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.
We've had this lengthy discussion of the complexities of private revelation because it’s easy for us to assume that all claims of private revelation are not merely false but fake, or to assume that because somebody has some facts wrong or is a morally dubious character (like Jacob), God can’t possibly be involved with them. Our default setting for claims of private revelation isn’t “evaluate” but “reject.” But the reality is that some claims are true, and therefore, while it’s necessary to be cautious when faced with claims of private revelation, it’s also possible to be too cautious. If we aren’t cautious enough we can find ourselves relieved of our cash, or crushed with heartache. But if we unthinkingly reject all claims of private revelation, we might find ourselves mocking St. Bernadette Soubirous, persecuting the children at Fatima, or taking part in the judicial murder of St. Joan of Arc.
To the recipient of authentic private revelation, such a phenomenon inevitably feels rare, so rare that people who experience it seldom discuss it with others for fear of looking like fools or nuts. But even a quick informal survey of the people around you will show that experiences that bear all the earmarks of private revelation are, in fact, amazingly common. That’s why huge numbers of people will, if they feel safe enough to discuss it, testify to it in stories that often begin along the lines of, “You know, I had something weird happen to me once, too. If you promise you won’t laugh at me, I’ll tell you about it. . . .”
This is only to be expected, since private revelation is, by its nature, addressed to each particular human person in a way designed to get his or her attention. Indeed, it can well be argued that any person who has had a moment in his or her life when God revealed himself as a living reality has experienced private revelation in the sense the Church means it. This need not entail apparitions, miracles, or dancing suns. It need only entail an encounter with the living God. One need not even be a believer for it to happen—as the experiences of Carrel and Zola both attest.
Because authentic private revelation is always an encounter with the living God, it can be an overwhelmingly powerful experience and can often constitute the central spiritual event of a person’s life. For many, it’s a kind of “soul anchor” to which a person clings in moments of confusion and doubt, saying, “I don’t know much, but I do know God showed himself to me that day.” For the faithful recipient of authentic private revelation, the thought of ignoring or disobeying the revelation is akin to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, a fundamental violation of conscience so profound as to be a form of spiritual suicide.
But therein lies the difficulty: For when the most sacred experience of a person’s life is roughly manhandled by people who assume it to be the product of delusion, hunger for Mammon, or demonic deception, the results can be explosive and painful. The Church must therefore strike a balance between respectful treatment of real private revelation and clear rejection of false revelation.
Of which more next time.