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A Primer On Private Revelation

y Matt Abbott

Private revelation - the theological term given to apparitions (which are seen) and locutions (which are heard) - can be, and often are, controversial. In certain cases, very much so. Even if the private revelation is judged by the Church to be "worthy of belief" (such as in Fatima, Portugal and Lourdes, France), there can still be conflicting information about certain aspects of the revelation: its message(s), the seer(s) involved, the authenticity of healings resulting from devotion to or from simply visiting the apparition site, and so forth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that, to be a faithful Catholic, one needn't believe in private revelation:

"Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church. Christian faith cannot accept 'revelations' that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such 'revelations'" (no. 67).

Yet it is also true that an authentic apparition can be edifying to Catholics, perhaps even making a lukewarm Catholic into one with zeal. One of Blessed Mother's "radicals," if you will.

But discernment must be exercised, even by the laity. Some of the criteria for this process, taken from The Spiritual Life by Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S. and The Graces of Interior Prayer by A. Poulain, S.J., are:

(Concerning the subject and object of the revelation:)

1. Is the person well-balanced or affected by hysteria or emotional outbursts?
2. Is the person in possession of common sense and sound judgment, as opposed to a vivid imagination?
3. Is the person thoroughly sincere as opposed to having the habit of exaggerating?
4. Does the person have solid and tried virtue and a sense of deep humility?
5. Does the person take the revelation to a spiritual director and follow the lead of the Church?
6. Is the revelation in opposition to any truth of faith?
7. Is it opposed to any moral law?
8. Does it demand the impossible of the seer?

Of course, the final judgment of the apparition's authenticity rests with the Magisterium of the Church, which, in most cases, means the judgment of the local bishop, as he ordinarily has jurisdiction over the private revelation occurring in his diocese.

Now, how is the private revelation ultimately judged - besides being deemed "worthy of belief"? The late William A. Reck, in his book Dear Marian Movement: Let God Be God (1996), summarizes the categories of judgment quite nicely:

• There is nothing supernatural here, but we aren't condemning the messages or the people or devotions involved.
• We have not yet established anything supernatural here, and as such are suspending devotions, pilgrimages, etc.
• We have not yet established the supernatural here, but are authorizing the continued devotions, liturgies, pilgrimages, etc.
• We do not want the faithful, or the Church to have anything to do with these claimed messages, devotions, or the visionary involved.

Because misinformation abounds in the realm of private revelation, it is best to contact a reputable Catholic organization such as, Catholic Answers ( or Catholics United for the Faith ( if one is unsure of the status of a particular known apparition or locution.

The bottom line: Caution, discernment, and obedience to Church authority is absolutely essential; but it is also important to be open to private revelation. For as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in a 1985 interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori: "...We certainly cannot prevent God from speaking to our time through simple persons and also through extraordinary signs that point to the insufficiency of the cultures stamped by rationalism and positivism that dominate us...."


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