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Revelations, Private


Besides the public revelation that was completed at the death of the last Apostle and that gave to the Church the deposit of faith, there were in the course of Christianity private revelations. Their meaning and their role in the life of the Church can be understood from their history and theology.

History. The Prophets of the Old Testament generally exercised a public function and a permanent ministry as Yahweh's spokesmen for the public evelation. There is little evidence of private revelations in the Old Testament, though there may have been instances among the groups of Prophets mentioned, e.g., in 1 Samuel 10.1013. In the New Testament, even during the lifetime of the Apostles, Saint Paul testifies that there were in the nascent Church charisms, which are more or less extraordinary gifts of grace granted for the common good of all to persons with no official function in the Church (1 Cor 12.711; 2830; Rom 12.68; Eph 4.1113). Among these gifts is mentioned that of prophecy, or of speaking in the name of God (1 Cor 12.10; Rom 12.6; Eph 4.11). Those receiving such a gift were inspired preachers and may be considered bearers of a revelation in the proper sense of the term. This is what is now called private revelations.

In post-Apostolic times also there is evidence for the existence of such Prophets, (e.g., in Didache 15.1 or in the Pastor of Hermas 11.7). The visions in the Pastor bear witness to the belief of the early Church in such revelations. Overconfidence in these charisms led, in the 2d century, to the formation of the Montanist sect, which advocated the guidance of the Paraclete (and this included so-called private revelations) in preference to the direction of the Church authorities. tertullian is a well-known example of the type of deviation that was to recur periodically in the shape of illuminist movements, for example, the Alumbrados in Spain (16th and 17th centuries) and the Illuminati of Bavaria (18th century). (see illumi nism.) Even apart from these extremes, tension in relations between the hierarchy and the charismatics is a feature not only of early Church history but, in varying degrees, of all times.

The Church was never for long without saints or holy persons who received from God authentic private revelations. In medieval times there were great mystics like Saint hildegarde (d. 1179), Saint gertrude the great (d. 1301), and Saint bridget of sweden (d.1373), who wrote books of revelations. More spectacular, in a way, were those persons called by private revelation to a mission in the Church, such as Saint catherine of siena (d. 1380) who brought about the return of Pope Gregory X from Avignon to Rome. Others commissioned by private revelation to work for the erection of a liturgical feast were Blessed Juliana of Cornilion (d. 1258) for the feast of Corpus Christi, and Saint Margaret Mary alacoque (d. 1690) for the Feast of the Sacred Heart. In another class of private revelations, also generally involving a mission, are the modern Marian apparitions, among which Lourdes and Fatima are best known. There are also the "revelations" of the mystics and saints, often unconnected with any visible mission but providing spiritual guidance for the Church, such as the two Carmelite mystics, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint john of the cross.

An important fact in ecclesiastical history, easily explained by the possible and actual harm connected with questionable revelations, is the control that the Church authorities have tried to exercise over these charismatic phenomena. In medieval times, the writings of many persons favored with visions and revelations were approved by Church authorities. In modern times the hierarchy gave its approval to some well-known private revelations such as those concerning the Miraculous Medal (1830), La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858), and Fatima (1917). That approval is sometimes withheld. In a series of 22 Marian apparitions between the years 1931 and 1950, only two were approved (Beauraing and Banneux, Belgium), six remained undecided, and the remaining 14 were rejected [Clergy Monthly 17 (1952) 27172]. There have been cases of wholesale fraud and pathological self-delusion. Examples of this are Miguel de molinos, Madame guyon, the Illuminati and Alumbrados, and Mère Marie Yvonne [d. 1951; see Études 307 (1960) 10607]. Moreover, even in the case of genuine private revelations, it often happens that in the writings relating them, truth and error so blend that the discrimination between authentic and spurious elements becomes difficult. Augustin poulain, in Graces of Interior Prayer, examines 32 cases of saints and mystics in whose authentic revelations, approved by the Church, human error and illusion are mixed; and he includes such saints as Catherine of Siena, Gertrude, and vincent ferrer. Moreover, there are, in the writings of genuine charismatics, besides the divine message, particulars of time and place that do not belong to the message but were added by the writers. They themselves are generally unable to make a distinction between the divine and the human element.

Theology. The existence of authentic private revelations is, from the facts of history and the Church's approval, beyond doubt. The number of spurious revelations, which may well be greater than that of the recorded authentic ones, does not disprove this. There were always private revelations among the charismatic graces that the Holy Spirit bestows on some members of the Church for the common good. These revelations are called private not because they were intended only for the individual persons to whom they were granted (for every charismatic grace is "communal"), but because they are not part of the public or official revelation. As for their nature, so far as they are "revelations"a formal communication from God infusing into the minds of the charismatics the supernatural knowledge that He wants them to transmit to the Churchthe essence of private revelations does not differ from that of the public revelation. The same kind of divine inspiration or prophetic light, elevating the minds of the chosen persons and enabling them to perceive and know what is naturally above the power of their reason, is operative in the charism of prophecy, whether in private or in public revelations (see Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae 171.12). The difference between the two lies elsewhere.

Role in the Church. Private revelations have no bearing on the deposit of faith. They do not, theologians are agreed, contain new doctrine for belief by divine and Catholic faith (see faith). When it is further asked: Can and must these revelations be believed privately by divine faith? the answer is generally: Only those to whom these revelations are addressed can, and when they have sufficient certainty of the facts, must give an assent of divine faith. As for other people who come to know the revelations from the charismatics, the more common opinion is that they are not obliged and are not able to believe them by divine faith. This opinion was challenged by Karl Rahner, on the ground that no greater guarantee can be required for divine faith in private revelations than for faith in the public revelation: in both cases the moral certainty of the fact is sufficient. The question is perhaps more academic than practical, considering the specific purpose of private revelations. Though they are not meant to present new doctrines, private revelations do play a positive role in the life of the Church. They are a part of the normal, if more or less extraordinary, guidance of the Church by the Spirit of Christ, not unlike that which the same Spirit provides through the inspirations of grace for the life of individual Christians. Their purpose is to point out and to urge a practical manner of applying, in the particular circumstances of the changing times, some one or other teaching of faith or morals. Rahner explains that while the public revelation is meant to teach a doctrine expressed in a statement, private revelations transmit a command. The first is to be believed, the second to be done. This is evident, for example, from the revelations of the Sacred Heart to Saint Margaret Mary that led to the establishment of the feast, or from the Lourdes apparitions that introduced the pilgrimages to that shrine.

Attitude of the Church. The Church's attitude toward private revelations confirms this view. Her great caution, not to say diffidence, in the face of new and extraordinary phenomena, is well known; and it is justified by the all-too-frequent error, illusion, and even fraud that steal into them. But the Church does believe that there are genuine private revelations. If after due examination she is satisfied that the facts are trustworthy and the probability of error or fraud is excluded, she gives her official approval. This, however, does not entail any obligation for the faithful; nor is it a direct invitation to believe these revelations. It does not guarantee the truth of the facts but "means nothing more than the permission to publish [these divine communications] after due examination, for the instruction and spiritual benefit of the faithful.These revelations demand an assent of human belief according to the rules of prudence, when these rules present them as probable and devoutly believable" (Benedict XIV). Accordingly, theologians conclude, the Church's approval implies that the revelations considered contain nothing contrary to the faith and to morality, that they may be made known in publications, and that the faithful are given permission to believe them with caution.

There is, however, a more positive side to this approval. The very fact that the approval is given after careful examination by experts in such matters is a guarantee that humanly speaking there is sufficient reason for a prudent assent. There is no rashness in so believing. Yet, even then it is well to remember that the reports on the revelations may contain, beside the genuine divine message, inaccuracies and misinterpretations; the Church's approval does not guarantee the truth of every detail.

The Church goes beyond mere approval; she also takes account of private revelations in her pastoral guidance of the faithful and in her liturgy. This is only natural. Charismatic graces such as private revelations are a normal manifestation of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the Mystical Body and of His continued guidance of the Church. Naturally they are adapted to the varying needs of the Church. Without bringing anything new to the Catholic faith, they draw attention to what in the faith is likely to meet the particular needs of the times. Thus the Church instituted the liturgical Feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the prompting of private revelations. These revelations, nonetheless, were only a secondary motivation of the Church's action. The doctrinal foundations of the new devotions are found not in the new, but in the ancient public revelation. Pius XII made this clear as regards the devotion to the Sacred Heart, in his encyclical Haurietis aquas (May 15, 1956).

Attitude of the Faithful. The theology of private revelations and of the Church's approval provides clear pastoral guidance for the faithful. Their attitude should be the same as that of the Church. First, it should be one of caution, of awareness that illusion and error easily enter into the writings of even genuine and approved mystics and saints. To sift the wheat from the chaff is a delicate task better left to experts in the theology and psychology of mystics. When reading books of revelations or reports on visions and apparitions, the wise rule is not to draw on them for spiritual guidance, unless it be something the Church has approved and teaches independently of them. What is singular and not in keeping with the common teaching of spiritual and theological writers must inspire caution and distrust, as also what tends to satisfy unnecessary curiosity. One should beware of overeagerness for extraordinary facts. A craving for the marvelous and the sensational is not in keeping with the mind of the Church. It exposes one to the danger of not heeding her decisions in these matters, although she has the right and the duty to judge of their nature and truth. Such eagerness for the marvelous must not be mistaken for a sign of a true Catholic sense, which lies in following the Church's official guidance. Nor is there any need for one to desire these charismatic graces for himself. Private revelations of themselves do not sanctify those who receive them; they are meant for the common good of the Church and are no sure sign of personal holiness. A desire for private revelations is generally unhealthy and, as history shows, leads to pitiful or disastrous deviations. But when private revelations have been recognized as authentic by the Church and have proved their genuineness in the fruits for the spiritual life of her members, then it is right, after her example, to heed their message and to learn the practical lesson that the Spirit of Christ teaches through them. Not to do so would be to neglect a grace given for the spiritual good of the members of the Church. However, even while accepting them we should keep a discriminating mind, subordinating these directives to the teaching of the deposit of faith proposed by the Church. This is and remains the doctrinal foundation of Catholic life and spirituality. "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" (CCC 67).

See Also: revelation, theology of; faith; mystical phenomena.

Bibliography: benedict xiv, De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, v.17 of Opera omnia, 17 v. in 20 (new ed. Prato 183943) 2:32; 3:53. a. f. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. yorke smith (10th French ed. St. Louis 1950) 299399. gabriele di santa maria maddalena, Visions and Revelations in the Spiritual Life, tr. by a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey (Westminster, Md. 1950). k. rahner "Les Révélations privées," Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 25 (1949) 50614; Visionen und Prophezeiungen (2d ed. enl. Quaestiones disputatae 4; Freiburg 1958). l. lochet, Apparitions of Our Lady: Their Place in the Life of the Church, tr. j. boyle (New York 1960). h. holstein, "Les Apparitions mariales," Maria 5 (1958) 75578. p. de letter, "The Meaning of Lourdes," Clergy Monthly 22 (1958) 316.

[p. de letter/eds.]

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