The right way to discern apparitions and other private revelations

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Marian apparitions

Elizabeth sat behind me every day that spring term of 1987 at Michigan State. Quiet yet friendly, a small gold cross around her neck, she asked me one morning what I was reading. I handed her The Imitation of Christ, in the small, red-covered hardbound edition from Catholic Book Publishing that the owner of the Cathedral Bookstore over in Lansing used to sell me for $4 apiece if I bought five at a time.

“Keep it,” I told her. “I have another copy here in my bag.”

The term ended, and I returned to Spring Lake for the summer. I was already dating Amy, my future wife, so Elizabeth was far from my thoughts when, in July, I came home one evening from working with my father to find an overstuffed envelope bearing a half-dozen stamps of varying denominations, with a note inside from Elizabeth.

How she had found my address, I’ll never know. It wasn’t an easy thing to do in those days before the World Wide Web. I don’t remember telling her even the name of my hometown. What I do remember is her note. “Dear Scott,” she wrote. “I can tell that your faith is important to you. Mine is to me as well. I wanted to share something with you so that you can see on what my faith is founded.”

‘Discern for yourself’

Inside the envelope were a series of publications from Bayside, New York, detailing the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Veronica Lueken. Before that day, I had never heard of Bayside nor, in fact, of any apparitions, alleged or approved, other than those at Fatima and Lourdes. But over the next 25 years, I would come to know many other people who, like Elizabeth, based their faith in whole or in part on the supposed authenticity of private revelations.

I remembered my growing sense of bewilderment as I read the supposed words of our Blessed Mother, warning, in unmistakably Noo Yawk diction, against reading any Bible published after 1962.

I thought of Elizabeth for the first time in years when I read that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith would soon publish new norms for the discernment of apparitions and other alleged supernatural phenomena. I remembered my growing sense of bewilderment as I read the supposed words of our Blessed Mother, warning, in unmistakably Noo Yawk diction, against reading any Bible published after 1962. I thought of others I came to know after email and the World Wide Web became ubiquitous, who forwarded me the locutions of alleged seers from across the United States and around the world, always with the advice (which Elizabeth, too, had provided back in 1987) to pray about what I would read and to “discern for yourself” whether the content of these alleged apparitions were true.

Objects of curiosity

I remembered reading the growing body of speculation around the third secret of Fatima that culminated in its revelation on May 13, 2000, at the beatification Mass for Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the three young shepherd children who saw (the Church has affirmed) the Blessed Virgin Mary multiple times in the summer of 1917. And I recalled how, in the aftermath of the unveiling of the third secret, many whose faith was founded on their understanding of the apparitions at Fatima accused Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of not releasing the “true” contents of the third secret, because they had expected (in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger) “exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history.” But (Cardinal Ratzinger continued) “Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity.”

I never responded to Elizabeth, because (at that time) I didn’t know what to say. But now — the morning after the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and three days before the new document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith is to be released — I do. I should have said what the Church has always said, and what the document will say when it is released: We must start first with Scripture and Tradition. Anything in an alleged apparition that seems to contradict the teaching of the Church is reason for caution; anything that clearly does so is evidence that the alleged apparition is not from a heavenly source.

Those are the certainties on which my faith is founded.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.