On the Sell-By Date of Private Revelation

I am a believer in the apparitions at Fatima (among other private revelations). I take them as genuine, not because the Church demands I do, but because I think the evidence for them good as I think the evidence Booth shot Lincoln is good. (In fact, I am free to ignore them or pay attention to them as I please as I am free to ignore all claims of private revelation, such as the fraudulent claims for Medjugorje, or the genuine, but irrelevant to me, claims concerning some apparition in a remote land). Some private revelations speak to me and help me do the only thing private revelations are ever meant to do: believe and obey the public revelation of the apostles. But I think private revelations, when they take on a life of their own, are often pernicious and, when they are actively pitted against the Church, are always pernicious.

I also think it possible for real private revelations to pass their sell-by date. In Scripture, for instance, we read of a revelation given to Moses. It is the weird occasion (a common thing in the Old Testament) of when he is commanded by God to make a Bronze Serpent and hoist it up on a pole in order to heal all who look at it of snakebite after an infestation of venomous serpents in the camp of Israel (a punishment for grumbling against God and Moses) (Numbers 21:4–9).

Now the odd thing is that this sign really is from God and the cure really does work. What the sign means will be grist for Israel to chew over for the next thirteen centuries, till Messiah arrives and reveals that it is, like all the rest of the Law and the prophets, pointing to him and specifically to his being “lifted up” both on the cross and in the Resurrection and Ascension (John 3:14) (to heal us from the Ultimate Snakebite of “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Re 12:9)).

But the thing I want to note here is that the Bronze Serpent doesn’t just vanish after the incident recorded in Numbers. It goes into Israel’s attic along with a lot of other sacred bric a brac and gets cherished, then exaggerated in meaning, and finally becomes an idol replacing God instead of a sign pointing to him.

Result: Centuries later, King Hezekiah will, as part of his reforms, be forced to order the destruction of the Bronze Serpent since Israelites are now worshipping it as the god Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4)

I think of that as I watch many Fatimite zealots do the same thing with the apparitions at Fatima. As many people know, Mary gave three “secrets” to the children and there was great obsession with the “Third Secret” by people of a gnostic bent who imagine that such secrets are intended to give us the inside scoop on History. Such minds often have the idea that Our Lady’s job is to boss the Pope around and tell him to do whatever the devotee thinks the Church needs to be doing.

It’s not.

Now 41 years ago, on May 13, 1981 (the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima), Pope St. John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square, but survived the assassination attempt. The hit was ordered by the Soviets and JPII went on to enjoy a rather spectacular victory over Eastern European Communism without a shot fired and with no bloodshed despite facing one of the most murderous systems ever created by the mind of man. Per the request of Mary in the apparitions, he had consecrated Russia to her Immaculate Heart on March 25, 1984, and not a few Catholics are inclined to think the two events were not disconnected. He forgave his shooter and always attributed his survival to Our Lady of Fatima. The bullet remains in her crown at the shrine in Portugal to this day.

You’d think Fatimites would be happy.

Ah! But JPII made a cardinal (or should I say papal) blunder. He then concluded that this had fulfilled the Third Secret and said as much publicly after finally revealing the contents of the Secret. (You can read the Church’s formal statement here.)

Result: Nutso conspiracy theories galore! It wasn’t the real Third Secret! Sister Lucia had been killed and replaced by a body double faking approval of JPII/Ratzinger’s statement! The Pope was covering up what Mary really said! We need to listen to her, not him, because she actually revealed [insert pet conspiracy theory here].

And so, for an awful lot of Fatimites, the private revelation has been weaponized against the Faith and has become another Nehushtan.

The Church tends to be extremely reluctant to suppress popular devotions and I don’t think that is called for here–yet. Lots of decent, non-paranoid, non-gnostic, non-kooks still get a lot from Fatima, so I think the wheat and the tares should be allowed to grow together. But I also think it is important to remember the lesson of Nehushtan whenever somebody tries to pit private revelation against the Church’s teaching.

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3 Responses

  1. I, too, believe Fatima was genuine. But I also find a lot of the hardcore devotees of Fatima more than a little creepy. Too many of them have taken a very beautiful and very meaningful miracle and are trying to turn it into some sort of magical incantation. They say the consecration of Russia wasn’t genuine because the Pope misspoke a word, as if prayer is a witch’s formula where the exact words must be spoken or God can’t do anything. It’s weird.

  2. I’ve always thought “the errors of Russia” seemed too convenient, but maybe the errors of Russia were in 1917 the more immediate problem for kids in Portugal versus (say) the errors of Paris. I don’t know how, but maybe.

    By 1984 Chesterton’s remark concerning the relative harms of the errors of Moscow and the errors of Manhattan had unmistakably shown itself prophetic. By now you’d think all the crusaders would be clamoring for another consecration but they’re not; no, they’re still complaining about the last one. I guess it sells magazines. I myself have never quite understood how someone can set anybody else apart for a holy purpose, but who am I? I guess if it’s possible, it’d have to be the Vicar of Christ.

  3. Are the Fatima people the nuts with the deep darkness and blessed candles, or are those some other people? It absolutely is the Gnostic urge where the desire for piety crosses over into the desire for a special inside track to heaven, and it’s the sort of thing that makes other denominations think that Catholics are superstitious nuts.

    I’m reminded of my late mother, a very traditional, daily Mass sort of Catholic, and my reading buddy throughout her life. I used to do library runs for her, and brought her the DaVinci Code. She liked the pacing, said it was a great read, then paused and asked me, “You don’t believe any of that horse***, do you?” She said it was the kind of thing that stirred people up.

    It’s always been perilous, even if it’s nothing new.

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