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Prophecy and Apparitions (Prof. Niels Christian Hvidt)
Differences Between Prophecy and Apparitions

Even though apparitions and traditional prophecy share many features and it is fully justifiable to situate both in the category of prophecy, it is possible to trace out dis- tinct differences between the two. 1) While the secretary-type of prophecy is mainly female, it is children of both genders who receive apparitions, perhaps with the one significant exception of the apparitions to the young nun Catherine de Labouré at Rue de Bac in Paris in the 19th century. 2) The messages of the secretary-type prophets are usually remarkably long, making out many volumes of visions and con- versations with Jesus and the Saints. It may reach impressive qualities and insights in terms of spirituality, expressing truths of even the most complex realms of theol- ogy, without many of the prophets having opened a book of theology. Messages de- rived from apparitions, on the other hand, are normally rather short and the content not too complicated with simple exhortations to live in prayer and in the love of God and neighbor. 3) The occurrence of the visions to the secretary type of prophets is not limited to any geographical location; in fact, many of the female prophets traveled extensively, such as e.g. Birgitta of Sweden. With the apparitions, on the other hand, the location is extremely important and usually does not change during the appari- tions. By this the geographical location in which the apparitions take place becomes an apparition-site—places of pilgrimage that historically have proven to influence the life of the church long after the departure of the visionary.

The Worldwide Relevance of Apparitions

Even though the messages of these apparitions usually are rather simple, adapted to the minds of children, they not only have an impact on the spiritual life of believers, but many apparitions contain messages and prophecies that enter the world-wide scenario of human life and that often come true in surprisingly concrete ways. The famous example is the apparitions of Fatima. Here one of Mary’s prophecies focuses on the potential dangers of Russia, something that modern civilization has identified with communism. The messages of Fatima portray austere warnings of the Mother of Jesus, calling the world to conversion and prayer, warning that the world would suf- fer if it did not heed her admonitions:

"If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated." [432]

The message is an excellent example of Christian prophecy disclosing future events. The warnings of future chastisements are not unconditional and do not reflect a pho- tographic image of an already programmed occurrence. As in the Old Testament, prophecies of impending dangers are mostly conditional;[433] there is always an “if” that renders the prophetic predictions plasmatic and open to human intervention. Hence, what prophets reveal is the relationship between human actions and their effects in the world. Thus, the fulfillment of the prophecy always is predicated on the response of conversion, prayer and sacrifice from the faithful. Studying the tradition of Christian prophecy makes it evident that prophecies of future calamities are not the capricious inventions of a malicious God. Rather, they are fatherly warnings about the consequences of the evil actions of the children of the earth according to the Old Testament scheme: what comes from the earth will descend upon the earth; you reap what you sow.

By this we also touch upon the very nature of Christian prophecy. The prophet comes across as an important player in the on-going spiritual battle between good and evil in the world. Even though history shows that prophecy indeed has had an influence on the development of Christian dogma—i.e. the relationship between Catherine de Labouré’s revelations and the promulgation of the Dogma of the Im- maculate Conception—the prophet’s main function is not to disclose unknown doc- trines. The essentials of Christian faith are given in Holy Scripture. Hence, the task of the prophet is rather to lead the church to live the Gospel and to guide it through the rough waters of history, pointing out dangers and admonishing the faithful to keep in union with God and his truth.

Niels Christian Hvidt,
Christian Prophecy: The Post-Biblical Tradition,
Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 165-167.

[432] Catholic Church. Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, The message of Fatima (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000) 16.

[433] Some examples can be found in Gen 2:16-17; Deut 28:1,15; 30:15-18; 31:28-29; Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1-2.

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