The Role and Status of Apparitions and Private Revelations (Fr. René Laurentin)
How to Approach Them?
«When the baby appeared, the family circle ap¬plauded with cries of joy»,
said Victor Hugo.
When an apparition takes place, the family circle of the Church does not applaud with cries of joy. The welcome is normally troubled, tense and nervous.
The number-one problem often seems to be: How to get rid of it (to use the title of a play by Eugène Ionesco). At Lourdes, Father Peyramale [Bernadette’s parish priest] greeted the first visit of Bernadette with one of his famous fits of rage which only he knew how to have. The apparitions that occurred in the fifteen years that followed Beauraing and Banneux (1932-1933) were, in varying degrees, discouraged, repressed, or concealed until the 1980’s.
For someone who loves Christ and the Virgin, an apparition would be good news as it is for many good Christians. Why then this mistrustful, or rather, disgruntled greeting?
A Humble Status
There are serious reasons.
- First of all there is the Word of Christ: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn. 20:29).
Those who take God at his Word more than those who see, even if be the resurrected Christ.
The Church has good reason to fear illusions and delusions, and the hierarchy is concerned about the authority of seers who might seem to have a direct line to God superior to their own. According to Karl Rahner, that is one of the historic reasons for the tension between the hierarchy and seers.
Moreover, apparitions have a humble status in the Church:
- They add nothing to the Revelation of Christ, which has omitted nothing essential.
- They are concerned, therefore, with various events in the life of the Church and not with fundamentals.
- An apparition, even one that is recognized, never constitutes a dogma. The Church never obliges one to believe. It is a free act of faith.
- Apparitions are not even among the ten theological fundamentals of Melchior Cano [a pioneer in the classification of theological studies at the time of Trent] despite the quality of certain messages from heaven.
- They are not the origin, but rather a risk for the life of mysticism according to Saint John of the Cross, who is severe in their regard, partly to deflect from himself the suspicions of delusions that were directed towards him.
The Role and Value of Apparitions
Nevertheless, apparitions have a very significant role in the life of the Church.
They are part of a universe of signs. Man, who is a rational animal, needs them. God knows it. This is what gave rise to Revelation and the rites of the Old Testament. Christ gave us the Gospel and the sacraments.
The Bible is a web of signs where miracles and apparitions abound in both the Old and New Testaments.
In the life of the Church, apparitions have a significant place: Guadalupe, Aparecida [Brasil], Lourdes, and Fatima are among the places of great pilgrimages of the Church after Rome.
God, who is both transcendent and intimate, does not leave mankind deprived of the signs without which faith withers and dies. Besides the objective signs which are the Church and the sacraments, he speaks throughout history by providential signs or extraordinary ones that call for discernment.
These signs have prophetic functions. St. Thomas stresses that they reawaken faith and "above all, hope." They remind us that the transcendent God remains present and near. The everyday signs, whether small or great, ordinary or extraordinary, are a viaticum for human weakness. In this way, apparitions are, first of all, a pastoral problem before being a theological or juridical one.
The Liberation and Multiplication of Apparitions
Why is it that apparitions which seemed extinct in the Church are today multiplying?
This change arises first of all from a juridical decision. The former Code of Canon Law, in canon 1399, paragraph 5, "forbade books or pamphlets which tell of new apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies and miracles". Canon 2318 excommunicated those who violated it.
- Vatican II
On October 14, 1966, Paul VI abolished these Canons (Decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, December 29, 1966, P. 1186). Therefore it was not introduced into the new Code of Canon Law. This new legislation restored Christian liberty along the lines of the Council. It put more trust in the charisms and prophetic initiatives of the laity. It was a risk, but the faithful have, in general, known how to act with obedience and discretion (with some exceptions).
In the climate of liberty, information took the place of repression. Charisms that were for a long time repressed were now encouraged, sometimes to excess.
In the new climate, several bishops have recognized official worship in new sites of apparitions, and in one case even authenticated one. Bishop Pio Bello Ricardo, the bishop of Los Teques (Venezuela), on February 7, 1988, recognized the apparitions of Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchi. They began in 1976 and continue today.
Other favourable decisions regarding official worship:
- At Akita, Japan, the bishop wanted to recognize the authenticity as well, but in the light of opposition within the bishop’s conference and in the commission, he held himself within the limits of prudence and short of his firm conviction.
- At Saint Nicolas, Argentina, the bishop, after a first examination, presided over an immense pro-cession in honour of Our Lady on the twenty-fifth of each month with crowds of approximately 100,000
- At Kibého, Rwanda, on August 15, 1988, the bishop recognized it as a place of official worship. The commission continues to investigate its authenticity. (Kibého recognized: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Kibeho).
- At Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, the bishops conference recognized it as a place of official worship under the confused circumstances that are well known
Often discernment remains confused, ambiguous, or controversial. It is important to make clear the obstacles.
The Formation of Commissions
At the level of commissions there is the problem of prejudices or wrong attitudes which need to be reformed in various degrees.
When authorities establish a commission of inquiry, theologians, canonists, and psychologists (psychoanalysts) are usually chosen. One can ask if these kinds of people are the best prepared for a spiritual discernment of the action of God. A few years ago I said to a Cardinal who was concerned about the formation of such a commission:
«Find people who don’t have a bookish knowledge but instead those with a real experience of human hearts and spiritual realities. You will find them surely among confessors who are reputed for their judgement and their holiness, seminary directors, novice masters and exorcists. In these affairs, a spiritual co-naturality is important. Of course, it is good to name one or two theologians to examine the doctrine as well as some scientists to define the nature of the facts, but also for them a certain spiritual sensitivity has its importance»
This proposal that is both evident and ordinary has hardly been followed up until now. Those with spiritual expertise are rarely nominated.
These commissions would normally have the task of aiding in the discernment which the pilgrims themselves are trying to make. However, even though, at times, these commissions are qualified, most often they retreat into secrecy. With neither evaluation nor moti¬vation, they are quite satisfied to come to a conclusion with an evasively negative formula: has not been proved (non patet supernaturalitas).This open and practically meaningless formula is often translated by newspapers in terms of condemnation as if the negation were " patet non supernaturalitas": the supernatural is excluded.
These confused situations are the effect of the following confused thinking:
- Often the commissions are focused on the miraculous : the extraordinary. But wonders are neither essential, nor primary, nor even necessary in recognizing the supernatural, be it a vision or a charisma. The supernatural is, above all, of a discreet and intimate nature. It is recognized by signs that are rather subtle and which good spiritual guides are able to discern. It is something rare and secondary for the intimate graces of God to cause exceptions to the laws of nature.
- Often there is a demand that the evidence for miracles be absolute and geometric. This is a second error; for the signs that God gives are usually given in a certain "grayness" which does not constrain one’s freedom and gives grounds only for various degrees of probability.
- For this reason the commissions conclude: "the supernatural has not been established" (non patet). This expression has two ambiguities:
- There is an unfortunate confusion between a prodigy and the supernatural.
- The supernatural ordinarily is abundant in these places of prayer. It is perplexing for those who have been converted in these places to hear: "This is not supernatural".
- Often the very study of the alleged miracles is, in various ways, neglected. The miracle is declared to be unconfirmed, but without a serious examination of cures which are, at times, remarkable.
- The commissions too easily hold as explainable things that are not explained and for which they themselves do not have the slightest credible explanation. They simply suppose that parapsychology, psychoanalysis, or rather "the occult" can explain everything. The report of the national commission for Akita (Japan) was quite strange from this point of view. The chief expert supposed that the visionary could be the parapsychological or ectoplasmic cause of flows of blood and sweat that were produced more than one hundred times by a statue of Our Lady.
When Christians lacking authority attempt a judgement, their attitude often justifies the following observations:
- Many say: "I have good discernment" and put themselves on the level of infallibility. The Pope himself does not say as much, nor do the bishops when confronted with the same problem. Since the Fifth Lateran Council, the Councils and the Tradition of the Church encourage the bishops to make use of experts to prepare their judgement, which should result from a convergence of signs. Rome itself was surprised when the bishop of Los Teques recognized the apparitions without having formed a commission of inquiry. But he was the only qualified expert in his diocese since he was professor of psychology and spirituality and former rector of the Catholic University of Caracas.
- Certain people make their judgement from the out¬side and in line with ideologies or anxieties that make them take the approach that the more extraordinary the event is, the worse it is. It is amazing to see the ease and superficiality with which such otherwise remarkable people pass judgements as:
"It is the devil."
"It is channeling" (in other words, the seer is a chanel of obscure powers).
Too many Freudian psychoanalysts reduce every¬thing to psychology, namely, neuroses.
Overly-systematic people and those motivated by ideologies heap up factors to shore up their hypothesis, most often without ever having met or questioned the seer or charismatic.
Those who are waging the campaign in Canada against Vassula have never met her. Although some of them accused me in terms that I find unacceptable, I did not want to get into an argument with them for two reasons:
I have a high degree of friendship and respect for several of them. I have told them my reasons and my objections. I have left all that exclusively in their hands. They will make them public if they judge it wise or they can keep them secret if they think it prudent.
Arguing degrades. It is not a good tool for reaching a true discernment for a matter that is intuitive.
I have been criticized for “guaranteeing” Vassula. I have never used that term. I simply represent the elements of discernment according to the classic rules. Each person can therefore be judge, and freedom of opinion is the rule in this area. Even when an official authority makes a pronouncement on an apparition, it does not impose a judgment; it merely proposes one.
Thus, I respect the freedom of each person, including the opponents, whose good faith is above suspicion.
When God gives a sign. A response to objections made against Vassula,
Trinitas 1993, pp. 11-20.