Norms and Process for Judging Private Revelations
During the past several years, the number of reported apparitions
has been greatly increasing. While concentrating on Marian
apparitions, our purpose here is to view all popular piety in the
context of the total picture of Catholic faith, devotion, and
discipleship. Our approach is to strike a happy medium between
vain credulity and sterile skepticism. Perhaps we could label
our position as one of critical or moderate realism.
Visionaries or seers behold an object not naturally visible to
other persons. An authentic supernatural vision or apparition is
different from illusions or hallucinations that result from
pathological conditions or even diabolical intervention. An
authentic vision is a charism -- gratia gratis data --
given to an individual or group for the spiritual good of others
and/or for the Church as a whole.
The Church's Voice
On February 25, 1978, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith (CDF) issued "Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding
in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations." Pope Paul VI
had approved these norms the preceding day.
Although this document uses the term supernaturalitas,
we believe that what is meant is something supernatural in the
mode in which it has occurred rather than supernatural in
its essence or substance.
The Bishop's Role
When an allegedly supernatural event has occurred, it is the
responsibility of the local bishop to conduct an investigation,
usually through a committee of experts.
Theologically and canonically, the bishop is entrusted with the
role of "oversight" of the diocese. This role of "oversight" is
based on the bishop's responsibility both for public worship and
for the religious teaching which occurs in the diocese.
Norms for Discernment
1) The first norm for evaluating miraculous events is that there be moral certainty, or at least great probability, that something miraculous has occurred. The commission may interview the visionaries, call other witnesses, visit the site of the events.
2) The second norm deals with the personal qualities of the subjects who claim to have had the apparition; they must be mentally sound, honest, sincere, of upright conduct, obedient to ecclesiastical authorities, able to return to the normal practices of the faith (such as participation in communal worship, reception of the sacraments).
3) A third category deals with the content of the revelation or message: it must be theologically acceptable and morally sound and free of error.
4) The fourth positive criterion is that the apparition must result in positive spiritual assets which endure (prayer, conversion, increase of charity).
These four criteria may also be restated in a negative way.
There must be no doubt that what is occurring is truly
exceptional and beyond human explanation. There must be no
doctrinal error attributed to God or to the Blessed Virgin Mary
or some other saint. The third negative criterion is that there
must be no hint of financial advantage to anyone connected with
the apparitions, nor must any of the visionaries be accused of
serious moral improprieties at the time when the visions were
being received, nor may there be evidence of mental illness or
At the end of the investigative process, the committee may submit to the bishop(s) one of the following verdicts or conjectural judgements: constat de supernaturalitate (the event shows all the signs of being an authentic or a truly miraculous intervention from heaven); constat de non supernaturalitate (the alleged apparition is clearly not miraculous or there are not sufficient signs manifesting it to be so); non constat de supernaturalitate (it is not evident whether or not the alleged apparition is authentic).
The Bishop's decision regarding alleged apparitions usually does
not attempt to interpret or give the spiritual significance of
the events, nor to interpret the messages or identify the
heavenly persons who may have appeared.
All such investigations are conducted by the bishop to determine
whether public worship should continue to be held in those
places. It could happen that the investigative committee could
conclude that at this time it is able neither to make a clearly
positive nor a clearly negative judgement. If the matter is
still being investigated, the bishop could permit public worship,
while at the same time continuing to be vigilant that the
devotions do not wander into deviant directions.
As the bishops are entrusted with these responsibilities stemming
from the nature of their office, so there are fundamental
responsibilities on the part of the members of the diocese.
First, they are to obey their bishops when the latter act as
Christ's representatives (canon 212), that is, when they teach
formally or establish binding discipline as pastors of a
particular church. This obedience owed to the bishops in their
capacity as leaders of particular churches is intended to promote
the common good. Canon 753 also speaks of the "religious assent"
owed to the bishops' teaching authority, which means a special
quality of respect and gratitude, along with critical awareness
and good will. Hence, there should be intelligent obedience to
ecclesiastical authority in the matter of alleged apparitions.
A new era opened in the canonical regulations dealing with
apparitions occurred in 1969. In that year, Pope Paul VI deleted
certain canons of the Code of Canon Law (1917). These canons had
specifically forbidden the publication of all books or pamphlets
about new apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies, and
miracles, or which introduce new devotions, even though justified
as private. Such prohibitions are not part of the Code of
Canon Law (1983). So the many reports of Marian apparitions may in part
be due to the new freedom to discuss freely and to report such
occurrences to the media, without first submitting them to
The Foundations of Our Faith
Our faith cannot rest on private revelations and apparitions.
Even with properly approved apparitions, we must maintain a
proper perspective -- viewing them as an assistance to nourish
our faith in the central dogmas of the Incarnation, the Trinity
and the Eucharist. In their 1973 pastoral letter, Behold
Your Mother: Woman of Faith, the American bishops called
authenticated appearances of Mary "providential happenings
[which] serve as reminders of basic Christian themes: such as
prayer, penance, and the necessity of the sacraments." (# 100).
This text is based on "Discerning the Miraculous: Norms for
Judging Apparitions and Private Revelations" by Frederick Jelly,
O.P. (1993); and "Canonical Considerations regarding Alleged
Apparitions" by Fr. Michael Smith Foster, JCD (1995). It was
abridged, combined and rearranged by Fr. Johann G. Roten, S.M.
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