Seeing isn’t required for believing

By | May 13, 2013

Apparitions, or visions, of saints or angels have been part of Christian life from its start. In the church, they fall in the category of “private revelation.”

Public revelation is what was revealed by God through Jesus and, by Jesus, to the apostles. The church teaches that the era of public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle and is found in its entirety in the Scriptures.

The Second Vatican Council explained that the public revelation of Jesus “is the new and definitive covenant, (that) will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum, n. 4).

However, there is always room for deeper understanding of this public revelation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “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” (n. 66).

This leads us to what is called private revelation. This comes in various forms, including the insight of the Holy Spirit given to writers and preachers and in apparitions or appearances, such as Our Lady of Fatima or St. Faustina’s vision of Christ as Divine Mercy (1935).

The church teaches that visions, no matter how compelling, and not even when they are approved as “worthy of belief,” are not part of the deposit of faith. As the catechism says, “It is not their role (private revelations) to improve or complete Christ’s definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”

The bishops and the pope, guided by something called “the sensus fidelium,” or “the sense of the faithful” decides upon the worthiness of a private revelation. In assessing reported visions, such as those of Adele Brise, the church focuses on these main points:

  • Whether the message revealed conforms with Gospel revelation;
  • Whether that message conforms to the dogmatic tradition of the church, meaning that it cannot conflict with church doctrine;
  • The nature of the spiritual effects upon the visionary;
  • What effect it has had upon those who are drawn to belief in the reported apparition — this can include miracles such as physical healings like those at Lourdes, but also spiritual healings and the grace that draws people to the belief in Christ.

If a bishop (usually the bishop in the area where an apparition has been reported) decides that a private revelation does not conform to these points, then it is dismissed. It may even be condemned, as was the case in a reported revelation in Necedah, Wis. (1949).

Apparitions take three general forms, according to church teaching dating back to such great saints as Augustine (d. 430 A.D.) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). The church generally refers to these forms as corporeal, imaginative and intellectual.

n Corporeal (as in bodily) visions are perceived with the physical senses. Most often they are visual, but visionaries also report the scent of flowers or hearing the voice of the apparition. Some visions are only perceived with the ears, called locutions. St. Joan of Arc reported these. Sometimes, those who are with the one who receives a vision, also experience some physical manifestation. For example, many saw the “miracle of the dancing sun” on Oct. 13, 1917, at Fatima.

n Imaginative visions are imparted by God solely upon the imagination of the visionary. These visions are often accompanied by rapture or ecstasies, such as those of St. Teresa of Avila. Witnesses will report that the seer is oblivious to physical stimulation at the time of a reported vision.

n Intellectual visions are considered the most direct visions. Such visions are imparted by God as intuitive understanding of a spiritual truth or divine mystery. Intellectual visions have been granted to many of the great theologians, including St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Not all of us will have visions during our lifetimes. This is not a personal flaw. Apparitions are not a sign of having a deeper faith than anyone else.

Apparitions are private revelations. Those that come from God are meant, first of all, directly for the person who experiences them — this is part of why they are called “private.” For some reason, known only to God, God chooses to send a vision to that person.

If that private revelation becomes part of public knowledge, and is approved by the church and by the devotion of other believers (sensus fidelium), that means it also has been given to the rest of us for some spiritual benefit. It is not necessary to believe any part of a private revelation. However, if it enriches your faith life and draws you closer to the public revelation of Christ — the good news of salvation — then it is a valuable grace to you.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Vatican website at vatican.va; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The New Dictionary of Theology”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; library at ewtn.com; Green Bay Diocese archives; “HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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