Private Revelation, Marian Apparitions, and Sundry Tales of the Unexplained, Part 3

Today, we finish up our look at the phenomenon of Private Revelation, reprinted from my book MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON.


Which Brings Us Back to Marian Apparitions

The vast majority of private revelation is so private that nobody beside the recipient and his or her family, close friends or spiritual director have ever heard of it. Such revelation should still be discerned as best as possible, since a false private revelation, even if it only destroys one life, has still destroyed one life too many.[1] However, in addition to private revelation confined to an individual or a small circle of people, God also sees fit now and then to vouchsafe a private revelation that has a wider area of impact. St. Joan of Arc is one example of a person whose revelations had such an impact. Hers changed the course of European history.[2]

Another example is Marian apparitions, which have also tended to have a broad impact on the Church and the world and which, like all private revelation claims, fall into only three categories: fake, false, or genuine. If we were Protestants, that would pose an enormous logistical problem: How do you figure out which is which at a distance of thousands of miles and with only the mainstream media and the rumor mill to supply you with evidence? The head spins just thinking about it!

Happily, however, Catholics do not have to rely on their private judgment alone in evaluating claims of private revelation. The Church has a reliable process (and a network of theologians and investigators from various disciplines) to evaluate such claims. The most sensible approach to the whole matter is to follow the lead of the Church.

Basically, the Church pursues a common sense course. It looks at the alleged visionary and asks questions like:

  1. What are his natural qualities or defects, from a physical, intellectual, and especially moral standpoint? If the information is favorable (if the person is of sound judgment, calm imagination; if his acts are dictated by reason and not by enthusiasm, etc.), many causes of illusion are thereby excluded. However, a momentary aberration is still possible.
  • How has the person been educated? Can the knowledge of the visionary have been derived from books or from conversations with theologians?
  • What are the virtues exhibited before and after the revelation? Has he made progress in holiness and especially in humility? The tree can be judged by its fruits.
  • What extraordinary graces of union with God have been received? The greater they are the greater the probability in favor of the revelation, at least in the main.
  • Has the person had other revelations that have been judged Divine? Has he made any predictions that have been clearly realized?
  • Has he been subjected to heavy trials? It is almost impossible for extraordinary favors to be conferred without heavy crosses; for both are marks of God’s friendship, and each is a preparation for the other.
  • Does he practice the following rules: fear deception; be open with your director; do not desire to have revelations?[3]

In addition to weighing the character of the alleged visionary, of course, the Church is obliged to weigh the character of the alleged visions, again with various common sense criteria:

  1. Is there an authentic account, in which nothing has been added, suppressed, or corrected?
  • Is the revelation consistent with the teaching of the Church or with the recognized facts of history or natural science?
  • Does it teach nothing contrary to good morals, and is it unaccompanied by any indecent action?
  • Is the teaching helpful towards obtaining eternal salvation?
  • After examining all the circumstances accompanying the vision (the attitudes, acts, words, etc.), do we find the dignity and seriousness which become the Divine Majesty?
  • What sentiments of peace, or, on the other hand, of disturbance, are experienced during or after the revelations?
  • It often happens that the revelation inspires an exterior work—for instance, the establishment of a new devotion, the foundation of a new religious congregation or association, the revision of the constitutions of a congregation, etc., the building of a church or the creation of a pilgrimage, the reformation of the lax spirit in a certain body, the preaching of a new spirituality, etc. In these cases the value of the proposed work must be carefully examined; is it good in itself, useful, filling a need, not injurious to other works, etc.?
  • Have the revelations been subjected to the tests of time, investigation, and discussion?
  • If any work has been begun as a result of the revelation, has it produced great spiritual fruit?
  1. Have the Pope and the bishops believed this to be so, and have they assisted the progress of the work?[4]

Additional questions can be asked based on the particular circumstance of a particular private revelation, but you get the idea. The Church is quite patient, thorough, and painstaking in verifying claims of private revelation. Claims of Marian apparitions or miracles judged by the Church to be fake or false (as, for example, in Bayside, New York) should be shunned. Claims that are still under investigation by the Church should be regarded with a skeptical eye but a willingness to defer to the Church’s verdict, should it come. Apparitions determined to be genuine by the Church may, if you like, become an aid to your devotions.[5]

The phrase “if you like” surprises many people because it’s widely supposed that believing in Our Lady of Lourdes, Guadalupe, Fatima, or some other approved apparition is as necessary for a Catholic as believing the Creed. It’s not. Private revelation—even a spectacular private revelation at Fatima, where the sun danced in the sky before the stunned eyes of 70,000 witnesses—is still private and therefore not binding on the Catholic faithful, as public revelation is. All Church approval means is that the private revelation is regarded, after study and investigation, to be “worthy of belief.” That’s an odd-sounding idea, particularly to Evangelicals trained to believe that all communications from God to his people are made only with the public and mandatory character of the Bible. But it’s nonetheless a wise and sound attitude that reflects the freedom God gives his people.

To say that the apparition of Mary at Fatima and the things she requested there are “worthy of belief” means just that. They have been tested and investigated by the Church according to the general criteria above, and found to be salutary and credible objects of faith. Catholics may be obliged to believe in such miracles only to the extent their wits and individual consciences require, but the Church (which is the authoritative guide, not the micro-managing chaperone, of Catholic life) will not compel anyone to adopt Fatima, Guadalupe, or even the Rosary as a part—significant or otherwise—of their spiritual life. Obviously, Catholics who believe fervently in these miracles and their benefits for the faithful will speak in glowing and encouraging ways about them. Pope Leo XIII, for example, is known as the pope of the Rosary because of his many exhortations to pray it, and St. John Paul II’s devotion to Mary and Fatima was a well-known part of his pontificate. Just as Catholics are most edified by some friends and not others, and are kindled in fervency by some prayers and not others, so they also find themselves drawn or not drawn to various Marian apparitions and devotions. The secret is to understand that these things are not matters of law, compulsion, and dogmatic minimalism; they are matters of hearts alive within a family. For the Church does not function according to the principle “that which is not forbidden is compulsory.”

Some Catholics use their “family freedom” to develop an intense devotion to Church-approved private revelations of Mary. They are grateful at the way in which, through her, God has broken into our barren world and shown them his love and power. For many, many people the private revelations at Fatima, Knock, or Lourdes are a living link between this world and the next and a tremendous aid to faith in Jesus Christ. Such events serve many as “evidence of things not seen” and help them apply themselves to the truth of Scripture and the grace of the sacraments with renewed vigor. The hearts of such people are deeply invested in these apparitions.

Other Catholics, for whatever reason, don’t have a particularly strong (or any) devotion to a miracle or an apparition. Some of them are persuaded these apparitions actually occurred. They believe the message of these apparitions and take seriously the fact that the wonders often associated with them have solid evidence backing them up. But the apparitions don’t “grab” them or sound a special chord in their hearts. So they find inspiration in other things to help focus their love of God.

As long as these Catholics respect each other, then they all follow St. Paul’s godly advice in Romans 14:5–6, which I shall paraphrase here: “Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who honors Our Lady of Guadalupe does so in honor of the Lord. He who honors the Lord in some other way, does so in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God.” But when Catholics try to cast doubt on the quality of somebody else’s faith because of a disagreement over an approved private revelation, they are overstepping their bounds and judging their brothers and sisters in a way condemned by our Lord. Again, to quote Paul:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,/and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom. 14:10–12).

The Department of the Treasury vs. Hell

That said, it remains a fact that some Catholics’ devotion to Mary can take unhealthy forms. One of the surprises awaiting an Evangelical coming into the Church is that the danger has never been that of Catholics mistaking Mary for another God. Rather, it’s the danger that some Catholics mistake her for another pope. A certain sort of Catholic can get the notion in his head that the Church is governed, not by the bishops in succession from the apostles and in union with the Pope, but by a series of private revelations from Mary. Such Catholics are often not particularly cautious about distinguishing between public and private revelation, still less about whether a given Marian apparition has been approved by the Church. Indeed, the creepier and more apocalyptic the “revelation,” the more such a Catholic will be certain that its rejection by the Church is a sign of widespread apostasy and imminent doom. So if an alleged seer claims that the pope must define this or that teaching as dogma, or tells Catholics to save up beeswax candles to prepare themselves for the Three Days of Darkness that are just around the corner, the apparition enthusiast may regard it as a judgment on the pope—not on the reality of the “vision”—if the pope doesn’t salute smartly and do whatever the latest visionary is demanding.

This is, however, to fundamentally ignore what the Church has always taught with the authority of Christ. A Marian private revelation is no more binding on the pope than it is binding on any other Catholic. The governance of the Church remains the task of the Church’s Christ-appointed governors, the bishops. Mary does not supersede them in their proper role—and authentic Marian apparitions never try to do so. If the Magisterium judges a Marian revelation to be “worthy of belief,” the Holy Father or the bishops may well act in accordance with it (as, for instance, when Our Lady of Guadalupe requested the building of a church and Our Lady of Fatima requested the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart). But in such cases, the Magisterium is still left to rule the Church according to Scripture and sacred Tradition. It’s not obliged to practice “government by apparition,” and apparition enthusiasts greatly overstep the limits of the faith when they declare a pope or bishop “apostate” because he’s failed to mirror their own level of enthusiasm.

This basic counsel to trust the Holy Spirit through the Church comes hard for many people. And it manifests itself in different ways. Some people believe in every apparition claim that comes down the pike and run way ahead of the Church in their search for the Latest Thing. The spectrum can be wide in such matters. Some people are the type who immediately rush off to pray the Rosary and light candles to water stains on a highway underpass in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Others are not so credulous, but are still given to declaring that a popular apparition claim has been “approved by the Church” when the jury is still out.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion about an apparition claim that’s still under investigation by the Church. Well before the Church rendered an official judgment, seventy thousand eyewitnesses to the Miracle of the Sun formed sudden and extremely definite opinions about the validity of the claims of the children at Fatima on October 13, 1917. But it does mean that our opinions must remain subordinate to the judgment of Holy Church, which has been entrusted by Christ with the task of discerning such matters. So, for instance, many people have strong views, both pro and con, about some alleged apparition. The sensible thing to do about such disputed claims is wait until the Church decides. Otherwise, we can find that our passions become so engaged in defending our pet views that, should the Church rule against us, we end up placing our personal view of private revelation over the Church’s rightful authority and condemning the Church for its “erroneous” approval or disapproval.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the “signs and wonders” enthusiasts are some Christians whose paranoia about satanic trickery is so overwhelming that they spend all their time studying the darkness and never looking at the light. They spend so much time fretting about what various occultists, quacks, charlatans, false prophets, fake gurus, and bogus seers are saying or doing that they never pay attention to what the Church is saying. They chart vast webs of shadowy conspiracy like characters on the X-Files and, in the process, completely forget to read Scripture, attend to the teaching of the Church, or practice the faith. Indeed, they become so filled with fear that they abandon trust in anybody but themselves and their labyrinthine conspiracy theories. In their impossible effort to save themselves from the devil they end up playing right into his hands, rejecting the judgment of the Magisterium (“I read somewhere that the Vatican has been infiltrated by the Freemasonic Rosicrucian Brotherhood of Luciferian Templars!”), and even leaving the Body of Christ. That is a quick ticket to becoming not only apostate, but quite mad.

In contrast to these foolish and fearful approaches is the basic method of the Church, which takes a page from the Treasury Department. The problem facing treasury agents is the same problem facing the Christian: there are a lot of counterfeits out there. But the Treasury Department doesn’t train its agents to know what thousands of different counterfeits look like. It trains them to know what a real bill looks like. When you know that, a phony is immediately obvious, no matter what it looks like. In the same way, Jesus teaches his sheep to recognize not the voice of every conceivable false prophet, but his voice. That way, “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4–5).

The surest way to “abide in Christ” and remain close to the heart of the Father who leads us not into temptation but delivers us from evil is to know and live the Catholic faith. As Jesus promises, “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matt. 7:24–25).

I Had Something Weird Happen to Me Once, Too. If You Promise You Won’t Laugh at Me, I’ll Tell You about It . . .

As I said above, I think most people have stories of private revelation to tell and, for what it’s worth, I’d like to tell you mine, since it involves the Blessed Virgin and constituted an important moment for me in learning to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd and trust that Jesus not only approves of, but acts upon, prayers to the saints.

It was early December 1987. A friend of our family’s named Sherry and I were both in the final throes of entering the Catholic Church. One day, Sherry called me from her job at a local hospital to request prayer for an eighteen-month-old girl. A month earlier the little girl, named Sarah, had come to the hospital with third degree burns over 90% of her body. She had been flown in from another state because this hospital had one of the finest burn units in the country. She was hovering on the brink of death, a mass of scalds from her neck to the bottoms of her feet—a victim, the staff strongly suspected, of child abuse. (She had been immersed in scalding water.)

Sherry had started working at the hospital about a month after Sarah’s arrival. During that time, Sarah’s condition had steadily deteriorated. Death was more likely with each passing hour. Her skin, killed by the burns, would not regenerate; skin grafts from the small amount of living skin she had left would take an excruciatingly long time to cover her whole body. Worse still, her little body had nearly exhausted its ability to fight infection as her own dead tissues provided a breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Fed only through a naso-gastric tube, Sarah was on a cranial morphine drip to stave off the agony. The doctors were, of course, doing everything in their power to save her, but death was expected by week’s end.

I wish I could say that when I first heard all this my reaction was one of godly and compassionate prayer. But when I looked at the picture on my desk of my own son (then an infant six months younger than Sarah) I flushed not with sympathy but rage. Instead of love, hatred—pure hatred for the parents—welled up inside me. My first thought was not for Sarah’s welfare, but a bitter desire for her parents’ punishment.

Yet at the same time I felt a deep sense of urgency. The thought, “Pray for Sarah!” banged against the inside of my skull and heart. “This is a matter of life and death!” I thought again about Sherry’s phone call. I had known her for years. She was no spiritual loony of the sort who always “knows God’s will” about everything down to the sort of car you should buy. She was a deeply prayerful and intelligent woman who had learned very quietly and at great cost the power of listening in obedience to the “still small voice” of the Spirit. Again and again I had seen her gift of discernment proven trustworthy, and I had made it a mental habit (even when I could not explain why) to give her a lot of credence in such matters. She had told me she felt very strongly an inner command to pray that God’s intention in creating Sarah be fulfilled; that God’s love, not the cruelty committed against her, have the final word in Sarah’s life.

So on the strength of Sherry’s conviction, I resolved at least to try to join in her intercession for Sarah. As soon as I could get away, I sought out the top of a lonely stairwell in the building where I worked and began to pray. I felt helpless and inarticulate, muttering aimlessly before lapsing into frustrated muteness. A deep sense of grief, rage, and futility washed over me—grief for the little girl, rage at her parents, and futility as I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say.

“God,” I pleaded, “how can such things happen? It makes me want to throw up, or kill the people who did this. I know vengeance isn’t your way, but what is?” My eyes clouded with tears as I ran out of the few words I could think to say to him. That was it. I had nothing to offer at all but grief and more anger. Yet I still felt urged to pray. “But pray what?” I thought as words dissolved into groans. The whole thing felt hopeless.

Then I suddenly remembered (or was reminded of) St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27).

I pondered these words for a moment. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt: God was in my grief and anger! He was not standing at the top of the stairs with arms folded, refusing to help until I uttered the perfect words; he was in me, groaning through me by the Spirit in prayer for Sarah. And the Father to whom the Spirit prays was directing the Spirit’s prayer. He was on our side—on Sarah’s side—grieving and praying with us for her! Heartened by this, I decided to try to seek the Spirit’s guidance, only this time with expectancy rather than despair.

As I made this stab at “listening,” two things happened. First, I found myself quieting inside. Not quiet as in “muzzled” or as in “you can’t do anything so forget it and cool off.” Instead, it was a quiet of not needing to think of everything; of releasing the fear of failure into God’s hands and not having to pray the “perfect prayer.” Second, I began to notice four different ideas bubbling up from somewhere, four “prayer paths” that asserted themselves in my heart:

  1. Pray for forgiveness and healing for Sarah’s parents.
  • Pray that God the Father and Our Lady would be her true parents, present to her in the depths of her pain and calling her into their life and love.
  • Ask the intercession both of her heavenly family (particularly St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive) and of the Church on earth.
  • Gather all those intercessions together and offer them through  Christ’s perfect offering in the Eucharist.

There seemed to be nothing further for me to do. It was a curious feeling. I knew someone should pray for the doctors, nurses, and others. I knew someone should specifically ask for Sarah’s physical and emotional healing from this trauma. But I also knew I was not that someone. I had my portion of the work to do and with it came the very strong sense that I had better be about it and not go sticking my nose into someone else’s job. It was as if I were part of a choir of prayer for Sarah and I had only to sing the tenor part as best I could. Others would worry about handling the baritone and soprano notes.

Armed with these clues I set to work. Being the sort who can easily make himself feel guilty, I decided to make set times for “Sarah prayers” rather than pursuing a vague “I’ll pray constantly” policy. When I try to “pray constantly” the net result is that I never think I’ve prayed “enough” and, when I do pray, I waste half my time feeling bad for not having prayed enough. So I set aside my bus rides to and from work and a piece of my lunch time as specific, limited moments when I could focus and not be distracted by other concerns. Sherry and I also sought the intercession of several prayer groups as well as the prayers at Mass. (We did a tally later and realized there were hundreds of people praying for Sarah—not to mention several guardian angels, at least one apostle, and the Blessed Mother, too.)

And, of course, Sherry prayed, sitting amid the beeping and humming noise of the machinery arrayed around Sarah’s bed and listening to the Spirit as best she could. She felt a special (and scary) sense of responsibility as the sole human point of contact between Sarah and all those prayers—as if she were the fingertip of the Body of Christ. Particularly since all she could do was touch Sarah’s forehead with her fingertip. She tried her best to be an open door to all that love for Sarah.

That included what was, for Sherry, the difficult task of asking the Blessed Virgin to help. She found herself in the Mary shrine at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral—a self-described former Mississippi Fightin’ Fundy Blue-Eyed Baptist Babe—asking, “Lord, your Church says this is okay and, if I’m offending your glory in any way please make it clear to me but, well, er, Mary, could you please intercede for Sarah?” Then she would hurry away before the lightning bolt struck. She did this several times over a few days and slowly got used to asking Mary’s help. At the same time she, like me, still felt weird.

By this gradual process, our awareness continued to deepen that, far from praying alone, we were indeed voices in the choir. God was not merely the audience; he was the conductor, the score and the very music as well. Indeed, he was the prayer for Sarah.

“So what happened?” you ask. The gospel truth is this: Two weeks later (a week after the hospital staff had expected her to die), Sarah was not only out of intensive care, she was off her medication, out of bed, and on the floor playing with her toys.

And that without a single skin graft.

Inexplicably, her skin had simply regenerated itself! A nurse who worked with Sherry spoke for the whole staff when she shook her head in amazement and said, “I’ve seen second-degree burns become third-degree burns, but I have never seen third-degree burns turn into second-degree burns. It just doesn’t happen!”

No, it doesn’t. And yet, by the grace of God, the prayers of Mary and of all the saints of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in heaven, it did! The Church will never investigate that little miracle, nor is anybody who was not there bound to believe it was a miracle. But I trust you will understand why my views on private revelation, the intercession of the saints, and all that sort of thing came into sudden and sharp conformity with the catechism on that day. For God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. That’s not theory. It’s the real deal, thanks be to God.

[1] I recommend Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s concise and practical A Still, Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993) to anybody who feels a personal need to discern a possible private revelation. Also, there’s a handy little article on “Private Revelations” in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[2] For an accurate, albeit novelized, account of her astounding story, see Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc: Personal Recollections (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989).

[3] Excerpted from “Private Revelations,” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Appendix for a discussion of the major Church-approved apparitions.


3 Responses

  1. What a beautiful uplifting story about this precious little girl and the prayers for her healing!These true stories always strengthen my faith journey!

  2. Thank you for this string of book excerpts and for sharing that incredible story about Sarah – I hope her life has continued to improve in every way.

  3. Your story of Sarah’s healing is very powerful… I’ve had “signal graces” in my life as well… sometimes you just *know* God is behind such things… Just pure grace…

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