In Part I of this article, we defined what an apparition is, discussed some of the issues surrounding the proliferation of these kinds of reports, and talked about when and how Our Blessed Lady has appeared. But just because someone claims to have seen Our Lady, how can we be certain it was really Mary?
As we all know, not every apparition receives the approval of the Church. And there is a lot of confusion about why some apparitions are judged worthy of belief and others are not. Today, we’re going to be exploring this question and highlighting some of the things that the Church takes into consideration when investigating the authenticity of an apparition.
How many apparitions have been approved so far?
When an apparition is first reported, it always attracts a great deal of attention. And inevitably, after each report, many others follow soon afterwards. In her book, Those Who Saw Her, Catherine Odell notes that, “After each claim that the Church later confirmed as valid, an ‘echo-phenomenon’ was noticed. … For example, following the apparitions of Our Lady of Beauraing (1932-33), 20 ‘visions’ were reported in Belgium within weeks.”2
But one fundamental, underlying principle always guides the Church as it examines the authenticity of apparitions, that “God must and will sustain the validity of the experience if it is from Him. If it is ‘of human origin it will break up of its own accord.’”1 In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that of the 295 apparitions that have been studied, only 12 have been approved as “worthy of belief.”3
What happens when an apparition is reported?
When an apparition is first reported, the local Bishop is responsible to investigate the claim. Typically, a commission is organized at the local or diocesan level, and in certain special circumstances, the Conference of Bishops and even the Apostolic See [i.e., the Vatican] has the authority to intervene.
In 1978, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith established guidelines that must be followed in the investigation of all apparitions. There are four general criteria:
- There must be a moral certainty – or at least a great probability – that something miraculous has occurred.
- The subjects who claim to have had the apparition must be mentally sound, honest, sincere, of upright conduct, obedient to ecclesiastical authorities, and able to return to the normal practices of the faith (such as participation in communal worship and reception of the sacraments).
- The content of the revelation must be theologically acceptable, morally sound, and free of error. Any message given cannot in any way contradict or question Christian faith or fundamental teachings.
- The apparition must result in positive spiritual assets that endure (e.g. prayer, conversion, increase of charity).4
Fr. Salvatore M. Perrella, an expert in dogma and Mariology from the Mariunum Pontifical School in Rome, explained that in order for an investigation to proceed, “‘precise information’ should be gathered about the various aspects of the alleged apparitions. … Testimonies of conversions, theological analysis of the message of the apparitions, a medical and psychological review of the seer or visionary, including his or her educational level, an examination of their spiritual life, their level of communion with the Church, miraculous healings and occurrences, and other factors”5 are all taken into account. Financial gain must not be a motive, and the event must result in healthy religious devotion and spiritual fruits, with no evidence of collective hysteria.6
Apparitions are not an end in and of themselves, but simply one of the means God uses to help us draw closer to Him. In his 2010 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The criterion for judging the truth of a private revelation is its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel, and not away from it. Private revelation is an aid to this faith, and it demonstrates its credibility precisely because it refers back to the one public revelation.”7
What happens when the investigation is complete?
Once the commission has completed its investigation of the apparition, there are three possible conclusions:
- Not worthy of belief. “Constat de non supernaturalitate.” (It is established that there is nothing supernatural here.) This means that the apparition doesn’t exhibit the characteristics that show it to be from God, thereby attributing it to fraud or another spirit.
- Nothing contrary to the Faith. “Non constat de supernaturalitate.” (It is not established that something supernatural is here.) This is a neutral judgment. The apparition may or may not be the result of a supernatural intervention, but it doesn’t contain anything that is contrary to faith and morals.
- Approved – approved or recognized by the Church. Worthy of belief by the faithful. “Constat de supernaturalitate.” The apparition shows the distinguishing traits of an occurrence arranged by God and contains nothing contrary to faith and morals.
Are Catholics required to believe in apparitions?
Many people are convinced of the truth of the apparitions that have taken place across the world. However, it is not necessary for Catholics to believe in them. Pope Benedict XVI once remarked, “No apparition is indispensable to the faith. Revelation ended with Jesus Christ.”9
But it is also true that much good can flow from private revelations. When the French Communist Party denounced the celebration of the apparitions of Our Lady of Laus as “a marketing ploy of the Church,” the Bishop of the Diocese of Gap (where Laus is located) responded by saying, “Nobody is obliged to believe in apparitions, even in those officially recognized. But, if they help us in our faith and our daily lives, why should we reject them?”8 Pope Benedict explained, “Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation essentially means that its message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals; it is licit to make it public and the faithful are authorized to give to it their prudent adhesion. A private revelation can introduce new emphases, give rise to new forms of piety, or deepen older ones. It can have a certain prophetic character (cf. 1 Th 5:19-21) and can be a valuable aid for better understanding and living the Gospel at a certain time; consequently it should not be treated lightly. It is a help which is proffered, but its use is not obligatory. In any event, it must be a matter of nourishing faith, hope and love, which are for everyone the permanent path of salvation.”10
What is the difference between Public Revelation and private revelation?
To go deeper in our understanding of why it is not necessary for Catholics to believe in apparitions, it is helpful to distinguish between ‘Public Revelation’ and ‘private revelation’. Public Revelation, which must be believed by all Catholics, is the means by which God has revealed Himself to us. It is preserved in Sacred Scripture (the Old and New Testament) and in Sacred Tradition (which ended with the death of the last Apostle). Everything that is needed for our Salvation has been fully revealed to us through the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and therefore nothing further will be added to Public Revelation. St. John of the Cross writes, “In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other) [God] spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say … because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son.”11
Private revelations, which include Marian apparitions, do not add to or form part of the Deposit of Faith. Although the Church might recognize such revelations and approve their messages, their purpose is simply to help people draw closer to Christ and to live their faith more fully. The Church teaches that, even in the case of approved apparitions, “believers [can] certainly and legitimately refuse to believe in apparitions ‘provided this is done with suitable modesty, for good reasons and without contempt.’”12
Mary’s appearances do not add anything new to Revelation, which is the total truth about God and Salvation. Instead, they are “messages given to help live out the teaching of fundamental Revelation in that ‘particular’ time and place.”13 In Those Who Saw Her, Odell writes, “The Church is essentially apostolic: it can proclaim only the message received from the apostles. Nothing new can be incorporated into this, even though it may be true. Since Revelation supplied the necessary body of truth about God and salvation two thousand years ago, ‘[private] revelations’, including apparitions, can’t really add anything. This is the reason why belief in apparitions, even those like Lourdes and Fátima, is optional.”14
What about the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje?
One of the questions still before the Church today is that of the authenticity of the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje (1981-present). Many people believe they are authentic, but others do not. In 1991, after an initial investigation, the Bishops’ Conference in Zadar announced that, “On the basis of investigations so far it can not be affirmed that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations.”15 A few years later, the 1993 Committee of Bishops (organized by Pope St. John Paul II) stated, “We bishops, after a three-year-long commission study accept Medjugorje as a holy place, as a shrine. This means that we have nothing against it if someone venerates the Mother of God in a manner also in agreement with the teaching and belief of the Church. … Therefore, we are leaving that to further study. The Church does not hurry.”16
Practically speaking, this means that until a final decision has been reached, the Vatican doesn’t forbid anyone from visiting Medjugorje. However, no “official” pilgrimages can be endorsed or organized.17 In addition, Catholics may not participate in any events that presume the authenticity of Medjugorje.18
We may soon have a more definitive answer, however. In March, 2010, the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina requested that a new commission be established to investigate the authenticity of the apparitions. The commission, which was presided over by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, completed its work on January 17, 2014. Two days later, the results were submitted to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. After completing their examination, the results were given to Pope Francis, who will have the final say and decide when to make the Church’s decision public. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Bosnia on June 6th, 2015, and many hope that he will make an official announcement about Medjugorje at that time.
What about those of us who have not “seen”? Are we missing out?
As we have already discussed, God revealed Himself to the entire world through Public Revelation – in the Person of Jesus Christ, through Sacred Scripture, and through Sacred Tradition. But we have also seen that God can (and does) reveal Himself to us individually in whatever manner He chooses. Does this mean that if we haven’t seen an apparition that we are missing out in some way? Are apparitions God’s ultimate means of communicating with us?
In answer to this question, Fr. Johann G. Roten, an internationally recognized scholar and authority on Mary, writes, “Apparitions are neither the classical ways to God’s self-communication nor even remotely the most important ones. Any sacrament of the Church is an infinitely safer conductor of the supernatural than apparitions. Nonetheless, apparitions remind us that Christianity is a religious tradition based on mediation always. God is not immediately present, but He gives himself to be shared. He entrusts Himself or His message to Mary, who in turn entrusts this same message to the visionary who passes it on to a multitude of people, mostly pilgrims. These again share the message with others. This is the very anatomy of revelation, not just the ephemeral [short-lived] strategy of an apparition.”19
While it is true that most us have not “seen” with our eyes, we have all “heard” the Word of God with our ears. And though our Blessed Mother may not have personally visited us by means of an apparition, we can all reflect on the messages she has shared through her visionaries. Although it would undoubtedly be an amazing grace to have such an experience, God does not often choose to speak with us through extraordinary means. Rather, each of us has access to the mysteries of God through prayer and participating in the Sacraments. Such are the ordinary “extraordinary” means through which God desires to meet us – to enter into our lives and distribute His graces.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Catherine M. Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2010), 35.
2 Gamaliel. Quoted in Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 30.
3 Salvatore M. Perella. Quoted in “Expert explains Church’s criteria for confirming Marian apparitions,” Catholic News Agency (CNA), May 8, 2008; available from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/expert_explains_churchs_criteria_for_confirming_marian_apparitions/; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015. Amongst the hundreds of reports received over the years, 26 have originated in Canada. According to the website, The Miracle Hunter, no decision has yet been given for those reported in Verdun, 1920; Montréal, 1922; Saint-Placide, 1939; Saint-Eugène de Gamby, 1950; Gaspé, 1957; Mont-Laurier and Québec, 1967; St.-Bruno-de-Chambly and Anse-aux-Gascons, 1968; Luke Saint John, 1971; Drummondville, 1972; Brother Joseph Francis, 1974; Burlington, 1988, Marmora, Ont. and L’Avenir, PQ, 1990; Ottawa, Surrey, Scarborough, and Kingston, 1993; 2 in Montréal and 1 in Saskatoon, 1998; Québec, 1999; Prince Edward Island, 2000. The reported apparitions at Saint Jovite and Québec in 1958 received a negative decision. “Unapproved Apparition,” The Miracle Hunter; available from http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/unapproved_apparitions/; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.
4 Cf. “Discernment of Apparition Claims,” The Miracle Hunter; available from http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/discernment/index.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015. Also see International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton, About Mary; available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/maryapparitions.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.
5 Salvatore M. Perella. Quoted in “Expert explains Church’s criteria for confirming Marian apparitions,” Catholic News Agency (CNA), May 8, 2008.
6 Cf. “Discernment of Apparition Claims,” The Miracle Hunter.
7 Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 14. Available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015. This letter is the post-synodal apostolic exhortation that was issued following the XIIth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Synod met from October 5th to 26th in 2008 and the topic of discussion was “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.
8 Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 10, quoting Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco Léandri.
9 Pope Benedict XVI; quoted in Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 8.
10 Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 14.
11 CCC, 65.
12 Odell, Those Who Saw Her, 34.
13 Ibid., 22.
15 Steve Shawl, “The Church’s Position on Medjugorje,” Medjugorje Web; available from http://www.medjugorje.org/church.htm; Internet; accessed 18 March 2015.
16 Ibid. Quoted from Glas Koncila, August 15, 1993.
17 Ibid. “An official pilgrimage is defined as a group organized and led by bishops, priests, and other clergy. A private pilgrimage is one which is organized by laity, but can also include bishops, priests, and other clergy.”
18 Cf. Colin B. Donovan, STL, “Medjugorje,” (rev. Nov. 6, 2013), EWTN; available from https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/medjugorje.htm; Internet; accessed 18 March 2015.
In response to the planned appearances of one of the Medjugorje seers, Ivan Dragičević, at conferences in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (Apostolic Nuncio to the United States) wrote a letter on behalf of Gerhard Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the General Secretary of the USCCB in October, 2013. He wrote, “No cleric or faithful may participate in any meetings, conferences, or public celebrations in which the authenticity of the apparitions are taken for granted.”
19 Fr. Johann G. Roten, “Basics on Apparitions,” About Mary (International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton); available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/apparitions.html; Internet; accessed 15 March 2015.