Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The vast majority of private revelation is so private that nobody beside the recipient and his or her 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. 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.
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.
2. How has the person been educated? Can the knowledge of the visionary have been derived from books or from conversations with theologians?
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Has the person had other revelations that have been judged Divine? Has he made any predictions that have been clearly realized?
6. 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.
7. Does he practice the following rules: fear deception; be open with your director; do not desire to have revelations?
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?
2. Is the revelation consistent with the teaching of the Church or with the recognized facts of history or natural science?
3. Does it teach nothing contrary to good morals, and is it unaccompanied by any indecent action?
4. Is the teaching helpful towards obtaining eternal salvation?
5. 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?
6. What sentiments of peace, or, on the other hand, of disturbance, are experienced during or after the revelations?
7. 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.?
8. Have the revelations been subjected to the tests of time, investigation, and discussion?
9. If any work has been begun as a result of the revelation, has it produced great spiritual fruit?
10. Have the Pope and the bishops believed this to be so, and have they assisted the progress of the work?
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.
"If you like? You mean Catholics don't have to observe these devotions?" Yep. More on that next time.