Vatican rules on aparitions and revelations
A crucial document on apparitions prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is now available in five languages
Andrés Beltramo Alvarez
Visions, revelations, divine messages: The history of the Church is riddled with mystical events. Since the apparitions in Fatima and Lourdes, earthly manifestations of the Virgin which received official papal recognition, bishops and theologians from all over the world have found themselves battling with a number of supernatural phenomena. The same question always crops up: How does one judge whether they are true? The Vatican has the answer and is preparing to reveal it to the world.
The key to analysing these cases is a text entitled “Rules regarding the procedure for distinguishing supposed apparitions and revelations”. The document was approved in 1978 by Pope Paul VI and for years, its content could only be accessed by prelates and specialists. One of the reasons for this was that the only official version available was in Latin.
This looks to change in the next few days as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to publish translations of the text in Italian, Spanish, German, English and French. All of these will be official and final versions. Indeed, the Vatican Publishing House has already printed a number of copies and the Vatican daily broadsheet L’Osservatore Romano has published an article on this.
The text is a real vade mecum on the steps to follow when one becomes aware of a potential apparition. Contrary to popular belief, it is firstly down to the relevant bishop and not the Vatican to examine any potential supernatural phenomena. The Apostolic See lacks experts in the field and scientific investigators, but it can intervene in unique and extreme cases.
Despite this, the Roman Curia receives a number of dossiers on alleged revelations each year. The experiences described in these dossiers are extremely varied and in almost all cases are sent on to the dioceses. These visions spread fast among faithful thanks to the internet and today’s ease of travel makes spontaneous pilgrimages possible. This poses a real challenge to ecclesiastical authority.
Benedict XVI shared this concern in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini” in which he recognised the need to “help faithful distinguish correctly between the Word of God and private revelations” whose function “is not to provide a definitive and complete revelation of Christ but to help experience it more fully within a certain historical context.”
The rules provide both “positive” and “negative” criteria for assessing the credibility of extraordinary phenomena. The main objective is to safeguard people’s faith and prevent the spread of advocations that reject the teachings of the Church or directly contest these.
A rigorous investigation into an alleged apparition is key to guaranteeing the moral certainty of its occurrence. It is vital for “seers” to be psychically balanced, honest, people of integrity, sincere, obedient to church authority and able to return to a normal life of faith. They must not have experienced episodes of psychosis or collective hysteria.
Conversion is not enough to guarantee a divine apparition, although “abundant, constant spiritual fruits” are influential. The messages received by seers must respond to an “error-free doctrine.” The credibility of apparitions is tarnished by an obvious interest in material gain or by immoral acts committed by the seer or their audience during or following the apparition.
It is every bishop’s duty to be vigilant, get informed and act in order to resolve or prevent misconduct in the practice of worship, to condemn erroneous doctrine and avoid the danger of false or unsuitable mysticism. If they are certain of the occurrence of a divine episode, bishops have the power to allow public manifestations of devotion.
The decision to publish the set of rules was taken independently of the specific episodes and these can be applied in all cases. It is interesting that they have come to light just as an international commission formed by the Vatican is studying the apparitions which allegedly took place in the small Bosnian village of Medjugorje. This is an internationally famous phenomenon with thousands of followers and just as many critics. And it is a subject which the Holy See is very keen to declare itself on, based on a set of criteria that are now accessible to everyone.