How to Tell True Apparitions From False

Authentic apparitions and private revelations are for our spiritual well-being, while false ones can lead us astray.

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Authentic apparitions and private revelations are for our spiritual well-being, while false ones can lead us astray. One is a great good; the other is a grave danger. On the surface, however, it can be difficult to tell which is which.

In his classic book on Catholic mysticism, The Graces of Interior Prayer: A Treatise on Mystical Prayer, Father Auguste Poulain examined authentic mystical experiences that guide souls to union with God, as distinguished from those that are imagination, fantasy or diabolical illusion. He pointed out that no one is required to believe in apparitions — even if the Church approves them. “Approval only is to declare that nothing is to be found contrary to faith or morals, and that they can be accepted without danger and even with advantage.”


The Devil’s Lure

The Church investigates claims of private revelations cautiously, according to Father Poulain, because the devil can use them to ensnare otherwise serious Catholics. The devil “can by a ruse, feign to encourage them for a time for the sake of landing his victim in exaggeration and oddities,” he said. “Provided that the end is evil, the road leading up to it matters little to him.”

False visions usually begin with great promise. But once convinced, followers imperceptibly veer off little by little and often rebel against Church authority if there is a negative ruling.

In the article “Apparitions True and False,” Father Peter Joseph, who has a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and is the chancellor of the Maronite Diocese of Australia, explained that even if 99% of the messages conform to Catholic teaching, it is the 1% that does harm. “The devil knows he cannot mislead devout Catholics with outright heresy, but he can appeal to their piety and then subtly plant errors within,” he said.

Father Joseph said the plethora of alleged apparitions in the past 40 years have attracted many people who don’t consider whether they have been approved or are consistent with Church teaching. “The simple fact is that most claimed revelations are false,” he said. “It is better to keep to what is countenanced by the Church than to go it alone and risk being a dupe of the devil.”


Marian Apparitions

Michael O’Neil, host of the radio program The Miracle Hunter, created the website to catalog hundreds of reported Marian apparitions dating back to 1900. “The site is a way for people to find out which apparitions are worthy of belief and which ones should be avoided,” O’Neil said in an email interview with the Register. He has built up a worldwide network for gathering information and includes official statements from the local bishops.

“Although private revelations can include Jesus and the saints, Marian apparitions are the most frequently claimed, with almost 2,500 cases throughout Christian history,” O’Neil said. He explained that although the bishop is the usual authority to judge apparitions, the Vatican can get involved. For instance, in 1948, a bishop in the Philippines approved an apparition that was later ruled against by the Vatican. And in the widely followed case of Medjugorje, which began in 1981 with six children in Bosnia-Herzegovina claiming to be visited by the Blessed Mother, the local bishop originally ruled there was nothing supernatural. Later, the local bishops’ conference ruled similarly, but owing to continued worldwide interest, Pope Benedict XVI set up a Vatican commission. That commission is now concluded, and its recommendation is in the hands of Pope Francis.


Authority to Judge

The local bishop is the initial authority in cases of private revelation. Canon Law 753 authorizes him to instruct the faithful, who “are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.” If he thinks it is warranted, the bishop may appoint a committee to investigate further.

According to Colin Donovan, vice president for theology at the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the parent company of the Register, any negative decision from the bishop needs to be followed. “The opinion of the bishop is not a guarantee of infallibility, but considering the norms of prudence, is he more likely to be right, or you?”

Donovan said Catholics must also follow the bishop’s practical norms regarding pilgrimages, the liturgy and the like, regardless of whether they think he is right or not. “The claim that ‘Mary or an angel told me …’ is only credible when the Church confirms it as such,” he said. “The hierarchy of the Church has the authority, so it’s wrong to tell yourself, ‘This bishop is a liberal so I don’t have to listen to him.’ The devil loves that approach.”

Once the Church makes a final decision, while she doesn’t command belief in matters that are not “of the faith,” Donovan said a prudent person will let go of any vestiges of belief. “If you choose to disagree on something not in your competence to judge, then you likely will also be willing to break with the Church in other matters, and do as you please,” he said.

In his article, Father Joseph said that if an alleged visionary disobeys a legitimate order from the bishop and claims God’s backing the action, “this is a sure sign that the message is not from God.” He noted that there were occasions in the lives of the saints when Jesus showed us that he values obedience to the Church over devotion to visions.

“On one occasion, the Sacred Heart of Jesus told St. Margaret Mary to do something, but her superior did not approve. When he [Jesus] came again, she asked him about this, and he replied: ‘[N]ot only do I desire that you should do what your superior commands, but also that you should do nothing of all that I order without their consent. I love obedience, and without it, no one can please me’” (The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary).


Caution Toward Private Revelations

There are many red flags that may reveal the falsity of a claimed revelation. Here are some mentioned by Father Poulain:

Error — “With regard to dogma, if one sure point alone be contradicted … it is sufficient to allow us to affirm that the speaker is not one of God’s envoys.”

Lack of Humility — “It [humility] is the one most opposed to our nature and of which Satan has the greatest horror. … Humble souls avoid publicity as much as possible.”

Seeking God’s Favor — “Any desire for revelations would also expose a soul to deception and should be considered doubtful.”

Pride — It includes “an independent spirit with regard to superiors and directors, by obstinacy in our opinions, by the refusal to submit to the necessary examination and by anger. It is a sign of pride, and therefore of illusion, to have a craving to divulge the graces that we believe ourselves to have received.”

Spinning Predictions — “If predictions were not fulfilled and no reason to think they were conditional, it is then to be believed that they are not of divine origin. False prophets do not allow themselves to be easily discouraged by their repeated failures. They always find some good reason to explain them away, or they pretend that the event is only delayed.”

Reaction to Criticism and Doubts — “[These] are an excellent touchstone by which to test the person’s humility, patience and trust in God … if they respond with irritation or discouragement as opposed to peace.”

Frivolousness — “God does not go out of his way to merely satisfy our curiosity.”

A 1978 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations,” also included as red flags are any psychological disorders, evidence of profit motive and gravely immoral acts connected to the messages.

“People interested in apparitions and mystics do not necessarily have to wait for the Church to rule,” according to Donovan. “But they need to be prudent and continually discern, lest they endanger their faith for something unnecessary.”

Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.