Q: What about apparitions yesterday and today?
A: Many visions and miracles are recorded in the Scriptures. After the Resurrection, Christ appeared to "Peter and then to the Twelve." (I Cor. 15, 5) Paul spoke of "visions and revelations" from the Lord (II Cor. 12, 1-6), and the deacon Stephen saw the heavens open and Christ at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7, 55-56).
Christ worked many miracles of healing, but, at the same time, he did not appear to encourage the search for miracles. "An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given them except the sign of Jonah." (Matt. 16,4) In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Christ announces that no messenger from the next world will be sent to the brothers of the rich man to have them repent. "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 17, 31) Finally, we have Christ's words to Thomas after the apostle placed his hand on the side of the risen Lord. "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20, 29)
Throughout the Christian history, there is a similar acceptance of apparitions and miracles when they occur, together with the reservation that such phenomenona are not a substitute for absolute faith in God. The Church preserves the centrality and final revelation given in the person, acts, and words of Jesus Christ, while at the same time honoring the special insights of the saints many of whom received messages through apparitions. The Church takes the middle course between an empiricism which would a priori reject the miraculous and a credulity which accepts anything extraordinary as being miraculous.
The revelations accorded to St. Bridget of Sweden were considered at the Council of Constance (1414-18) and Basle (1431-49). The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) reserved the approval of new prophecies and revelations to the Holy See; however, the Council of Trent (1545-63) authorized bishops to investigate and approve such phenomenon before public worship could take place. Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), the future Benedict XIV, provided several rules for discernment of private revelations and the miracles needed with the canonization of saints. Such events must present themselves to human reason as being truly extraordinary and beyond the scope of natural causes. The Code of Canon Law of 1917 (1399, #5) forbade the publication of anything about "new apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies, and miracles" withoout the local bishop's approbation. In 1969, Paul VI, implementing the Vatican II's statement on the right of the mass media to information, lifted the requirement that all writings about apparitions needed ecclesiastical approval before publication.
Since 1969, and especially after 1981 (the beginning of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje) reports of apparitions are frequent, "numerous and even disturbing," in the words of Fr. René Laurentin at a recent conference at Czestochowa. "Eye-witness" television cameras quickly transmit reports of alleged apparitions across the world.
"Visions multiply by imitation" (Tavard), that is, a well-known apparition seems to encourage reports of similar ones. There were 210 claims of Marian apparitions between 1928 and 1971 (Carroll, Theotokos), and in the last few years there are claims of over two hundred Marian apparitions. New Age and Christian bookstores now have almost as many books on apparitions and miracles as they have on angels.
The discernment of apparitions and miracles is the responsibility of the local bishop, and ordinarily the Vatican does not become involved in the process. However, two items show the Vatican's concern about the issue. The Activities of the Holy See (1996) noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was studying "a phenomenon of very vast significance, that of alleged apparitions [which are] frequently joined with claims of supernatural messages and with weeping statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of saints." It is the right and responsibility of local bishops to investigate and make judgments about alleged apparitions; at the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has an obligation of "guidance and vigilance."
Apparitions were also noted in the study document for the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops (Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity). The document acknowledges that in some places, apparitions are a cause of division within the local church. "Within the church community, the multiplication of supposed 'apparitions' or 'visions' is sowing confusion and reveals a certain lack of a solid basis to the faith and Christian life among her members. On the other hand, these negative aspects in their own way reveal a certain thirst for spiritual things which, if properly channeled, can be the point of departure for a conversion to faith in Christ." (33)
In a recent interview at Fatima, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke about visions and apparitions. "To all the curious, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not create fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential."
Cardinal Ratzinger is one of the few who has read the much-discussed third secret of Fatima. It is not, he said, "sensational or apocalyptic." He continued, "Preoccupation with the message and its presumed predictions of catastrophe are not part of a healthy Marian devotion. The Madonna did not appear to children, to the small, to the simple, to those unknown in the world in order to create a sensation." Mary's purpose "is, through these simple ones, to call the world back to simplicity, that is, to the essentials: conversion, prayer, and the sacraments."
Extracted from the Marian Library Newsletter, No. 34, Spring 1997:
A Word from Pope John Paul II Concerning Mary
Virgin and Child
"Veneration of Mary, when properly understood, can in no way take away from 'dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator'. Mary in fact constantly point to her Divine Son and she is proposed to all believers as the model of faith which is put into practice." (John Paul II, The Coming Third Millennium, 43)
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