Fatima Today: In Defense of Private Revelation
You can listen to the author read this article on the Catholic Culture Podcast using the player below.
The first part of this article is a reminder of the essential importance of Fatima in our time. The second, and longer, part corrects a misunderstanding of private revelation held by many—namely that whatever falls into this category can make no claim on our mind or conscience, and that it is a matter of indifference whether we pay heed to it.
I. Why we deserve to lose (if we ignore Fatima)
As we witness renewed military aggression from Russia and hear Pope Francis’s announcement that he will soon consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the apparitions, prophecies, and requests of Jesus and Mary at Fatima are once again on the minds of many Catholics.
Indeed, not only the aggression of Russia, but our own internal troubles in the West, should call to mind the Fatima message. In the past several years we have seen identifiably Marxian ideologies spread into the mainstream of society, pop culture, education and government, especially in matters of race and gender. In the economic realm, socialism is popular among young people, and governments plot and achieve chilling levels of control over our daily lives. Atheism and irreligion are prevalent among the young. The Left is ever more zealously devoted to its anti-sacrament of abortion, which was first legalized in Russia early in the 20th century. All of these things can be seen as the “errors of Russia” warned about by the Mother of God.
During her apparition to the Fatima visionaries on July 13, 1917, Our Lady warned that Russia would spread its errors throughout the world unless two things were done. First, the Pope, in union with the world’s bishops, must consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. Second, Catholics must practice the Communions of Reparation for sins against her Immaculate Heart, now commonly known as the First Saturdays devotion. She repeated these requests in subsequent apparitions, saying:
If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.
For several decades, Mary’s request for the consecration of Russia was not heeded, or at least not fully. Everything she warned of came to pass. By the time Pope St. John Paul II finally carried out this request on March 25, 1984, the errors of Russia, including not just communism and Marxism properly speaking but also state-sponsored atheism and abortion, had already spread throughout the world. For this reason, while John Paul II told an interviewer that his decision not to mention Russia by name came at the urging of Vatican diplomats to avoid potential political consequences, we can see it as providential that he consecrated the whole world (of course including Russia) to the Immaculate Heart, because the problem was no longer contained in Russia.
Indeed, Jesus and Mary had both told Sr. Lucia Santos that the consecration would be done too late to avoid these chastisements, but that nonetheless when their two requests (the consecration and the First Saturday reparations) were finally obeyed, the conversion of Russia would take place and there would be a period of peace in the world.
To many, the effects of the 1984 consecration seemed to fall short of this promise. Though the Soviet Union fell shortly thereafter, in large part thanks to the efforts of the same Pope who carried out the consecration, and though Russia ceased to be communist, it cannot be said that it fully converted. And while the world was relieved from the threat of Soviet aggression, it would be an exaggeration to say that the years following 1984 were a period of total world peace.
On the other hand, Sr. Lucia, who said that the 1984 consecration had been “accepted by heaven”, also said on video that the conversion of Russia promised by Mary was not necessarily a total conversion of the entire nation to Catholicism, but a conversion away from Communism and from persecuting the rest of the world. She added, referring to the broad sense of the word “conversion” in the Portuguese language:
The word conversion means a change—it does not mean that evil will disappear, but that there is a conversion from evil to good. That is what the word means.
In this relative sense, we can say there was peace and there was conversion.
But perhaps things could still be better. What is often overlooked in debates over whether the 1984 consecration was properly done is that the consecration was only one of two conditions that Mary said would need to be fulfilled. Sr. Lucia said that not enough people were doing the other things Our Lady asked for.
It is hard to understand why several good popes over several decades prior to John Paul II failed to carry out the consecration of Russia properly. But then I look at myself and ask why I do not do those simple, easy things that I know would change my life and the world for the better. No doubt Pope Francis’s renewed consecration of Russia and Ukraine will be beneficial, we pray dramatically so, but what truly remains to be done in the Fatima requests is not the responsibility of the Holy Father, but of the whole people of God.
The failure of Catholics to follow the requests of Jesus and Mary is tragic, considering that practicing the First Saturdays devotion could not be easier. I know Catholics, as I know myself: we are not so different from anyone else. We spend hours every day reading, thinking, arguing and complaining about all the evils in our nation and in the Church. We lose our peace, we neglect our state in life, and we sin in how we respond to current events, sometimes in small and sometimes in big ways. We amuse ourselves with theories of decline while doing little to halt it in the realm that really matters, that of spiritual combat. And for this, we deserve to lose.
We have been told, in revelations approved by the Church and validated by the devotion of saints, that if we are willing to go to confession, receive the Eucharist, pray the Rosary, and meditate for 15 minutes once a month, the power of Mary’s Immaculate Heart will transform the world into something more beautiful than we have seen in our lifetime. We were told what would happen if we did not do these things. It has happened unmistakably.
When will we listen? Our Lady said that her requests would ultimately be fulfilled and her Immaculate Heart would triumph. Will we bring this about in our time? Or will the world have to be plunged yet further into misery and Satanic bondage until a future generation, humbled almost unto death by God’s chastisements, finally decides enough is enough?
Let us delay no longer. And once we have started to fulfill this easiest of Divine requests, we can do the other things prescribed at Fatima for our own conversion and that of poor sinners: pray the Rosary daily, wear the brown scapular and live the consecration to Mary it signifies, do penance for sinners and reparation for offenses against Mary’s Immaculate Heart.
All of this must be done in a spirit of personal conversion, for prayers made only to change the world and not oneself are no prayers at all; they are positively displeasing to God. Those who use Fatima as yet another stick with which to beat their superiors in the Church, or spin self-indulgent theories that have nothing to do with personal conversion, do much to discredit Our Lady’s message, and authentic private revelation in general, in the eyes of their fellow Catholics. Yet the abuse of Mary’s apparitions by her false devotees is no excuse to ignore them.
II. In defense of private revelation
When discussing the importance of Fatima, one is likely to be rebuffed with the reply, “It’s just private revelation”. This sequence of words, while strictly factual, is often deployed irrelevantly, or with an erroneous implication. Oddly, they do not necessarily mean that they think the revelation is false. It is something more like: mere private revelation cannot be very important for the Church and the world, and it cannot be said to place any obligation on us; perhaps it is even a matter of indifference whether we pay attention to it. Sometimes these illogical conclusions are explicitly stated; sometimes the speaker is just hand-waving without having really thought through his own meaning.
But when we examine more closely what the Church means and does not mean by private revelation, we will find that no such implication is valid. Paragraph 67 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
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. 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.
We can make three observations immediately about the first sentence of this definition. First, it is easy to miss that the Church does not actually adopt or endorse the term “private revelation” here. In writing “so-called ‘private’ revelations” with scare quotes, the authors of the Catechism appear to be uneasy with relegating any truth revealed by God to the status of “private”, even if that truth is not part of the deposit of faith.
Second, on the most generic level: If private revelation could not be important and consequential for the whole Church as well as for the person or persons directly receiving it, the Church would not bother to approve or disapprove it. (That this is not merely a matter of making sure the revelation contains nothing contrary to the faith is shown by the reference to discerning whether it “constitutes an authentic call of Christ…to the Church.”)
Third, on the particular level: The Church actually has approved revelations, Fatima among them, which make astonishing claims of their own importance to the well-being of the Church, the salvation of souls, and the fate of nations and the world. This in itself is proof that the Church does not believe that things in the category of “private revelation” cannot in principle be immensely consequential. The irony here is that one is often rebuked with the phrase “it’s just private revelation” for having merely repeated what the revelation itself claims about its own importance—claims that, in the case of Fatima, are approved as worthy of belief by the Church!
All truth makes claims on us
But let us take a step back. Setting aside claims of importance, there must be some legitimate reason one might say “it’s just private revelation”. It is often expressed this way: “We aren’t required to believe it.” This again is true, in a particular sense. But the Catechism notably does not put it this way; rather, it says that private revelations do not belong to the deposit of faith, and that they do not improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation (also called public revelation). A more precisely accurate way of expressing the objection above would be, “Belief in this is not required for orthodoxy”, or “Disbelieving this does not make one a heretic”.
It is indeed important to remember the distinction between public and private revelation. We ought never accuse of heresy those who, in good or even bad faith, disbelieve a private revelation, whether approved or unapproved by the Church. Even better, the category of private revelation liberates from scruple anyone who has in good faith investigated an approved apparition and is convinced of its falsity, or who has not yet reached a conclusion.
(I will make a short digression to suggest that even here, since we ought to seek docility to the Church even in matters where belief is not required, we might ask ourselves whether our reasons for disbelief are really so strong as to overrule the Church’s reasons for approval. We could also examine our own disposition in the matter—for example, do we depart from the Church’s judgment because we have an inordinately skeptical habit of mind, or because the specific content of the revelation challenges us to a deeper conversion?)
To repeat, the distinction between private and public revelation sets the conscience free from all fear as far as fidelity to the essentials of Catholic belief is concerned. Yet it should be evident, too, that something being outside the deposit of faith does not mean it can make no claim on me: on my mind as truth, or on my conscience as prophecy.
This is so even outside the supernatural realm. The real, in universal truth or particular fact, makes a claim on my mind, whether it is a criterion of religious orthodoxy or not. The characterization of private revelation as “optional”, as far as belief or disbelief is concerned, is a mistake, for this implies that the mind’s relationship to truth is one of choice or “opting”, rather than of earnestly seeking reality and submitting to it as one finds it. If I think something is false, I should say so, rather than standing on a liberty that the intellect does not enjoy in relation to truth—and more to the point, that love does not seek in relation to God’s will—even with orthodoxy’s minimal requirements met.
It is not that the truth is optional, but that one cannot be called a bad Catholic for a sincere disagreement over private revelation. The problem is that some, when saying “it’s just private revelation”, do not mean “I do not believe this and that does not make me a heretic”, but “it is a matter of indifference whether I believe it or not”, which one can never say about truth.
A parallel may illuminate the issue further. In the realm of morality, the Church leaves many a particular matter (such as whether the concrete conditions of just war are met) to prudential judgment; yet that does not mean the matter is subjective, or that the right judgment may not be evident to all who conscientiously inform themselves, or that moral obligation does not operate in this realm. Just so in the realm of truth: our minds, unbound by dogmatic definitions, are not thereby freed from all obligation to submit to facts which may be evident to any objective inquirer. And just as in matters of war, the Church may give guidance that is not definitive, yet to which we should still give some deferential heed.
But now we must come to the purpose of private revelation.
We cannot do without prophecy
Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
—1 Thessalonians 5:19-21
Prophecy, as is often observed, should not be understood exclusively as the prediction of future events. The prophets of the Old Testament revealed hidden things past, present and future, but they also convicted individuals and communities of their sins, called them to repentance, and prescribed, with Divine sanction, specific means by which the people of God could make reparation and be pleasing to Him according to the needs of the time—and warned of chastisements that would occur if their prophecy was not heeded. All these functions of the Old Testament prophecies are shared with the most important private revelations in modernity, such as Fatima, Divine Mercy, and devotion to the Holy Face.
In this connection, we can return to the Catechism’s discussion of private revelation and note that it establishes a hierarchy: the purpose of private revelation is to serve our relationship with public revelation, “to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history”. We cannot therefore conclude, however, as some do: that private revelation is reducible to whatever is already contained in the deposit of faith, and that therefore it does not matter what means we choose to draw closer to Christ’s definitive Revelation. This would be to ignore the particular movements of the Holy Spirit in our own period of history, and potentially to miss “an authentic call of Christ or His saints to the Church”, the means God has preferred by which to draw these people in this time most effectively to Himself. To see private revelation as dispensable because redundant is, in short, to do what the Apostle Paul enjoins against: it is to despise prophecy.
Today’s orthodox Catholics can be so focused on checking boxes and following rules, and so oriented toward abstract reasoning, that the idea that a revelation not infallibly defined by the Church could make a claim on our mind and conscience, or that God might prefer one private devotion to another, can make us squirm. The “scandal of particularity” reminds us that if God prefers one way of praying to another, His preference is likely to be different from our own —and we would rather conduct our spiritual lives according to our own preference.
Nothing is, has been, or will be added to the fundamental means of salvation after the close of public revelation with the death of the Apostle John. But it would be foolish to suppose that the first century A.D. brought an end to God’s track record of preferring particular instruments and even making them indispensable to the good of a particular person, community, or time. If that were so, the Apostle would not have written, “do not despise prophecy”, nor would St. Thomas Aquinas have written, “Prophecy is requisite for the government of a people, especially in relation to Divine worship.”
God’s economy is such that my salvation may indeed depend, in a contingent sense, on whether I follow the counsel of some evidently holy person God has placed in my life—he, too, is a prophet—or whether, to preserve my own self-love, I scoff at him as a crank or ignore him as a nice fellow whose opinion is no better than my own. Our fates are decided in big and small ways by decisions that, while they reflect inner virtues or vices praised or condemned by Church teaching, are not in themselves required of us by the Church. If it is not a matter of whether I go to heaven or hell, it may be a matter of how long I spend in purgatory, how much glory I gain in heaven, or how many other people’s souls are saved by my efforts while I am here on earth. However high or seemingly low the stakes may be, the movements of the Holy Spirit are a matter for discernment, but they are never a matter of indifference.
Of course, St. Paul does not say to “accept everything,” but to “test everything; hold fast to what is good”. If there is some reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving me in a particular direction, it may or may not be so, but I am at least obliged to give it due discernment. I should not fool myself that I will not be held accountable for culpably neglecting God’s particular helps, much less His requests, commands, and warnings—or what there was good reason to believe was His “authentic call”, as the Catechism puts it. A particularly inane reason for such neglect would be that I consider myself free of obligations toward anything not in the deposit of faith (which would really be a way of protecting my own preference in everything else).
To return to the main subject, it should be obvious at least that if the Virgin Mary appeared to me personally and asked me to do something, I could not dismiss it as private revelation. I would be bound to take it seriously, taking proper steps to discern its authenticity, submitting the matter for examination by some outside spiritual authority.
That is of course the most urgent possible scenario, one I am unlikely to experience, but by the same logic, I would also be placed under a certain obligation of discernment if there were a credible private revelation to someone else concerning me. To be specific, if the Virgin Mary appeared to some other people, asking them to convey a request to the whole people of God, and that apparition was confirmed by numerous signs and momentous world events—and not just by simple Church approval of the apparition, but also by the canonization of the visionaries, and by the public celebration of the apparition in the Church’s liturgical calendar—I would here too have an obligation to take it seriously. To dismiss such a serious matter by misusing the term “private revelation” would be both irresponsible and inane.
This may be why the Catechism uses scare quotes around the word “private”—because it should not be taken to mean that such revelation can only concern its direct recipient.
In all things, charity. We cannot judge the consciences of others who, taking the matter with due seriousness, find themselves convinced of the falsity of a revelation like Fatima; nor should we be troubled by scruples ourselves. But neither should we think we have no obligations toward credible private revelations.
There is perhaps one more small point to address in a general way: Sometimes people say that it is unhealthy to center one’s spiritual life on private revelations. This is true in the sense of the Catechism’s statement that their real purpose is to help us to live the deposit of faith, which is our cornerstone. We have all encountered people who wish to tickle their ears with ever more new revelations, use them to set themselves against the Church, or style themselves “miracle hunters”, always seeking out signs and wonders rather than the sobriety of life in Christ. On the other hand, it is worth considering that there are many saints whose spiritual lives were heavily shaped by devotions that originated in private revelation, as with St. Thérèse and the Holy Face.
To sum up, private revelations do not bind us specifically as matters of faith, but can still, as prophecies and as real events, make claims on the mind and conscience to respond appropriately. St. Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” Tested by the Magisterium and the sensus fidelium of informed believers, there is ample reason to conclude that the Fatima message is of great consequence for the fate of nations and of the world, and most of all, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
May St. Jacinta, St. Francisco, Servant of God Lucia, St. John Paul II, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary intercede for us. May they help us to shed our attachment to our own ways, finding freedom in docility to every movement of the Holy Spirit, that we may always seek and find those practices and devotions most pleasing to Jesus and beneficial for souls. Amen.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: johnk64 -
Mar. 30, 2022 11:46 PM ET USA
Saints aren’t perfect and facts are facts. JP2 deemphasized the words of Mary & emphasized the words of others. This is a strange way to honor Mary, especially when performing a consecration requested by her. I’m still waiting for that video of Sister Lucia.
Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus -
Mar. 29, 2022 8:03 PM ET USA
I wasn't sure whether to allow that comment but it does provide a good example of "Those who use Fatima as yet another stick with which to beat their superiors in the Church." Do you consider it pious to accuse a saint of insulting Mary? She, on the contrary, saved his life when he was shot on the anniversary of her apparition, giving him a far more intimate link to Fatima than either of us will ever have.
Posted by: johnk64 -
Mar. 28, 2022 7:10 PM ET USA
So JP2 proclaimed loudly & boldly the words of diplomats, but when it came to the words of The Great Mother of God, Mary Most Holy, he lowered his voice so as not to offend the sensibilities of Vatican A-listers. This goes from ignoring Mary to insulting her. Also, I see no video at the link. Lastly, I completely agree on the importance of the First Saturday devotion.
Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus -
Mar. 24, 2022 7:23 PM ET USA
There is also apparently video of Lucia saying the consecration was done: https://www.bluearmy.com/letter-from-sister-lucia-confirmed-consecration-of-russia-was-done/
Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus -
Mar. 24, 2022 7:22 PM ET USA
I think this page provides a good counter to your arguments. It at least establishes that JPII clearly intended Russia as the recipient of the consecration, and obviously this was widely understood to be his intent. https://www.marian.org/fatima/about/russia.php And here is more information: "according to the then Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, Alberto Cosme do Amaral, John Paul II paused during the ceremony and did actually quietly include Russia in the consecration." https://www.bluearmy.com/letter-from-sister-lucia-confirmed-consecration-of-russia-was-done/
Posted by: johnk64 -
Mar. 24, 2022 3:21 PM ET USA
The consecration has not been done. Mary asked for Russia to be consecrated. The JP2 consecration did not mention Russia by name & was not done in conjunction with the bishops of the world. If JP2 had consecrated the solar system to Mary would that have fulfilled her request? Sister Lucia’s affirmation is questionable also. Mary was from a small town & had no college degree so diplomats thought they knew better. https://padreperegrino.org/2022/03/lucysecond/