Private Revelation, Marian Apparitions, and Sundry Tales of the Unexplained, Part 1

Yesterday, I mentioned the fact that Joe Scott’s readers and their various Tales of the Unexplained remind me of nothing so much as the choking cataract of similarly weird stories that are the stuff of what the Church calls “private revelation”. So I thought it might be a good idea to reprint my chapter on private revelation from MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON in installments over the next several days to illustrate what they are and how the Church’s tradition attempts to navigate such claims.


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

—Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

Two Stories and Two Basic Types

Nineteenth-century France turned out splendid atheists. There was nothing half-baked about a nineteenth-century French atheist. When he left the Catholic faith, he didn’t shilly-shally around with Protestantism or the religious methadone treatment called Unitarianism. He went straight for hard-boiled materialism that declared the supernatural to be bunk.

One such man was Alexis Carrel, a nineteenth-century doctor who won the Nobel prize in Medicine in 1912. Raised a Catholic, Carrel had, by 1900, rejected all supernatural belief and become a committed atheistic materialist. But he also believed in investigating facts rather than simply imposing ideology on things. So in 1902, he accompanied a doctor friend to the shrine at Lourdes where, it was said, the Blessed Virgin had appeared to a girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. There were many stories of miraculous cures at the shrine as sick people washed in or drank from a spring that had been dug there by Bernadette. Profoundly skeptical, Carrel wanted to see for himself. So he boarded a train for Lourdes—and met Marie Bailly. Fr. Stanley Jaki tells the story:

Marie Bailly was born in 1878. Both her father . . . and her mother died of tuberculosis. Of her five siblings only one was free of that disease. She was twenty when she first showed symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis. A year later she was diagnosed with tuberculous meningitis, from which she suddenly recovered when she used Lourdes water. In two more years, in 1901, she came down with tubercular peritonitis. Soon she could not retain food. In March 1902 doctors in Lyons refused to operate on her for fear that she would die on the operating table.

On May 25, 1902, she begged her friends to smuggle her onto a train that carried sick people to Lourdes. She had to be smuggled because, as a rule, such trains were forbidden to carry dying people. The train left Lyons at noon. At two o’clock next morning she was found dying. Carrel was called. He gave her morphine by the light of a kerosene lamp and stayed with her. Three hours later he diagnosed her case as tuberculous peritonitis and said half aloud that she would not arrive in Lourdes alive. The immediate diagnosis at that time largely depended on the procedure known as palpation. In Lourdes Marie Bailly was examined by several doctors. On May 27 she insisted on being carried to the Grotto, although the doctors were afraid that she would die on the way there. Carrel himself took such a grim view of her condition that he vowed to become a monk if she reached the Grotto alive, a mere quarter of a mile from the hospital.

The rest is medical history. It is found in Dossier 54 of the Archives of the Medical Bureau of Lourdes. The dossier contains the immediate depositions by three doctors, including Carrel, and Marie Bailly’s own account, which she wrote in November and gave to Carrel, who then duly forwarded it to the Medical Bureau in Lourdes.

The highlights of Marie Bailly’s own account are as follows: On arriving at the baths adjoining the Grotto, she was not allowed to be immersed. She asked that some water from the baths be poured on her abdomen. It caused her searing pain all over her body. Still she asked for the same again. This time she felt much less pain. When the water was poured on her abdomen the third time, it gave her a very pleasant sensation.

Meanwhile Carrel stood behind her, with a notepad in his hands. He marked the time, the pulse, the facial expression and other clinical details as he witnessed under his very eyes the following: The enormously distended and very hard abdomen began to flatten and within thirty minutes it had completely disappeared. No discharge whatsoever was observed from the body.

She was first carried to the Basilica, then to the Medical Bureau, where she was again examined by several doctors, among them Carrel. In the evening she sat up in her bed and had a dinner without vomiting. Early next morning she got up on her own and was already dressed when Carrel saw her again.

Carrel could not help registering that she was cured. What will you do with your life now? Carrel asked her. I will join the Sisters of Charity to spend my life caring for the sick, was the answer. The next day she boarded the train on her own, and after a twenty-four-hour trip on hard benches, she arrived refreshed in Lyons. There she took the streetcar and went to the family home, where she had to prove that she was Marie Bailly indeed, who only five days earlier had left Lyons in a critical condition.

Carrel continued to take a great interest in her. He asked a psychiatrist to test her every two weeks, which was done for four months. She was regularly tested for traces of tuberculosis. In late November she was declared to be in good health both physically and mentally. In December she entered the novitiate in Paris. Without ever having a relapse she lived the arduous life of a Sister of Charity until 1937, when she died at the age of 58.[1]

Carrel was caught between two worlds. As an atheistic materialist, he didn’t want to be identified with what he regarded as the gullible hoi polloi who believed this stunning cure to be a miracle from heaven. But as an honest man, Carrel simply couldn’t ignore what he saw, as many in the French medical establishment insisted he should do. For many years, Carrel tried to distance himself from both groups and tried to ascribe Marie’s healing to gobbledygook about “psychic forces” and various other lame naturalistic explanations. But at the end of his life, Carrel finally received the sacraments of the Church and died reconciled to God.

Emile Zola was a contemporary of Carrel’s. A famous novelist and literary figure, he, too, was an atheist and materialist, but unlike Carrel, he was not going to let any facts get in the way of that faith when he visited Lourdes.

Zola . . . accepted with simple faith the unproved and unprovable dogma that the natural world is a closed system, and that supernatural agencies do not exist. Zola’s negative faith was proof against the stubborn fact of the two miracles which he himself witnessed at Lourdes, of which the first was the sudden cure of an advanced stage of lupus. Zola describes Marie Lemarchand’s condition as he saw her on the way to Lourdes. “It was,” writes Zola, “a case of lupus which had preyed upon the unhappy woman’s nose and mouth. Ulceration had spread and was hourly spreading and devouring the membrane in its progress. The cartilage of the nose was almost eaten away, the mouth was drawn all on one side by the swollen condition of the upper lip. The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.” Zola’s account is incomplete, for the patient was coughing and spitting blood. The apices of both lungs were affected, and she had sores on her leg. Dr. d’Hombres saw her immediately before and immediately after she entered the bath. “Both her cheeks, the lower part of her nose, and her upper lip were covered with a tuberculous ulcer and secreted matter abundantly. On her return from the baths I at once followed her to the hospital. I recognized her quite well although her face was entirely changed. Instead of the horrible sore I had so lately seen, the surface was red, it is true, but dry and covered with a new skin. The other sores had also dried up in the piscina.” The doctors who examined her could find nothing the matter with the lungs, and testified to the presence of the new skin on her face. Zola was there. He had said “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” “Behold the case of your dreams, M. Zola,” said the President, presenting the girl whose hideous disease had made such an impression on the novelist before the cure. “Ah no!” said Zola, “I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly,” alluding to the red color of the new skin. Before he left Lourdes Zola recited his credo to the President of the Medical Bureau. “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”[2]

Roughly speaking, Carrel and Zola represent two basic worldviews:  supernaturalism and naturalism. Supernaturalism, the view held by the overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history, says there is Something beyond and outside of nature and that this Something may, from time to time, intervene in nature. Naturalism says the universe of time, space, matter, and energy is all there is or ever was or ever will be and there is nothing beyond it. The question that immediately arises when considering stories like these healings at Lourdes is: “Do miracles—interventions in nature by some power beyond nature—ever really happen?”

A relatively small but significant number of modern people answer this question with Zola’s firm negative. This is due, not to “the facts,” but to their faith—come hell or high water—in a rigid and unthinking naturalism. The atheistic materialist like Zola rejects the possibility of Marian apparitions, divine healing, and such things because he rejects the possibility of all supernatural occurrences, no matter what evidence is presented to his senses. The hilarious thing about this is that the atheistic materialist with the invincible immunity to facts in front of his very eyes usually pats himself on the back for his scientific open-mindedness while condemning the supernaturalist as the rigid dogmatist. But as Chesterton pointed out long ago, this is to get things exactly backward:

The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is—that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.[3]

Disagreements Among Christians About Modern Miracles

But even though belief in powers beyond this world is common to Christians and other supernaturalists, there are still huge divisions between Christianity and all other religious traditions. Moreover, there are divisions within Christianity concerning the reality and nature of supernatural occurrences today, particularly when they involve the Blessed Virgin. It’s to these differences among Christians that we now turn.

All orthodox Christians believe in the miraculous, for they believe that the Something beyond nature intervened in nature by taking on human flesh and being born at Bethlehem. However, not all Christians believe the miraculous occurs today. One school of thought among some Protestants is that God stopped doing miraculous things once the Bible had been written. The notion is that the Bible is God’s supreme miracle and that, after it, no other miracle is necessary.[4] Therefore, according to this theory, miracles such as Marian apparitions can’t happen because no miracles are happening anymore. Faced with facts like the healings at Lourdes, such Christians let their theory trump reality, just like Zola did. Only they do so because their God is small, not because, as in Zola’s case, he’s non-existent.

Other Christians believe that the God who worked signs and wonders in the pages of Scripture is still doing so today. In addition to Catholic stories of the miraculous, various Evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic congregations are bulging with testimonies to God’s supernatural power at work in the present hour. And with good reason, since God doesn’t appear to be picky about sharing his wonders with Christians of various traditions. This was abundantly demonstrated recently near my home town of Seattle when a Redmond teenager named Laura Hatch—who was in an accident and trapped in her car for eight days—was rescued in an extraordinary way:

Last night, more than 100 friends and acquaintances from Creekside Covenant Church cheered and sang at a celebratory prayer service that had been scheduled as a vigil before Hatch was found.

Church member Sha Nohr, whose daughter is friends with Laura Hatch, told the congregation how a vision led her to the lost teen.

Nohr said her teenage daughter, distraught over her missing friend, showed Nohr a photo of Hatch on Saturday and asked what they could do to find her. Nohr said she told her daughter all they could do was pray.

That night, Nohr, who belongs to an online prayer group for women, said she had several vivid dreams of a wooded area.

In the dreams, she said, she heard the message “Keep going. Keep going.”

Yesterday morning, Nohr said, she woke up and felt an urgency to look for Hatch. She asked her daughter to go along.

They drove to the Union Hill area and pulled over. Nohr said she got out, but “it just didn’t feel right.”

So the two drove farther and stopped again in about the 20200 block of Northeast Union Hill Road. All the while, Nohr said, she prayed. “I just thought, ‘Let her speak out to us.’”

At one spot, Nohr said she felt something draw her down a steep embankment. Her daughter waited up on the road while Nohr scrambled over a concrete barrier and inched her way more than 100 feet down through thick vegetation.

At the bottom, Nohr said, she saw nothing at first. She was about to leave, thinking she was wrong, when through the trees, she said, she saw what looked like a car.

It was Hatch’s, crumpled so badly that it looked like “modern art,” said Randy Phillips, the family’s pastor.

Nohr said she called up to her daughter to get help. Her daughter stopped a passing motorist because she didn’t know the name of the road they were on.

A man climbed down to help Nohr get close to Hatch, who was in the back seat.

“I told her that people were looking for her and they loved her,” Nohr recalled. “And she said, ‘I think I might be late for curfew.’”

While emergency crews were on the way, Nohr said, she used her cellphone to call Hatch’s father, Todd Hatch.

Loved ones yesterday called the ending a miracle and spent several hours at Washington Cathedral in Redmond giving thanks.[5]

As a Pentecostal pastor I once knew said, “That sort of thing changes your theology.”

However, for some reason, even Protestants who are convinced of the reality of God’s signs and wonders being manifested throughout history usually draw the line at apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Evangelical Reactions to Marian Apparitions

Evangelicals tend to reject Marian apparitions in one of four ways:

They are chalked up to (a) mental instability, (b) stupidity, (c) human deception, and/or (d) demonic deception. Admittedly, there is a lot of grist for such views. Scarcely a month goes by without somebody reporting that the Virgin Mary has shown up in a carpet stain in Bugtussle, Oklahoma. And the world certainly has its share of people with a screw loose who are certain the Virgin is taking time out of her busy schedule to command them to be louder and more flamboyant kooks.

But, of course, the argument that “some people who claim to see the Blessed Virgin are crooks, fools, or nuts, therefore everybody else who claims to see the Blessed Virgin is a crook, fool, or nut too,” is somewhat wanting in logic. It’s the same as saying, “Some claims of miracles are bogus, therefore the apostles’ claim to have seen the risen Christ is bogus, too.” This illogical argument gets even harder to sustain when we get to Marian apparitions that the Catholic Church has approved after rigorous investigation, as at Lourdes or Fatima. But not a few Evangelicals reject even those miracles in refreshingly blunt, evidence-free terms like this:

Satan wants the followers of the Whore Church of Rome to ignore Jesus Christ and follow “Mother Church.” Satan wants the average Catholic to have little or no interest in the Word of God. The problem is, if there is no other source of revelation, then the Catholic believers may actually open a Bible and learn the truth. Satan and the Pope don’t want that, so Mary, a pagan demonic apparition of a woman, is brought in to replace the Word of God and Jesus Christ.

This particular quote was pulled at random from the ironically-titled website, “Blessed Quietness” which is, as of this writing, one of over 459,000 sites to choose from when you Google the terms “Mary demonic apparition.” And that number gives you something of the flavor of Evangelical opinion concerning Marian apparitions approved by the Catholic Church. Just as “everybody knows” that Marian doctrine and devotion are “baptized paganism” without ever having to prove it, so “everybody knows” that Church-approved Marian apparitions are either the result of a human conspiracy to bubble people out of their money or, worse still, they are actual manifestations of the demonic as “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). For many Evangelicals, no further investigation is needed. True stories like Marie Bailly’s are often summarily dismissed with Zola-esque ruthlessness as “lying signs and wonders” produced by lucre-hungry clerics or the lying powers of fallen angels. The possibility that the Blessed Virgin actually appeared to anyone is almost never seriously entertained by Evangelicals.

The Harvard Law of Divine Behavior

The Catholic Church, faced with the same evidence confronting Alexis Carrel, Emile Zola, and the owners of the “Blessed Quietness” website, takes a different approach to claims of the supernatural that continually pop up across the world. A wry quip originally applied to laboratory animals by scientists at Harvard can be adapted to the basic Catholic principle governing the possibility of miracles in our own time:

Under carefully controlled experimental conditions, God will behave however he likes.

If God wills it, he can send the Blessed Virgin Mary to appear to children at Fatima or Lourdes; heal a dying person right in front of Alexis Carrel’s or Emile Zola’s eyes; cause a consecrated Host to turn to human cardiac tissue bleeding type AB blood at Lanciano;[6] guide a woman to a crash site via dreams; or do whatever else he likes. He’s God, after all. And he’s already shown himself ready, willing, and able to permit apparitions of saints in glory such as Moses and Elijah, who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28–36). So there’s no particular reason he can’t or won’t do the same with Mary or some other saint. If our theories about how the universe is supposed to work are outraged by that, then we had better adapt our theories to reality.

At the same time, of course, the Church recognizes that God’s penchant for doing whatever he feels like without asking our opinion makes life complicated for us. She also recognizes that not only human beings but fallen angels are liars. Finally, she recognizes that there is, between the two poles of “genuine private revelation from heaven” and “demonic deception from the pit of hell,” a huge cast of decent, well-meaning, saintly, loopy, devious, malicious, dumb, mentally ill, and gullible characters in the world. So the Church has applied considerable thought to this problem and created a number of tools for dealing with claims of the supernatural, including the phenomenon known as Marian apparitions.

Public and Private Revelation

There are two kinds of revelation. The first, called “public” or “universal” revelation, is the deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles by Christ and handed down to the Church in the form of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. This kind of revelation ended with the death of the apostles, is protected by the charism of infallibility so the Church will not lose track of it, and must be believed by all the faithful. As the Church herself makes abundantly clear, “No new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 66).

However, in addition to this there is what the Church calls “private revelation.” Marian apparitions are a species of private, not public, revelation. Private revelation is an intimate form of communication. It doesn’t reveal new things to the Church. Rather it helps makes public revelation “present” to us today, and helps guide us in living out that public revelation. Its recipients are not protected by the charism of infallibility. But it often knocks the wax out of our ears so that we hear the gospel, perhaps for the first time in our sin-dulled lives. It’s often, so to speak, the “spark” that jumps the gap from public revelation to the inner sanctuary of the human heart, quickening the word of God for us by the power of the Spirit. The variety of such private revelations is limited only by the imagination of God.

[1] Fr. Stanley Jaki, “Two Lourdes Miracles and a Nobel Laureate: What Really Happened?,” Linacre Quarterly, February 1999. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[2] Arnold Lunn, The Third Day (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2014), p. 7.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[4] A quick Google search on “cessation of gifts” will give you numerous discussions of this theory.

[5] Natalie Singer, “Redmond teenager survives 8 days stuck in car wreck,” Seattle Times, October 11, 2004. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[6] You can find out more about this and similar phenomena in Eucharistic Miracles by Joan Carroll Cruz (Rockford: TAN Books, 1987). Curiously, all the Church’s approved Eucharistic miracles involving the precious blood of Christ turn out to have type AB blood.


8 Responses

  1. Mr. Shea wrote “…two basic worldviews: supernaturalism and naturalism. Supernaturalism, the view held by the overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history, says there is Something beyond and outside of nature and that this Something may, from time to time, intervene in nature. Naturalism says the universe of time, space, matter, and energy is all there is or ever was or ever will be and there is nothing beyond it.”

    I find myself in a bit of a third view, although the difference may be more semantic than truly philosophical.

    I’m not sure that the SUPERnatural is really all that UNnatural. I suspect we simply don’t have it all figured out. We are like the master’s favorite hound who has wandered into the library. Not only can the dog not understand the concept of books containing various genres of literature, history, science, poetry, or cookbooks. The dog CAN’T POSSIBLY understand the concepts because his psyche is not suited to it. His brain isn’t built for it.

    So I often wonder if miracles are not really “breaking the natural rules” so much as using a set of rules we can’t comprehend.

    1. I think the Christian tradition would reject the idea that the supernatural, inasmuch as it pertains to God, is most certainly not *un*natural, but is rather, in the fullest sense of the word *super*natural. He made Nature and loves his creation. The supernatural is not opposed to nature and supernatural acts of God accord with Nature and incorporated into it. Miraculous bread is digestible by our guts. Miraculous healings bring the recipient back to ordinary life. It is, of course, possible for perverted human and angelic wills to do things contrary to nature in the sense that they are evil. But Nature can’t in the final analysis be undone, except by God. And the promise is not that Nature will be undone, but that it will be remade in the New Heaven and the New Earth. That is the supreme weirdness of the entire doctrine of the Resurrection.

      1. I think we’re saying the same thing with different words. 🙂 That’s why I think it was more a semantic point than a philosophical one.

        My point was that it is a common misconception that the SUPERnatural is somehow “breaking” the “natural” laws of nature. And I’m not sure it is. I think there may be a lot more laws in play that we aren’t aware of.

  2. I always find it interesting that a large number of Catholics come to Mass but apparently do not believe in the Real Presence – they believe Jesus is God, became man, performed other miracles and rose from the dead, but somehow can’t fit into that little piece of bread. Not sure why we think we can limit God and God’s work – then he would be like us, limited…and not God…

  3. Does that mean that its standard practice for Catholic hospitals to procure and utilize water from the Lourdes as part of the treatments for their patients? Do they recommend prescribe for some of their patients to make the trip themselves? Better question: are the trip and related expenses covered by the health insurance? If not, why?

    1. You will also find that chemical analysis of the Eucharist does not reveal DNA and you can’t see God in outer space. I am wriggling in the crushing grip of your logic.

      1. Its not about whether or not this is something you can test in a lab or whatnot; its about whether we’re going to follow through when it comes to acting as though this phenomena is real.

        The funny thing is that for we know, Catholic hospitals nearby do in fact arrange for certain patients to make the trip. And why wouldn’t they? If this was something that they believed was possible, however slim the odds, then it would be perfectly logical.

        Yet, you seem the find the idea ridiculous. Why? If you’re only willing to go as far as using these stories to belittle skeptics, but not follow through with the implications of such incidents occurring in actuality, then who’s the real skeptic?

        You know, somebody once melted a chocolate bar by accident, and next thing we know, everybody has a microwave; yet, after millennia of “demonic possession”, the only thing they’re good for is keeping exorcists employed.

        What I really find so unbelievable is that all this contact with the “supernatural”, has not universally altered our understanding of reality or the way we live. I remain skeptical of ghost stories, not because they’re about ghosts, but because they only remain as stories.

      2. @3vil5striker: And yet, private revelation remains private. And a miraculous healing is a private revelation because it serves as a sign to the person who experiences it. The reason for the revelation is not to demonstrate God’s power but for the personal benefit of the cured and/or their friends and relatives.

        Scientific study would determine a set of minimum criteria to receive a revelation and sufficient criteria to guarantee a revelation. No such set exists. Indeed, it’s a requirement for a site like Lourdes to be declared as supernatural. If it turned out that some “miraculous” spring only worked on males, green eyes, blond hair, minimum 6′ tall, blood type 0 and suffering from a specific illness, it would likely be declared a purely natural phenomenon.
        One thing in common with miraculous sites is that those cured don’t have much in common. It’s not even limited to only the faithful or only the doubtful, only the rational or only the “gullible”.

        So God cures some and doesn’t cure others. His ultimate plan for all of us is Salvation, not a long, healthy and prosperous life. Not to disdain longevity, health or prosperity, but they’re mere reflections of what awaits in the afterlife, and for the faithful, there’s no reason to cling to them.

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