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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Questionable Visions: Demonic or Psychiatric Origins?

August 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Demonology, Discernment, Fr. Fortea, Spiritual Warfare

Fr. Fortea, how can one tell if a vision is demonic in origin or is a psychiatric problem?

The best way to discern if something is demonic in origin or merely a psychiatric problem is through Demonic or Psychiatric Originsthe passage of time. If something that seems extraordinary (e.g., a vision or a locution) is a mental illness, it will get progressively worse and obvious psychosis will develop. When a person meets with his spiritual director or a theologian to discuss an extraordinary phenomenon he has experienced, it is initially very difficult – if not impossible – to discern what is actually taking place. After some months, though, the most obscure cases are clarified, and it becomes possible to separate a demonic influence from a mental illness.

For example, an unknown penitent kneels in the confessional and tells the confessor that the Blessed Virgin has audibly told him that she loves him and that he should be good. The priest has no way of knowing if the person has received a genuine locution or is suffering from a hallucination. Not even the greatest theologian in the world could know. But if the person confesses this phenomenon over time (e.g., a year or even less), the matter would become clearer. If the penitent is sick, his illness will gradually progress and he will say that the Blessed Virgin is revealing more and more things to him. Within five years, his mental instability will be obvious, not only to the confessor but also to his family and friends, due to the absurd and illogical character of his hallucinations. As mental pathologies advance, they move further and further away from the laws of logic.

Editor’s Note:  To learn more about spiritual warfare and demonology, Catholic Spiritual Direction recommends Fr. Fortea’s excellent book, Interview With An Exorcist – An Insider’s Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance.


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About Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea

Trained by Vatican exorcist Gabriele Amorth, Father José Antonio Fortea is not only an exorcist, but also a writer, calligrapher and parish priest. He once thought he would lead what he has termed ordinary life as an attorney in Madrid, much as his father did before him, but sensed instead a vocation to the priesthood in his adolescent years. A theology graduate of Navarre University in Spain, Father Fortea wrote a thesis there on exorcism. He has been a practicing exorcist for several decades.

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  • Anne

    There are quite a number of people in Ireland who claim to have visions from God the Father, Our Lady and Jesus and also Saints. I am just wondering if any of these have had any form of theological or psychological assessment and if not why not, as the visionaries in the past were put under such serious scrutiny by the Church (St. Bernadette, the Visionaries of Fatima, St. Pio of Pietrelcina and St. Faustina amongst others) ? We have Christina Gallagher, Ann the anonymous lay apostle, Maria Divine Mercy (another anonymous), Violet, Joe Coleman, House of Prayer in Doon, Co. Limerick and others. I know the Bishop of Tuam has come out about Christina Gallagher who was disobedient not only to him but also to another Bishop in the US so that proves that she is not genuine along with other allegations of misappropriation of funds etc. Joe Coleman who said he saw Our Lady in Knock was also in to psyhic phenomena and he caused chaos in Knock Shrine and was very angry with the Priests and Bishops which is a sure sign again that this is false. Maria Divine Mercy is putting forward messages on ‘Warning Second Coming’ and is well known. She is Irish but again does not show her identity. That in itself says alot. Why would a visionary wish to remain anonymous ? She does not seem to be under any Bishop or Church authority whatsoever so one should stay well clear of her and her messages. ‘Anne the lay apostle’ also raises questions as she too does not reveal her true identity and Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon both distanced themselves from her recently. As for the House of Prayer in Doon with the two girls Fionna and Marcia I have no idea who is over them as they don’t reveal what authority they are under either. And there are others.
    So where are the Shepherds leading the sheep in these cases when there is no guidance given and why do people accept anonymous visionaries without questioning who they really are etc and why are they allowed even to speak at Conferences and at Priests retreats etc ??

    • LizEst

      Yes, people who follow such can get very visibly upset when you tell them the Church has not approved these things, or a bishop has disapproved them. They do all in their power to try to convince you of their supposed logic. They can otherwise appear quite holy but can be very delusional about their favorite visions or locutions, to the point of going against the Magisterium, so convinced are they that they are right. Their mental instability, obstinate disobedience, pride in their own judgement, and encouragement of others to follow this folly cry out for our prayers.

      • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

        This is an important note Liz. For those who do follow these kind of things, the irritation or anger at completely appropriate questions or even disbelief it is a tell-tale sign of spiritual disorder and unhealthy attachments. As you note, this level of attachment ultimately and frequently leads to sin. The enemy is very interested in getting Catholics to focus on teachings and perspectives that are not central to the faith.

        • LisaB101

          I should have read all the postings before I posted redundant info. Please forgive the repetitive cautions and suggestions.

      • Anne

        Yes Liz they certainly do need our prayers but people also need guidance on these ‘visionaries’ . This is why Catechesis is so important in our Church so that people may get to know their faith and remain grounded in truth instead of messages from anonymous sources. The Shepherds need to speak up about these things too to warn people and also to give guidance.

    • Jeanette

      Thank you for this valuable information. I have been receiving email messages from an acquaintance concerning Mary Divine Mercy which are disturbing to me…she also sends other messages from other visionaries that are questionable. I have had to ask her to remove me from her email list as I do not want to be tempted to read them and disturb my faith. I think it might be wise for others who are receiving questionable emails from others to do the same…it may make the sender do a little research before they send out such information. God bless you!

      • LizEst

        Jeanette – Jimmy Akin had an excellent article on Maria Divine Mercy in the “National Catholic Register” earlier this year. You can read his analysis here: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/9-things-you-need-to-know-about-maria-divine-mercy

        • Jeanette

          Thank you Liz. I did read his analysis and I think he is spot-on. Mary Divine Mercy messages make one fearful…that should be our first indication that they are not from God.

      • LisaB101

        Jeanette, many people take great offense when we try to distance ourselves. And though it is good to be removed from these emails, we also need to educate as to why. I always try to back my request up with what the Bishops have stated about the person, any Catholic “expert” such as Jimmy Akin (Thanks LizEst!) and how to discern the truth. Still, the misinformed will return with “Well, she isn’t under the authority of the Church.” (ie: Christina Gallagher) and with that, our response should be “but as a faithful Catholic, WE are,” and the fact that they aren’t being obedient is the first sign of deception of the so-called seer. Then I refer them to a priest for spiritual direction. Friends may be lost, but souls are saved!

        • Jeanette

          Lisa, you may have made an assumption about me. But, I guess I should have elaborated before….I ‘kindly’ asked to be removed from her email list with detailed reasons for this. Be sure, I tried to educate her as to the reasons why and also mentioned that we are to be obedient to the Church. In no way did I try to offend her. God bless you.

    • LisaB101

      Great information! I knew of Christina Gallagher and thought the “House of Prayer” was part of her organization. She has them here in the U.S. also. I was told a while ago, and now I tell others that we have such beauty in the lives and writings of the Saints that we really have no need to look any further.

      • LizEst

        Yes, Gallagher’s House of Prayer is part of her organization. Having said that, I don’t know if every “House of Prayer” is a part of her organization. You would have to check each one, I suppose. They may not all be the same.

        Christina Gallagher used to be big in the U.S. But, that interest has died down…and for good reason. Here is a line from the statement her bishop issued in 2008: “In summary the ‘House of Prayer’ has no Church approval and the work does not enjoy the confidence of the diocesan authorities.” You can read all his statements here: http://tuamarchdiocese.org/2008/03/statements-about-achill-house-of-prayer/ Scroll down the page and you will see the latest one issued five years ago in 2008.

    • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

      I have an Aunt who is following another Irish supposed mystic named Lorna Byrne. She can see angels and other spirits etc. She forwarded me newsletter via email and though nothing in it was explicitly contrary to the Faith I felt uneasy about what I read. There seemed to be too much emphasis on angels and not enough on Jesus. Has anyone else heard about her?

      • Anne

        Lorna Byrne is the author of ‘Angels in my Hair’ and she is Irish. I haven’t read her book and would not be bothered either because they are not Christ centred. Ultimately our Angels are there to help us to come closer to Christ. We have St. Pio of Pietrelcina’s witness with regard to the Angels who are of course there to help us in our Christian life. Women of Grace have an interesting article on this lady also. http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=169

      • LizEst

        On the contrary, Mary, this is New Age stuff. You are right to feel uneasy. Here is a link that can tell you all about it: http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=169 It’s written by Susan Brinkmann who is a Third Order Carmelite. You can count on her counsel. I hope you will share this with your aunt.

  • Jeanette

    Thank you Fr. Fortea for all your posts on demonology. Information like this is not easy to find and I do appreciate it. Blessings to you.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Jeanette – We are grateful to be able to post these for the reason you state. Some have expressed discomfort with these posts but avoiding understanding of this reality is not in anyone’s best interest.

  • patricia

    Thanks for clarification I always wondered how to discern. Mental illness can be tricky especially in spiritual and religious issues. Posts like these help to better discern what is from God the devil and mental illness or our own imagination. Thank you Father and may God Bless You Always and the work you do.

  • Ha Dol

    I think these are very important posts, b/c of the rise for the need or apparent need of exorcists. One question, if I may — Muhammad experienced visions of the angel Gabriel over twenty something years and these were fairly stable. They would seem to qualify as authentic, based on the article above. I think they were most likely temporal lobe epilepsy. With this condition people hear voices and see beings and yet they remain quite lucid and logical. Any comments? Thanks.

  • Samantha

    We are so blessed that we, members of the church, have been given spiritual gifts! Discernment of spirits is a wonderful gift in identifying what is going on with a person. We need more Catholics to understand spiritual gifts, use them, and mentor others. I’m glad Pope Francis encourages us to be open to these gifts. To be open to the Holy Spirit is as foundational to our faith as being open to Jesus.

    I am a secularly trained therapist. Now that I’ve converted to Catholicism I have a very different view of mental illness. What I know for sure is that all things answer to Jesus. If it’s a problem, Jesus can heal it. What the secular world thought about mental illness 2000 years ago… 1000 years ago… 100 years ago is very different than what it thinks about it today. And in 1000 years, and so on, it will believe many different things, I’m sure.

    The Gospel, however, will remain the same.

    Jesus will always be telling us to preach the gospel, cast out demons, lay hands on the sick. There is no footnote that says to do these things only until they become unpopular.

    I pray that the Lord sends more workers for the harvest and lifts up people in psychology and psychiatry who love and follow Him.

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  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    I have only a simple question to ask as I read this Post and your Responses. and I would appreciate your response Father.

    A certain lady in our Holy Family Minor Basilica, here in Nairobi comes to the Church on Sunday – and at times during Weekday Masses – and heads straight to the Statue of our Lady at the very back of the Church. She remains there in deep Prayer and praying the Rosary throughout the Holy Mass and will only leave to come to receive the Holy Communion but ONLY from the Priest – she walks away if the Nun or an Eucharistic Minister approaches her and she will go round the Sanctuary until she receives the Holy Communion from the Priest. Then she goes back to the Statue of our Lady until the end of the Holy Mass and the time comes for all to leave the Church for the second Holy Mass to begin.

    From those who know her and have talked to her, she tells them that Our Lady talks to her and appears to her many times. She relates to them the many Messages she always receives from our Lady. Now my question is, would Our Lady encourage this Faithful to totally ignore the Eucharistic Sacrifice taking place at the Altar and remain at her feet????? My elementary understanding has always been that Our Lady leads us to her Son – not away from Him. And certainly she would not encourage one to ignore to take part in the Sacrifice of the Mass going on at the Altar which, in essence, is the Centre and the Apex of our Catholic Faith.

    But I could very well be wrong, hence the need for your clarification, Father.

    • LizEst

      No, our Lady would NOT encourage anyone to ignore the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and remain at her feet. We are called to full, active and conscious participation in Mass, not distraction. This lady needs sound spiritual direction and, it seems to me, psychological help. Why psychological help? Because, I don’t doubt that she hears voices. But, authentic locutions always conform to the authority of the Church and Scripture. She is really exhibiting bizarre behavior. She needs prayer and compassion.

      • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

        Thank you, Liz for your very sound advice. It resonates with my instinct about this lady but I have never raised it up with anyone. I am always alive to the fact that I should never, ever be judgmental but when I come across something which my senses and intuition tell me is contrary to the Church’s Teaching and our Catholic Faith, I pray to be granted a chance to seek advice discreetly. And every time I observe this Lady in Church, I strongly feel sure there is something which is not right, especially when she is always engrossed with the Statue of Our Lady and totally oblivious of the Holiest Sacrifice and the stupendous Divine Miracle taking place on the Altar.

        • LizEst

          Mary – We are not to judge people’s hearts. But, God has given us the capacity to judge behavior. And, what we are observing here is her behavior. I don’t doubt that she believes her heart is in the right place. But, she is confused and needs help. This we can and should judge, for if we didn’t do so, we would not carry out our responsibility as parents, administrators, bosses, etc. In a one-on-one situation, someone should talk to her and try to get her into some kind of catechesis. This can be helpful in correcting this behavior is she comes to realize on her own that she is in error. Where someone does not respond to catechesis or correction by proper authority, then we have every reason to believe that mental illness is involved.

          With regards to visions and locutions (hearing voices), one of the first marks that these are not authentic is that the person who claims them does not submit to Church authority. Has anyone ever talked to her and instructed her that her behavior is not in keeping with what the Church believes and teaches?

          • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

            Thank you, Liz. I am aware others have noted her and I have no doubt some who know her well have tried to talk to her with no avail. We do have a problem with others who, some years back came up with sensational claims that Our Lady was appearing at some tree in one our our Rural Parishes in the Archdiocese of Naironbi. Many women were lured into this and our late Servant of God, Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga ordered an investigation to this phenomenon and condemned it as it was confirmed it was a hoax. However, its adherents remained defiant to this day and are still with us. I tend to believe this lady is one of them. And as it is all one can do is pray for her and others who are still defiant and continue to call themselves “The Battalion of Mary”

          • LizEst

            Mary – Where can I find and/or read the writings of your Servant of God Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga? Is there a site on the internet that has them on line or from which I can download them?

          • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

            Liz, I will check with the Beatification Office next time I visit the Basilica and see the Materials they have and how we can send them to you. The Investigation is ongoing and we are all praying he will soon be declared a Blessed because he was truly a Holy Shepherd of the Catholic Church in Kenya. The 1st African and the youngest to be appointed a Bishop; the 1st African to appointed an Archbishop and the 1st African to be elevated a Cardinal. He was also the first Chancellor of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa

          • LizEst

            No need to send. I was just wondering if I could read on line. I did a quick check the other day and found information on him but not on his writings. If they are not available yet, because they are being consolidated, then they will probably be shortly. What you might do is see if they are going to put them on-line on the internet so others can avail themselves of them. It would help his cause if others around the world were to assist with their prayers. Thank you, Mary…and God bless you.

          • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

            Yes, Liz. I am sure the Beatification Office will put on line his Books, numerous writings and his inspiring Sermons shortly. Knowing this holy Shepherd personally – and being close enough to him such that I always addressed him as My Father – is another reason I thank God and hang on the hope that, despite my “Everest” of sins and wretchedness, He will have Mercy on me grant the the Final Perserverence to see His Face when I close the eyes of my body on this world, interminable detour to Purgatory notwithstanding!!!!

  • Howard

    About 6 years ago, I was driving on I-30 near Mt. Pleasant, TX at about 1 a.m. I was in the middle of an exhausting and emotionally trying move. As I watched the road in front of me, a shadow in the shape of a giant Komodo dragon got up and ran off the road. I’ve never seen anything like this again.

    OK, obviously what happened was that I was on the verge of sleep in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. As the light from my headlights filled in a small depression in the road, my brain gave it a dreamlike interpretation. By the way, this scared me NOT because I thought it was real but because I realized I was in very real danger of falling asleep at the wheel.

    My point is that just because someone does not have a chronic and progressive mental illness does not mean that all his perceptions are real. If someone claimed to see the Blessed Virgin, for example, I would want to know about whether he had been getting enough sleep lately, how his work and family life were, and if he had just started taking some new medicine, for example.

  • jean marie moore

    Can we receive ‘visits’ from departed relatives, or from Jesus Himself. Can we get personal message from a departed parent about something we are concerned about? I have had each of these experiences. They were so beautiful!

    • Peter Fan

      I have a few numbers of dreams, where the departed have came in my dream, and someone will informed me that they just released from prison, specially my grandfather, grandmother, uncles and aunties. Usually I will take it as they have been release from purgatory.

      I had few dreams, where Mother Mary appeared a few times, but Jesus is very rare, but He did came too.

      The worst is I had this evils too in my dreams, at one time a guy sitting and starring at me, and I know he is devil, because of his eyes.. very dark black.. every since that dream, I had a kind of screaming sound within my soul, suffered, the more I pray the more the voices, did novena to Mary, and one day within my heart says do the St Michael Novena, after I did that, the voice go off.

      and St Michael too came in my dreams twice this year, specially before Lent. Because I felt the demonic attack was bad. Thats why God sent him to me I guess.