signs that a particular inspiration or movement is from God. This is especially true in the case of the educated, who have a greater tendency to be attached to their own opinions.

5. Discretion. The spirit of God makes the soul discreet, prudent, and thoughtful in all its actions. There is nothing of precipitation, lightness, exaggeration, or impetuosity; all is well balanced, edifying, serious, and full of calmness and peace.

6. Humility. The Holy Spirit always fills the soul with sentiments of humility and self-effacement. The loftier the communications from on high, the more profoundly the soul inclines to the abyss of its own nothingness. Mary said, "I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say" (Lk 1:38).

7. Peace. St. Paul speaks frequently of the peace that comes from God (Rom 15:33, Phil 4:9), and Jesus mentions peace as one of the manifestations of his spirit (Jn 14:27). This is a quality that always accompanies communications from God; the soul experiences a profound and stable serenity in the depths of its spirit." (pp. 402-3)

Fr. Aumann mentions other signs also: Confidence in God, Flexibility of will, Purity of intention, Patience in suffering, Self-abnegation, Simplicity, Liberty of spirit.

Signs of the Diabolical Spirit

". . . since the devil may disguise himself as a good spirit and even cause what appear to be authentic mystical phenomena, it is helpful to mention briefly the various signs of the diabolical spirit.

1. Spirit of falsity. The devil is the father of lies, but he cleverly conceals his deceit by half-truths and pseudo-mystical phenomena.

2. Morbid curiosity. This is characteristic of those who eagerly seek out the esoteric aspects of mystical phenomena or have a fascination for the occult of preternatural.

3. Confusion, anxiety, and deep depression.

4. Obstinacy. One of the surest signs of a diabolical spirit.

5. Constant indiscretion and a restless spirit. Those who constantly go to extremes, as in penitential exercises or apostolic activity, or neglect their primary obligations to do some personally chosen work.

6. Spirit of pride and vanity. Very anxious to publicize their gifts of grace and mystical experiences.

7. False humility. This is the disguise for their pride and self-love.

8. Despair, lack of confidence, and discouragement. A chronic characteristic that alternates with presumption, vain security, and unfounded optimism." (p. 412)

Fr. Aumann mentions other signs also. Impatience in suffering and stubborn resentment; Uncontrolled passions and strong inclination to sensuality, usually under the guise of mystical union; Hypocrisy, simulation, and duplicity; Excessive attachment to sensible consolations, particularly in their practice of prayer; Lack of deep devotion to Jesus and Mary; Scrupulous adherence to the letter of the law and fanatical zeal in promoting a cause.

Signs of the Human Spirit

"The human spirit is always inclined to its own satisfactions; it is a friend of pleasure and an enemy of suffering of any kind. It readily inclines to anything that is compatible with its own temperament, its personal tastes and caprices, or the satisfaction of self-love. It will not hear of humiliations, penance, renunciation, or mortification. If any director or confessor goes against its inclinations, he is immediately branded as inept and incompetent. It seeks success, honors, applause, and pastimes. It is always a great promoter of anything that will arouse admiration or notoriety. In a word, the human spirit neither understands nor cares for anything except its own egoism.

"It is sometimes difficult in practice to judge whether given manifestations proceed from the devil or from a purely human and egoistic spirit, but it is always relatively easy to distinguish between these two and the spirit of God. It will be possible in most cases, therefore, to determine that a given spirit could not possibly be from God and that it must be combated, even if one is not sure whether it is in fact from the devil or the human ego." (p. 413)

Some Norms For Discernment

"The following norms are offered as guides for the spiritual director in the discernment of spirits so far as they pertain to revelations and prophecies:

1. Any revelation contrary to dogma or morals must be rejected as false. God does not contradict himself.

2. Any revelation contrary to the common teaching of theologians or purporting to settle an argument among the schools of theology is gravely suspect.

3. If some detail or other in a revelation is false, it is not necessary to reject the entire revelation; the remainder may be authentic.

4. The fact that a prophecy is fulfilled is not of itself a conclusive proof that the revelation was from God; it could have been the mere unfolding of natural causes or the result of a superior natural knowledge on the part of the seer.

5. Revelations concerning merely curious or useless matters should be rejected as not divine. The same is to be said of those that are detailed, lengthy, and filled with a superfluity of proofs and reasons. Divine revelations are generally brief, clear, and precise.

6. The person who receives the revelation should be examined carefully, especially as to temperament and character. If the person is humble, well balanced, discreet, evidently advanced in virtue, and enjoys good mental and physical health, there is good reason to proceed further and to examine the revelation itself. But if the individual is exhausted with excessive mortifications, suffers nervous affliction, is subject to periods of great exhaustion or great depression, or is eager to divulge the revelation, there is cause for serious doubt." (p. 430)

Curiosity

Is the information useful for the salvation of souls? If it is merely to satisfy curiosity it is unlikely to be of divine origin. Some seeming seers act like mediums, give information on births, marriages, legal processes, diseases, political events, etc. God does not run an Inquiry Office. Some are very clever at observing, or very intuitive, and can work with little things. At séances, furniture is often pushed about, or a spirit moves a person's hand to write messages, etc. God has never done these things in any approved revelation.

Curiosity sticks out in people who claim to tell you what was the ultimate fate of Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, etc. We'd all love to know who's in Heaven and who isn't!

A lady I heard of claims to know where every deceased person is: funnily enough everyone's either in Purgatory or Heaven! I suppose it would do harm to business and popularity to tell people that certain relatives are in Hell!

Actually, anyone who pronounces on famous people is immediately to be disbelieved.

Also suspect are revelations that merely give truisms and platitudes.

Why Does the Devil Do It?

Catholics ought to be very cautious in giving credence to visions and messages before they have received approbation from the Church.

The devil has raised up many false mystics in recent years. People ask: "Why would the devil be behind a revelation which encourages people to pray and fast and do penance? That would be Satan divided against himself."

Fair question. Why would he do it?

Answer: For a number of reasons: to distract people from the genuine private revelations; to lead them into exercises not blessed as such by God; to bring private revelations into complete disrepute; to cause disenchantment and even a crisis of faith when a seer is later plainly seen to be false; and, worst of all, subtly to lead some people out of the Church altogether. The devil is willing to lose a lot, if he can gain in the long run.

The devil rejoices when Catholics reject the tried and true means of spiritual growth to chase after the extraordinary and the unapproved. The Church is extremely careful before approving a private revelation, for she knows how "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14). She must avoid both credulity and unfounded skepticism. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything," directs St. Paul (1 Thess 5:19-21). And St. John warns, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 Jn 4:1). Some spirits are quite easy to discern; others very difficult. Priests in particular must be examples of prudence and obedience in this area.

Examples of Visionaries Judged to be False

Some individuals have been pronounced against by name, e.g., Vassula Ryden, and the Little Pebble, William Kamm. Vassula has been condemned twice by the Holy Office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), on the grounds that her revelations do not come from God, and because they contain errors against the Faith.

You hear people say: "But her writings are so spiritual and so beautiful!"

I agree; possibly 99% of Vassula's messages are in conformity with the Catholic Faith — but that is just how the devil operates to deceive pious Catholics.

It is the 1% that does harm.

A poison apple is mostly good apple — but will harm you nevertheless. The devil knows he cannot mislead devout Catholics with outright heresy, but he can appeal to their piety and then subtly plant errors within.

In any case, there has been no approved revelation in the history of the Church where God took someone's hand and gave messages by writing with his pen. But you do find handwriting messages given at séances and séances are condemned by the Church as a practice of the occult against the law of God.

I have seen one pious magazine defending Vassula by saying that Cardinal Ratzinger never signed the statement against her printed in L'Osservatore Romano. A man I know sent them the official statement from Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official Vatican gazette, which has the cardinal's signature at the bottom, along with that of the bishop secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Unfortunately, the editor of the magazine had neither the humility nor the honesty to print a correction in the next issue.

Another example: the alleged apparitions in Garabandal in northern Spain, in which four young girls alleged that the Virgin Mary appeared to them from 1961-1965. The response of successive bishops of the diocese of Santander has been uniformly negative, and the present Bishop Vilaplaua has concurred with this verdict.

Despite this, there are a number of active associations supporting Garabandal.

A simple case of disobedience to lawful authority.

This is only one of a countless number. There's Montichiari in Italy (1947), Necedah in the United States (1949), Palmar de Troya in Spain (1968), Bayside in the U.S. (1970), Dozule in France (1972), and hundreds of others — to say nothing of all the alleged visionaries and locutionists past and present, such as the Irish lady, Christina Gallagher, and many other poor deluded souls.

Mrs. Gallagher's messages, in part, read like a frantic worried woman lamenting the state of the world.

There are plenty of frantic worried people, lamenting the state of the world, who are good Catholics — but the Blessed Virgin from Heaven does not talk like them, in such a human, earthly, fretful fashion. To attribute such talk to Our Lady is an insult.

"Have visions; will travel" — such publicity seekers are not to be believed. Genuine visionaries fly from publicity. They do not go around with photographers and camera crews. They submit to investigation by Church authorities; but they do not have publicity agents.

The Authority to Judge and the Duty to Obey

No private individual has the authority to judge definitively and officially which private revelations are true and which are not.

The authority to rule on the genuineness of a private revelation rests first with the local bishop.

The apparitions of Lourdes, Knock, Fatima, Beauraing, Banneux — to name only a few — were approved by the local bishops. The Popes of the time never issued any judgment on them.

The current canonical practice is that the local bishop must appoint a committee to investigate and rule on any private revelation (if he thinks it worthy of investigation), but the Holy See may intervene if necessary or if the bishop asks it to. Alternatively, he may ask the episcopal conference of his country to assist in the investigation and judgment.

It is forbidden, as well as sinful, to propagate private revelations which have received a negative judgment from the local bishop, the conference of bishops, or the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Some people say, "I'm going to follow it until the Pope says it's false" This is a useless guide for action in this matter — very rarely does the Pope make a pronouncement for or against a revelation.

As for statements attributed to the Pope (e.g., "I heard that the Pope told Mrs. Smith after Mass in his private chapel that he believes in Garabandal and Bayside"; "The Pope told Jack that he could go ahead and print that condemned book") — no one is entitled to act on such gossip. The Church is governed by publicly promulgated statements — not by hearsay and personal communications.

The Popes may choose to show their approval of certain revelations, after the decision of a local bishop or conference of bishops, by speaking of them, or by placing a new feast in the liturgical calendar, or by visiting the places intrinsically connected with them (e.g., Guadalupe, Paray-le-Monial, Rue de Bac, Lourdes, Knock, Fatima, Beauraing, Banneux).

Even should the local bishop mistakenly disapprove of a genuine revelation, obedience to the Church remains paramount. It is a sin to propagate a private revelation disobediently, but it can never be a sin not to propagate one.

This applies both to claimed seers and to followers.

In fact, if an alleged visionary disobeys a legitimate order from the bishop, and claims God's backing for the action, this is a sure sign that the message is not from God. Even if a genuine private revelation has been given, not even God Himself would want or command a seer to spread it against a lawful decree of a bishop to desist.

In fact, there are occasions in the life of St. Teresa of Jesus of Avila (died 1582) and St. Margaret Mary (died 1690) and Sr. Josefa Menendez (died 1923) where Our Lord gave them a directive, but then their superior forbade it. What did they do? They obeyed their human superior on earth. What did Our Lord then tell them? "You were right to obey my representative."

On one occasion, the Sacred Heart of Jesus told St. Margaret Mary to do something, but her superior did not approve. When He came again, she asked Him about this, and He replied: " . . . not only do I desire that you should do what your superior commands, but also that you should do nothing of all that I order without their consent. I love obedience, and without it no one can please me" (Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary).

Spiritual writers have an axiom: A superior may or may not be inspired by God in his command, but you are always inspired in obeying. (Of course, we're not talking about a Superior commanding a sin; and, as I said above, it is not a sin to drop a private revelation.)

Satan may really promote good things for a while, provided that he gains in the long run. The revelations of Necedah, Wisconsin, seemed to have good fruits, yet were false. Rosaries were said to change to gold.

Similarly for Bayside. But disobedience showed them to be false.

St. Margaret Mary was told by Our Lord: "Listen, My daughter, and do not lightly believe and trust every spirit, for Satan is angry and will try to deceive you. So do nothing without the approval of those who guide you. Being thus under the authority of obedience, his efforts against you will be in vain, for he has no power over the obedient" (Autobiography).

After error itself, the mark of a false mystic is willfulness and disobedience. I love this quote from St. Faustina Kowalska: "Satan can even clothe himself in a cloak of humility, but he does not know how to wear the cloak of obedience" (Diary, par. 939).

Genuine mystics, like St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), are models of obedience. They never pretend to set up Christ against His Church.

Everyone is free to have an opinion, but all have to submit to the judgment of the Church with practical obedience. What I mean is: you are still free to disagree (the bishop is not infallible in this matter), but you owe him practical obedience, that is, you may not act against the decree; you may not propagate a revelation that the bishop has judged negatively, or continue to say publicly that you regard it as genuine.

Remember, a Church commission may give a negative verdict for reasons which it cannot state publicly, e.g., it may have found out things against the character of the seer, but will not say so publicly, even though this would justify the decision and help people to accept it.

If a so-called message is judged not authentic for doctrinal reasons, then you are not free to defend such messages, because then you will be defending error.

Vassula Ryden is an example of this: the judgment against her was for false doctrine in her writings.

How and why pious Catholics defended her after the negative judgment by the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is beyond me. Her whole case is black-and-white. Apart from unorthodoxy, her alleged messages, which are meant to be handwritten by Our Lord Himself, contain mistakes in English spelling and grammar!

Can you say publicly that you think an approved revelation is not genuine? Yes, if you want to. The Church never orders you to accept any private revelation. But any such disagreement should be voiced respectfully.

Caution Never Does Harm

The simple fact is that most claimed revelations are false.

It is extremely foolish, therefore, to devote oneself to propagating a disapproved or dubious message, which might actually come from the Father of Lies. If one day you see its falsity for yourself, you will regret it enormously, and be unable to undo the harm done to others.

On the other hand, there are more than enough approved messages to spread, if you want to spread them. It is better to keep to what is countenanced by the Church, than to go it alone and risk being a dupe of the devil.

Father Peter Joseph of Wagga Wagga, Australia, has a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He is the editor of the revised version of Archbishop Sheehan's "Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine" (Saint Austin Press 2001) and is currently the chancellor of the Maronite diocese of Australia.

© Dr. Robert Moynihan

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