By Brian Hughes
When dealing with private revelations, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church treads a very narrow and precipitous path, albeit one on which it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth promised to the Apostles and their successors by Our Lord himself. While the exigencies of Church teaching retitude of categorical skepticism, it must at the same time have recourse to a prudent, charitable caution, ever keeping in mind the words of St. Paul:
"Extinguish not the Spirit. Despise not prophecies. But prove all things: hold that which is good. From all appearances of evil, refrain yourselves." (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)
Such an approach may at times appear scandalous to certain of the faithful as a "Thomas like" incredulity, but the two thousand years of Church history have vindicated this cautious attitude. In order to more clearly appreciate the delicate nature of this exercise of the Church's authority, it is important to remember that no private revelation, no matter how manifestly true or authentic, assumes a place in the Deposit of Faith, the compendium of Divine Revelation committed, under the unfailing protection of the Holy Spirit, to the perpetual safekeeping of the Church, and preserved by it from all admixture of error: "Dearly beloved, taking all care to write to you concerning your common salvation, I was under a necessity to write to you: to beseech you to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints." (Jude:3)
What the faithful should always keep in mind is, that when they disregard the voice of legitimate church authority in this matter, they run a grave risk of spiritual destruction at the hands of unscrupulous charlatans, or worse, of the spiritual forces of hell. False revelations and inauthentic revelations can be likened to the sirens in Homer's Odyssey- a beautiful sounding song, full of "spiritual sweetness", which, if of demonic origin, can cause the shipwreck of many a soul. As St. John of the Cross, the great mystical doctor of the Church warned in "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel": In this way, God permits the devil to blind and delude many, who merit this by their sins and audacities. The devil is able and successful to the extent that others believe what he says and consider him a good spirit. So firm is their belief that it is impossible to persuade them of the diabolical origin. (1)
Nevertheless, what has been said above should not be construed as recommending an unnecessarily suspicious attitude with regards to private prophetic revelations in their totality, as one of the means which God has chosen to favor His Church; on the contrary, it is precisely because such revelations are so important to the life of the Church, that the devil often chooses to "flood the market", as it were, with an abundance of false revelations and visions, creating a situation in which Gresham's law is transposed to the spiritual realm, as false and diabolical visions tend to crowd out, or mitigate, the spiritual benefits of those that are authentic. The mystical experiences of the great St. Teresa of Avila herself were the subject of so much suspicion and outright hostility on the part of many learned and holy theologians of the time, not necessarily because these good men were hostile to the concept of private revelations, or to the charismata as manifested in certain individuals, rather, at least in part, because of the fact that many members of the "theological establishment" in Spain and throughout Europe had only recently been deceived by a false mystic, the notorious Magdalen of the Cross:…Magdalen of the Cross…at the beginning of the century of St. Theresa of Avila, fooled almost the whole of Spain…on certain days she had either the stigmata or sweats of blood, and she announced the defeat and imprisonment of Francis I by the Spanish army at Pavia … Hence, the tide of enthusiasm of which he was the cause. Common people, parish priests, emperors, many venerated her and consulted with her. However, an apostolic visitor from Rome was shocked by some details he saw in her convent. He spoke to each of the sisters and, especially with the Mother Abbess, Magdalen of the Cross, who eventually confessed that, while a young shepherdess, she had sold her soul to the devil in return for his giving her the power of performing prodigies. Thus she deceived everybody for thirty years. (2)
A good friend of this author, a man who has spent nearly thirty years of his life studying false apparitions masquerading as authentic prophetic revelations, provides his audiences with a very trenchant illustration of the harm that false apparitions and pseudo-mystic phenomena can cause to the People of God. He takes a salt shaker, and leaves three or four grains of salt on a table- top. Then he promptly empties the entire contents of a sugar bowl on top of the three or four grains of salt. How does one find the few grains of salt amid the thousands of grains of sugar? By tasting every single one. It is the Church's duty to "taste every grain" as it were, to find the salt of God amid the sugar of human imagination and diabolical intervention. For it is upon this Church that the gates of hell, and the jaws of death and falsehood will ultimately be smashed; for she is alone among all institutions in this world the pillar and ground of truth, the unique safe haven in the storm of spiritual anarchy and chaos which the adversary and the father of lies would let loose upon all generations.
APPARITIONS and AUTHORITY
Nothing is so vilified in contemporary spiritual trends as the traditionally related concepts of authority and obedience. While radical feminists rage against "patriarchal hierarchies" and the multi-cultural movements protest the predominance of "euro-centric" institutions and ethics, deep ecologists decry the fact that humanity dare to claim preeminence among the species of the earth, and fanatical homosexual rights advocates go so far as to deny any special status to traditional, institutional marriage. Fatherhood itself is under increasing attack, deemed by many to be an oppressive atavism of patriarchal civilization.
While such attitudes are generally considered as endemic to the left end of the politico-religious spectrum, a general hostility towards authority and its institutions within the Church is increasingly being articulated by many on the radical right of the Church itself, albeit in a more subtle and less manifestly heterodox manner. As the political and spiritual left protests the vestigial institutions of Christendom as a matter of course, there are many on the right who consider these same institutions as corrupted and in need of reform, and consider only themselves, and those who are like minded, capable of fulfilling that task. In the realm of the spiritual this is exceptionally so. There is a perpetual tendency, well documented throughout history, of popular rejection of the constituted hierarchical authority of religious institutions, (priesthood, rabbinate, ministry) in favor of a charismatic, illuminist, or spiritualistic leadership which claims to possess knowledge delivered directly from heaven, bypassing and pre-empting as it were, the constituted religious authority:" … ultrasupernaturalism … is the real character of the enthusiast; he expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others … He has before his eyes a picture of the early Church, visibly penetrated with supernatural influences, and nothing less will serve him as a model. (3)
Many adherents of what has been called "the New Age", however one may define that loosely confederated, doctrinally syncretic, and covertly anti-Christian "movement" or tendency in contemporary spirituality, also claim to be permeated with such "supernatural influences", and boldly announce the advent of the "Age of Aquarius", an age which will usher in next step in "human spiritual evolution" and cause humanity to discard the "old paradigms" of monotheism, and particularly of historical and orthodox Christianity. Direct contact with the spiritual realm, or the "astral plane" or channeled entities (whatever or whoever they may be) will ultimately replace the revealed religion entrusted to the Apostles by Jesus Christ and subsisting in the Catholic Church, as well as the other monotheistic and theistic religions. David Spangler, considered by many to be one of the cutting edge spokespersons for the New Age "movement" pontificates on the new spirituality:
"I believe that a new spirituality will have some correspondences or resonances with our earliest spiritualities as embodied in shamanistic traditions such as those of the Native Americans. Those traditions … were generally non-hierarchical…the new spirituality may well have aspects …drawn from all the great faith traditions, but it will add something new, arising perhaps from a deeper experience of our co-creative relationship with the Earth and with God. Furthermore, spirituality will be a natural part of everyday life, not a separate practice or institutional identity…(4)
Now, when one hears the word "shamanistic traditions", it is important to note that such mediumistic spirituality is not confined to primitive cultures, nor limited to the credulous or the avant-garde of the counter-culture; a shaman can be loosely defined as anyone in direct contact with and controlled (in varying degrees) by spirits; not just a "medicine man" or a "voodoo priestess" or the Kahunas of Hawaii. Trance mediums, channellers, fortune tellers, and even dowsers or wart-charmers can be considered, in a greater or lesser degree, to be "shamans". What differentiates shamans from true Christian mystics is the origin of their respective experiences, and the results of these experiences on the road to salvation and holiness. Shamans, mediums and all false mystics, no matter how altruistic they appear to be, are, if their powers are indeed genuine and not the fruit of psycho-somatic suggestibility, the victims of spirit (demonic) possession or obsession, although those themselves possessed or "obsessed" are certain that their powers and "spirit guides" emanate from the divine realm, whether they be from God or the ministry of angels.
True saints and mystics do not believe in themselves or in their own experiences above all else, but accept (as will be seen) the judgement and authority of Holy Mother Church with an attitude of faith and humility. False mystics, even with the best of intentions, will, on the contrary, alter their long held beliefs so that these will accommodate their experiences, after the fashion of Procrustes and his infamous bed. By way of example, the famous Edgar Cayce was absolutely convinced that his mediumistic powers were from God, even though the "spirits" led him to ultimately renounce his fundamentalist inspired belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the unique divinity of Jesus Christ. But Cayce was convinced he was serving God by using his supposed "healing powers" and "prophetic gifts."
The history of Catholicism is replete with examples much akin to Cayce's- though doubtlessly more subtle and discreet, as the Church's hierarchy has as a rule exercised prudence and caution, keeping in mind the Apostle John's charge to the churches: "Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1)
One need go no further than the tragic case of the great Tertullian, the first great Christian latinist and mighty apologist , who, despite the fact that he had written (for the purpose of rebuttal) extensively on heresies, ultimately forsook the Unity of the Catholic Faith for the lies of the false prophet Montanus, who claimed, along with his prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla, to possess the "Paraclete" in a unique and authoritative manner. Although condemned by the Bishops of Phrygia, Montanism was apparently on the verge of being approved by the Pope himself:"
But every heresy, as a matter of common form, attempted to retrieve its fortunes at Rome. And if we may believe Tertullian, Montanism very nearly achieved, in doing so, a momentary success…The Pope…had evidently been primed by the Montanists with their version of the story, and he was, according to Tertullian 'in the act of recognizing (jam agnoscentem) the prophecies of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla… But Praxeas, himself a heretic (he was a Monarchian) 'made (according to Tertullian) false assertions about the prophets and their assemblies … and quoted expressions of opinion given by the Pope's predecessors; thus forcing him to withdraw the conciliatory letter…and to give up on his purpose of sanctioning the prophecies.'(5)
This historical episode should give pause to those who demand that Rome intervene in any and all cases of alleged revelations; history vindicated the Phrygian bishops, and the Holy Spirit protected the infallible Vicar of Christ, and even made use of the putative heretic, Praxeas, in doing so. Although they have unfailingly possessed the unique charism of infallibility, Popes have often made personal errors of judgement with regard to false mystics and inauthentic charismata. This was by no means the last time that an infallible successor of St. Peter was at the point of recognizing a false prophet, as the great Prospero Lambertini, subsequently Pope Benedict XIV, was to note in his authoritative "De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione" (On the beatification and canonization of the Saints) : his immediate predecessor, Gregory XI, had admitted on his deathbed that his predilection for a false mystic had nearly led to consequences utterly disastrous for the Body of Christ.
If even the infallible vicars of Christ have at times been personally deceived, and found themselves at the point of approving false and lying prophets, it is mere blind presumption to maintain that members of a certain group are somehow immune themselves from being fooled in the same fashion, owing to their having "the anointing", some charismatic "discernment of spirits" or some such special illumination. It should be remembered by every faithful Catholic that no private revelation whatsoever commands the assent of divine, supernatural faith reserved exclusively for the authoritative and dogmatic teachings of the Church on faith and morals.
This is even true with regards to "venerable and authentic" apparitions like Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadeloupe. Even these universally approved apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary are not binding of acceptance on the part of the faithful, even though the denial of their authenticity would certainly constitute an extremely rash and temerarious act in the light of their approval by so many Popes and members of the Church’s hierarchy. No private revelation, even if authentic, can ever be placed upon an equal footing with Sacred Scripture or Divine Tradition. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states:"Throughout the ages, there have been so called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help to live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes and authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.(6)
The atmosphere which today characterizes so much of the thinking of faithful Catholics is replete with misunderstanding with respect to what private revelations are, and their standing with relation to the Church's magisterium. It is critically important to reiterate that no "private revelation" is to be publicized which has been officially disapproved by the Church's authority; this does not mean one has to disavow or deny certain subjective experiences or phenomena which one has undergone; (although this would be the case where the vow of religious obedience were concerned) it simply means that one accepts, in a spirit of faith, the Church's judgement as expressed by those whom God has placed in authority; and in this submission to the Church's authority one pleases God more than if he or she were to accept any and all private experiences (whether authentic or not) as messages from heaven, transcending even the authority which Christ invested in his apostles and their successors.
Although the contemporary trends of the New Age diverge in many points of doctrine from the "Christian ultra-supernaturalists", their respective attitudes towards constituted spiritual authority converge quite frequently, in the sense that pride of place is given to the subjective experience, and anyone who dares to stand in the way is at best merely benighted, or at worst (as has been the case with the Bishop of Mostar) accused of being a coward, a communist sympathizer, or worse, a tool of Satan himself. At this point, the reader may be tempted to remark, "but Medjugorje upholds the authority of the Pope! Many of those going to Medjugorje have converted to Catholicism! Medjugorje is a center of Orthodox Catholicism in the Balkan heart of heterodox Europe!" Such statements, though at times made in all sincerity and with the best of intentions, are only half- truths.
It is certainly the case with Medjugorje that among those who go there, "the pilgrims", can be counted many Catholics whose sincerity is beyond question, and whose obedience to and veneration for the Holy Father are second to none. And it is likewise true that Medjugorje has become, at least in appearance, a sort of rallying point for those who are disaffected by certain liberal trends they perceive to be shaking the Church at its very foundation, and which also (albeit in a totally distinct fashion) undermine Church authority. However, these facts in and of themselves do not "prove" the authenticity of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje, since disaffection with the errors of others can lead one to an equally tragic fall off a completely different "mountainside", as it were.
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many of the faithful (especially in Western Europe and the United States) consider that the purity of the faith has somehow become compromised, and feel marginalized as members of the Catholic Church, with a tendency to point fingers of blame at the hierarchy in general. It is almost invariably the local Bishop at whom the strongest invective is directed. The Bishop is usually compared unfavorably to the Pope, who alone is the "only sure bet" when it comes to orthodoxy. Such a state of affairs has tended to create in the popular Catholic imagination, an erroneous and dangerous ecclesiology based upon the constant intervention of the Pope (especially the Pope as John Paul II) into virtually all the minutiae of Catholic affairs, at all levels, from the Universal (which is the Pope's ordinary purview) to the diocesan and even the parochial. As will be seen, this fact is important in at least two respects regarding Medjugorje.
It is true that the Pope, as the vicar of Jesus Christ is himself the supreme authority on earth over the entire People of God, which he can exercise fully and immediately at his discretion. However, having this power and using it whenever and wherever possible are two different things. The popular erroneous notion, which has been promoted by Medjugorjians in particular, and by the radical apparitionists in general (at least until recently) seems to be that the diocesan Bishops are little more than papal delegates or minor ecclesiastical magistrates, whose decisions on all matters, and especially those dealing with private revelations, if they somehow represent an affront to the "apparitionist- illuminist clique" not only can be, but should be, appealed to the Pope as a matter of course.
Such notions strike at the very heart of the Church's true structure, founded as it is by Christ on the Apostles. The diocesan Bishop is, in his own right, an authentic successor to the apostles, and not a mere vicar or delegate of the Pope:
"The power which they exercise personally in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary, and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately controlled by the supreme authority of the Church." But the Bishops should not to be thought of as vicars of the Pope. His ordinary and immediate authority over the whole Church does not annul, but on the contrary confirms and defends that of the bishops. Their authority must be exercised in communion with the whole Church under the guidance of the Pope.(7)
It is true that the individual Bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, and that the Pope's authority "circumscribes" the diocesan Bishop's in matters of moment to the Church Universal. On the other hand, a Bishop in full communion with the Holy See, acting within his rights, within his diocese, is to be obeyed, and failure to do so is not an option for those who would consider themselves faithful members of Christ's flock. As the great apostolic father, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the early second century:
"Let the Bishop preside in the place of God, and his clergy in the place of the Apostolic conclave … you must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgement." (8)As an important aside, one may be prompted by the foregoing to ask just what would constitute legitimate grounds for questioning or challenging a Bishop's authority. No better principle could be elicited than that put forth by St. Augustine:"
If a commissioner issue an order-are you to comply if it is contrary to the bidding of the pro-consul? Again, if the pro-consul command one thing, and the emperor another, will you hesitate to disregard the former and serve the latter? Therefore, if the emperor commands one thing, and God the other, you must disregard the former and obey God."(9) What the great African doctor is saying here is that obedience itself is subject to a hierarchical scale of values; one may not, in obeying an immediate superior, disobey a higher authority; conversely, where there is no question of a contravention of higher authority, superiors are to be obeyed. Therefore, if it were obvious that a certain Bishop were teaching heresy, for instance, if he were to deny, for example, the perpetual Virginity of Mary, then the faithful would have no choice but to disregard his teaching, and appeal to the Holy Father. For this would be open and egregious heresy. However, no member of the faithful can disregard the commands of a Bishop who is within his rights and his diocese, and certainly not on questions such as the discernment of private revelations, which on an individual basis have nothing to do with the integrity of the Deposit of Faith.
The "Gospa of Medjugorje's" Boswell, renowned theologian and Mariologist Rene Laurentin, if one is to take at face value what he has written concerning apparitions in general, apparently believes that the authenticity of apparitions is to be subject in the first instance to a judgement or approbation "from below", a quasi-democratic "experientalism" which is how he implicitly styles the "sensus fidelium" rather independent of, or intuitively superior to the Church's hierarchy. (10)
While Laurentin recognizes that the authority may intervene, he seems to regard the Bishop as more of a hindrance than as a shepherd and guardian of souls:"Briefly, a Bishop is not there as a deterrent whose authority can condition final conclusions. Such is the situation at Medjugorje where the Bishop has no reason to say anything against this exemplary parish happening. It is open to all, according to Christian freedom, which, thanks be to God, rules in the Church." (11)
Laurentin is treading on dangerous ground here, and may be confusing "Christian freedom" with spiritual anarchy. While true that the Bishop "is not there as a deterrent" to the work of the Holy Spirit, he is the chief of souls over those whom Jesus Christ has entrusted to his care, and his authority and judgement can most definitely "condition final conclusions." The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear:"… Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ, provided they really are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit.
"It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church's shepherds. "Their office is not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good, so that all the diverse complimentary charisms work together "for the common good."(12) Suffice it to say, that such a state of affairs may precipitate a situation in which the faithful feel that they are no longer required to "walk by faith, not by sight" and are constantly supplied a steady stream of "messages from heaven" by spirits such as the "Gospa" of Medjugorje" who appears to be as inexhaustible as the Eveready Rabbit (after eighteen years, "she" keeps going and going!). The Episcopal authority (if not in agreement with the "heavenly messengers" will in their perspective be undermined, and the local Bishops (such as Bishop Zanic and his successor Bishop Peric) who do not fall into line with the visionaries demands, become objects of contempt on the part of the faithful,(13) and it will not be long before the Pope's authority, which is after all an Episcopal authority, as "Bishop of Bishops", will itself be under siege, when it is exercised to correct abuses by the "apparitionists" or "ultrasupernaturalists". And then, with both the papacy and the episcopacy discredited by the visionaries, there will only be the "spirits of the apparitions" for the disillusioned to turn to.
This has recently become evident among the most radical devotees of Medjugorje, who had always considered that the pope was safely in their camp, (14) who consider themselves as specially enlightened (on the "Gospa's" terms, of course), and perceive those who do not agree with them on every point of doctrine and discipline as suspect and excluded from the group of the elect. Deeming themselves to be in possession of the true "gnosis" communicated to them, not by means of the Church's teaching office, but by the celestial communication network, whether angels, channeled entities, or whatever name they happen to go by at the moment, they are acutely in danger of losing the precious unity of the faith, of which the guarantee is communion with the local Bishop, and through him, with the successor of St. Peter.
If such a schism were to indeed occur, the sect or sects congregating around the visionary or seer will invariably be led further and further out of the pale of Christian and Catholic Orthodoxy, into heresy and outright apostasy. The specific doctrinal orientation of the "revelations", whether they be oriented towards the right or towards the left of the doctrinal spectrum is not what is of paramount importance, as the devil can and does lead people out of the Church by means of a multi-lane thoroughfare; he is equally satisfied by the schism of the Lefebvreites as by the heresies of radical liberation theologians.
The high "sociological hierophant" as it were, of the New Age, Marilyn Ferguson, in what has become the virtual manifesto of the New Age movement, "The Aquarian Conspiracy", applauds such a tendency: "Cultural awakenings…are proceeded by a spiritual crisis, a change in the way human beings see themselves in relationship to each other and to the divine. During "great awakenings" there is a shift from a religion mediated by authorities to one of direct spiritual experience. Not unexpectedly, some religious groups see the emergent spiritual tradition as a fearful threat to the Judeo-Christian tradition. (15) For the believing Catholic, the unity of the Church, and obedience to her hierarchy, to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him is of preeminent importance. For it is the Church's magisterial hierarchy which, through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, the divine Paraclete and giver of truth and life, that is entrusted with the deposit of Divine Revelation, "…delivered once for all to the saints." No saint or angel sent by God with a specific private revelation or message would ever interpose him or herself between the believer and the Church, which is itself the standard of truth: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)
Fomenting disregard for the lawful, authentic exercise of Church authority, after the fashion of New Age spirituality, irrespective of the social or political tenets espoused by its adherents, is the contemporary restatement of the primordial lie, whispered long, long ago in a garden called Paradise: "there is no point in obedience, for "you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (16)
Go to Part 2