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.
A couple of things are worth noting about the incidents of private revelation we discussed last time in this space. The first is the curious smallness of these epiphanies. No parted seas. No big explosions. They’re both intensely personal experiences. Not for nothing does Scripture refer to revelation as a “still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12). The recipient of the private revelation will often be the only person aware of what has happened. But for that person the whole cosmos has changed. Vistas have suddenly opened before him and he has the chance to follow God into a new world transformed by the living presence.
Or not. For, of course, our free will isn’t taken away by a private revelation. Augustine responded with all his heart to the mysterious invitation extended him. As a result, God led Augustine to change the entire course of history in what is arguably (after St. Paul’s) the second most important conversion in the annals of western civilization. But my friend Betty walked away from her private revelation. Though she was very concerned that I believe her story and not think her crazy (and I do believe her), she nonetheless remained an ex-Catholic even after this with the silly excuse, “If God really loved me, why do I have diabetes?” When she said this, I thought, “Sheesh, lady! What do you want? An engraved invitation? We are, after all, talking about a Church founded on a man who was crucified.” But despite what I thought, she exercised her free will to ignore the astonishing gift she’d been given.
Another point to note is that real private revelation always points back to public revelation, just as public revelation illumines and completes private revelation. For that reason, private revelation never takes precedence over public revelation—ever. Augustine’s private revelation took him straight to Sacred Scripture and the public revelation of the Church. Betty’s, likewise, as impressive an invitation from God as you could ask for, was an invitation not to some new revelation, but to come back to Mass. Through the history of the Church, all authentic private revelation, however weird (and some stories are doozies), has always had essentially the same message: Repent of your sins, believe the teaching of the Church, say your prayers, be good, love God and your neighbor, receive the sacraments—in a word, believe and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because there’s no new light to give. There’s just the good old healthy daylight of Jesus, but it’s often falling on eyes that need their scales removed. The apostles handed the light who is Jesus on to the Church two thousand years ago and the Church has been handing that light down ever since by the power of the Holy Spirit. Private revelation sheds no extra light. It just peels scales off of our eyes so that we can see the only light there has ever been: Jesus Christ.
But, of course, just because somebody claims (or genuinely thinks) they have had a private revelation, that doesn't make it so.
Right. Of which more next time.