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.
One danger of private revelations--even authentic ones--is that they can, like all God's good gifts, become distorted. For some Catholics, devotion to private revelations--and particularly Marian ones--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).