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The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 21 - Visions and revelations"


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"The Christian dispensation, since it is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and now no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ."1 Vatican II made this statement in its Constitution on Divine Revelation. We notice the Council said that we will have no new public revelation before the glorious return of Christ at the end of time. In using the word public, the Council referred to a familiar distinction in theology. Public revelation is that which was brought to men in the Old Testament times and by Christ Himself. It is the final stage of God's dealings with men, in the sense that there is to be nothing that will replace Christianity. Public revelation for centuries was incomplete. But now that the New Testament has been completed and the last Apostle has died, there is to be no new public revelation.

But there can be new private revelations. Some of these "private" revelations are actually directed to the whole world, such as those of Lourdes and Fatima. Technically, they are still called "private" to distinguish them from the public revelation we have just described.

There is another kind of private revelation, that is received by an individual in such a way that it is not intended for dissemination in the whole world.

What are we to think of private revelations in general? The question is quite important for more than one reason. First, the great revelations, such as those of Lourdes and Fatima, are of concern to all men. But also, we need to know what place in the spiritual life of individuals and of the Church private revelations should occupy.

To begin, we recall the distinction we touched on in chapter 14, of the two great categories of graces. The first category includes those graces which by their very reception make a person holy. That means, in practice, sanctifying or habitual grace. We add also actual graces, that is, those graces sent us to lead us to do something good. The second category, which is called charismatic graces, is quite different. They do not, by their very reception, make a man holy.2 Rather, their purpose is some other kind of benefit, chiefly, benefits for the community or the Church.

Charismatic graces could be divided into two groups, those that produce special effects that seem almost miraculous, and those that do not. Among those that do not have such effects, St. Paul mentions3 the grace of being an apostle, a teacher, or giving moving exhortation to the church. Those that do have striking effects would include speaking in tongues, healing the sick, visions and revelations.

We are concerned now with visions and revelations. As we can see from the division just given, visions and revelations do not belong to the category of graces that make a person holy by their very reception. For that reason, we should prize them much less than the graces that do make a person holy. We recall St. Paul's vehement plea in this connection:4 "Be eager for the better gifts." He was contrasting the flashy type of charismatic gifts with the graces that directly make a person holy. So we should be careful not to center our lives around visions and revelations.

There are other problems about such matters. First, the difficulty of ever being certain that a vision or revelation is from God. The Church has been commissioned by Christ to be the guardian and interpreter of public revelation. He has promised to protect her teaching in this public sphere. But the case is different with private revelations. There the Church, at most, will do just two things. She can declare that a private revelation contains nothing contrary to public revelation-a merely negative thing, which does not amount to a guarantee that the revelation is positively true. She can also say that a private revelation seems to deserve merely human acceptance. We speak of "human acceptance" to distinguish our response from that divine faith which we give to public revelation as proposed to us by the Church. Obviously, such a declaration by the Church does not strictly bind us to believe the revelation, though it would seem a bit rash to deny it in such circumstances.

Conversely, if the Church rejects a private revelation, we are not strictly bound to reject it too. Except of course, if she says it teaches something contrary to the faith, we should certainly reject that teaching. But yet, it is ordinarily precarious or rash to believe an alleged revelation which the Church rejects. And for certain, if the Church orders us not to go to some place of an alleged revelation, we do have the obligation to obey.

Still further, theologians all agree that even if we can prove that a certain series of alleged revelations is true in general, we cannot for that reason be sure that no error has crept in along with the truth. For the seer can misinterpret, can at times be affected by autosuggestion, can even be deceived by the devil.

Finally, even if we could be sure we were avoiding all these dangers, we should still listen to the warning of St. John of the Cross5 that even genuine visions and revelations may be the occasion of diminishing the vigour of faith. For by faith we accept on the word of God what we have not seen. By a revelation we have as it were tangible proof, so that we see rather than believe. Hence there is less need for strong faith. This problem of course applies most specially to the visionary himself. It is less a difficulty for those who merely hear of the visions or revelations. Yet all would do well to ponder the words of Christ to St. Thomas the Apostle who insisted on sensory proof:6 "Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed."

Also, as we have said, even if we gain the best possible certitude that a revelation is genuine, still, because such things are not part of the main line of spiritual growth-for they are not as we said graces that make us holy by their very reception-we should take care not to center our spiritual life around them.

In a few cases persons have fallen into a special trap of the devil as a result of private revelations. They seem to themselves to have received a command in a vision which tells them to disobey the authorities of the Church. They reason: "Surely God Himself or His messenger has a right to countermand the human authorities." And of course it seems that God could do so. But He does not will to do so. For that would leave the door open to endless disorder and disobedience if those claiming a special line to Heaven could override any and all orders of the Church. St. Margaret Mary received many revelations from the Sacred Heart. Her revelations have enjoyed most special approbation and favour from the Church. Yet on one occasion where her religious Superior ordered her not to do some things Our Lord wanted her to do she consulted Him, and He told her7 that He not only desired her to do what her Superiors commanded, but also that she should do nothing of all He ordered without their consent. He said He loves obedience, and without it no one can please Him.

If we recall the central position of obedience in our Redemption, as explained in the first chapters of this book, we will see why He told St. Margaret Mary to obey her Superior. Vatican II summed it up well:8 "By His obedience He brought about Redemption."

Now that we have warned of the dangers of visions and revelations, it would be wrong to omit presenting the other side of the picture. Briefly, if God Himself, or the Mother of God, see fit to communicate with us, to send us a plea or a warning, it would be most out of place to scorn or ignore it. Of course, as we said, we need to take proper care to distinguish true from false revelations; we need to beware of centering our lives about such matters. But we should also avoid dismissing them as unimportant.

The Church has shown special favour to many Marian revelations. Most prominent of course have been those of Lourdes and Fatima. Pope Pius XII sent a special Legate to Fatima to crown the statue in his own name, on May 13, 1946, and he himself spoke to the assembled crowds over the Vatican Radio. Again, he sent another personal representative for the special Holy Year solemnities held there. Pope John XXIII on one occasion, when he feared Communist gains in an important election in Italy, had the Pilgrim Virgin statue taken around the country by helicopter.

Pope Paul VI has gone farther than either of the previous two Popes. As we saw above, on November 21, 1964, on the floor of the Council, he solemnly repeated the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In the same speech he announced that he would send a Legate to give the Golden Rose to the great Shrine of Fatima. But, far more, he himself made a pilgrimage there on May 13, 1967, and, on the same day, issued his Apostolic Exhortation, Signum Magnum, urging all to individually consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart-a fulfillment of one of the requests made by Mary herself in the original Fatima revelations.

With such encouragement by the Church, we need have no fear to work for the fulfillment of the requests made by the Blessed Mother at Fatima: penance and devotion to the Rosary and to her Immaculate Heart. Even without a special private revelation, we know from soundest theology and from the explicit teaching of the Church that these practices are valuable. Penance is not just recommended, but required by the most basic message of the Gospel. It means moral reform, as needed, and then the addition of real mortification. Devotion to Mary is something the Father could have left out of His divine designs. But He did not omit it. Rather, as we have seen, He gave her an all-pervading place in all His dealings with us. Even if one does not wish to follow this to the most complete logical conclusion suggested in chapter 18, at least he should see that if someone were to say, as it were: "God has given her an all-pervading place; but I do not care to pay attention to her at all", such an attitude would be flying in the face of the divine plan. As such, it would be not merely foolish but sinful.


1 On Divine Revelation § 4.
2 Cf. Mt. 7,22-23.
3 1 Cor. 12,28.
4 1 Cor. 12,31.
5 Ascent of Mt. Carmel, 2,11.
6 Jn. 20,29.
7 Cf. Life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Written by Herself (tr. Sisters of Visitation, Roselands, Walmer, Kent, Visitation Library, 1930) p. 62.
8 On the Church § 3.

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