Now we are going to introduce basic criteria for evaluating apparitions and recommendations for dealing with cases of apparitions in the manner conceived from the theological point of view based on findings from previous centuries. Although consequences of apparitions have a noticeable impact in the field of theology, we shall point out that these phenomena also have psychological or even psychophysical aspects which can improve the manner in which these phenomena are analysed from the theological perspective. 

The pieces of knowledge described in this article are the result of the theological investigations and experiences of people who have striven for truthful evaluation of the phenomena called apparitions.

During earlier research, researchers tried to find criteria for assessing useful phenomena and the phenomena had to be in conformity with the theological teaching of the Church.

It is necessary to realise that “God has visited His people” in every time, not only in the epoch of the prophets but also later throughout the history of the Church. Such visitations cannot supplement the unique and perfect message of the Messiah with anything new, but in various times and in various situations they can stress concrete aspects of His teaching. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Notwithstanding this, He sent His disciples, for example, Peter and Paul, to propagate the message by means of their own gifts. Does God not speak to us through seers and even through other people, such as creative teachers, to arouse interest in the message of the Gospels? However, it is not all easy to make one’s way under complicated conditions, remove all subjective elements which individuals undoubtedly add, reject nonsense, politely refuse people who have strayed despite their initially good intentions and retain those things which are truly God’s grace.

It has been proven that some apparitions can positively influence people’s lives. For instance, the brilliant Nobel Laureate scientist Alexis Carrel, a former militant atheist, converted in Lourdes. It is interesting that the Pope came to Fatima to pray there. It should be mentioned that at least one private revelation, namely an apparition experienced by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, caused the landscapes of Catholic countries to be covered with churches, hospitals and universities which derive their name from Jesus’ Sacred Heart.

Under the influence of apparitions, many people have decided to change their lives.

People who were intimately familiar with a connection with heaven through religious ecstasy, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, have suggested several religious approaches. Further rules come from people such as Father Augustin Poulain, SJ, who have carefully examined reports of visionaries.

Private revelations are not the most important thing in the world. A permanent and authentic endeavour to live a holy life in harmony with God is a substantial sign of genuine faith. Among those who in the 20th century did not have visions were St. Teresa of Lisieux and St. Maximilian Kolbe. It is necessary to realise that private revelations are insignificant if they are not linked with public revelation of the Holy Writ in accordance with its official interpretation by the preceptorial office of the Church. This principle was re-emphasised by Pope John Paul II in 1983. This Holy Father said on his way to Fatima:

“The Church has always taught and claimed that God’s revelation was consummated in Jesus Christ, who is the plenitude of this revelation. No new public revelation can be expected until the glorious advent of Our Lord (Dei Verbum 4). The Church evaluates and judges private revelations according to their compatibility with this unique Revelation.

It is important to recognise that the purpose of some apparitions called “special public apparitions” is not to complement the public revelation described in the Holy Writ, but to revive and mediate the enthusiasm which we need to fulfil its message.

The main reason why the Church officially recognised the prophecy from Fatima was the fact that this message contained the truth and the call deriving from the truth and call of the Gospel itself.”

The end of the public revelation, however, does not mean that God has ceased to reveal Himself to His children. He reveals himself today but indirectly or by private revelations and apparitions, in addition to other means of His Divine Providence. Karl Rahner gives a helpful explanation for the difference between public and private revelation:

“The tradition and practice of the Church (in prayers, in the lives of seers and prophetic persons in the Church, in the lives of renowned mystics) presume the existence of authentic private apparitions. It does not mean that since the end of the public revelation (since the death of the Apostles) God has been silent regarding the history of individuals and society and has been indifferent. The end of public revelation highlights the absolute sovereignty and permanently normative character of Christ’s message, which still produces new fruits of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Reasons for private revelation are the same as for public revelation: God can reveal Himself and also reveals Himself to certain human beings. It is probable that private revelation at a certain time encourages and even exhorts individuals to act and may influence the whole Church.”

Sometimes, clairvoyants experience an apparition in order to transmit it to others. St. Bernadette spoke about the message and promise that she had received, and thanks to that, a big church was built. Sometimes, a private revelation or apparition can change historic events, as in the case of Joan of Arc, who within a year changed the course of European history. St. Catherine of Sienna obeyed the personal inspiration from God that she got and called Pope Gregory XI back from Avignon, thereby she managing to save papal sovereignty from a king’s domination. It is evident, then, that we cannot deny the possibility and permanent effects of God’s connection with concrete individuals, although the public revelation ended two thousand years ago. However, in order to maintain the right sequence, it is good to remember that for St. Catherine, St. Bernadette and St. Joan these great revelations were mere episodes in their short and rich lives. It was essential in each of the stories of these young women that they had an unshakeable belief and devotion, and tried to perform God’s will and follow the road of salvation that Christ had shown in the Gospels. They were not only visionaries; they were saints.

The truth is that the only entirely direct revelation of God came through the divine person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Only He knew the Father (John 14:8-11). Furthermore, dogma and our own faith tell us that the whole public revelation is free from personal distortion by the might of the Holy Spirit. However, if you know the Epistles, you know that in the public revelations or apparitions registered by the Apostles were mirrored their characteristic personal qualities. Paul was very different from James and both were different from John. The Holy Spirit led all the authors of the books of the New Testament, and their works should be considered a part of the public revelation. Neither about St. Catherine of Sienna nor St. Teresa of Avila can we say the same, even though they are admired for their reputation of teachers of the Church and for their vivid observations concerning the spiritual life.

What does it all come to? Does it mean that we do not have to believe that in Lourdes the Virgin Mary appeared before Bernadette? It would pain everyone who is devoted to this hallowed place and St. Bernadette, and believes that everything happened according to the report of the little saint from a rustic environment, if we had to admit official disapproval of the Lourdes’ apparition in case the information coming from it were found to be groundless upon investigation. If the investigations about those events had been concluded with such a judgment, it would appear to be folly.

What about the papal encyclicals concerning Jesus’ Sacred Heart? Perusal of any of these essential documents, including the newest one, Haurietis Aquas, written by Pope Pius XII in 1956, proves that popes and theologians derive their teaching not from private revelations but from the Holy Writ and theology. These several encyclicals avoid all kinds of private revelation, with the exception of a carefully worded and noncommittal mention regarding the apparitions experienced by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century. This humble and holy soul deserves our everlasting thanks for her becoming a precedent for this ideological stream in theology, and what is more important, for bringing millions of people closer to love of the Son of God symbolised by His Sacred Heart.

All of us know that we are completely free to make a decision as to whether to believe or not private revelations, even though it concerns apparitions which are very credible. Although the Church authorities recognise them, they are approved only as probable but not indubitable.

The subjective nature of private revelations and the key fact that they are significantly influenced by the individual’s personality necessitate a precise formulation of their usage that must be limited by the circumstances under which the apparition occurred. It is quite difficult to define such limits with a simple statement because there is still the possibility of distortion.

It is evident that some private revelations and apparitions had been met with a wide reception. An example is the request to St. Bernadette for the building of a church at the site of the cave. The images and visions experienced by the three children in Fatima have by all appearances had a far-reaching effect. They gave evidence concerning the apparition in the same naive manner as St. Bernadette. Neither papal diplomatic corps nor governments have made any attempt to deal with political affairs on the basis of these apparitions yet. That would have been beyond the framework and purpose of these apparitions. It seems that only post factum we could speculate about connections of these apparitions with the surprisingly fast fall of communism and with the religious revival in Russia, which the children had mentioned, in spite of not knowing anything about world history and geography. They reported that the Virgin Mary had exhorted humanity to daily prayer (of the Rosary) and repentance, and also to prayer for peace all over the world and for the conversion of Russia first and foremost.

The question arises: why should we try to put limitations on apparitions? One example may give the answer. St. Catherine Labouré, who gave the miraculous medallion, predicted the exact date of the sanguinary disturbances of the Paris Commune forty years before these events happened. However, some of her predictions were mistaken. When she was asked about it, she answered plainly that she had wrongly interpreted the information given in the apparitions (that is why assessment of apparitions rigorously distinguishes the message of the appearing being from the personal opinion of the visionary).

According to the existing definition, a private revelation is personal. That is why individuals for whom such apparitions are meant must apply them very judiciously and merely within the framework of human circumspection, never unwisely or in contradiction to the teaching of the Church. Nevertheless, it is really difficult to decide about how much to spread knowledge about a private revelation. Should it come into common knowledge in the Church? It is evident that no private revelation can bind a man, because the Church clearly teaches that nobody has an obligation to accept his or her private revelation. In modern times, many apparitions have occurred that are addressed to believers generally, for example the message from Fatima. No Catholic is obliged to accept such “popular” apparitions.

There are some cases in which the attitude of Church authorities towards an apparition was at first suspicious and even disapproving, but finally they recognised it and supported its message. As a splendid example, Abbé Peyramale, the parson of St. Peter’s in Lourdes, who had not initially believed Bernadette’s statement, subsequently became one of its most ardent proponents.

After Bernadette’s experiences, at least two hundred visions were disseminated near Lourdes. None of them has ever been taken seriously. The disapproval of the local bishop is usually enough to exclude the apparition from the category of problematic apparitions and include it in the category of unconfirmed, alleged apparitions, in other words among false apparitions. The case of St. Joan of Arc shows that sometimes, such a resolution can be annulled. She had been burnt to death as a witch by the verdict of the ecclesiastical court, and the University of Paris had officially confirmed this decision. Twenty years later, she was found innocent and ultimately was canonised. Although the canonisation proceedings did not consider the authenticity of visions or apparitions, her canonisation, of course, releases her from the accusation that all her visions had been satanic and evil. After all, canonisation makes a visionary more trustworthy in people’s eyes, even though, as we have seen, a visionary can be mistaken about his visions.

There are many objections to the experiences of the young people in Medjugorje. Immediately after the beginning of the Medjugorje apparitions, Bishop Zanic of the diocese to which Medjugorje belongs was informed about these events. He had already vociferously and repeatedly declared them erroneous; however, his judgement was not accepted by some theologians, such as René Laurentin, and also by Archbishop Franicz, Metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province in which these events happened. Certainly, these apparitions still belong to the category of so-called problematic apparitions.

In the sense that we use the word, all private apparitions are initially problematic. Those apparitions which are not recognised and those declared erroneous or fraudulent remain problematic. Problems occur owing to the esoteric or banal content of an apparition. In some instances they can also be caused by a visionary’s problematic personality.

One who has an authentic apparition, even a canonised saint, can be wrong about his understanding or description of experiences that are not authentic.

However much apparitions can appear objectively to be coming from God’s grace and however much they may seem unexpected and resulting from prayer, all private apparitions are more or less connected with an individual’s personality. It is just this subjective element that can open the door for misunderstanding and even errors. St. John of the Cross was aware of the similarity (of authentic and inauthentic visions) and self-deceit, especially in the case of associations and words one hears inside his head and then believes they come from God or any other heavenly being. Alas, the words are – and St. John believes so – often completely subconscious figments of an individual’s own thought. He is also aware that they can come from exceptional grace, but even so, they are still under the influence of an individual’s personality and are in danger of distortion, and the utterances also can come from the Devil.

In the case of St. Joan of Arc we can find a sad example of misunderstanding an apparition. As she was carefully examined, we have exact records of her testimony.

“I asked my voices if I should be burnt to death; they answered that I had to trust in Our Lord, who would help me…St. Catherine said that I would find consolation.”

St. Joan thought that the words that she heard in her vision and by which she was being led signified her liberation. She added:

“Ordinarily my voices tell me about my liberation through great victory and then add: do not fear your martyrdom. It will finally lead you to paradise.” Unfortunately, Joan explained that she thought that “martyrdom” involved “the great pains and tribulations which she had suffered in prison.” Actually, she thought that she would be set free before the time of her death. This was a grievous misunderstanding of the apparition.

The approaches used so far have been aimed at theological evaluation by using theological experience. Such attitudes, of course, eliminated the possibility of deeper examination of these phenomena and reassessment of their principles, which was a serious obstacle to analysing their differences.

One of the outcomes of this solely theological attitude was the fact that besides unwillingness to divide apparitions into different types, other phenomena, such as clairvoyance (for example, the visions experienced by Catherine Emmerich), were included in the same category.

Apart from this, such a simplified attitude has caused negative and confusing information on a certain apparition to lead to excessive caution being applied to other kinds of apparitions and phenomena. For example, on the basis of new findings, an apparition for St. Bernadette should not be considered of fundamentally equal value to an apparition for St. Catherine of Sienna. Similarly, we cannot compare the biographies of the Virgin Mary by Maria of Agreda, Catherine Emmerich and Maria Valtorta.

In the said approach, a stagnancy of opinions on private apparitions is evident. There is, of course, a series of Marian apparitions (visitations) which since 1830 have been beyond the framework of private apparitions and have public significance.

In spite of the fact that the 20th century saw an onset of stagnation of materialism and rationalism in the theoretical field, practical consumer materialism started to intensively develop. It is becoming increasingly difficult to live in conditions of uncertainty and people are beginning more and more to evince their interest in extraordinary phenomena. It is necessary to seek new, more thorough paths for their common analysis. At the same time, it is important to proceed from existing theological conclusions and deal with the question of why some Marian apparitions are acquiring the character of public apparitions.


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