Dear Father John, I understand that we need to defer to the judgment of the Church on matters of private revelations. It only stands to reason that the Church has the wisdom of thousands of years behind it and is very capable of guiding us in these cases. Even so, I feel drawn to dig deeper into Medjugorje and even what I have read about Garabandal. Is this instinct wrong or harmful to my faith? Surely there were people who believed and were totally committed to the reality of Fatima before it was officially approved. I am not asking if you agree with what is alleged to have happened in these places, but what are wise guidelines I might use as I evaluate these and other private revelations and whether or not I might adopt any specific devotional practices related to them? I might also say that I am completely committed to submit to the magisterial directives on these kinds of things. Thanks for your help.
This question is more easily answered than you might think. But to understand the answer, it will be helpful to consider briefly two spiritual principles.
The Church Is Alive!
First, as Pope Benedict XVI put it in his first public homily as pope: “The Church is alive… and the Church is young!” Unlike merely natural organisms, which grow to maturity, then flourish, and then slowly decay and die, the Church continues to grow. The Church as a whole never grows old, never stops branching out, bearing fruit, and expanding. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, and the Holy Spirit constantly surges forth from within the heart of the Church and gives rise to new saints, new associations, new evangelizing efforts, new faith communities, new religious orders and apostolic institutes… This is the history of the Church, and this is the present moment of the Church, and this will be the future of the Church.
Think about it. Every religious order that exists in the Church today, from contemplative nuns to missionary priests, began as a small association of faithful Catholics who were following the lead of the Holy Spirit, but who did not have official Church approval. Every approved Marian apparition began, as you allude to in your question, as a non-approved apparition. The life of the Church is not bureaucratic, but organic. The ever-flowering newness of the Church flows from within, like new branches growing from the trunk of a tree or a new season of fruit ripening on its limbs.
This is why there is always room for new devotions. The dazzling variety of devotions and traditions within the Catholic tradition reflects the dazzling variety of beings in the universe, because it flows from the same source: the infinite and infinitely creative love of the Triune God.
The Holy Spirit Will Never Contradict Himself
Second, the Holy Spirit will never contradict himself. Private devotions, apparitions, new congregations and associations – if these are truly from the Holy Spirit, they will harmonize with the life of the Church and eventually receive explicit approval from the Church. A beautiful detail from the Gospel of John illustrates this point.
If you remember, on the first Easter Sunday, when St. Mary Magdalene informed the Apostles that Jesus’ tomb was empty, St. John (the “beloved disciple”) and St. Peter “… set out to go to the tomb. They ran together, but the other disciple [St. John], running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first; he bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but did not go in. Simon Peter who was following now came up, [and] went right into the tomb…” St. John is the younger disciple. St. Peter is the leader of the Apostles. St. John arrived first, but waited to go in – he allowed Peter to enter first. In a similar fashion, new movements of the Holy Spirit within in the Church arrive at a new experience of God’s grace more quickly than the Magisterium of the Church can approve them. But an authentic new movement or devotion will always be recognized, before its official approval, through its obedience to the Church’s legitimate authority. It will always submit to that authority, throughout the entire process of investigation, because that authority is also an expression of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s guiding action within the body of the Church, and the Holy Spirit will never contradict himself. If individuals or groups show stubborn disobedience to legitimate Church authority, it would indicate the presence of a different spirit.
You may be interested to read the Church’s official guidelines about investigating apparitions and other extraordinary phenomena. They are published on the Vatican website, here.
In our next post on this topic, we will talk about what you should do after considering the two spiritual principles presented in this post, we will take a look at two indicators (from God or only curiosity), and how to stay on track when dealing with new and private revelations.
Art for this post on private revelations: Detail of Lucia Santos, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, the three children whom the Virgin Mary revealed her famous “three secrets” in Fátima, Portugal, attributed to Joshua Benoliel, official photographer of King Carlos I of Portugal, 1917, PD-US author’s life plus 80 years or less, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.