Private revelations

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The concept of "private revelation" is almost a contradiction in terms. The contents of the Deposit of Faith are divinely revealed and must be accepted with religious assent in order for someone to be Catholic. A "private revelation" is a gift that one judges is from God but in such a way that it can never become part of the Deposit of Faith and therefore can never be something to which all believers must assent, regardless of how much esteem members of the Magisterium show for the alleged revelation.

This means that acceptance or rejection of private revelations is a matter of prudential judgment, not perfect certitude. These are questions about which men and women of reasonable intelligence and good faith may reasonably and faithfully disagree.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Excerpts from "Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations."
When Ecclesiastical Authority is informed of a presumed apparition or revelation, it will be its responsibility:
a) first, to judge the fact according to positive and negative criteria (cf. infra, no. I);
b) then, if this examination results in a favorable conclusion, to permit some public manifestation of cult or of devotion, overseeing this with great prudence (equivalent to the formula, “for now, nothing stands in the way”) (pro nunc nihil obstare).
c) finally, in light of time passed and of experience, with special regard to the fecundity of spiritual fruit generated from this new devotion, to express a judgment regarding the authenticity and supernatural character if the case so merits.
Positive Criteria
a) Moral certitude, or at least great probability of the existence of the fact, acquired by means of a serious investigation;
b) Particular circumstances relative to the existence and to the nature of the fact, that is to say:
1. Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility towards Ecclesiastical Authority, the capacity to return to a normal regimen of a life of faith, etc.);
2. As regards revelation: true theological and spiritual doctrine and immune from error;
3. Healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit (for example, spirit of prayer, conversion, testimonies of charity, etc.).
Negative Criteria
a) Manifest error concerning the fact.
b) 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 (cf. Saint Ignatius, Exercises, no. 336).
c) Evidence of a search for profit or gain strictly connected to the fact.
d) Gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers when the fact occurred or in connection with it.
e) 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.
It is to be noted that these criteria, be they positive or negative, are not peremptory but rather indicative, and they should be applied cumulatively or with some mutual convergence.
In doubtful cases that clearly do not put the good of the Church at risk, the competent Ecclesiastical Authority is to refrain from any judgment and from any direct action (because it can also happen that, after a certain period of time, the presumed supernatural fact falls into oblivion); it must not however cease from being vigilant by intervening if necessary, with promptness and prudence.

Benedeict J. Groeschel, CFR

A Still, Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations. San Francisco
Ignatius Press, 1993).
Epigraph "And after the fire there was a still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12).

"To ecstasy, I prefer the monotony of sacrifice" (St. Thérèse of Lisieux).

11 Well-known visionaries:
  • St. Francis of Assisi
  • St. Teresa of Avila
  • St. Margaret Mary
  • St. Bernadette of Lourdes
12 I have drawn much from the standard work, The Graces of Interior Prayer by Fr. Augustin Poulain, SJ (ten editions, 1901-1922).
I. Private Revelations in this Day and Age
19 An eminent scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Alexis Carrel, was converted from militant atheism at Lourdes.[1]
19 Among others the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists owe their entire existence as denominations to claims of private revelation made by very serious people.
20 [The Bahai faith comes from] "the teachings of their prophet" [Bahá'u'lláh in 19th-century Persia].
20 In the face of much criticism, the bishop of Mostar has held that these experiences [at Mejugorje] are not authentic signs from God. ... If these alleged revelations are ultimately accepted as probably authentic (the most the Church can do), then his suspicions will add to their credibility. If, on the other hand, they are rejected, he will have saved the Church from much embarassment.
21 My problem with the bishop and his advisors, as well as with everyone else except the visionaries themselves, is that they are all so sure of their respective positions. ... Without clear evidence of fraud or mental illness, how can anyone else be so certain in completely rejecting their accounts?
II. Keeping a Perspective
24 Rule 1. Keep all claims of revelations in perspective.
24 Private revelations are not the most important things in the world. The consistent and authentic pursuit of a holy life leading to a loving union with God is the essential element of true religion. Many great saints reported no unusual experiences at all. Among eminent nonvisionaries in our own century are Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
24 Private revelations have no significance apart from the public revelation of Sacred Scripture, interpreted by the traditional teaching of the Church. This principle was reiterated by Pope John Paul II as recently as 1983. While on pilgrimage to Fatima the Holy Father said:
The Church has always taught and continues to proclaim that God's revelation was brought to completion in Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of that revelation, and that "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestastion of our Lord" (Dei Verbum 4). The Church evaluates and judges private revelations by the criterion of conformity with that single Revelation.
If the Church has accepted the message of Fatima, it is above all because the message contains a truth and a call whose basic content is the truth and the call of the Gospel itself.
26 Sometimes a private revelation may alter the events of history, as did the call of Saint Joan of Arc (1412-1431), who in a single year changed the course of European history to this day. Saint Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380), following personal inspirations she received, called Pope Gregory XI back from Avignon and preserved the sovereignty of the papacy from royal domination.
III. Truth and Private Revelations
27 Rule 2. No private revelation comes directly from God and therefore none can be assumed to be inerrantly true.
27 For centuries it has been a clear papal teaching that even a canonized saint who has reported a private revelation which has been approved by the Church for acceptance by the faithful may have introduced some personal element that is subject to error or distortion.
28 It is also true that if visionaries proclaim prophecy which turns out to be correct, one cannot by that fact alone assume that they received the revelation from God. They may, in fact, have gained the knowledge in some other way.
28 [Partial approval of the revelations of Saint Hildegard, whom Benedict XV named a doctor of the Church.]
Pope Benedict XIV
Those revelations, although approved of, ought not to, and cannot, receive from us any assent of Catholic, but only of human faith, according to the rules of prudence, according to which the aforesaid revelations are probable, and piously to be believed (probabiles et pie credibiles).
29 "How can a vision from God be wrong?" It cannot. But the recipient of the vision can make mistakes. No divine revelation is immediately received by a visionary. It is filtered through the perceptive faculties of the human being who receives it. ...

In the strictest sense of the word, the only complete direct revelation of God came through the Divine Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone has known the Father as he is (Jn 14:8-11).

Cardinal Pita, quoted by Poulain
Even when the Church approves them, they are merely received as probable,' and not as indubitable. They are not to be used as deciding questions of history, natural philosophy, philosophy, or theology which are matters of controversy between the Doctors. It is quite permissible to differ from these revelations, even when approved, if we are relying upon solid reasons, and especially if the contrary doctrine is proved by unimpeachable documents and definite experience.
34 St. Catherine Labouré, who gave the world the miraculous medal, actually predicted the bloody disturbances of the French Commune forty years before they occurred and with the precise date. However, she made several other predictions that were wrong. When confronted with these errors, she simply apologized for getting the facts of the revelation wrong. She obviously did not know what to say, since she had thought she had got the message right. This admission of simply "getting it wrong" on the part of this simple visionary is something one should never forget.
IV. The Scope of Private Revelations
35 Rule 3. A private revelation by definition is personal and therefore must be carefully applied by those for whom it was meant and only within the limits of ordinary human prudence and never in an unreasonable way or against the teaching of the Church. It must never be considered an infallible guide in any situation.
36 It logically follows that one can admonish another person for not following a private revelation.
V. Revelations--Authentic, Questionable, False, and Fake
39 A revelation or vision may be approved in a variety of ways and degrees. The simplest way is a decision by the diocesan commission promulgated by the local bishop saying that after all the facts have been studied, the revelations cannot be accepted as probable. Usually this is done after the death of the visionary.
40 Father P. Deletter, SJ, a theologian who wrote extensively on this subject, states that twenty-two Marian apparitions were seriously studied between 1931 and 1950, and only two were approved (Beauraing and Banneaux, in Belgium). Six remained undecided in 1952 and the remaining fourteen were rejected.
40-41 No less than two hundred apparitions were reported in the vicinity of Lourdes after the experience of Bernadette. None of these was ever taken seriously.
41 Medjugorje: "still in the questionable category."
42 Joan of Arc did become confused and actually at times was inconsistent in the face of harassment and what we would call brainwashing.
44 The very gifted and well-intentioned archbishop of Cambrai, François de Fénelon, was deeply influenced by Madame Guyon. This charismatic lady had an unusual career and is considered one of the founders of the heresy of quietism. This error, which can lead to a complete rejection of one's responsibility for actively following the teachings of the gospel, has often had a strange appeal for devout Christians. In fact, the founder of quietism, Miguel de Molinos, was at one time spiritual guide of two secretaries of Pope Innocent XI, who eventually presided over the condemnation of his teachings.
45 Frauds have a long history in Christianity, beginning with Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles (8:9). These people knowingly fabricte revelations and exploit paranormal phenomena. As the incredible story of Rasputin indicates, they can do incalculable harm when they have influence over people in authority.
45-46 The Franciscan nun Magdalena of the Cross was three times abbess of her monastery at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Complete with self-inflicted stigmata and the ability to levitate above the earth, with ecstasies and a gift of prophecy, she even convinced others that she lived without food. She enjoyed a reputation for extraordinary holiness for several decades. Bishops, clergy, great nobles, and even inquisitors flocked to her. She succeeded in deluding a large number of Spahnish theologians who prided themselves on not being easily taken in. However, in danger of death, she confessed that the whole thing was a fabrication and that in fact she inflicted the stigmata on herself. By her own admission she had sold her soul to Satan in return for all these deceptive gifts, and she actually had to be subjected o exorcism. The fantastic career of this woman alone ought to be a sufficient warning to the gullible.
VI. Sources of Error in Private Revelations
49 Rule 4. A person who is the recipient of an authentic revelation, even a canonized saint, may indeed make errors in understanding that revelation or in reporting experiences which are not authentic revelations.
50 Saint John of the Cross was aware of the likelihood of error and self-deception, especially in the case of locutions or words heard within the mind but believed to come from God or from some other heavenly being. ... He believes that often such words are completely the products of the individual's own unconscious mind. He also recognizes that they may be the product of special grace but even then go through the distortion of the individual's subjectivity. He also strongly suggests that the locutions may be the work of Satan.
51 They may be inner visions, either appearing to be in the external world (Bernadette saw the Lady; the spectators saw nothing), or they are in the imaging faculty of the mind, as Saint Teresa describes her visions.
52 A sad example of misunderstanding of a revelation is to be found in the case of St. Joan. Because she was so carefully interrogated, we have accurate accounts of her testimony. "I inquired of my voices whether I should be burned; they answered me that I should trust in Our Lord and that He would aid me . . . St. Catherine told me that I would receive succor."
56 Such mystics as Saint Bridget, Saint Fraces of Rome, Blessed Veronica of Binasco, María of Ágreda, and Anna Katherina Emmerich all recorded long and even complete visions of the events of the gospel especially as experienced by the Virgin Mary.
57 Poulain took the trouble to compare biblical dates given by various seers and writers and finds great discrepancy. For instance, reports of the time of the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary vary immensely. Saint Bridget reports that it was fourteen years after the death of Christ. María of Ágreda, twenty-one years, and Anna Katharina Emmerich thirteen years. ... Saint Elizabeth of Schoenau reported a year and a half. They can't all be right!
58 Fn 10: The Poem of the Man-God was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by Pope John XXIII on January 5, 1960. [Cardinal Siri renewed the condemnation of the work in 1985 as the fruit of "mental sicknesses."]
59 It is reported that Saint Catherine of Siena learned from a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary herself that the Immaculate Conception was not true.
61 Saint Hildegard ... had a knowledge of Latin and music, even though she had never studied either. Without any knowledge of Latin she grasped the meaning of an entire passage and yet could not define the words or give any of the tenses. She claimed that she derived the knowledge from a divine light that she had had from the age of three.
62 Along with her mystical writings of considerable beauty and occasional theological ambiguity, she wrote a book on physics and medicine that is completely fanciful and filled with ideas that were popular when science was insufficiently separated from alchemy. To quote Poulain, "She seemed to have had exceptional graces and great illusions."
62 When the relics of Saint Ursula and her companions were discovered, in 1156, Saint Elizabeth [of Schoenau] interviewed the departed souls to whom these relics belonged, with the assistance of her guardian angel. Foolishly her directors encouraged her in this enterprise, and she persevered in praying the deceased back to these interviews even when the visions appeared to have come to an end. She was convinced that God was the author of her revelations. These biographies of the deceased are filled with historical inaccuracies and improbabilities.
St. Catherine of Genoa
As for paradise, God has placed no doors there.
Whoever wishes to enter, does so.
All-merciful God stands there with His arms open,
waiting to receive us into His glory. ...
Tone cannot express nor heart understand
the full meaning of purgatory,
which the soul willingly accepts as a mercy,
the realization that suffering is of no importance
compared to the removal of the impediment of sin.

No one familiar with the text can doubt that she is describing a reality grasped by the mind rather than some imaginative scene when she says these things.

66 Perhaps it is an error in memory that is the source of reports that the Blessed Virgin instructed the children of Fatima to pray for the souls in hell. This would be a theological impossibility. If this report is accurate, then the problem of memory may explain the visionaries' error. [But if it is not true, then it is an example of "errors in reporting."]
68 Poulain gives the example of a change made by the editors in the German edition of Anna Katherina Emmerich's works. Her original statement that Saint James was present at the death of the Virgin Mary was simply taken out in the later editions because it failed to agree with the chronology of he Acts of the Apostles. ... This kind of activity prevents the reader from critically evaluating the original testimony and is a serious literary deception.
VII. False Revelations--A Sympathetic View
75 Helen Schucman and William Thetford, A Course in Miracles--based on "Helen's strange encounter with 'the Son of God.'"
79 Unfortunately, A Course in Miracles has become something of a sophisticated cult, and its followers are caught up in the general wave of Gnosticism that one observes as genuine religious conviction wanes in our society. ...

This woman who had written so eloquently that suffering really did not exist spent the last two years of yer life in the blackest psychotic depression I have ever witnessed. ... I clearly observed that the denial of the reality of suffering could have catastrophic consequences.

81 The power of the unconscious is never to be underestimated.
82 Unfortunately, after long experience I must say that it is my conviction that this Course is a false revelation in the sense that I have defined the term. It has also become a spiritual menace to many.
83 Sin in all its hideousness is replaced by the motto: Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we can't die but will just pass on to nicer things.
VIII. Dealing Sensibly with an Alleged Private Revelation
93 Have they become self-important givers of prophetic knowledge and attempted to surround themselves with publicity?
96-97 The present definition of miracles required for a process of canonization includes the following elements: the instantaneous or very rapid disappearance of life-threatening or very serious physical symptoms, previously empirically verified (for example, by X-rays), without adequate medical treatment, without scientific explanation, and without recovery period or relapse. It also requires the judgment of an experienced medical panel convened by the local bishop to certify that a cure medically fills the above requirements, and this is only done after some years of good health and good conduct by the person who has been cured. If the cured person has sought gain or notoriety, the cure is simply not considered. Of the immense number of cures that have happened and been reported at Lourdes, fewer than 80 have been certified by the bishop because of the stringency of these requirements.
98 Frequently there is apparently no known explanation in physics or psychology to account for these phenomena. Because of the possibility of deception or even of diabolical influence in paranormal phenomena, the Church has never used them in deciding the authenticity of a private revelation.
98 As Bernard Ruffin points out in his biography of Padre Pio, the lives of Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Edgar Cayce, and even Rasputin abounded in paranormal phenomena, and they were not saints. Consequently, when these signs are associated with a revelation, they should be considered interesting but never the basis of a certain judgment about its validity.
99 Priests will often report that they were deeply affected by the piety of pilgrims confessing and receiving the sacraments at a place associated with a reported revelation. . . . I am sure that even in the case of a false revelation--even if it be fraudulent--many people have had genuine religious experiences that may even have been a source of healing.
100 Each person's religious experience stands alone. The fact is that we cannot judge the reported revelation by its fruits. You would be required to take Joseph Smith and the Mormon doctrine very seriously if you went simply by the effects of his revelation.
104 A good rule of thumb is that the inexplicable is not necessarily divine or supernatural.
IX. Guidelines for Spiritual Directors
109 The possibility of distortion, error, or even innocent self-deception needs to be grasped in its entirety.
110 The director cannot afford to become a devotee or disciple of the person being directed.
112-113 Saint Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, near Liège in Belgium (1192-1258) ... had a revelation instructing her to work for the establishment of a feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, but she did not present this instruction to theologians for almost twenty years. She encountered only opposition and persecution with her attempts to reform the convent where she served as superior. Eventually she had to leave and wandered for twenty years until her death. Only long after her death did her revelations get any real hearing, because a priest whom she knew in Liège became Pope Urban IV. The Feast of Corpus Christi was finally celebrated in the universal Church over one hundred years after Saint Juliana had her revelation.
113 The director should carefully observe if the recipient or the supporters are certain that they are not victims of illusion. Poulain mentions that this certain conviction is one of the best ways to insure being deluded. A frank openness to the possibility of illusion is a very good sign. Poulain mentions sadly that María of Ágreda considered herself protected from error and believed that it was a sin not to share her conviction.
X. A Word to Those Who Think They Have Received a Revelation
XI. A Safer Way--Religious Experience
146 In an age tha looks for reassurance from God, it might be very wise for Christians meditatively to pay closer attention to their own religious experiences.
Glossary of Terms
150 They are not recognized as saints because they received visions but because of their virtue in responding to God's mysterious call.
T. Dubay
The thousands of sects that have sprung up in twenty centuries of Christianity alone are eloquent, even if tragic, witnesses to the vagaries, whimsies, and oddities presented to the world in the name of private enlightenments. And history is not able to record the numberless private extravaganzas and blind alleys into which men and women have been and still are led away when they depart from the solidity of the Spirit-indwelt Church to pursue their own personal persuasions.
153 St. John Bosco: "Some of his dreams and prophecies appear to fit into the realm of the psychic or the parapsychological."
Addendum: On A Course in Miracles


  1. Stanley L. Jaki, "Two Lourdes Miracles and a Nobel Laureate: What Really Happened?" "What happened was that the sudden cure of Marie Bailly became widely known in Lyons, together with the fact that Carrel was present at her cure. A newspaper published an article, implying that Carrel refused to believe in the miracle. Carrel then was forced to publish a reply which pleased nobody. He blasted the believers for taking too readily something unusual for a miracle. He also took to task those, and they were largely the members of the medical community, who refused to look at facts whenever they appeared to be miraculous." Carrel received the last rites at the hour of his death.