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.
Last time in this space we noted that apparitions determined to be genuine by the Church may, if you like, become an aid to your devotions.
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 revelation, not part of the apostolic deposit of faith, 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 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, are kindled in fervency by some prayers and not others, they 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 a 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).