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Private Revelations: What Are We to Believe?

November 2, AD2015

angel_2015.10.30

I had the recent and fascinating pleasure of getting myself confused on-line with a fellow Catholic and so-called “seer” from Colorado named Charlie Johnston.* The reason for the confusion being obvious. And as may be expected, it made for an intriguing foray into what the man has to say about his purported messages from heaven. It also drew me deep into an exploration of how the Catholic Church looks at claims of this kind. To journey through her wisdom on this subject of private revelation makes for a compelling exposé, I would say, into one of the finer points of our Catholic faith.

What are private revelations?

The Church makes a distinction between what is called public, or “universal” revelation, and private revelation. Public revelation is most easily understood as the “deposit of faith” or the twin foundation of what is recorded in Sacred Scripture and perpetuated by Sacred Tradition. As such, the deposit of faith is a closed matter. Nothing can be added to or taken away from it.

It is easiest to think of this type of revelation as encompassing all of the essential matters of the faith, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) puts it this way:

The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (CCC 66)

In other words, Christ and the apostles closed the canon on public revelation that is binding on all of the faithful. This does not mean that further clarification is not necessary, as that same section of the catechism goes on to say:

Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

This is the arena of the teaching Magisterium of the Church. The Bishops and the Pope may clarify or “make explicit” certain matters of faith, but they never re-define or change what has already been given.

Private revelation is something of a different sort in that while it may come from God, it may not add to or take away from the deposit of faith, or in any way contradict the faith and morals that have been handed down to us (CCC 67).

It may be helpful to think about it within the parameters of capability and function. On all of the essential matters of the faith, the Holy Spirit has made a way for us to receive a revelation that is not subject to human error. The dual foundations of Sacred Scripture and a Sacred Tradition have the means, or capability, of making that truth plain to us. It serves the function of granting the Church an arena of Truth that can be trusted. As noted, the Magisterium may need to clarify, but it never changes these essential truths.

On a private or individual basis, there is no such guard against errors as we are fallen creatures and are, unfortunately, capable of being deceived. Therefore, individually, we are incapable of providing binding revelation for the whole body of Christ. That would not be the function or capability of private revelation.

How does the Church get involved?

Now that we have a handle on the general character of public vs. private revelation, it is worthwhile to ask how the church approaches claims of private revelation. Most Catholics are well acquainted with the events of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe. Though all of these famous apparitions are approved by the Church, they are not considered a part of the deposit of faith. As such, these events would fall into the category of private revelation.

In keeping with the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil…” the Catholic Church does not automatically close its mind to these things. So while the three miraculous events of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe are approved by the Church and held close to the hearts of many Catholics, the lay-faithful are not required to believe in them. Without these events, technically, the message of the gospel is unchanged and so is the deposit of faith.

The approval of these apparitions and any other private revelation is the purview of the presiding Bishop wherever they occur. The Bishop may investigate, if he so chooses, and make a determination about the private revelations. He may find them as giving signs of supernatural origin and in no way contradicting good faith and morals. But as in the case of any other well-known and widely accepted event, such as the aforementioned, even if the Bishop approves, the lay-faithful are not required to believe or accept the occurrences.

What should the lay-faithful’s response be to private revelations?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was recently presented with an opportunity to explore the claims of someone else’s private revelation. Now that I am familiar with the scope of private revelation, what it is, and what it is not, and what the Catholic church has to say about it, the question remains – what do I do with this information?

The Church has a process for judging alleged private revelations. It is a well-involved process outlined in a document called “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which you can read here, in its entirety. I would be willing to wager that most Catholics do not have the time or the resources to undergo the same process that the Church does when investigating these types of claims. But here are some helpful highlights from the CDF document to guide us along the way and can, for the most part, be practically applied by anyone:

  1. What is the moral character of the person claiming visions or messages from heaven? This one may be common sense. Do they usually tell the truth?
  2. What does their devotional life look like? Are they prayerful, rooted in the teachings of the Church and in sacred scripture and are they given to study? Do they yield to the Magisterium? Do they bear fruit and display Christian character?
  3. What is the nature of the claims that are made? Do they aim to edify but in such a way that does not take away from what we already know to be true?

Some warning signs would be:

  • Immoral character of the individual claiming the revelation.
  • Doctrinal errors attributed to God, Mary, an angelic messenger, etc.
  • The “visionary” is seeking to profit off of his or her claims.
  • Any evidence for psychosis or hysteria.

I think it would be proper to add one more essential element to the foundation we are building. As we tuck this all away in our hearts and in our minds, we should remember the law of Love, which is the law of Christ: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing” (1 Cor. 13: 7-8).

The person who claims to receive private revelation, whatever merit they might have or not, is an image bearer of the God who made them. What the church says on any matter is void of any meaning if it is understood beyond the context of genuine love. How we decide on these matters and talk about them with others should always be flavored with Christian charity, with an aim at building up and never tearing down.

Respecting Church Authority

I hope this information helps you as much as it helped me. I have heard claims to revelation that have dazzled my imagination and that have provoked both fear and awe in me. Turning my mind to the wisdom of the Church has been a soothing balm and a faithful guide. I have good tools to use going forward. I know that the individual making claims to private revelation does not have to be perfect, since we are all fallen, but who they are and what they are saying does need to have a certain character about them. I know that I must be cautious in believing too much, too soon, without properly forming my conscience on these matters. And I must be careful never to go further than the Church does on matters of private revelation. Sometimes it may be best for me to wait on her judgment.

(*) You can read what Mr. Johnston has to say at his blog, the Next Right Step. Mr. Johnston’s revelations have not yet been approved by the Church.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Charlie hails from the deep green southern reaches of Birmingham, Alabama. Inspired by Catholic thinkers to re-write his reformed Protestant view of the faith, he began a journey that led him to confirmation and first Holy Communion in the Catholic Church in January 2015. Charlie has a B.A. in Religion and works in the legal profession by day, writing in his spare time. He married his lovely bride, Katie, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December 2015.

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  • Dhaniele

    Benedict XVI, when he was head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, made a valuable contribution to this topic in his comment on Fatima. He responds implicitly to the idea that Jesus is the Word and therefore revelation ends with the teaching of his time on earth. In fact, Jesus said: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you” (Jn 16:12-14). The future Pope states that this is the context in which we should understand private revelation and adds that this is the way we should interpret Dei Verbum #8 of Vatican II. His conclusion is that in a prophetic way these messages tell us what we should do now. Thus, the messages calling us to prayer and penance when these things are out of fashion are reminders that there are urgent reasons why these pleas are made in our times when many may not see any urgency at all.

  • Guest_august

    Certainly we should all follow the example of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and stay away from the private devotion and image revealed to Sr. Faustina Kowalska

  • Patti Maguire Armstrong

    I’m in the middle of reading Refractions of Light by Kevin Symonds. It’s an excellent source to understand how the Church handles reports of apparitions. Very funny to have the two Charlie’s confused by not surprising. I did a double take on something once thinking you were him.

  • Denise

    “Refractions of Light” is an excellent guide for those interested in what the Church teaches concerning private revelations. Mr. Symonds leaves no questions unanswered.

  • Kevin Symonds

    Hi Charlie!

    You might be interested in my book “Refractions of Light” (shameless promotion…). It delves into a lot of these issues using Q&A format.

    http://www.amazon.com/Refractions-Light-Kevin-Symonds/dp/1633370437/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1446499658&sr=8-1&keywords=Refractions+of+Light

  • Anabelle Hazard

    What an excellent and informative article. Thank you for giving us tools to discern without venturing into speculation and the reminder to regard seers with charity.