A statue of Mary and a crucifix are seen on Apparition Hill in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. CNS photo/Paul Haring

In late May, the Vatican published a translation of a 1978 Latin document outlining a series of guidelines to help bishops discern if supposed apparitions or revelations are genuine or not. 

Private revelation is a tricky thing for a number of reasons. 

First, it’s titillating stuff because lots of people — and particularly the mass media — are always hungry for the supposed “inside information” that private revelations are popularly imagined to provide. People go running after claims of private revelation because they imagine it will give them the scoop on spiritual stuff that is not available to the common herd who just go to Mass, read the Bible, listen to the teaching of the magisterium and try to imitate the saints. The mass media only encourage this sort of mentality, and they do it with such speed that a claim of private revelation can go halfway round the world while the local bishop is still brushing his teeth in the morning.  

The Medjugorje case

That is what prompted the promulgation of the “Norms regarding the manner of proceedings in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations” in 1978, with a prefatory comment that, “Today, more than in the past, news of these apparitions is diffused rapidly among the faithful thanks to the means of information (mass media).” 

This comment was prescient, as was the document’s warning that “the ease of going from one place to another fosters frequent pilgrimages, so that ecclesiastical authority should discern quickly about the merits of such matters.” All this has been borne out since by the phenomenon of Medjugorje, a small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it is claimed that Mary has been appearing since 1981. The alleged apparitions have generated great controversy, not least because the local ordinaries have repeatedly declared that nothing supernatural is occurring there, while devotees and pilgrims numbering in the hundreds of thousands insist there is. The case is under investigation in Rome with the agreement of the local ordinary responsible for Medjugorje, and both sides are eagerly awaiting a decision.

A tool for bishops

This highlights the next issue that is problematic in discerning private revelation: namely, that Catholics have many in their number who are not inclined to believe the normal authority for deciding such matters is the local bishop. When a claim of private revelation becomes popular, despite the finding of the bishop to the contrary, arguments begin to be made such as: “The local bishop condemned St. Joan of Arc, too!” Enthusiasts tend not to remember that for every St. Joan of Arc, there are hundreds of claims of Mary appearing on grilled cheese sandwiches. 

So, it is generally a bad idea to leap to that conclusion when, for instance, a committee of bishops votes 19 to zero against a claimed “revelation,” as in Medjugorje. The wiser course is to listen to the local bishop until Rome specifically overturns his findings. It is important to note that the guidelines now available in vernacular languages are not directed at laypeople and contain no instruction to laity to ignore the local ordinary. 

Rather, the guidelines are directed at bishops who remain the normative authority in evaluating claims of private revelation. Only on rare occasions are matters deferred to Rome. When they are, it is not because the local bishop is a masochist who is expecting Rome to publicly humiliate him and his fellow local bishops by hailing the alleged apparition as genuine and declaring himself and his brother bishops to be the moral and intellectual equivalents of the prelate who burnt St. Joan of Arc at the stake. Rather, it is because the local bishop knows the facts of the case and is expecting Rome to ratify his findings and help quell an unwarranted enthusiasm for a false claim of private revelation. 

Mark Shea writes from Washington state.


The guidelines look for good fruits and bad, just as Jesus said to do (Mt 7:15-20).   

Signs of good fruits:
◗ “Moral certitude, or at least great probability of the existence of the fact, acquired by means of a serious investigation.” (Does the person claiming the revelation seem to be genuinely convinced that what he is asserting is true?)
◗ “Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility toward ecclesiastical authority, the capacity to return to a normal regimen of a life of faith, etc.).” (Does the alleged visionary give evidence of being a good, honest, mentally healthy and holy person?)
◗ “As regards revelation: true theological and spiritual doctrine and immune from error.” (Is the private revelation in accord with the public revelation given in the tradition of the Church? If not, the visionary could part the Red Sea and they could still be a dangerous false prophet.)
◗ “Healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit (for example, spirit of prayer, conversion, testimonies of charity, etc.).” (Is the alleged private revelation sending people — including the visionary — back to the ordinary life and teaching of the Church, the sacraments, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and the practice of virtue?)
Signs of bad fruits:
◗ “Doctrinal errors attributed to God himself, or to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to some saint in their manifestations, taking into account however the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation.” (If a seer claims that the vision has revealed something obviously contrary to the faith, the alarms should sound. At the same time, the Church counsels patience since seers see what they can understand within their particular cultural context and can err in good faith. So, for instance, St. Catherine of Siena, a seer and Doctor of the Church, records dialogues with God the Father in which she is convinced that the locution told her that Mary was not immaculately conceived. Is she a liar and a fraud? No, just a good 14th-century Third Order Dominican who follows St. Thomas as her authority on what was then still a disputed question.)
◗ “Evidence of a search for profit or gain strictly connected to the fact. Gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers when the fact occurred or in connection with it. Psychological disorder or psychopathic tendencies in the subject, that with certainty influenced on the presumed supernatural fact, or psychosis, collective hysteria or other things of this kind.” (Does the alleged visionary give evidence of being crazy, a hysteric, a liar, a chronic impenitent, a crook, a con man, a rebel against the Church, a blatant heretic or a publicity hog?)
These are, more or less, the same guidelines by which the Church has always navigated — basically the same criteria can be found in the article on private revelation in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia.