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The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life

"Chapter XXI: Marian Visions and Revelations"


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DURING THE PAST CENTURY devotion to the Blessed Mother has, by Divine Providence, received fresh impetus from the appearance of Mary herself at a number of places where world-famous shrines have since been erected. The Church has not only approved the accounts of the apparitions, but has shown signal favors to some of these shrines. The most notable honors and privileges have been extended, not only by individual bishops, but even by the Holy See itself to the shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. Pope Pius IX raised the shrine at Lourdes to the dignity of a minor basilica and, through his legate, placed a crown on the statue of Mary there. Pope Leo XIII established a new feast for the Lourdes apparition, and Saint Pius X extended the feast to the universal Church.1 Although the Fatima apparitions are relatively recent, Pope Pius XII sent a legate to Fatima to place a crown on its statue on May 13, 1946. At the same time, he himself spoke via the Vatican Radio to the crowds assembled there. On September 24, 1951, the same Holy Father sent a letter to Cardinal Tedeschini, appointing him as his personal representative at the special Holy Year solemnities to be held on October 13 at Fatima. In this letter he said:

We ... from the first years of our Pontificate, have again and again urged the good faithful of Portugal and the other regions of the earth to go with ever greater confidence and more ardent prayer to the famed image [which] five years ago we decreed should be crowned in a solemn rite....2

On the day of the celebration, which was the anniversary of the last of the Fatima apparitions, the Pope again spoke to the pilgrims at Fatima over the Vatican Radio.3

But since in certain other places there have been false reports of apparitions, which the Church has either condemned or at least refused to approve, and since much harm has come to souls through misunderstanding of the proper role of visions and revelations in the spiritual life, let us review the fundamental theological principles on private revelations and apparitions.

At the outset we should note that there is a difference between public and private revelation. Public revelation is that which is contained in Scripture and Tradition, and it ceased with the death of the last of the twelve Apostles. As a result, all revelations since that time are considered private, since they do not form a part of the general deposit of the truths of faith. Private revelations, hence, will not supply us with any information or directives that will alter or contradict what is found in public revelation. All the means that we need for salvation are contained in public revelation. Some private revelations of our own times, such as those of Fatima, are directed to all Christians, not only to one individual; still they are technically called private, to distinguish them from that revelation which closed with the death of St. John.

Now although private revelations, if declared genuine by lawful authority, may prove very helpful to the spiritual growth of the original recipient, and may even help to rouse those who merely hear of them, yet we must always keep in mind that visions and revelations are only means to an end. They are not the proximate means of union with God in this life: the proximate means are faith, hope, and love. In fact, it is not merely possible, but it actually does happen at times, that even the original recipient may fail to profit as he should from private revelations. For, as we have said, growth in holiness is growth in sanctifying grace, in love of God. A person may have received many extraordinary favors, and even the gifts of miracles and prophecy, and yet he may not only not grow, but may even be lost eternally. This is a shocking thought, but Our Lord Himself tells us:

Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and case out devils in thy name, and worked many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.4

It is true that ordinarily God gives these extraordinary favors only to very holy persons, but it is not always so, and we dare not make light of the warning from the lips of Our Lord Himself.

St. John of the Cross, a Doctor of the Church and one of the greatest of the mystic theologians, is very severe with persons who desire to be the recipients of visions and revelations.5 St. John never wearies of repeating that the proximate means of union with God in this life are the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. True growth consists in intensified love, which is founded on faith and hope. Now although St. John encourages everyone to aim at infused contemplation (even though relatively few will attain it), he strongly reproves anyone who desires to be the recipient of a vision or revelation. The great St. Teresa of Avila, who herself was deluged with visions, takes a similar stand. She admits that great profit can be had from such things when they are genuine and are received in the proper spirit. Yet she says:

I will only warn you that, when you learn or hear that God is granting souls these graces, you must never beseech or desire Him to lead you along this road. Even if you think it is a very good one, and to be greatly prized and reverenced, there are certain reasons why such a course is not wise.6

She then goes on at length to explain her reasons: First, such a desire shows a lack of humility, in asking for what one cannot have deserved; Second, one thereby leaves himself open to "great peril because the devil has only to see a door left slightly ajar to enter"; Third, the danger of auto-suggestion: "When a person has a great desire for something, he persuades himself that he is seeing or hearing what he desires...."; Fourth, it is presumption for one to want to choose his own path, as only the Lord knows which path is best for us; Fifth, very heavy trials usually go with these favors: could we be sure of being able to bear them? Sixth, "you may well find that the very thing from which you had expected gain will bring you loss." She adds that there are also other reasons, and continues with some very salutary advice to the effect that one can become very holy without this sort of thing:

There are many saintly people who have never known what it is to receive a favour of this kind, and there are others who receive such favours, although they are not saintly.

In fact, she says, one may even merit more without them in some cases:

It is true that to have these favours must be the greatest help towards attaining a high degree of perfection in the virtues; but anyone who has attained the virtues at the cost of his own toil has earned much more merit.7

We are forced to think again of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: her life was almost totally lacking in such extraordinary favors, so much so that even dryness was usual for her. Yet she rose to untold heights of sanctity.

The dangers of diabolic interference of which St. Teresa of Avila speaks are very grave. Many cases are on record in which the devil appeared in the guise of Our Lord, and even gave true prophecies and urged people on to virtue. The devil is willing to tolerate some real good, so long as he has hope of accomplishing greater evil out of the affair in the long run. To distinguish a vision of divine origin from one that is diabolic is extremely difficult. Even skilled theologians may err in this matter. A large number of cases of alleged visions are probably diabolic.

In view of such dangers, especially the danger of diabolic interference, some who were favored with visions have prayed that God might lead them by the merely normal path, without such extraordinary means. Even in the case of a series of apparitions which have been declared authentic by the proper authorities, some error or diabolic influence may easily creep in. And the visionary himself may, and often does, misinterpret (involuntarily) or interpolate something merely human into the divine message. Thus St. Joan of Arc in prison heard a voice promising her deliverance through a great victory. She thought it meant her release from custody, but the outcome shows it really meant her martyrdom. A very holy Sacred Heart religious, Sister Josefa Menéndez (who died in 1923), had many visions that seem to have been genuine, yet she also frequently experienced attempted diabolic counterfeits.8

Because of these facts, the great theologians and saints teach that the visionary himself must not take any great account of or accept any visions or revelations until he has submitted the whole matter to the proper authorities, and first of all to his spiritual director, who should know the proper mode of handling such developments. He must not even carry out any orders given to him in a vision unless the director approves. This was the principle followed by St. Teresa, who had so much experience in visions, and whose spiritual directors included several canonized saints. When she was told in a vision to found a stricter Carmelite community of nuns, she went ahead only after submitting the project to four advisers.9 The director must examine any such orders in the light of sound theology and reason. Even though Our Lord Himself is appearing to someone, He will not object to this method; in fact, it is the method that He wishes to have followed. This truth is forcefully shown in the Autobiography of St Margaret Mary. Her superior had ordered her not to do some of the things that Our Lord wished. Much troubled, the saint asked Him what she should do, and received this reply:

Therefore not only do I desire that thou shouldst do what thy Superiors command, but also that thou shouldst do nothing of all that I order thee without their consent. I love obedience, and without it no one can please Me.10

It may seem shocking to some that Our Lord Himself wishes an earthly superior to be obeyed in preference to what He Himself commands in a vision. But there is good reason: the authority of the superior comes from Him. Further, if He were to lay down a rule that one should disobey the superior because of a vision, all sorts of false visionaries could claim such authorizations and create endless disorder by what they might think were divine commands directly received. On still another occasion, Our Lord gave this additional teaching to St. Margaret Mary:

But listen, My daughter, believe not lightly and trust not every spirit, for Satan is enraged and will seek to deceive thee. Therefore do nothing without the approval of those who guide thee; being thus under the authority of obedience, his efforts against thee will be in vain, for he has no power over the obedient.11

The implication is clear: those who wish to trust to their own resources and not depend on obedience are such as the devil does have power to harm. Hence one is perfectly safe in following the orders of proper authority, even in contradiction to an order given in a vision, while one not acting under obedience is guilty of exposing himself without cause to diabolical deception.

How do these principles apply to those who merely hear of visions, and are not the actual recipients? It is obvious that we must always keep in mind the true place of visions-that although they may be helpful, they are not of the essence of the spiritual life; they are not the proximate means of union with God, and they do not necessarily make us holy. St John of the Cross warns us that attachments to such things will actually hinder our spiritual progress. In fact, he adds that if our spiritual director seems fond of visions, we ought to give him up!12

The danger of diabolic illusion is not only possible, but rather common. This diabolic influence may creep even into a genuine group of visions. Moreover, the seer himself, through no fault of his own, may misunderstand or misinterpret his visions, or even interpolate merely human considerations. This is not at all rare in the history of spirituality. And any prophecies made in these revelations are by their very nature understood to be conditional, even though no condition be expressed. Thus, St. Vincent Ferrer went about working miracles and proclaiming that the Last Judgment was near-a conditional prophecy whose realization was averted precisely by the reformation effected through his preaching.13

Hence it is dear that our attitude to private revelations must be marked by great caution. Above all, we should adhere closely to whatever directives the authorities of the Church give in any particular case, never daring to act contrary to them. This is true even if we should think that we have better than the usual hearsay reports on an alleged revelation. It is true that the local bishop is not infallible. But let us remember what Our Lord told St. Margaret Mary: "I love obedience, and without it no one can please Me." Even if the Bishop in charge should make a mistake and reject a true vision, we, in following him, are guided by obedience, without which no one can please God.

Before the decision of the Church is announced in the case of an alleged revelation, reports on it are often widely circulated. Provided that such reports are printed with ecclesiastical approval, one may read them. Some persons find that reading such accounts stimulates their devotion. This may be true, but great care is needed to avoid vain curiosity and attachment (recall the principles of chapter XV on attachment). Such persons must be careful not to let their spiritual lives center about private revelations, and must diligently preserve an attitude of submission to the ecclesiastical authorities, for pride in one's own judgment in these cases can easily lead to contempt for authority.

If the content of the alleged revelations consists largely of thoughts on basic truths of faith, as in the revelations given to Sister Josefa (mentioned above), then a book containing these revelations may be very helpful for meditation, but its value will be independent of the authenticity of the alleged revelations.

What is the force of the Church's approval of a private revelation? Such an approval is no more than a declaration that the private revelations are not contrary to public revelation, and that they may be proposed as credible to the pious belief of the faithful. Thus we see that the Church does not give us an absolute guarantee of the divine origin of any private revelation. Even in those approved by the Church, some error (non-heretical) may have crept in because the visionary misunderstood or misinterpreted it or even, unconsciously, embroidered the facts.14

Is the acceptance of a private revelation an act of divine faith by which we (who are not the recipients of the vision, but merely those who hear of it) adhere to the truth on the authority of God, as we do in our belief in the Creed? All the theologians answer No: our acceptance is only an act of human faith by which we consider these revelations worthy of pious credence. It is not an act of the divine virtue of faith. This is the case even when the Church has approved a private revelation. Hence we can see what is to be thought of those who wish to accept every alleged revelation before the Church decides, and who censure those who wait as lacking in faith! Even after approval these private revelations are not an object of divine faith for those who are not the immediate recipients of the vision, and even if they could become the objects of divine faith for us, we would still have to wait until we were sure that God had really spoken. It is begging the question to ask us to believe that something is true because God has spoken when the prime question is still whether He has spoken at all. Theologians dispute about the status of the recipient himself: some hold that he does make an act of divine faith; others (more probably rightly), that his adherence to the revelation is based on a prophetic light granted at the time, not on the virtue of faith. Therefore when the light disappears, as it normally does, even the recipient is left with only a moral certitude.15

To sum up, then, we must employ great caution in regard to any alleged private revelations, and cling closely to the guidance of the authorities of the Church. Even in the case of revelations that have been approved by the Church, we must diligently shun attachment, and not allow our spiritual lives to be centered about these things. To gain the greatest graces from these means, we must take care not to stop short at the exterior elements of a vision or revelation: we should use these outward elements only insofar as they aid us to amend our lives and to rise to meditation on spiritual things and to union with God and His Blessed Mother.16

We have dwelt at some length on the dangers of visions and revelations because so many Catholics today have misunderstood the proper role of these means in the spiritual life. For some make the major part of their devotion to Mary consist in recounting the stories of visions. Such persons are often not content with those visions that have been approved by the Church, but practically demand that we accept every unproved report before the proper authorities have issued any decision at all, and censure those who are reluctant as lacking in faith. Others go so far as contempt for the authorities of the Church, and even when an official condemnation has been issued in a particular case, they will complain, not too quietly, that the bishop is not infallible, that time will show who is right!

On the other hand, through the right attitude we can derive great value from the messages given to us by Our Lady in such genuine apparitions as those at Lourdes and Fatima. What has been her theme there? It is a restatement of the Gospel call: Repent and do penance. If we were to gather together the principal requests she has made, we would find that she asks for penance, for consecration and reparation to her Immaculate Heart and to the Sacred Heart of her Son, for the recitation of the Rosary and the wearing of the Brown Scapular.17

The call to penance is basic. Fundamentally, it means that we are asked to keep God's law, and to perform well the duties of our state in life, making good use of the providentially sent opportunities for mortification that come to each of us in his own state.18 To these, each one, according to his own generosity and ability, will add other self-imposed penances.

Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary did not begin at Fatima, though it received special impetus from the requests which she made there for consecration and reparation. Consecration, if properly understood, is a total dedication to the service of Jesus through Mary. The most complete form of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is that which we have already examined in chapter XVIII. Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a duty that is already demanded of us by our very consecration, and the request of Our Lady makes the call still more urgent.19 To encourage souls in the practice of reparation to his Sacred Heart, Our Lord gave us the great First Friday promise through St. Margaret Mary. According to Sister Lucia, sole survivor of the Fatima children, our Blessed Mother has made a similar pledge, saying:

I promise to assist at the hour of death with the grace necessary for salvation all those who, with the intention of making reparation to me, will, on the first Saturday of five consecutive months, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, say five decades of the beads, and keep me company for fifteen minutes while meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the rosary.20

The Bishop of Leiria, in whose diocese Fatima is situated, published this promise on September 13, 1939.21

As to the Rosary and the Brown Scapular, which we shall treat in the next chapter: the one is among the most excellent of all private prayers, and the other, an outward badge of the consecration requested by the Blessed Mother.

If then Our Lady's apparitions stimulate us to carry out this worth-while program, we shall find ourselves growing greatly in love for her divine Son and for her, for if we would carry out these requests in the fullest sense, we will be led to utilize all the interior means that have been suggested in the preceding chapters.

At Lourdes and Fatima the principle, "To Jesus through Mary," is clearly followed, for there we find the highest honor paid to Jesus through Mary. There Mary says again: "Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye,"22 while He Himself, hidden beneath the sacramental veils, goes about at her prayer to heal sick bodies, and, even more, sick souls.


1 Officially recorded in the historical lessons for Matins on the feast of February 11.
2 AAS 43:780-81.
3 The text is in AAS 43:800-2.
4 Matt. 7:22-23.
5 See Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Visions and Revelations in the Spiritual Life, trans. by a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey (Westminster, 1950); and Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, II 575-88; and Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, pp. 299-399.
6 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle VI, 9 (II, 319).
7 Ibid., p. 320.
8 See Sister M. Josefa Menéndez, The Way of Divine Love. Before his election Pope Pius XII wrote a letter warmly recommending this book as suitable to promote the love of the Sacred Heart, and he has given permission for the same letter to be printed in the present edition. The letter does not, however, constitute a declaration that all her alleged visions are authentic and divine. See chap. XX, n. 24.
9 See her Autobiography 32.
10 Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary, §47, p. 62.
11 Autobiography §57 (p. 71).
12 See Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, op. cit., esp. pp. 90-94, 98.
13 See Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, §1507 (p. 708).
14 We can now see another reason for prizing Holy Scripture so highly. Since it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the dangers of error which threaten private revelations are excluded from it. And, in interpreting it, the Church does more for us, for she gives us infallible interpretations of the public revelation contained in Scripture and Tradition.
15 See Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., II, 581.
16 Recall the treatment on attachments and the proper use of created things in chap. XV.
17 See J. A. Pelletier, A.A., The Sun Danced at Fatima (Worcester 1951), pp. 131-36, 163.
18 It is reported that Our Lord Himself gave this interpretation of the call of penance to Sister Lucia. See Roger M. Charest, S.M M., "Montfort et Fatima," Marie (Nicolet, P.Q., September-October, 1952), p. 91.
19 See chaps. XIV and XX on reparation to Mary, and chap. XVIII on consecration to her.
20 Quoted in Pelletier, op. cit., pp. 135. The apparition took place on December 10, 1925. Our Lady had foretold in the earlier apparitions that she would come to ask for First Saturday Holy Communions.
21 See Pelletier, op. cit., pp. 135-36. In a document published with the Imprimatur of the Bishop of Leiria on September 21, 1939, it is explained that the confession may be made within eight days before or after the First Saturday (provided that Holy Communion is received in the state of grace), and that the meditation may be on one or several mysteries, or even on all taken together or separately.
22 John 2:5.