It seems appropriate, therefore, to offer some thoughts concerning the role of private revelation in the life of the Church.
First of all, we must realize the Church recognizes that private revelation has a role to play in the life of the Church. The Catechism says:
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.
We would now like to offer the thoughts of some contemporary theologians regarding this role of private revelation: Harvey Egan, S.J., says: Private revelations often presuppose the gift of prophecy. Prophetic revelations commission the mystic to address the entire Church, or a significant portion. He must deliver a message, plead for a particular devotion, call for conversion and penance, warn against certain aberrations in Church life...suggest new styles of life or spiritual doctrine, or foretell the future. Those post-apostolic, prophetic revelations, therefore, apply the faith in a practical way to daily Christian living.
Jordan Aumann, O.P., observes: There have always been persons gifted with prophecy, as is testified by Scripture and the processes of canonization of the servants of God. Nevertheless, private revelations do not pertain to the deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in Scripture and Tradition under the vigilance of the Church.
Karl Rahner, S.J., offers the following regarding private revelation: A private revelation as a mission to the Church signifies...an imperative which within the context of a particular historical situation of the Church, points out a particular course of action from among the many possible according to the universal and public revelation as the one most urgently needing to be realized. The new feature in such a private revelation consists therefore not in its particular material elements but in the imperative marking an shifting of accentuation within the possibilities of Christianity...Hence the private revelation as a mission to the Church can be conceived as a heavenly imperative interpretation of the particular situation of the Church at this time; it answers the question as to what is most urgently to be done here and now in accordance with the general principles of the faith.
It would be wrong, consequently, to deny the existence and proportionate importance of private revelation in the life of the Church. Such an attitude would be in opposition to the teaching of the Church and that of reputable theologians. Private revelation is yet another sign of God's overwhelming love towards us. In His great love He has given us the truths of faith as contained in public revelation. In His ongoing love for us He gives us private revelation to aid us in the living of public revelation. We should not, therefore, be indifferent to the role God has assigned to private revelation in the life of the Church.
It might be well at this point to offer a description of what occurs when a person receives an apparition and/or locution (message). Joseph de Guibert, S.J., one of the most eminent mystical theologians of this century, says:
A distinction is made between corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual visions. This distinction can also be applied to locutions. In corporeal visions and locutions there is a real perception by the external senses; the person who is seen or heard may be really present, or (in corporeal visions) the body which appears may be formed in the air, or a change may be affected at the moment the light-rays impinge on the eye, or (in corporeal locutions) a real acoustical vibration may be produced in the ears. In imaginative visions and locutions there is no perception by the external senses, but, rather, a Divine action on the imagination or the internal senses...In intellectual visions and locutions the Divine action directly affects the intellect.
What should one's attitude be regarding alleged instances of private revelation which have not yet been the subject of official Church investigation and perhaps never will be? First, one should always recognize that the final authority regarding private revelations rests with the Holy See of Rome, to whose judgment we should willingly submit. Secondly, one may personally act upon these messages of private revelation if a person observes that they contain nothing contrary to faith and morals and that they help bring one closer to God. Our Lord has said:...a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. (Mt 7:17-18).
A good example of what we have just said is the situation regarding the alleged apparitions and messages at Medjugorje. The Church's investigation of this site is ongoing. No definitive decision has been made. In the meantime, the Church is not forbidding the faithful to go to Medjugorje. She is not forbidding them to personally accept the messages, presuming, again, they contain nothing contrary to faith and morals. Millions of pilgrims have gone to Medjugorje, including thousands of priests and hundreds of bishops.
An outstanding example of the importance of the role of private revelation in the life of the Church is that of Fatima. The Church has formally approved the message of Fatima as being worthy of belief. In her July 13, 1917, message, Our Blessed Mother said: The war (World War I, then raging) is going to end. But if people do not stop offending God, another and worse one will begin in the reign of Pius XI. When you shall see a night illuminated by an unknown light (January 2, 1938), know that this is the great sign that God gives you that He is going to punish the world for its many crimes by means of war, hunger, and persecution of the Church and the Holy Father.
To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart and the Communion of Reparation on the five first Saturdays. If my requests are granted, Russia will be converted and there will be peace. If not, she will scatter her errors throughout the world, provoking wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and various nations will be destroyed...
But in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph, the Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, Russia will be converted, and a certain period of peace will be granted to the world.
There is more to the requests of Our Lady of Fatima besides those elements contained in the above message. But these aspects of the Fatima message are obviously critical ones.
Because enough people did not respond to Mary's requests made at Fatima, we did have World War II and all the horrors connected with the rise of Russian dominated Communism. Again, Fatima is a prime example of the importance the role of private revelation can assume in the life of the Church. Popes Pius XII and Paul VI made visits to Fatima, as has Pope John Paul II.
Taken From Shepherds of Christ, A Spirituality Newsletter for Priests
May/June 1995 Issue. Pages 3-5.
Copyright © 1997 Shepherds of Christ.
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Revised: Feb. 2, 1997