Private revelation

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Private revelation is, in Christian theology, a message from God, which can come in a variety of types.

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been numerous alleged revelations, from the prophecies of Montanus to the Miracle of the Sun.[1]

Roman Catholic theology[edit]

According to the Catholic Church, there are two types of revelations: divine revelation, which is in the Word of God (the Bible and Sacred Tradition),[2] and in the Word of God incarnate (Jesus Christ),[3] and personal revelation, which is a heavenly message that helps people live by divine revelation.[1]

Other terms for divine revelation include public prophecy, public revelation, fundamental revelation, and definitive revelation,[4][5][6] while other terms for personal revelation include private prophecy, private revelation, dependent revelation, and particular revelation.[4][5][7]

Divine revelation was fulfilled, completed, and perfected in Christ, the fullness and mediator, author and interpreter, purpose and center of public revelation.[8][9][10][11][12][13] Hence, public revelation is the deposit of faith and rule of faith and must be lived by all Catholics.[14] Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that all public revelation ended with the death of Saint John the Apostle.[15] Private revelations cannot surpass, correct, improve, fulfill, complete, or perfect public revelation.[1]

Divine revelation, since it is contained in the Word of God and in Christ, also includes the church, the magisterium, the sacraments, and Catholic dogma.[16][17][18] Because the church and the magisterium are a part of divine revelation, the bishops have divine authority.[19] Because the sacraments are a part of divine revelation, their natures cannot be changed (for example, receiving Holy Communion without mortal sin) but their ways of celebration can be changed (for example, receiving Holy Communion in the hand or on the tongue).[20] Because Catholic dogma is a part of divine revelation, the saving truths of Christ are immutable.[21][22]

The revelations in the Word of God  – such as the apparition of the three angels to Abraham and the angel who wrestled Jacob; the burning bush; the theophany on Mount Sinai; the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire; the visions and prophecies of the prophets; Elijah's test at the cave, and his assumption; the revelation to St. Peter ("You are the Christ"); the apparitions of the risen Christ to the Apostles, including the exceptional and unique apparition to St. Paul; the various miracles recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles; and the entire Book of Revelation  – are not private revelations but are public revelation.[23][24] The apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar to St. James the Greater is not a private revelation, public revelation, or Catholic dogma; it is an ecclesial tradition.[25][26][27]

Because Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the church into every truth,[28] the Lord leads the church into a deeper understanding of the Lord. One of the ways he does this is by private revelation.[29] Because Christ warned that false prophets would come and that the tree must be known by its fruit,[30] the church is skeptical of spiritual experiences.[31]

Types of revelation[edit]

Various types of private revelations have been reported in the Catholic Church.[32]

Private revelations can come to anyone for so long as God pleases. Some address the visionary, while others address more people. For instance, Our Lady of Laus appeared to a young shepherdess for many years, while Our Lady of Kibeho addressed the leaders of the nation of Rwanda .

The appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary are usually called Marian apparitions. These generally include a vision of the Blessed Virgin, accompanied by brief messages. These are by far the most widely reported form. Well known examples of approved Marian apparitions include Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima. These apparitions are considered private revelations from God through the Virgin Mary.[33]

Marian visions do not mean Mary appears as a disembodied spirit, since she has been assumed into heaven.[34] However, it is probable that Mary could appear in bodily form by bilocation.[35] Some theologians, such as Father Reginaldus, believe that, because Jesus does not appear in bodily form, Mary does not appear bodily either.[36]

A number of apparitions of Jesus Christ following his ascension have been reported. Some of these have received approval from the Holy See. For instance, the Vatican biography of Saint Faustina Kowalska quotes some of her conversations with Jesus.[37]

Apparitions of Jesus are not the same as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, even if they include Eucharistic adoration, because the sacraments are a part of public revelation.[38] The apparitions are also not the same as the Second Coming, because the church believes Jesus "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead".[39]

There are also reports of interior locutions in which inner voices are reported, but no vision of divinity is claimed. The Vatican biographies of both Saint Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa of Calcutta refer to their interior locutions, although Mother Teresa often preferred to remain private about them.[40][41]

Some private revelations produce large amounts of text, while others amount to a few reported sentences. For instance, father Stefano Gobbi produced a book of messages attributed to the Virgin Mary, while sister Mary of the Divine Heart simply wrote two letters to Pope Leo XIII with a message attributed to Jesus Christ, prompting the Pope to consecrate the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The church does not regard occultism - spiritism, automatic writing, astrology, fortune-telling, psychic powers, magic, divination, conjuring the dead, etc. - as types of private revelations.[42][43]

The church also does not regard private revelations as having authority over the Pope or the bishops in communion with him, because the church, the bishop, and public revelation have divine authority as a matter of faith,[44][45][46][47] while private revelations are not a matter of faith but are believed with human faith.[48] Private revelations neither have divine authority nor can be believed with divine and catholic faith,[49][50] and a proof of this is that the Magsterium infallibly interprets the inerrant Word of God,[51] whereas saints can make errors about the details of private revelations,[52] since fallen human nature is inclined to sin and error.[53] Hence, Catholics cannot disobey the church in favor of obeying private revelation.[54]

Sources of revelation[edit]

Private revelations come from God. False revelations come either from human or demonic sources. Just as in exorcism, the Catholic Church is careful to distinguish between supernatural events, mental illness, drug abuse, deception, and demonic activity. The church gathers a team of scientists, theologians, and other experts to test the spirit of the alleged visionary to see if he is genuine, psychotic or manipulative, influenced by drugs, deceptive or deceived, or possessed by demons.[55][56]

Revelations from God are an extraordinary grace which confirms Catholic doctrine and dogma. One famous example is Our Lady of Lourdes, who declared Mary to be the Immaculate Conception four years after the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed.[57] Because they are extraordinary, revelations are not to be confused with holiness.[58] Because they are a grace, no one can rightfully desire to receive revelations.[59] Because they remind the faithful of what is already contained in public revelation, private revelations can sometimes occur in unexpected ways, such as the stigmata, which reminds Catholics of the Paschal Mystery; weeping statues, which remind of sin and Mercy; and the mystical ring of St. Catherine of Siena, which reminds of mystical marriage.

A common human source of false revelations is pareidolia, where people see visions or hear voices where there are none. Because private revelations are miracles, apparitions and visions cannot be photographed and messages and locutions cannot be recorded.[60] Despite this, some people believe in the apparitions of Zeitoun; the church, however, has never judged the alleged apparitions.

Another human source of false revelations is misattribution, where people put words into saints' and other persons' mouths, such as the "three days of darkness" prophecy attributed to St. Padre Pio,[61] the "end-times" prophecy attributed to Our Lady of Laus,[62] and the Medjugorje sayings attributed to Pope John Paul II.[63]

A common demonic source of false revelations is demonic possession. Satan can appear like an angel of light and rebuke people for their sins,[64] and mimic the miracles and revelations of God. The most famous case is Magdalena de la Cruz, through whom Satan uttered false prophecies and fabricated miracles, including uncreated light, stigmata, levitation, ecstasy, and extraordinary fasting (she allegedly survived solely on the Eucharist).[65]

It is a misconception that the church is quick to accept mental illness or drug abuse, such as schizophrenia or hallucinogens, for private revelation and demonic activity. The church is skeptical, and only accepts private revelation after discernment, because it is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth"[66] and because it has a long history of dealing with fraudulent visionaries.[67]

Discernment of revelation[edit]

Just as with all charisms, the charisms of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miracles are subject to discernment.[68]

The Catholic Church uses the 1987 Normae Congregationis to discern and judge private revelations. Firstly, the local Catholic bishop judges the alleged revelation according to its fruits:[69]

Good Fruits
  • the alleged revelation actually happened/is happening, which leaves no room for postdiction and hoaxes
  • the alleged visionary is mentally healthy, honest, humble, and lives a normal life
  • conformity to public revelation and immunity from error in faith or morals
  • healthy devotion to the alleged revelation (adherence to Dogma, submission to the Bishop, obedience of faith, etc.)
  • abundant spiritual fruits that spring from said healthy devotion (prayer, conversion, charity, etc.)
Bad Fruits
  • the alleged revelation didn't actually happen (someone mistaking sun dogs for a miracle, etc.)
  • doctrinal errors attributed to God or a Saint, although this does not include redaction
  • using the alleged revelation for fame, fortune, sex, or other gains
  • occultism or other mortal sins (drug abuse, etc.) in connection with the alleged revelation
  • mental illness, psychotic tendencies, and demonic activity

Examples of revelations with good and bad fruits include:

  • the revelations to Saint Faustina included all good fruits and no bad fruits, although Faustina's diary was initially banned due to a faulty translation that was sent to the Vatican[70]
  • the Mariavite revelations included such bad fruits as not being real, containing heresy, and attacking skeptics - despite promoting popular piety and frequency of the sacraments[71]

When judgment is favorable, the bishop permits a local devotion without judging the revelation to be worthy of belief, which can include being favorable toward miracles in connection with the revelation without approving of the revelation itself.[72] This step is commonly called "approved for faith expression."[73] Then, after the bishop sees a healthy devotion to the revelation and abundant spiritual fruits spring from said devotion, he judges the revelation to be worthy of belief: the private revelation contain nothing contrary to Catholic faith or morals, the faithful are authorized to prudently believe in the private revelation (without obligation), and it is legal to publish the private revelation.[74] In addition, the bishop approves of the titles - such as "Our Lady" - given to a Marian apparition (Our Lady of Lourdes, for example).[75]

Judgment on private revelations falls under a bishop's ordinary magisterium, which is authoritative but noninfallible and requires religious submission of intellect and will. A bishop or his successor could overturn a prior judgment, such as happened in the case of the apparitions of the Lady of all Nations.[76]

A bishop can judge an alleged private revelation to be either worthy of belief (constat de supernaturalitate) or not worthy of belief (constat de non supernaturalitate). A private revelation that is worthy of belief can receive full approval if it is approved by the Pope, such as happened with the revelations to St. Margaret Mary.[77] Papal approval does not include popes visiting sites of alleged revelations, granting special privileges to shrines, offering gifts to alleged visionaries, or speaking favorably of alleged revelations or visionaries.[78] A private revelation that is not worthy of belief can either be more fully investigated or, if bad fruits are found, condemned. A condemned revelation may not be followed, believed, or published by the faithful.[79][80]

A bishop can judge an alleged private revelation before it ends, such as was the case with the prophecies of Montanus (condemned)[81] and the prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (approved).[82] Fraudulent visionaries sometimes counter the negative judgments of their bishops, and skeptics of authentic revelations sometimes counter positive judgments, by saying the bishops didn't do a thorough investigation, such as interviewing the visionaries.[83][82]

Not all reports of private revelation are approved, even if they have good fruits.[84][85] For instance, reports of Our Lady of Surbiton claiming that the Virgin Mary appeared every day under a pine tree in England were flatly rejected by the Vatican as a fraud.[86]

It is permissible, with the bishop's permission, to make a shrine in honor of an approved revelation.[87] However, no one is obligated to honor a private revelation, since it is not public revelation;[88] just as no one is obligated to practice popular piety, since it is not the liturgy.[89] Only public revelation and the liturgy are obligatory, for they are necessary for salvation.[90][91] Despite this, some Catholics, such as the Fatima Crusaders,[92] believe the rosary is necessary for world peace because Our Lady of Fatima said "Pray the Rosary every day, in order to obtain peace for the world, and the end of the war."[93]

Publication of revelation[edit]

On October 23, 1995 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified about private revelations:

With regard to the spreading of texts of presumed personal revelations, the Congregation makes it clear that:

1. The interpretation by some people of a decision approved by Paul VI on October 14, 1966, and promulgated on November 15 of the same year, by virtue of which writings and messages coming from presumed revelations might be freely spread within the Church is absolutely not valid. This decision actually referred to the 'Abolition of the Index of Banned Books,' and said that - once relative censures were lifted - the moral obligation in any case not to spread or read those writings which endangered faith and morals still remained.

2. A reminder, therefore, that for the diffusion of texts of presumed private revelations, the norm of the Code in force, Canon 823, para 1, which gives pastors the right 'to demand that the writings of the faithful which touch faith or morals be submitted to their own judgment before publication', remains valid.

3. Presumed supernatural revelations and writings which regard them are in the first instance subject to the judgment of the diocesan bishop and, in particular cases, to that of the episcopal conference and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.[94]

It is a misconception that the faithful do not need permission to publish alleged private revelations since the abolition of Canon 1399 and 2318 of the former Canonical Code by Pope Paul VI in AAS 58 (1966) on October 14, 1966. The truth is that Pope Paul VI only abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum,[95] and that Canon 823 and 824 of the current 1983 Code of Canon Law define the right and duty of the bishop to censor all material concerning faith or morals.[96]

The canonization of a mystic or an imprimatur given to a book of revelations do not mean a private revelation is authentic, because the church does not pronounce on alleged revelations when it pronounces on the holiness of an individual[97] and because the Imprimatur only guarantees that a book is free from all doctrinal and moral errors.[96]


Certain private revelations have been the subject of conspiracy theories. The theories include church coverups,[98] church officials siding with the local government to destroy apparitions,[99] visionaries' doubles,[100] and church corruption.[101] It is sometimes claimed that private revelations prove conspiracy theories. For instance, some UFO conspiracy theorists claim that the Miracle of the Sun was a UFO.[102]

See also[edit]


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 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.