[Busy days ahead so I will pause my posting till the weekend]
As a person who went on pilgrimage to Medjurgorje twice 25 or so years ago, let me say a few brief things about the recent judgment of Bishop Ratko Peri, following the lengthy Vatican investigation:
Considering everything that this chancery has so far researched and studied, including the first seven days of the alleged apparitions, it can peacefully be affirmed: The Madonna has not appeared in Medjugorje.
See also the cruxnow.com article here.
My comments today won’t analyze the content of the Vatican investigation or the Bishop’s judgment, which I don’t have time to think about or research, but I will offer four general reflections on claims to “private revelations” like those in Medjurgorje.
(N.B. I include a definition of what I mean by “private and public revelation” at the bottom of this post).
First. Private revelations always hold a relative status in the Catholic tradition. Even when the Church makes a judgment in favor of an apparition of Mary, belief in the apparition is not commanded for Catholics but only commended as “worthy of pious belief.” The obedience of faith is given only to public revelation, i.e. what is contained in Sacred Scripture as interpreted and handed on in Sacred Tradition. In fact, commending a private revelation as “worthy of pious belief” is actually quite modest language. Strictly speaking, the Church does not “approve” an apparition as true. Rather, it only asserts that the Church finds in the apparition nothing contrary to orthodox faith and practice.
That said, private revelations, like those in Fatima, Portugal can be given a revered status by the Church, even becoming the focus of a liturgical feast day (Our Lady of Fatima on May 13). And though one is still not required to accept the specifics of Fatima (e.g. Mary appeared between May 13 and October 13 at the Cova de Iria, the sun miraculously danced in the sky) as a truth of faith, the core message of Our Lady at Fatima must be accepted simply because it is part of the Catholic common core of beliefs, i.e. be devoted to God, repent, pray, do penance, make acts of reparation and receive the Sacraments.
Second. Following from the first point, private revelations can never be said to add anything substantial to the content of faith. When authentic, they only serve to emphasize and punctuate what is already fully present in the Church’s ordinary faith and sacramental life. In theological language, ordinary means not plain or dull, but rather the normal means by which God brings us His truth and salvation. Private revelations are always extra-ordinary, out of the ordinary. While we don’t diss their value, we also refuse to overinflate their value. Then why does God grant them at all? The Tradition is consistently clear that they are given by God when some aspect of the ordinary is being neglected or denigrated; or when there is an extraordinary crisis that may prevent the faithful from seeing and accessing the fullness of truth and life found in the Church. God does extra-ordinary things, yes, but extraordinary always tends back to the ordinary. As extra-ordinary, all private revelations are secondary, supplementary, ancillary and, like John the Baptist, should always be content to decrease in favor of the increase of the ordinary.
Those who latch on to private revelations in an obsessive, disordered, clingy or fanatical fashion sow the seeds of sectarianism, dishonor the fullness of salvation already “ordinarily” present in the Church, and they threaten the primacy of unseeing faith over visions. Faith, not sight, is the appropriate posture toward the supernatural in this life (see John 20:29; 2 Cor. 5:7).
In my experience, so much of what I call Catholic “apparition culture” resembles early Christian gnosticism that favored secret, esoteric, spectacular, special and new revelations over the ancient Apsotolic Tradition. A morbid fascination with novelties, the miraculous, the odd, as well as the compulsive need to feel special, is how St. Irenaeus might have described the gnostic pathology in his 3rd century treatise, Against All Heresies. St. John of the Cross made this same point thus:
Therefore if someone were now to ask questions of God or seek any new vision or revelation, he would not only be acting foolishly but would be committing an offense against God – for he should set his eyes altogether upon Christ and seek nothing beyond Christ.
God might answer him after this manner, saying: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him. I have spoken all things to you in my Word. Set your eyes on him alone, for in him I have spoken and revealed to you all things, and in him you shall find more than you ask for, even more than you want.”
Modern versions of this neo-gnostic “apparition culture” also seem to be a very human response to the crisis of modernity that has placed faith under the critical microscope of science, stripped away the sacred from the public square and made of religion a wholly private affair locked in the inner room of personal experience. Maybe, angst-ridden moderns fret, the personal experience of heaven breaking the laws of nature and bypassing the ordinary, telling us what it all means, and what to do, is the only way we can gain real certitude and peace with this age’s countless ambiguities. But succumbing to such an approach as a Catholic means, among other things, that we willingly grant faith and reason a written bill of divorce and relegate Christian apologetics to a course in miracles. But I digress.
Third. Because private revelations have only a relative status and are extra-ordinary, they have a certain inherent ambiguity. St. John of the Cross, who is merciless on claims to visions, locutions and other extraordinary mystical phenomena, makes it clear that those who claim to receive these “extraordinary favors” from God, or from a saint or angel, are always subject to errors in the process of receiving, interpreting or relating the content of what is heard or seen. Which is why, St. John says, the best approach a spiritual director can take toward a directee claiming such extraordinary things is not credulity (canonizing the experience), but scrutiny, placing faith, humility, discretion and prudence in the forefront. If the mystical phenomena are from God, they will come to pass through the fires of virtuous scrutiny and in fidelity to the authority of the Church. And this is the case especially when the recipients of revelations claim their message is for others or even the whole world.
Naïve credulity, John says, is the open gateway to diabolical and psychological delusion, while sage discretion is the gateway to genuine illumination that flows from reason informed by faith.
Unlike public revelation, even with authentic instances of private revelation it’s not always simply about believing “all or nothing.” To say either everything a visionary said is true or it’s all a lie misses the complexity of the reality. Seers and saints aren’t mediums who channel an unfiltered divine voice, but, like theologians, are interpreters of God’s living Word who are subject to error and are subject to the critique of reason and the final judgment of the Church’s authority. Pope Benedict XIV, when referring to the mistaken predictions of St. Catherine Labouré, said: “The revelations of some holy women canonized by the Apostolic See, whose saying and writings came in [mystical] rapture and were derived from rapture, are filled with errors.” Yes, these women are still saints, and their teachings are still revered, but holy saints are not Holy Spirits.
Fourth. Even when claims to extraordinary mystical or supernatural phenomena are deemed problematic or false, or even diabolical, genuine graces received in association with those dubious phenomena are not thereby rendered meaningless. God, who sends rain on the just and the wicked, and who speaks through asses and antagonists (cf. Numbers 22:21-38; John 11:49-52), is very willing to work good wherever there is sincere faith, hope and love. Like it or not, weeds and wheat, wheat and chaff co-exist in this world.
So when some aspect of a good thing given by God is found to be tainted or flawed with some bad element, we should not simply throw out the baby with the baptismal water. We must use discretion, retaining what is good and rejecting what is not (cf 1 John 4:1). Consider that if a priest in mortal sin can validly consecrate the Holy Eucharist, absolve sin, etc. with all the fullness of God’s power, then good graces given in association with alleged apparitions that are subsequently deemed by the Church “not to be worthy of pious belief” should not be rejected or doubted. They only need be purified, detached from alien elements, winnowed and brought into conformity with the act of an unseeing Catholic faith, hope and love. The many graces I received in Medjugorje remain with me today, and to accept the judgment of the Church that these apparitions are not objectively genuine supernatural “visionary” events does not steal those graces from me, but makes me even more grateful that our God is a God who can make even the very stones cry out His praise: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38, 40).
In some ways, hearing such a stark judgment on an alleged apparition can serve to strengthen faith. How? Inasmuch as it reinforces the bedrock truth that, in this life, God wishes us to cling to Him in dark faith and veiled sacrament within the ordinary life of the Church and amid the ordinary contexts of daily life. And the ordinary, for Catholics, burgeons with great mystery as it both conceals and reveals — like the earth’s serene crust — the fiery magma of grace burning beneath life’s homely surface. Seeking to bypass the divine economy of “the mystery of faith” is, it seems to me, a form of cheating.
I, for one, am grateful that the Church takes so seriously her shepherding role in the face of every claim to extra-ordinary graces and supernatural events. I’d have no faith in a credulous Church. Catholics must rejoice in knowing that, in the ordinary economy of grace, we have superabundantly more of God’s graces than we could ever ask for or imagine. As I said in class the other day, “If the fact that Baptism remits all your sins, recreates your nature, grants you adoption by the Most High King, makes your body-soul into a Holy of Holies for the life-giving Trinity, divinizes you, empowers you to consecrate the cosmos to God and labor into existence an everlasting new creation is not enough to satisfy your itch for mystery and thrill, nothing will do it.”
So when any “extras” do come to us, if they do, we must happily beg Christ to at once to give us a fresh infusion of the 9th beatitude that clearly gives Him such great joy:
[Revelation refers to God’s making Himself and His plan known, specifically to Israel and the Church, and above all in Christ. Public revelation, which ended with the death of the last Apostle, refers to all that God has made known to us that is contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Private revelation refers to any claim in the post-apostolic Church that God or a saint/angel has revealed something to a person or persons by some extraordinary means, like an apparition or locution. Public revelation demands the assent of faith by all Christians, while private revelation does not]