Part II: Theological Approach

What are we to think of the phenomenon of apparitions?  Is it normal or pathological? of major or minor importance?  Is there a disproportion between the importance that the sanctuaries of apparitions have taken in the life of the Church and the real importance of these phenomena?  Is it right that apparitions are ordinarily repressed, reduced today?  If these phenomena have a meaning and a function, what is it?  What is their status in the Church?  Why so many questions and why such concern about this subject?  These are questions which must be responded to now.  First, let us try to come to a clearer definition of the phenomena.

  1. Understanding the Definition

An apparition, in the strict sense of the word, is a phenomenon of the visual order, that which falls under the eyes.  More broadly, it is that which is manifested in a sensible way to our organs of perception, whether this be sight, hearing, or smell.  A sweet odour is often manifested in certain places of apparition, ancient or modern.  It produces joy and comfort.

It helps to employ the word "apparition" in the broad sense, as responding to the Greek word "epiphany," sensible manifestation.  The problem posed by this type of phenomenon is that of a sensible supernatural.  What is unheard of and ambiguous in this type of a supernatural event is that faith is defined as adhesion to truths (or realities) that are not evident.  Faith is a conviction concerning that which is not manifest, nor apparent, according to the definition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Faith is the hidden substance of that which we hope for (elpisomenon hypostasis), the witness or proof (elenchos) of what we do not see (ou blepemenon)."

The Fourth Gospel says in the simplest and most contrasting terms: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet who believe" (20:29).  To believe is to adhere to truths or to realities which are not evident.  The conviction of faith does not rest on evidence which sensible experience or reason gives.  We believe on a word, on a testimony.  Visions or supernatural apparitions do not replace faith.  They suppose
it for the recognition and the discernment of what appears.  According to the doctrine of Saint John of the Cross, the fact of having visions or revelations presupposes a particular state in him who receives them, a resonance within the physical realities, of a proximity with God, in a still imperfect state.

An apparition is a short-term event; the faith is permanent.  An apparition is a sign which sustains, stimulates, comforts.  An apparition is not the whole faith, it is a sign
which ordinarily illuminates a particular aspect of faith.  The apparitions of the heart of Saint Vincent to Catherine Laboure were an invitation to share a love which was pure, ardent, ready to sacrifice, according to the three successive colours of the heart: white, red and black.  The apparition is relative to the faith; on this proposition we base the hermeneutical interpretation of an apparition and the criteria for its discernment: coherence and transparency.

The proper contribution of the vision is a modest evidence of the supernatural, by no means the evidence of the beatific vision (in this sense no one can see the non- sensible God without dying).  Rather, it is a provisionary evidence which is limited; it is an expression or sensible manifestation, momentary, given like a viaticum.  We must hold to the biblical principle according to which one cannot see the absolutely invisible God without dying (dying of ecstasy, thus of love).  In consequence, an apparition has a mediumistic character, otherwise said, the character of a means, of a mediation, of a sign.

The character of faith is otherwise.  The certitude of faith is not that of intrinsic evidence, but that which is procured by the testimony of God.  We must be careful, however.  This testimony is not added from the outside to the Word of Scripture and to Tradition communicated in the Church as another word.  It does not give us evidence of the object itself which we believe: God, salvation in Jesus Christ, but evidence that this word of Revelation is true, that it is credible, that we can and must believe it because God said it.

This sort of conviction is not proper to faith and to the religious domain.  I have never been in Australia nor in Somalia.  However, I believe that these countries exist because I have been told it, either in geography books or in catalogues of Aviation companies, etc.  In the same way, all historical knowledge rests on witness.  I never knew Alexander, nor Julius Caesar, but I believe that they existed.  I take the word of others for it.  I imagine these personages, I have ideas about them after what I have been told.  I do not know them by the sensible evidence of sight, or hearing, as I know you who are in front of me.

For what concerns testimony, as for what concerns direct perception, there is a place for certitude and for illusions.  For faith, certitude is at once the strongest that can be, since we believe on the Word of God, and, at the same time, this certitude is the most obscure, the most mysterious that can be, because we believe "what eyes have not seen, what ears have not heard," which often contradicts our primary evidence and our narrow rationality.

We are here at the beginning of our work of understanding the paradox of epiphanies (sensible manifestations) of the supernatural.  This deals with sensible manifestations, apparently direct, of what is not evident and of what we believe, normally, taking the word of others for it.  I believe that the Virgin Mary lives with Christ in the Communion of Saints.  I believe it; I have not seen it, and I do not know it as I know the existence of John Paul II whom I met.  If someday the Virgin Mary manifests herself to me as she did to Bernadette, if I were able to converse with her, that would escape the normal and ordinary status of faith.

This can pose many problems for the Church.  The word of ecclesiastical authority will appear very pale to those who have "seen."  The seers risk setting themselves up as a parallel and competitive magisterium.  One of the criteria that a vision comes from God is that it does not divide the Church, but remains in charity, order and obedience.  This, however, leaves the problem untouched, if the authority of the church lacks discernment or commits an abuse of power.  In this case, there are inevitable tensions which the true prophets endure in the Church, in hope, for whatever arrives.  To understand better this paradoxical relationship between faith and the sensible manifestation of the supernatural, it is useful to make a typology of the manifestations which ordinarily arose by pilgrimages so numerous in countries of old Christianity.  The sensible supernatural can be classified according to: cause or origin, forms, effects, and finality.

Cause of Origin

Religion is communitarian and visible celebration of invisible realities, either in themselves (God, the angels of God, the separated souls or because of the life of Christ, for example).  There are all sorts of visible signs.  For our subject, we distinguish instituted signs (often rites), in the first place the sacraments.  These institutional signs are taken from the natural order.  To baptize, I take ordinary water.  I pronounce human words which any man can pronounce.  This sign in itself, has nothing of the prodigious, the miraculous, or the supernatural.  It is a sign taken from the order of nature, to introduce, by grace, the invisible and supernatural gift of God, according to the promise of Christ.  It is the same for sacramentals.  These ritual signs form an organic whole: the liturgy, the prayer of the whole Christ, as recalled by Vatican II (Constitution on the Liturgy).

Apparitions and other epiphanies which we are studying have the characteristic that the sign itself appears as supernatural, prodigious, in diverse degrees, according to the case.  The icon is the sign of a presence; it is an image and a sacramental.  The icon can be a natural sign, the work of an artist - we can think of a non-believing painter or of a printing machine.  But, it can also be miraculous for many reasons, for example by its origin.  At Guadalupe, tradition says that the image was miraculously imprinted on a mantle.  It was not made by a human being.  In the East, it is often said that a certain icon was painted following a miraculous inspiration; after a long period of sterility, the artist was suddenly seized by the Holy Spirit just as he seized his own brush to paint.  In this case, we can ask in what measure such an inspiration is supernatural, in what measure it is a particular case of the inspiration that characterizes every work of art.

A statue or icon venerated in a sanctuary as a "miraculous image" could have been found in circumstances judged supernatural or providential, which created a shock, a surprise.  For example: a statue of the Virgin was found, they say, under the blade of a plough; the oxen stopped, etc.  The statue, providentially found, resisted being brought away from the place.  One carried it to the church of the parish, and the next morning it was found again in the field where it had been discovered.  Thus it was decided, in consequence, to erect there a sanctuary to it.

It is impossible to specify the border between different types of signs, their character more or less supernatural, more or less extraordinary.  The relics of the saints are signs entirely natural.  Everybody leaves bones; they can be considered reminders of a saint whose body was a temple of Christ.  There is nothing here but a sign without magic or ontological value, a sign of and a link with a person who followed Christ and who joined him in the Communion of Saints.  The ambiguity and variety in this domain are considerable.  Take for instance the shroud of Turin, that which carries the marks of the Passion, wounds of crucified hands and feet, of a whipping of a crowning with thorns, of a piercing by a lance.  Many doctors and men of science have verified these marks and found them conformable to the narrations of the Gospel and the anatomical and physiological truth.  Is this a scientific document? Certainly, and people of science of very high qualification show considerable interest in this object.  Is it a relic?  No, in a certain sense, because it was only the covering for the body of Christ.  Yes, if, as they say, it was impregnated with the blood of Christ.  But the proof that it was really blood remains controversial.

This shroud has been treated throughout the past as an icon, an icon not painted by the hand of man, it has been said.  Was this negative, whose photograph reveals the positive after 2000 years, imprinted by a natural or supernatural manner?  Specialists discuss this.  The only normal scientific method is to form hypotheses but one can no longer operate on a scientific level.  However, the scientists who have gone the furthest in this scientific domain, by studying the marks produced by the sweat and evaporation of a cadaver during a period of three days, run up against difficulties and enigmas.  It is practically impossible to reproduce from a cadaver and
its sweat such a fine print, as perfect as that of the Shroud.  Could this be because of the necessary removal of the linen place on a cadaver, etc.?  The scientists who have studied the Shroud stumble against this borderline inherent in the mysterious nature of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.

Thus the most sensational supernatural events (healings, muItiplications of bread, etc.) are always found on this borderline, which appears obscure and luminous, like the cloud which guided the Hebrews toward the Promised Land.  The Shroud of Turin - this silent witness to the Passion of Christ, this "fifth Gospel," as one said - is a particularly impressive case of such borderline phenomena.

Our typology will move more quickly through the forms, effects and finality of the sensible supernatural.  The form of the sign could be an apparition, a vision, an interior icon, an exterior icon, a statue, a relic, etc.

Effects

The effects of these supernatural sensible phenomena are often classified as the following: 1) Healings; 2) Conversions; 3) Protection accorded (the theme of many ex-votos); 4) What Bishop Laurence, of Lourdes, called "the gathering of people," the formation of a community of prayer, with conversions, witnesses, which reestablish the communitarian fabric of the Church (Apparitions thus manifest their ecclesial dimension); and 5) We could also add the charisms which are reborn in the wake of these sensible supernatural phenomena.

A charism, in effect, is a manifestation of the power of God in the life of people, by the exercise of an activity which often takes the form of a ministry for the benefit of a community.  A charism is a free gift, given by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the community, which implies notably a reanimation of hope and a renewal of inspiration.  The apparition or vision, the prophecy implied in the message - all are charisms for the visionary.  The charism can radiate, little-by-little, in the form of witnessing, of an invitation to hope, or a healing.

Finality

We touch here on our fourth point, the order of finality.  Sensible supernatural phenomena have as their function: 1) to manifest a hidden presence, to provoke an encounter (think of that of Abraham, of Moses, or the prophets with God) ; 2) to provide for a renewal of communitarian life; 3) to bring about conversions, fervor, burning hearts, such as what occurred to the disciples on the way to Emmaus; 4) to cause the reawakening or stimulation of faith; and 5) to lead to a renewal of hope, of dynamism in the Church - in short, its edification, that which corresponds to the function of charisms.

The sensible supernatural has the value of a stimulant whose role could be analogous to that of stimulants in food.  It is ruled by the same law of sobriety.  Alcohol can be a complement to food; it can also be a poison.  Saint John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila insisted on this when, at the time of the Alhumbrados, they were hunted by the Inquisition.  "Security, sobriety," says the French proverb in this regard.  What is true for alcoholic spirits is also true for charismatic spirits.
We now are ready to pose three important questions:

  1. What is the proper value of the sensible supernatural (How do we evaluate it)?
  2. What is its function?
  3. What is its status?
  1. HISTORICAL EVALUATION

The first part of this course had to make a very limited choice in the immense domain of apparitions.  We held ourselves to modern apparitions of the Virgin Mary.  Backing up a bit, it is necessary to expand the perspective to all sensible supernatural manifestations: whether they are of God of angels, of saints, or of research in non-Christian religions and in parapsychic and paranormal phenomena (the study of which is still in an immature state).

If we limit this panoramic enlargement to Christianity, the conclusion that arises is evident and massive.  Visions, apparitions, sensible manifestations of God are the very fabric of the Old Testament.  Demythologization is artificial in the measure that it is systematic.  Even though our reason must legitimately investigate these phenomena, yet in them, the real and the imaginary necessarily form an amalgam, since the supernatural cannot be perceived except through a symbolic function where imagination is involved.  The boundary between God who issues his signs and, on the other hand, the projections of our imagination to meet the divine impact is mysterious and difficult to discern.

It is the TASK to avoid both the naivete of children and primitives and the naivete of rationalists, who believe they can explain everything from a very narrow schema,
repeatedly taking for granted what has to be proved, as has been so often done during these last two centuries.  That boundary is delicate, which exists between the
wonders realized by God in his people, on the one hand, and the symbolic celebration of these wonders which renew hope, on the other
.

  1. In the Old Testament, the major line of the sensible supernatural was in the theophanies, the manifestations (epiphanies) of God to Abraham, to Isaac, Jacob, Moses and to the prophets - with a certain spiritualization and demythologizing by the prophets, but by no means a radical demythologizing.  Demythologizing by the prophets was the result of a demanding faith which in no way confused the signs of God with God himself and his transcendence.
  2. In the New Testament, the presence of supernatural signs was not abolished.  There was first of all the major sign of the Incarnation, of God-made-man; born of a Virgin, he worked miracles as a poor man among the poor, before dying poor and condemned, and then rising in order to show himself in a sensible way.  The Resurrection is a fundamental supernatural sign from which our faith proceeds and on which it rests.  In the primitive Church, these signs proliferated, as appears in the Acts of the Apostles, where we find the visions of Peter (Acts 10:9 and 11:6-11) or of Paul (Acts 9; 2 Cor. 12:1; see Acts 20:22); to which then can be added the charisms, or sensible signs, in the form of actions where God's power to build up his Church is manifested.  Here, too, there is an admirable exchange between the impacts of God which are miracles (the Virginal Conception, the multiplication of bread, healings) and the symbolic projections which are the words (Apocalypse of John, etc.).  Symbolic activity moves to meet the stimuli of God, and a meeting with God is at the heart of this mystery.
  3. It is said sometimes that extraordinary charisms were given uniquely at the origin of Christianity for the strengthening and establishing of the Church, but after that they had to cease: no longer the miracles, no longer the charisms, no more visions.  John Chrysostom said that they were like the wedding gifts from God which are no longer appropriate in a marriage.  Chrysostom had a rather austere and misogynous conception of marriage.  In fact, nothing tells us that God acts like those husbands who stop giving
    gifts after the wedding day.

    On the contrary, the history of the Church testifies to the abundance of visions, apparitions, healings, protections which have always appeared in the experience of the Church and of saints.  We can, therefore, hold as an unhealthy phenomenon that insistent and radical exclusion of any form of the sensible supernatural, prevalent in large Catholic milieux during the last decades, with a systematic repression of those manifestations.  It is true that this domain is open to all sorts of abuses and illusions which call for discernment, prudence, and even, at times, firm repression.  It is nonetheless true that the sensible supernatural has for function to maintain and stimulate hope and Christian creativity, and to contribute a certain "joie de vivre. "  By sheer promotion of a continuous practice of the desert spirituality, some have succeeded in discouraging Christians, who, in their resulting despair, have been duped by all sorts of images and fallacious attractions exterior to Christianity.

The Apparitions of the First Fifteen Centuries

For this last part of the course, I wanted to draw up an inventory of the apparitions of Mary from the beginning centuries, to complete our panorama of modern apparitions.  This domain, however, which has hardly been touched until now, exceeds our time limits.  What I would propose to you, if you are interested in this, would be to accomplish a personal or collective project, starting with an inventory of these apparitions.  You could begin with the Mariological Encyclopedias: the French Maria notably (see the Table at the word Apparition), Bourasse (13 vols. published by Migne in 1870), and New Catholic Encyclopedia, etc.

For each apparition, prepare a card on which you note the following: 1) the place and the date, 2) the visionaries, 3) the reference, and 4) a summary of the vision in a brief
form that can be put on such a card.  The card catalogue would be classified in chronological order.  After that you could also establish a typology: Apparitions more "familiar" to us (those which are numerous, repeated appearances to mystics); Apparitions with a message (in a specific historical context); Miracles; lacrymations; Transfixions and bleedings of icons or hosts; Other miracles; and osmi signs (with
or without apparitions, etc.).

The first surveys I made revealed that apparitions of the Virgin in the East are spoken of very early.  For example, there was an apparition to Gregory the Thaumaturge, who died in 270, according to his life by Gregory of Nyssa (PG 46/900-912; G. B. BOBRINSKOY, "Apparitions dans I'orthodoxie in Vraies et fausses apparitions, 2d ed, 111).  There were apparitions also, to Saint Mary the Egyptian (Bobrinsky, p. 108); to Saint John Damascene (8th century), for whom the Virgin restored his hand which had been cut off by the emir of Damascus; to Saint Athanasius, founder of the cenobitical Iife of Athos in the fourth century (Bobrinskoy,
p. 108-110).  During a famine he met a woman who said to him "I am the Mother of the Lord."  When he returned, the empty jars were filled with oil and flour, etc. (see Bobrinskoy, p. 110-115).

Many visions or apparitions are attributed to the founders of Orders; these are not always presented in a critical way, and discernment here is difficult.  Here, too, we must have a critical sense.  But contemporary knowledge (as gained from the visionaries still living from Beauraing and Banneux, not to mention the unrecognized apparitions) and the very satisfactory historical knowledge we have (from the apparitions to Catherine Laboure and to Bernadette) show that we are dealing with very serious phenomena.  For instance, Andre Frossard said to me, while speaking of the experience of his sudden conversion, "That experience appears to me truer than everyday reality."  Since then, the real world, which had been unsatisfying to begin with, appears to him like the shadow of future realities.

  1. THE FUNCTION OF APPARITIONS

What then is the function of these sensible, supernatural phenomenal.  This function must be understood in reference to the intention of God, also to the spiritual needs of his people, and to the good order in and the environment of the Church.  This function is diversified by its divine intentions and finalities, and ultimately by the forms which these phenomena take.  Essentially, they have as their function: 1) to manifest the presence and reality of the invisible; 2) to communicate a prophetic message; 3) to actualize, reawaken, revitalize faith and especially hope; 4) to edify Christian communities and the entire Church, to inspire new projects in them; and 5) to nourish the bonds of the Communion of Saints.

The Problem: Revelation and revelations

The problem is that private revelations do not easily find their place in relationship to the essential Revelation.  In effect, the Revelation of God is closed, according to classical theology, since the death of the last apostle (although some dispute the basis and the exact signification of the difference which exists between Revelation and private revelations as well as the significance of texts such as Jn. 14:26 and 16:13, which a certain theology applies only to biblical inspiration, and which others prefer to extend without restriction to all times, without distinguishing a foundational Revelation from those revelations which have for function simply to revitalize the foundational Revelation).

It seems healthy and traditional to maintain a revelation posterior to the origins (to the events of the New Testament), maintaining also that it is no longer foundational, but serves only to revitalize the full Revelation, which is given fully in Jesus Christ.  It is clear that no new revelation can change the foundational Revelation, as Saint Paul expresses well when he says that "if an angel from heaven came to teach another Gospel, let him be anathema" (Gal. 1:8).

But we can also add this: according to the common doctrine there is no longer place for a truly new Revelation, and a private revelation can then only recall, vivify, explain, or elucidate the foundational Revelation.  Then a more ample exposition would have to investigate the role which apparitions can play in dogmatic development.  The Rue du Bac stimulated the definition of the Immaculate Conception, while Lourdes seemed to confirm it, according to an expression used by Bernadette herself in her letter to the Pope in 1867.  Other apparitions tried to promote new dogmas or titles.

Classical theology currently distinguishes between objective, public Revelation (that of the Bible and of Foundational Tradition) and private revelations.  This distinction, however, is overruled by the facts, since the so-called private apparitions often have a public character of a message "to be communicated," and which is in fact communicated.  We must thus revise this vocabulary to distinguish between foundational Revelation and revelations which have a function of recalling, of revitalizing, explaining, or actualizing for particular circumstances.  We could speak, consequently, of particular revelations which are no longer, as is the foundational Revelation, the common lot of the whole Church.  We must preserve the sense of their particularity and of their relativity.

They have for function, not to complete faith by some objective information, but to renew and stimulate it.  In this sense, they contribute to hope rather than to faith, according to the judicious remark of Fr. Manteau Bonamy.  They deal less with the function of knowledge than with hope, oriented toward the future and the revelation of the Plan of Salvation.

According to Thomas Aquinas and Cajetan, revelations have a practical rather than a speculative character.  They have for function to regulate our conduct rather than to
uncover new truths. As John XXIII insisted, in a radio message for the closing of the centenary of Lourdes (February 13, 1959),

The Roman pontiffs, guardians and interpreters of divine Revelation (...)  have a duty also to recommend to the attention of the faithful (when after mature examination they judge them opportune for the general good) the supernatural lights which God pleased to dispense freely to certain privileged souls, not for the sake of proposing new doctrines but to guide our conduct (non ad novam doctrinam fidei depromenda, sed ad humanorum actuum directiones: Thomas Aquinas II-II q. 174, a.6, ad3; D. Bertetto, Acta mariana Johannis XXIII, Pas Verlag, Zurich and DC 56,
1959, 274-275).

Such signs have for function less to instruct than to convert, to break the circle of inveterate habits, to reawaken faith, prayer, bilateral communication with God.  Thus,
apparitions enter into the category of charisms, graces gratis datae (given for the common good), or, more precisely, according to the capital notion in 1 Cor. 12-14, for the edification of the Church.

By insisting on this edification, we touch what is essential (function and criteria).  Thus, we overcome what is artificial in the insistence of classical theology, that graces gratis datae profit the Church but not the subjects who received them.  Christian experience proves to the contrary, that normally, in fruitful cases, the apparitions build up first of all the person who receives them, before building up the entire Church, just as according to Saint Paul, the one who speaks in tongues, edifies himself.

Apparitions belong more precisely to the prophetic charism, that is to a word addressed in the name of God for realizing the Plan of Salvation, according to the historical needs of each time.  Apparitions are only a particular form of prophecy in acts (signs) and words.  The prophets of the Old Testament proposed or explained the signs of the times, which were either terrestrial signs (When Hahiyya of Silo tore his mantle into twelve parts, it signified the schism of the tribes of Israel, 1 Kgs 11:32) or signs in the sky (like in Daniel, the Apocalypse), visions in the form of images, symbols, utopias, and also the manifestation of a person from the communion of saints (like Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration of Christ).

The dialectic between terrestrial signs and celestial signs is complex and the boundary is less clear than it appears, since every prophetic sign normally is embodied on the level of human and sensible realities in a very diverse manner.


The Devaluation and Value of Apparitions

What is, consequently, the value of these signs?  L. VOLKEN, in Les apparitions dans l'Eglise (Paris, 1960, p. 215-223), observed accurately that they have been devalued in a systematic manner.  Systematic theology defines private revelations in a negative manner as accessories, not necessities, as being without authority, gratuitous, and dangerous.  Fundamental theology Iikewise situates them in the last place.  Melchior Cano did not even list them among the "ten sources of theology ," not even among the annexed sources which for him come last: philosophy, law, history.

For him, they are purely and simply not theological.  Exegesis opposes the purity of Revelation, which is the Word of God, to the intrusion of subsequent revelations.  It is suspicious of the accessory revelations which risk producing a new Gospel, a new Pentecost, clouding the essential instead of clarifying it.  Moral theology disregards this ambiguous domain (which, however, concerns it), in the treatise on faith as well as in the treatise on prophecy.  Mystical theology which properly ought to treat apparitions, is suspicious of these phenomena, and treats them as transitory and dangerous "epiphenomena."  Historically, the Church has treated this domain as the black sheep of the family.  Canon Law treats such revelations in a limiting and even
repressive perspective, as we will see later.

Before Christ, these diverse devaluations and tensions only prolonged the conflicts between the prophets of the Old Testament and the royal and priestly institutions of that time.  This is to say nothing of the essential conflicts between the true and false prophets, all through the period of the Old Testament.  This type of conflict can always arise between the magisterium - one of whose functions is conservation and safeguarding of the deposit - and prophecy, which has for its function renewal, reform, and a movement to the future.  Thus prophecy always risks appearing as a parallel magisterium.  Only charity and submission to God can regulate the problems that arise from the tension between prophecy and authority, which have not ceased to resound all through the history of the Church, in the measure in which authority lacked prophetic character and where prophecy encroached on the preserve of authority.

To this institutional repression we can add reinforcement from the rationalist repression.  Rationalism has raised its banner against sign and symbols since the very birth of reason, among the Greeks, three thousand years ago.  It was not long ago that abstract reason waged a reductive combat against the domain of the "imaginary ," judged it inferior and contemptible, the domain of shadows, of the irrational, of that imagination which Teresa of Avila called "the mad woman in the house."  Then there was the wave of another rationalism, that of scientific criticism and suspicion which tried to interpret the symbolic universe in function only of individual subjectivity and its pulsations.

  1. THE STATUS OF APPARITIONS

The status of apparitions has a complex history.  At the beginning, they were well received, as indicated in the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of the Martyrs.

The Traumatic Experience of the Montanist Crisis

However, the crisis between charism and institution, which Paul had to resolve at Corinth, reappeared with the new prophecy of Montanus.  He founded a Charismatic
movement which is still difficult to judge today, because it is first of all, known by the polemics and repressions which caricatured it in sometimes crude ways.  According to Saint
Jerome, the Montanists reduced bishops to nothing in favour of a charismatic hierarchy.  They held in first place the patriarch of Pepuze in Phrygia, as second, those they call the koinonoi, and in third and almost in last place, the bishops (JEROME, Letter 41, 3).

Did they really deviate on this point?  We do not have proof of this.  In any case, the institution of patriarchs (their primacy) did not take long to expand in the East (Vatican II put them again in a place of honour).  If the koinonoi (the word that signifies a group characterized by Communion of collegiality) was a sort of synod linked to the patriarch, we would still be within the norms which have prevailed in the East and which Vatican II reestablished.

In the same way, Saint Epiphanius attributed to Montanus the enormous pretension of having declared, "I am the Lord God," considering himself as the incarnation of the
Spirit (Oracle no.1 and 3 in P. de LABRIOLLE, La Crise montaniste, 1913, p. 38).  However, according to all probability, he was probably talking in prophecies, as did all the prophets from the Old Testament up to the Charismatic Renewal, speaking in the name of the Spirit, without deceiving anyone.  The first time I was in a charismatic group I heard a young woman say, "Come to me, receive the light, etc."  I was intrigued, if not shocked: "Who does she think she is?"  However, her statement was to be understood according to the phrase, sometimes not spoken out, "Thus speaks the Lord."  No one is deceived.

The case of Tertullian illustrates well the ambiguity of Montanism.  How did this man, who ended up in this schism, maintain a faith which was so pure, so admirable, so that, despite his break, he is traditionally listed among the Fathers of the Church?  How did this Montanist Church of the pure (a dangerous pretension) maintain a purity of faith?

We touch here a fundamental problem, that of the articulation between Institution and charism, between established power and the free inspirations of the Spirit.  In principle, there should be only harmony.  In fact, conflicts arise precisely where the institution is not charismatic and where charisms arise, confronting the institution, by compensation. (We must also mention the cases where it is necessary to repress false prophets, as did Elias and his successors in the Old Testament.)  Thus the conflicts form and can be aggravated.  The charismatic may be burned like Savonarola, he may also create a schism.  The reconciliation of charism and institution has been one of the concerns of Vatican II, but it is not an easy task.

It is in this light that we must consider the hesitations of tradition: the favorable attitude of Saint Cyprian, the suspicion which Saint Augustine held toward visions (Volken, p. 71-77).  In the Middle Ages, the revelations of Saint Brigid ,or of Saint Gertrude, then of Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Sienna, Magdalene of Pazzi, were all held in great esteem by the authorities, while Joachim of Flora, a prestigious witness of a considerable movement, was feared, criticized, sometimes calumniated.  So too, were numerous charismatic groups of the Middle Ages; often these were evangelical groups whose qualities and faults are difficult to evaluate today, because we do not know them except by their adversaries who repressed and caricatured them.

The Juridical Status


The series of measures concerning apparitions and private revelations began in 1516, at the 5th Lateran Council.  The problem was the same as that of today: the local events always risk exceeding the limits of the diocese or the bishop who approved them, and thus risk disturbing other bishops and the supreme authority.  Therefore, the bishops are invited to reservation, to criticism and to severity.

According to the ordinary law, we will that the so-called inspirations be from now on reserved to the examination of
the people.  If it is not possible to wait or if certain urgent necessities counsel something else, then the affair should be referred to the ordinary of the place ...  He, with three or four learned and serious men, will diligently examine these affairs.  When it seems to them to be suitable, a matter which we lay on their consciences, they can accord permission. (5th Council of Lateran, session 11 in Conciliorum oecumenicorum Decreta, Bologna, Herder, 1973, p. 635).

The text is somewhat restrictive: 1) It forbids the diffusion of predictions without a Roman approbation, which would then require necessarily several years; 2) Only in case of necessity does it accept some channeling, for which the bishop then carries grave responsibility before Rome.  The score of such a judgment was reduced to a
simple permission (licentiam concedere possint).  Nevertheless, the principle is maintained that authority should not extinguish the Spirit (according to 1 Thess. 5: 19-20, cited on p. 637, line 29).

The Council of Trent, 1563

The Council of Trent took a similar position in regard to new "miracles" and "images."  The images were often miraculous, and the word "miracle" covered all forms of the marvelous, including the apparitions.

No new miracle may be admitted ... without the recognition and approbation of the bishop.  The bishop, from the moment he is informed, will take the counsel of theologians and other pious men, and will do what he estimates to be conformed to the truth and to piety.
If it is necessary to extirpate a dubious or difficult abuse (difficilis), or if some more grave question surfaces in this matter, the bishop, before entering into the controversy, will await the opinion of the metropolitan and of the other bishops of the province, united in a provincial council, in such a way, nevertheless, that nothing new be decided without consultation of the Holy Roman Pontiff (In consulto romano Pontifice, Council of Trent, session 25, December 4, 1563, ibid. p. 776).

Here the responsibility of the bishop is doubly subjected to that of the metropolitan and the provincial Synod, and, at the same time, to that of the Roman Pontiff, as already decreed by Lateran V.  The concern is to avoid the diffusion of such phenomena, already vigorously denounced by the Reformation.

In the 18th century, Prospero Lambertini, the future Benedict XIV (1740-1758), specified more formally the status of apparitions.  The new factor was that he specified the totally relative value of apparitions and the function of the magisterium in this domain.  This text has become authoritative since then:

It is necessary to know that the approbation given by the Church to a private revelation is NOTHING OTHER THAN A PERMISSION ACCORDED, after an attentive examination, to communicate this revelation for the instruction and good of the faithful.  To such revelations, EVEN THOSE APPROVED BY THE CHURCH, ONE MUST NOT ACCORD AN ASSENT OF CATHOLIC FAITH.  It is necessary only, according to the law of prudence, to give to them an assent of human belief (assensus fidei humanae juxta prudentiae regulas: to the degree that such revelations appear probable and piously credible).  In consequence, one can refuse assent to such revelations (posse aliquem assensum non praestare), and turn from them, provided this is done with suitable modesty, for good reasons, and without contempt (De servorum Dei beatificatione, book II, ch. 32, no.11 ; see book III, ch. 53, no. 15).

It is to these principles that Rome from then on conformed.  The Congregation of Rites cited them in a certain number of responses: 1) That of February 6, 1875, to a
consultation of the archbishop of Santiago de Chile concerning Our Lady of Mercy (Decreta authentica Congregationis Rituum 3, 1900; no.336, p. 48); 2) That of May
12, 1877, for Lourdes and la Salette (ibid. p. 79) ; 3) That of August 31, 1904, for the scapular of Pellevoisin:

Although the devotion is approved (by Pius X in an audience on January 30,on April 4), one cannot deduce from this approbation any direct or indirect approbation of the apparition, revelation, graces of healing, any others, whatever they are and in whatever manner they happened (AAS, 1905, p. 373-374).

Pius X confirmed this position in other terms, in his Encyclical Pacendi (September 8, 1907).  He authorized the adhesion to pious traditions and private revelations only
with precaution and restriction (that of Urban VIII).

This is a rule of security, insisted Pius X, after having cited the decree of May 12,1877:

... for the cu  It whose object is one of these apparitions, to the degree it concerns the fact itself, is relative and always implies as a condition the authenticity of the fact, while, as absolute, this cult is founded on the truth, since it refers to the very persons of the saints who are honoured.  We must say the same regarding relics.

The Pope applies here a general rule which is valid for images and sites.  Although we can address a cult to Christ and canonized saints without restriction, the sign used - image, relic, apparition - is always to be considered relative.

This classical thesis was questioned by the interpretation of Fr. Balic, president of the Mariological Academy.  The restrictions were put to question and submitted to a
free debate at the Mariological Congress of Lourdes, where the centenary of the apparitions was celebrated.  The splendor of the centenary and the favour of the Popes (that of Pius XII, who intended secretly to go to Lourdes on August 15, 1958) gave the feeling that this was neither a simple permission nor an act of faith, but a positive encouragement, to which it was difficult not to adhere without contempt for
the magisterium.  Fr. Balic, therefore, raised two questions.  First, he asked, "Is the assent given to these apparitions and private revelations that of divine faith?"  He pointed out that to the question posed in this same way by the Carmelites of
Salamanca, Suarez and Lugo had given a positive response (against Cajetan, Cano and Banez, d. 1604): "The believer who receives a revelation coming from God and perceives it as such - how could he not adhere with divine faith?"  After all, it would seem that the Council of Trent admits certitudes of this type in the canon declaring:

... whoever would say that he has the gift of justification guaranteed, even for final perseverance, with an absolute and infallible certitude, let him be anathema, UNLESS HE LEARNED THIS BY A SPECIAL REVELATION (session V,
Canon 16, Denzinger 1566, Volken, p.205).

This scholastic thesis was never censured or condemned.  Secondly, Fr. Balic asked, "Do the official approbations of Lourdes and Fatima by the Pope surpass that of a simple permission?  Are they not matters of infallibility?"  "For what concerns the fact of Lourdes," says Fr. Balic,

its supernatural character is not one of a tenuous probability, but of moral certitude.  The apparitions of Lourdes should be considered as unique (a se et per se) and should not be confused with other apparitions approved only by the ordinary of the place or by the Holy See, with the restrictive clause, "for what one says."  We can ask if there is not in this case an infallible approbation, and if one should not accord to these apparitions of Lourdes, rather than an act of faith that is only human, an adhesion of theological faith?

Two speakers, Dom Roy, O.S.B., and Fr. Valentini, Salesian, responded to the invitation of Fr. Balic.  Dom Roy supported the more involved thesis. He argued:

  1. The apparitions of Lourdes, recognized in a manner analogous to canonizations, have the character of a dogmatic fact.  We understand by dogmatic fact any event not included in Revelation but too closely connected with his transmission not to come under the infallible authority of the Church.  In this ambiguous category are classified the dogmatic events, the declaration of the canon of Scripture, the fact that five condemned propositions were in the doctrine of Jansenius, and the canonization of saints.
  2. For this reason, this is a matter of Ecclesial faith, founded on the testimony of the Church, and required by filial obedience to the Church.

The same debate sprang up at Fatima, with the communications of Fr. Moreira Ferras and Fr. I. Ortiz de Urgina (Acta of the Congress of Lisbon-Fatima, Rome, Academia Mariana, 1970, vol. 6, p. 3-12: Ortiz and 207-222: Moreira).  The latter more modestly defended that the intervention of the Church has a positive character (and not one that is only permissive, tolerant, like a nihil obstat).

What must be recognized - with V. Congar (from 1937, in Supplement a Vie spirituelle, p. 46-48), K. Rahner and Ortiz de Urbina - is that the Roman approbations can admit (according to Rahner) that, subjectively, adhesion to private revelations arises from a theological faith, not only of the visionary, but also for those who receive his prophetic witness:

It is not clear why a private revelation is not imposed on the faith of all those who know of it, if they admit with sufficient certitude that it comes from God.

It is unjustified, illogical, and dangerous, to demand (as is often done) for the authentification of the divine origin of private revelations posterior to Christ such a degree of certitude that if one demanded it for the official Revelation,
all reasonable foundation of the faith in Christian Revelation would be rendered impossible.

John XXIII himself, in his radio message of February 18, 1959, addressed to Lourdes, underlined that the Popes have a duty to recommend the apparitions to the attention of the faithful (D. BERTETTO, Acta mariana JohannisXXIII, Pas Verlag, Zurich 1964 and DC 56, 1959, col. 274-275).

The category of "dogmatic facts" is very ambiguous and disputed.  We do not find in this domain either logic or coherence.  Thus the majority of theologians admitted, before the Council, that canonizations of saints engaged infallibility by reason of a dogmatic fact.  Now this type of judgment, exercised from an examination of particular and conjectural data, is of the same order as the judgment exercised about apparitions.  And one of the canonizations of the 18th century, according to the form reputed to be infallible, used facts contradicted by history: the martyrdom of Saint John Nepomucene, thought to be a martyr for the secret of confession, is a legend.  In this case, it is difficult to see how the classical theory can distinguish the two criteria and how it can decide between the judgment of canonization, which is held to be infallible, and the judgment concerning apparitions, which is held a matter of simple tolerance, not engaging faith in any way.

  1. GENERAL CONCLUSION

The Boundary Problem of Apparitions

What should we retain from this debate about the boundary problem, which is ambiguous and disputed in theology?

  1. Private revelations can never be placed on the same level as the divine Revelation given by Christ, consigned to Scripture, and transmitted by the essential tradition of the Church.  Without doubt, this conclusion could be drawn with more nuances, after we have understood the complex historical modalities of Revelation, the cultural relativity of its expressions, and the difficulty of fixing it in exact terms.  "The death of the last Apostle" is only an approximating formula, for establishing the ideas.
  2. The texts of the magisterium concerning private revelations insist at once on the ambiguity of this domain - subject to error or illusion and exaltation - and on the conjectural character even of the judgments exercised by the authority of the Church on the particular facts.
  3. The signs of the supernatural order, of a relative and secondary order, should be appreciated with humility and obedience.
  4. But we cannot deny that these revelations - when God gives them immediately with a character of certitude - of the visionary an adhesion of faith, and, in face of contradiction, it can create a case of conscience, common among the mystic depositories of private revelations.  At Lourdes, those who had authority over Bernadette (her parents, the Commissary and the judges) forbade her to go to the grotto, although she had promised to the apparition to go there for fifteen days.  We can observe the same anguish in Catherine Laboure and, among the non-recognized apparitions, in Mamma Rosa.  The way to a solution in such a case is three-fold: 1) Discernment, 2) Charity, and 3) Finally, a pastoral sense and practical obedience.
  5. Supernatural signs are by nature very diverse; they include: instituted signs (as sacraments or sacramentals), signs more or less freely created by the Christian people (such as icons), providential signs, those appreciated as gifts (such as the discovery of a statue or of a miraculous image, as has often occurred at the origin of a sanctuary), and supernatural apparitions of Christ, of the Virgin, of saints.

The problem of the objective or subjective nature of these phenomena was treated at the beginning of this course.  We have seen that it is necessary to relativize the classic distinction ) between apparition (objective) and vision (subjective) and, all the more, to avoid the slogan according to which all supernatural apparitions belong to the domain of hallucination.  Certainly, there can be relationships between waking visions (or apparitions) and dreams.  Like Catherine Laboure, one can hesitate concerning the boundary between these two types of communication.  A dream can be prophetic, the vehicle of a transcendent message.  In her case, the dream, like a vision, appeared more real than reality.

We are very poorly equipped to judge such matters for many reasons:

  1. The sender (the Virgin Mary in her glory such as she exists today) is not known to us, neither in her duration nor in her corporal mode of existence -- an existence which the Apostle Paul described as mysterious and completely other (1 Cor. 15).
  2. The condition of the receiver (the visionary) is very poorly known by us, for what concerns the essential.  The tendency of a study which wishes to be "scientific" will always be to reduce, a priori, the original phenomena to other well-known phenomena: dreams or hallucinations.  However, the vision of the transcendent transmission is a gratuitous phenomenon not repeatable at will, which escapes all psychological experimentation.
  3. We are, thus, poorly equipped to grasp the relationship between the information and the manner by which the subject apprehends it, between the subjectivity (the reverse of knowledge) and the manner by which it attains this object, by way of intentionality.
  4. Finally, we are ignorant of all that can be said to be the medium of communication between a material body and a glorified body ("spiritual," says the apostle Paul), between the different durations of the Communion of Saints and of our cosmos.

We know the mechanics of the ordinary perception of the five senses, but we have no means to know and experiment on the mode of exceptional perception which is that of the apparitions.  However, by no means either do we have to exclude the possibility that God would necessarily conform to the nature of a receiving subject and would be more immediate than ordinary communication (by vibrations, nervous impulse, intentional decoding of a material and codified information).

One of the means to express this mysterious communication, conformably to the experience of the saints and recognized visionaries, is to say that God or the persons who 10 appear do it by means of an interior icon, an icon in vivo, which is inscribed, not on fabric or on writing-tablets, but on the living being itself, at the most intimate level, the most immediate of perceptions and of encounters with others.

All real perception is accomplished by signs, what scholasticism called, in a sense less naive than it appears, pressed species and expressed species (the signal received and the signal expressed).  Knowledge itself is of the order of symbolic sign, formed by the subject from an information or a stimulus which is objective or subjective to diverse degrees.

It is necessary to exercise a discernment between health and of pathology in this domain.  More attention normally is given to the pathology of excesses.  Visions can be a product of mental imbalance.  It is in this vein that popular language uses the expression "having visions" in the sense of "having illusions," being affected by mental illness.  Some psychic deviations and subjective impulses can give the illusion of supernatural communication.

Finally, every visionary can be tempted to recreate this fulfilling and valuable state with the poorly-known resources of the imagination or by means of meta-psychic facuIties.  In the absence of the gratuitous gift of God, deviations are induced in diverse degrees.  We must acknowledge this.  That pathological phenomena can exist in all these cases does not mean that the whole order of these phenomena must be reduced to pathology.  Where the visionary is otherwise perfectly healthy and balanced, and where the visionary's experience has been an exceptional episode, strictly limited in time, it is by a purely a priori judgment that one would reduce such a case to pathology, as is often done in an abusive way.  We can never economize on discernment, anymore than we can in the other aspects of Christian life and of psychological life.

Finally, if there are pathologies by excess, which oblige the denouncing of false prophets (as Elijah and true prophets did), there is also a pathology by defect.  The absence of visions and prophecies is a weakness and a sickness in the Church.  As the author of Lamentations already perceived:

There is no more law.  Even the prophets no longer have visions from Yahweh.  They sit on the ground, silent, the elders of the Daughter of Sion! (Lam. 2:9-10; see Ex. 7:26).

We no longer see signs, there are no longer prophets, and none of us know for how long! (Ps. 74:9; see 77:9; Dan. 3:38).

This pathology by defect is denounced by the Bible as the result of repression:

I raised up prophets among your sons and to the prophets you made this prohibition: "Do not prophesy!" (Amos 2:11-12)

They said to the visionaries: "Do not have visions!" and to the prophets: "Do not prophecy the truth for us!" (Is. 30:10; see Jer. 11:21; Zach. 1:5; Neh. 9:30).

All this happened, showing that, in the Old Testament, the prophets and the visionaries were repressed until the moment when, with the repression successful, someone lamented that there were no more prophecies (1 Sam. 3:1, 1 Mac. 9: 27).  The reappearance of the prophetic gift was one of the promises attached to the restoration of Israel:

My words will not distance themselves from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, from now on, says Yahweh (Is. 59:21).

I will speak to the prophets and I will multiply their visions (Hos. 12:10-11; Joel 3:1).

Christ condemned the repression which destroys prophecy: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you" (Mt.23:27).  The sending of this Spirit was perceived as a new and definitive moment of prophetic gifts and of visions.  It is thus that the apostle Peter interpreted the event of Pentecost by citing Joel 3:1-3: "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young people will have visions and your old people will have dreams" (Acts 2:17).

W. Vogels illustrated this Biblical theme very well in his article, "II n'y aura plus de prophete!", Nouvelle revue theologique (1979): 844-859.  He investigated the significance of the absence of prophecy as "the absence of a friend, of a response from God, of a summons by God," and concluded: "Israel did not always want prophets, but if she suppressed them she knew well that she could not do without them."

This religious phenomenon can be considered in the light of the vast historical phenomenon of civilization.  Philosophers like Sartre and others have observed that we lived three thousand years of the rationalist repression of symbols.  But the symbolic (imaginary) root of all knowledge is ineradicable and will rise again.  Thus, today we see a resurgence of symbols.  The Church (at least a certain portion of the clergy) has not kept in step with that revolution and is still pursuing the rationalist repression of apparitions and sensible supernatural phenomena, at a time when this contempt and this incomprehension or repression have already been overcome among secular academic people.

It is difficult for us humans to find the correct measure and the right path in such complex matters!  Between an immoderate attraction for visions (such as gave rise to the epidemic of visionaries and their sad sequels) and a repressive panic in the face of all apparitions or prophecies, there is a rightful measure to be found in hope and humility.  This is the lesson of the apparitions.  Discernment in this matter must be personal and communitarian and, in case of difficulties, must refer to higher agencies - those of the bishop or, ultimately, of the Holy See.

Mary and the Apparitions

Dogmatic Affinities and Theological Sources

Why does Mary have such an important place in apparitions, especially in the modern period?  We would suggest the following reasons.  First, since every apparition is a manifestation of God and of those who are in God in the celestial communion, Mary, as the one closest to God and to Christ, is logically the first one called to communicate in the name of God and as a sign of God.  This logical assumption corresponds to the very dynamism of the Virgin Mary as the servant of the Lord for the Salvation in which she cooperated, in obedience to the Spirit ( Lk. 1:28-57) see Jn. 2:1-12).  It is also in conformity with her mission as Mother, which was given to her by Christ at Calvary.  "Maternal love makes her attentive to the brothers of her Son, whose pilgrimage is not yet complete" (L.G., no, 62).

Furthermore, it is in conformity with her nature, since she was taken body and soul into heaven, according to the defined dogma of Pius XII.  She is more endowed to communicate on a sensible level, than those who exist as separated souls.  Like the saints, she desires to continue her cooperation in Salvation.  Such was the desire of her humble imitator, Saint Bernadette, who said in her letter to Pope Pius IX:

My weapons are prayer and sacrifice, which I will hold to until my last breath.  There only, the weapon of sacrifice will fall, but that of prayer will follow me to heaven and it will be more powerful there than here in exile, on earth.
(Letter to Pope Pius IX 1876

Similarly, Therese of Lisieux declared, "I want to pass my heaven doing good on earth."  We can also add that Mary seems, according to Grignion de Montfort, called to play a role in these last days, as she played at the very beginning of Salvation.  But this prophetic argument involves a very delicate appreciation.  What will the last days be?

We can be more secure saying that Mary seems to have played a role for the conservation of charisms, in a time when they were not only neglected, but also the object of contempt and even repression in the Church (1600-1933).  Her humble person reassures where authority would be suspicious of an apparition of Christ, as though placing the magisterium in the shadow.  The apparitions of Mary and their style of humility have fanned the charismatic flame in the Church.  This is very characteristic of the Rue du Bac and of Lourdes.

Biblical Sources clarifying the Apparitions of Mary in History

The apparitions of Mary in history can be clarified principally by the following biblical sources:

LUKE 1-2

The Annunciation (Lk 1:25-38)

It is by Mary that the Son of the invisible God becomes visible, that Salvation becomes visible.  The texts of John 1:14-15 and 1 Jn. 1:1 insist on this: "What we have seen, what we have touched, the Word of life."  Mary has a place in the visible manifestation of our Salvation.

The Visitation (Lk 1:39-55)

Mary is not closed in a splendid isolation with God and with her Son.  She did not go into seclusion after the Annunciation.  Right after receiving the grace of the conception of the Son of God, she became a pilgrim through the mountains to share this grace with her cousin and with John the Baptist.

This is the beautiful mystery of the Visitation: the dynamism of Mary, her departure (which recalls that of Abraham) through the mountains, symbol of a path which is difficult, arduous, mounting, symbol of pilgrimage.  Following this is the encounter.  The intimate encounter of Mary with Christ does not exclude but calls for encounter with others: here with Elizabeth and John the Baptist, according to the final words of Gabriel (Lk. 1: 36-37).  It is a sharing of the grace received, not a voluntary sharing but one which is inspired or programmed by the Spirit, which impels Mary toward Elizabeth and fills the latter prophetically to praise Mary.  This is the expression of the Proto-pentecost of 1:35.

In her turn, Mary prophesies by enlarging her thanksgiving to embrace the whole past of Israel, from Abraham to the end of time.  The Magnificat is already the evangelical
thanksgiving of the poor, among whom Mary has her place.  This meaning of thanksgiving is what Bernadette of Lourdes understood from the apparitions.  Her own final concern was to be thankful to the very end, up through the quadruple night which constituted the end of her life: a night of suffering, of the senses, of faith, of hope.

The Birth and Communication of Jesus (Lk. 2)

Mary continues this sharing and this thanksgiving in her meditation, which had for object this new relationship between God and men (2:19) and 51).  At Bethlehem, due to the pilgrimage to their origins in the City of David imposed by the census, Mary is an apparition in the night for the shepherds: "They found Mary and Joseph and the new-born lying in a manger" (Lk. 2:6).  She was part of the sign of Christmas.

The shepherds came in haste, as she had traveled to Elizabeth (1:39 and 2:16).  The meeting with Simeon and Anna (hypapante, according to the name of the feast in Greek), is perceived by Simeon, as a "light and revelation for the nations" (2:32).

Repeatedly, Mary led Jesus to the Temple, the hour of the Father (2:48) and the house of the believers for "admirable exchanges" (O admirabile commercium: Incarnation).  Today, she continues the meetings and manifestations, completely in the service of Christ.  She loves to visit her people, to whom she is present in the Spirit of God, in the Communion of Saints.

JOHN

Cana Jn. 2:1-12

John is a witness to the same dynamism of Mary, inspired by God, for the communication of people with God.  Mary is indeed the Virgin mother who makes him visible (1:13).  At Cana she requests the mysterious anticipation of the hour of Jesus: the wine, symbol of joy, of the Eucharist, and of eschatology.  She intercedes with Christ for those who do not have wine, who are deprived of the joy of the wedding.

Although Jesus refuses and rejects her by his negative response, she understands that he is ready to listen.  She intervenes with the servants, "Do all that he tells you."  She meets them in order to prepare them to obey Christ: "All that he will tell you, do it."  She obtains here, by a sort of anticipation, the first sign by which Jesus anticipates the hour of Calvary and the sign of Pentecost, the first sign by which he establishes the faith of the disciples.

This is what Mary continues in the messages of her apparitions, which are only an echo of the Gospel.  They intend to orient toward Jesus, to recall the Good News, to invite toward conversion.  The authentic apparitions are recognizable, since Mary is always the one who takes the initiative to say, "Do all that he will tell you," and she does this to establish faith (2:11), the direct link between Jesus and his disciples.

Calvary Jn. 19:25-27

Thus, we can find the source of the apparitions in Jn. 19:25-27 where Mary receives her mission as Mother of the disciple (the disciple-type).  He is the disciple (anonymous (and she is the anonymous Mother in the Gospel of John, the Mother of the Messiah and of the new people, the woman anti-type of Eve, Daughter of the eschatological Sion, according to the symbolic substratum of John (see Isa. 66 in Parallelism with Quamran).  Her mission as Mother explains that she acts as a Mother, that she watches, that she meets her children, that she comes to them, that they take her to themselves.

Apocalypse 12

The most topical text - where all the rest comes together - is, without doubt, Apocalypse 12.  There, Mary appears as the Daughter of the eschatological Sion and, at the same time, the Mother of the Messiah, "who rules the nations with a sceptre of iron" (Apoc. 12: 5), and, as Mother, is united with the "rest of her descendants" (the descendants of the Woman of Gen. 3:15-20, according to Apoc. 12:17).

What is important for our subject, however, is that she is mysteriously present there, as an apparition, "a sign in the sky," a sign luminous with the very light of Christ.  She is identified by juxtaposition with the Ark of the Covenant.  "In the sky appeared the ark of the Covenant," ends Apocalypse 11:19, which is linked with 12:1: "There appeared a sign in the sky, a woman clothed with the Sun, the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars."

The woman clothed with the sun, radiates the Sun of Justice, Christ.  It is Our Lady of Guadalupe and of the Miraculous Medal, with the solar (Christological) rays.  It is also the solar light of La Salette and of Lourdes, which preceded and enveloped the apparition, since the visionaries compared it to a ray of the sun.  Analogous is the light of Pontmain, in the starry night.  In this light of Apocalypse 12, Mary shares the sorrows and sufferings of her people.  She is united with them in their struggles.  However, if she is a sign, it is principally as bringing forth Christ to his kingship, founded by the Passion: she is the Mother of the immolated and glorious Lamb.

Apocalypse 12 seems to program the renewed visits of Mary to her people: visits in the Spirit, in the Communion of Saints, humble visits, discreet presence, filtering the light of the sun, with peak experiences and lesser experiences.

Presence of Mary: Theological Sources

The theological Sources for the apparitions build on the sources and the light found in the Bible.  Salvation is governed by faith, according to the last word of Christ in John 20:29: "Blessed are those who have believed without having seen."

Faith and charity, however, like all love, are communications.  A communication implies experience and epiphany for persons of flesh and blood.  God does not deprive us of all light in the night of faith; rather, we are like Abraham before the stars of heaven.  We see the stars only as points of light.  They do not illuminate the route on which we walk, nor the rocks along the way.  They indicate only the direction, the course to follow.

This is why the affective sensible apparitions and communications are always a surplus, an epi-phenomenon (not essential).  This is why they must be received with humility, discrimination, sobriety.  They must be received with reserve, in view of the subjectivity, the projections, by which the visionary tries to prolong, to renew, the ineffable encounter.  The return to the ordinary and foundational signs of the faith (sacraments, etc.) is most critical.

Bernadette did this very radically.  Concerning Catherine, she retreated from the vision to a simple hearing or inspiration. "You will no longer see me," it was said to her at the end of her year of studies, which had been for her a time where "her feet no longer touched the earth."

Let us not succumb to spiritual gluttony, the immoderate taste for visions and revelations.  "Security, sobriety," as the French proverb says.  This adage which applies to the consumption of alcohol is valid also in the spiritual domain for the consumption of charisms and, singularly, of apparitions.

Let us not succumb either to the temptation of suspicion, of a hardening, of a refusal contrary to hope.  Let us not succumb to simplistic answers, like "God is not a fill-in."  The quality of faith has sometimes been damaged by the refusal of such supernatural signs, these intimate and necessary communications, this presence and these sensible signs which nourish the faith: apparitions, interior icons, inspirations, infinitely varied and graded.

As intellectuals, as scholars, let us be suspicious of systems, of our strictly empirical approaches, which rise forgetting the essential: the encounter and the presence.  "Behold I stand at the door and knock," says the Lord (Apoc. 3:20).  We must be attentive and vigilant, in order to open to him and to open also to Our Lady, his Mother and messenger, whose communications are less essential and totally relative to his and yet lead us to her Son.  Such is the meaning of the presence of Mary in the Communion of Saints.


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