Discernment of Private Revelations & Apparitions

Author: Colin B. Donovan, S.T.L.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

66 "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations." 

Public Revelation.

The Church teaches as de fide (of the Faith) that all that the Father intended to reveal as necessary for our salvation has been revealed in His Word, Jesus Christ. The Word communicated this Revelation to His Apostles, who either wrote it down or handed it on (traditio) in their preaching and teaching (1 Cor. 15:1-3, 2 Thes. 2:15). The deposit of the Faith, therefore, is to be found in the twin fountains of Public Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

While some things in Public Revelation can be known by reason (the existence of a Supreme Being, elements of the moral law), many matters involve supernatural realities (mysteries such as the Trinity, divinity of Christ, grace, etc.) which cannot be known or proven directly by the senses or human reason. However, fortified by God's gift of supernatural Faith the human intellect is made capable of assenting to such truths (Mt. 16:17) and even understanding them, in so far as human beings can. Catholics are obliged to believe the entire deposit of the Faith by this divine and Catholic Faith, the extent of which is known by the teaching of the Church. In the words of the well-known Act of Faith addressed to God,

I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches, because You have revealed them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

The Teaching Authority (Magisterium) of the Church alone, therefore, determines what Catholics must believe by this divine and Catholic faith. Everything else in life rests on human faith in the credibility of assertions of truth of one kind or another, whether supported by the evidence of our own senses, the testimony of others, scientific experiment or other reasonable basis.

Private Revelation. 

Although Public Revelation is closed with the death of the last Apostle, St. John, in the 90s A.D., God continues to reveal Himself to individuals "not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II q174 a6 reply 3). Since it occurs after the close of Public Revelation the Church distinguishes the content of such particular revelations to individuals from the deposit of the Faith by calling it private revelation. The test of its authenticity is always its consistency with Public Revelation as guarded faithfully by the Catholic Church. For example, alleged revelations which propose to improve upon, correct or entirely supplant Public Revelation are rejected by the Church as inauthentic, regardless of the claims made for them. Such revelations include those of Mohammed in the Koran, Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, the “revelations” of new age mystics, psychics and the like.

Some private revelations, however, the Church has accepted as credible, calling them constat de supernaturalitate (that is, they give evidence of a supernatural intervention). Such private revelations cannot correct or add anything essentially new to Public Revelation; however, they may contribute to a deeper understanding of the faith, provide new lines of theological investigation (such as suggested by the revelations to St. Margaret Mary on the Sacred Heart), or recall mankind prophetically to the living of the Gospel (as at Fátima). No private revelation can ever be necessary for salvation, though its content may obviously coincide with what is necessary for salvation as known from Scripture and Tradition. The person who believes the teachings of the Magisterium, utilizes devoutly the sacramental means of sanctification and prayer, and remains in Communion with the Pope and the bishops in union with him, is already employing the necessary means of salvation. A private revelation may recall wayward individuals to the faith, stir the devotion of the already pious, encourage prayer and penance on behalf of others, but it cannot substitute for the Catholic faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion with the Pope and bishops.

Another way of saying this is that private revelations may not be believed with divine and Catholic Faith. They rest on the credibility of the evidence in favor of a supernatural origin. In the case of private revelations approved by the highest authority in the Church we can say with Pope Benedict XIV, who effectively “wrote the book” on discernment of mystical and miraculous phenomenon,

Although an assent of Catholic faith may not be given to revelations thus approved, still, an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them; for according to these rules such revelations are probable and worthy of pious credence. [Benedict XIV, De Serv. Dei Beatif.]

The Pope is saying that a Catholic, seeing that the Church (and here the Holy See is meant, as only it's acts can be of universal effect) has investigated and approved certain revelations, is being prudent to give them human assent.  That acceptance does not rest on the guarantee of Faith, or the charism of infallibility, but on the credibility of the evidence as it appeals to reason. The assent involved is not supernatural but the natural assent that the intellect gives to facts which it judges to be true. Approved private revelations are thus worthy of our acceptance and can be of great benefit to the faithful, for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes,

Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church. [CCC 67]

However, on the other hand, they do not demand acceptance by Catholics as a matter of either faith or justice (obedience). As Pope Benedict XIV also states in the aforementioned text, 

it is possible to refuse to accept such revelations and to turn from them, as long as one does so with proper modesty, for good reasons, and without the intention of setting himself up as a superior. [De Serv. Dei Beatif.]

The Sources of Private Revelations

Approved private revelations derive from two sources. First, there is the mysticism of the Servants of God who have been proposed for canonization. When the diocese which initiated the Cause has concluded its investigation and forwarded the documentation to Rome, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints undertakes its own study of the person's life. If the Congregation determines that he or she lived a life of heroic virtue this decision necessarily includes the judgment that the writings, including any mystical ones, are not contrary to faith and morals. If the Holy Father concurs the person is declared Venerable. The later canonization of the person (generally considered an act of papal infallibility), only heightens the credibility of the person's writings and the pious regard Catholics should have for them, according to the standard given by Benedict XIV.

The second kind of private revelation comes through apparitions. The person who receives an apparition is not necessarily far along in the spiritual life, though they are typically humble and simple souls. God grants this grace for the good of the Church and not as the fruit of contemplative prayer. When apparitions judged at the diocesan level  constat de supernaturalitate (giving signs or evidences of supernaturality) receive the approbation of the Holy See, as indicated by a positive judgment, the granting of papal favors to the apparition site, the approval of a liturgical feast, the canonization of the seer or other clear signs of approval, the words of Pope Benedict XIV can certainly be applied, as well, "an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them."

Private Revelations Without Roman Approval

Since most private revelations and alleged apparitions never receive the approval of the Holy See Catholics must often judge for themselves whether they are credible. If the person (whether living or dead) has a reputation for sanctity (such as Padre Pio had), then clearly any mystical revelations have considerable credibility prior to any formal evaluation by the Church. The witness of prudent priests, especially the spiritual director of the person, is a key element in determining credibility. However, even here care must be taken. The spiritual director himself must be competent in mystical theology, credible as a person and in good standing with the Church. False mystics have been known to "shop" for gullible, extremely aged or incompetent directors. Ideally, a bishop upon hearing of an alleged mystic would assign a competent director, thus insuring the authenticity of the evaluation. 

In the case of apparitions, however, they often occur to obscure individuals with little or no reputation. Their human credibility may rest initially on the attitude of the local clergy and the personal experience of observers. There may or may not be phenomena which suggest something out of the ordinary. The message may or may not be appear to be consistent with Church teaching. The person or persons may or may not have a competent spiritual director. Finally they may or may not be investigated by the local bishop to determine if they are credible. In the end the faithful are often left to fend for themselves in a perplexing sea of information. If the message is orthodox, the seer(s) of good reputation, the clergy favorable, the signs supportive, even without an official investigation the faithful can make a prudent judgment that it is credible. Certainly those who were present at the apparitions of Lourdes and Fátima, as well as those who believed in them prior to Church approval, had to have made such a judgment.

Certainly, however, the faithful benefit the most from the judgment of the bishop of the diocese in which the apparition occurs. He has the authority to assemble a commission of scientific and theological experts, to judge the case, as well as the grace of vocation to carry out this pastoral service. While his decision is not infallible, it has the presumption of being correct and should receive the respectfully adherence of the faithful (Canon 753). Thus, such decisions should generally be decisive in the prudential judgment of the faithful. It would require very weighty and sound theological reasons (not feelings or mere agreement with the content of the alleged apparition) to find defect in such a decision. Such intellectual disagreement, however, does not permit acting out of communion with the bishop.

With respect to any disciplinary precepts the bishop makes concerning the apparition and its site, they should be followed faithfully (e.g. what sacraments, if any, may be celebrated there). No Catholic should ever violate the practical norms laid down by the local bishop with respect to an alleged apparition, even if intellectually they disagree with his conclusion regarding the alleged apparition. Such disobedience would be sinful, and if it characterized the attitude of the followers of the alleged apparition it would be a sign of its inauthenticity, i.e. by producing bad fruit.

Types of Ecclesiastical Decisions  

The decision of the local bishop should be one of the following: 1) constat de supernaturalitate (established as supernatural),  2) constat de non supernaturalitate (established as not supernatural); or 3) non constat de supernaturalitate (not established as supernatural).

Constat de supernaturalitate. An apparition judged supernatural (worthy of belief, credible) has manifested signs or evidence of being an authentic or truly miraculous intervention from heaven. This judgment is possible when there is evidence of supernatural phenomena, sound doctrine, moral probity, mental health and sound piety of the alleged mystic or seer(s) and enduring good fruits among the faithful.

The issue of supernaturality is one that deserves to be explored more fully. According to the common teaching of the Church, most extraordinary phenomena in the mystical order (visions, apparitions, locutions, ecstasies, mystical knowledge etc.) are caused by angels acting on God's behalf. Whether the burning bush which Moses saw, the ecstatic flights of St. Joseph Cupertino, the stigmata of St. Francis or the revelations of St. Catherine, the general rule in the spiritual order is that God does not do immediately and directly what can be done mediately through a lower order nature, in this case the good angels. The presence of such phenomenon is not, therefore, unequivocal evidence of supernaturality.  Each of the approved apparitions have had such clear signs, from the instantaneous and inexplicable cures at Lourdes to the natural prodigy of October 13th 1917 in Fátima, but also the other marks of authenticity mentioned above.

Constat de non supernaturalitate. The judgment that an alleged apparition has been shown to be not supernatural (not worhty of beleif, not credible) means it is either clearly not miraculous or lacks sufficient signs of the miraculous. Private revelation, for example, which is doctrinally dangerous or which manifests hostility to lawful authority could not come from God. It could even be demonic, especially if there are preternatural signs accompanying it, since these are within the power of the angelic nature. The devil gladly mingles truth and lie to deceive the faithful, dazzling them with signs and wonders to give credence to his message. His purpose is to separate them from the Church, either by getting them to believe things contrary to the deposit of the faith or to act contemptuously of Church authority. An attitude of pride and judgment toward the Church is a clear sign of his presence. An alleged revelation may also only be a pious rambling, consistent with faith and morals, but lacking evidence of being anything more than the product of human effort. No fraud need be intended, only an active imagination. Finally, it may be that the doctrine may be sound and there may be phenomena, but insufficient to demonstrate supernaturality. 

Non constat de supernaturalitate. Finally, it may not be evident whether or not the alleged apparition is authentic. This judgment would seem to be open to further evidence, whether those which evidence it was supernatural, or those which evidence that it is was not supernatural.

Responsibility of the Faithful

Today there are a myriad of alleged private revelations and apparitions vying for the attention of the faithful. None have been definitively judged by the Holy See, some have been approved by local authority (e.g. Akita, Cuapa, Betania), others have been found lacking in supernaturality (e.g. Medjugorje, Garabandal), some few have been condemned (e.g. Necedah, Bayside) and finally, the vast majority have received no attention from Church authorities whatsoever.

The first responsibility of the faithful is to remain firmly established in the faith, in the sacraments and in communion with the Pope and bishops. Any Catholic who gives their primary attention to alleged private revelation at the expense of Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Church (especially the Catechism), sacramental practice, prayer and fidelity to Church authority is off course

The running after spiritual phenomena, such as alleged revelations, is condemned by St. John of the Cross as spiritual avarice. This means that pious souls who would be repulsed by crude materialistic greed think nothing of being greedy to know revelations and prophecies. An exclusive, or even a predominant attention to these matters (especially apocalyptic ones), cannot help but produce an unbalanced spirituality. Should the Church condemn some favorite alleged revelation such a person may find themselves believing more in it than in the supernatural authority of the Church. The devil will have succeeded in what he had set out to do.

The second responsibility is to have regard, in the first place, for those private revelations and apparitions approved by the Church. Within a balanced practice of the faith the edifying content of approved private revelations can be a motive for deeper piety and fidelity to the Gospel. God has chosen to give guidance to the Church in particular eras in this way and we would, as I noted above, be imprudent to disregard altogether what are credibly His prophetic interventions in the life of His Church.

Finally, there are many other private revelations that have not received Church approval. The Second Vatican Council urges us to discern the Spirit in the case of such extraordinary graces [Lumen gentium 12], which means being neither gullible or incredulous, but subjecting them to all relevant theological and human tests of credibility. Clearly, in this the judgment of the local bishop is the key element of such a discernment as I noted above. Often enough, unfortunately, the laity are left to make this determination themselves, relying on the testimony of the events, the judgment of holy and orthodox priests and common sense. 

Finally, it must always be kept in mind that however credible and reasonable an alleged private revelation seems to be, God, Our Lady, the Angels and Saints would never ask us to separate ourselves from the faith and discipline of the Church in order to follow it, as if it were a “new” gospel or necessary for our salvation.

(Revised October 2021)