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Must We Believe Pious Traditions?

These beliefs can enrich our faith, but they are not something to which we must assent

Paul Senz

The Catholic faith is a rich and ornate work of art. God has revealed himself to man through the millennia, inspiring the authors of Sacred Scripture and guiding the Church in compiling the Bible, as well as through the transmission of Sacred Tradition, safeguarded in the Church by the apostles and their successors.

There are many things, however, that are not matters of faith or morals; many things that are fascinating and even illuminating, traditions that have been passed down on which the Church takes no official stance.

Considering such pious traditions, as well as the distinction between public and private revelation, gives us insight into how the rich tapestry of our Faith has been woven.

This is not about whether or not we are required to believe something—faith is not about meeting some sort of lowest common denominator or some threshold of credulity. Nor is this about dissecting pious traditions and assessing their likelihood of being true.

St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thess. 5:19-21). If a tradition is good, it is helpful to the devotional life of believers and helps them on their path seeking union with God.

A distinction that is important to keep in mind is the difference between public and private revelation. Public revelation is that which God has revealed through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and must be believed, whereas private revelation is given to an individual and is binding only on that person (see this article for more).

Public and private revelation

In the year 2000, for the publication of the Third Secret of Fatima, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger penned a theological commentary on the secret that largely took the form of a commentary on revelation.

He explained that the term public revelation “refers to the revealing action of God directed to humanity as a whole.” This is how “God gradually made himself known to men, to the point of becoming man himself, in order to draw to himself the whole world and unite it with himself through his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.” It is about God’s giving of himself to us, calling us to himself and sharing himself with us. “It is not a matter therefore of intellectual communication, but of a life-giving process in which God comes to meet man.”

This is how we should approach the question of a private revelation or pious tradition: is it true? Will it bring us closer to God?

The future Pope Benedict XIV, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, wrote regarding private revelations: “These revelations seek . . . an assent of human faith in keeping with the requirements of prudence, which puts them before us as probable and credible to piety.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats private revelation:

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 (67).

This is an important point to keep in mind: while these revelations may be true and may prove helpful to the practice and observance of the Catholic faith, it is not a sin to disbelieve them; although if they have help to give, it may be foolish not to accept it. “It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive revelation but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history” (CCC 67).

In other words, private revelations can help to interpret or apply divine revelation to a given historical or cultural context. But there is a certain amount of caution that must be observed:

Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations” (CCC 67).

The Church’s affirmation and approval of certain private revelations always comes with a caveat. The Church declares only that these revelations have nothing in them contrary to faith or good morals, and that there is no inherent danger in believing them—and there may even be good to come out of it.

Do we have to believe this?

In the encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope St. Pius X wrote, “In passing judgment on pious traditions be it always borne in mind that in this matter the Church uses the greatest prudence, and that she does not allow traditions of this kind to be narrated in books except with the utmost caution . . . and even then she does not guarantee the truth of the fact narrated; she simply does not forbid belief in things for which human arguments are not wanting” (55).

When we speak of private revelation and pious traditions, we are not trying to suss out what is “least necessary” for us to believe; in other words, the question should not be “Do we have to believe this?” It should be a question of “Is this true?” In the vast majority of cases, the Church has not made a definitive declaration as to the truth or trustworthiness of a given private revelation. At best, the universal Church (or the local Church, through the ordinary) has deemed a given vision or private revelation as “worthy of belief,” as not being contrary to Scripture and the teachings of the Church.

Belief in private revelations is often a question of prudence. Is it prudent, is it helpful, is it reasonable? This must be the result of a great deal of discernment and assessing the value and content of a revelation.

There are a number of well-known examples of private revelations and pious traditions that have become fixtures in Catholic devotional practice, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Divine Mercy, and the Miraculous Medal.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known examples of these traditions. These are traditions, sometimes the result of private revelations, and do not belong to the deposit of faith but are beautiful and fascinating insights into the way our Faith has been transmitted.

Did Jesus have a guardian angel?

Sometimes a pious tradition will arise out of a question. It should go without saying that Sacred Scripture does not explicitly state every facet of every consideration of every issue regarding the Christian faith. The theological pursuit was defined by St. Anselm as fides quaerens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding.” Sometimes the question is prompted by something in Scripture.

Did Jesus have a guardian angel? This is not directly answered in Scripture, nor has there been any sort of definitive teaching on the question. But it would certainly make sense—he was, of course, fully human, like us in all things but sin. We know that each of us is given a guardian angel, so it stands to reason that Jesus had one as well.

In fact, the Gospels do make mention of Jesus being attended to by angels: after his temptation in the desert, “angels came and ministered to him” (Matt. 4:11; cf. Mark 1:13), and on the Mount of Olives on the night he was betrayed, an angel strengthened him (cf. Luke 22:43).

There is an ancient tradition that Jesus’ guardian angel was none other than St. Michael the Archangel. This is a beautiful tradition, and one that seems perfectly fitting.

The holy house of Loreto

The Blessed Virgin Mary lived in Nazareth. It was where she was born, raised, and where the Annunciation took place, when an angel of the Lord asked her if she would be the Mother of God. Pilgrims have flocked to this holy place for centuries. So why do they travel to Italy to do so?

There is a pious tradition that holds that angels carried the house of Mary from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy, on December 10, 1294, as the Crusaders were being driven out of the Holy Land. The tradition holds that the angels moved the house to Loreto, Italy, in order to allow Christians to continue venerating it without having to travel to Muslim lands. (Although some traditions hold that the House made other stops before resting in Loreto.)

The significance of the house does not have to do with Mary alone. This is the house of the Annunciation, the house where the Incarnation happened. This is where the Word became flesh. This is where Mary’s fiat changed the course of history. It would make sense that Christians would want to venerate the house and would want to safeguard it.

St. Anne and St. Joachim

If you ask many Catholics about the parents of Mary, they will at least be able to tell you they were named Anne and Joachim. How do we know this? This comes from the Protoevangelium of James, which is an early Christian work, not part of the biblical canon, that tells the story of the birth and upbringing of Mary through her giving birth to Jesus. Here we learn much about Mary’s parents and her youth.

The Protoevangelium of James has many other stories that are not attested to in the Gospels but which many believe: that Joseph was a widower with other children; that Jesus was born in a cave; that St. John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was killed during the massacre of the Holy Innocents by order of King Herod; and more. It is also one of the earliest extant defenses of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St. Joseph born without original sin

Here we get into the thorny question of private revelation.

Beginning in 1938, and for many years thereafter, Sr. Mildred Mary Neuzil, a nun in Ohio, received revelations in visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Michael, and St. Gabriel. After she was transferred to Indiana, these revelations would later come to be discussed under the title Our Lady of America and were approved by then-Bishop Raymond Burke in a letter to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1997.

The revelations included much about the sorrows that Mary suffered because of the sins of her children throughout the world, the United States in particular; in addition, St. Joseph told Sister Mildred about his own hidden life, not recorded in Scripture or anywhere else:

It is true, my daughter, that immediately after my conception I was, through the future merits of Jesus and because of my exceptional role of future Virgin-Father, cleansed from the stain of original sin. I was, from that moment, confirmed in grace and never had the slightest stain on my soul. This is my unique privilege among men. My pure heart also was from the first moment of existence inflamed with love for God. Immediately, at the moment when my soul was cleansed from original sin, grace was infused into it in such abundance that, excluding my holy spouse, I surpassed the holiness of the highest angel in the angelic choir.

This is an extraordinary claim: St. Joseph, while not conceived immaculately, was cleansed of original sin in the womb before birth. Before Sr. Mildred ever came along, this was a belief held by many saints, popes, and theologians. St. Alphonsus Liguori—a doctor of the Church, no less—and many others believed that Joseph was cleansed from original sin and that he never committed personal sin during his life.

John the Baptist born without original sin

There is another biblical figure who tradition holds was cleansed from original sin in the womb: St. John the Baptist. This tradition grew out of Scripture.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:39-41).

John was the infant in Elizabeth’s womb who leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Zechariah was also told by the angel Gabriel that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:13-15).

The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “As the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from original sin.” It is notable that on the Church’s liturgical calendar we celebrate just three nativities: those of Our Lord, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist. St. Augustine is among those who have said that we celebrate John’s nativity because he entered the world free from original sin.

St. Pontius Pilate?

Nowhere in Scripture do we read about what happened to Pontius Pilate after the trial of Jesus. But there are some Christians who have venerated him and his wife, Procla, as saints. Eusebius of Caesarea records that Pilate converted to Christianity after seeing what followed Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pilate even told Emperor Tiberius of the resurrection of Jesus and how many believed him to be God. The earliest depictions of Pilate in Christian art show him with Abraham, Daniel, and other believers, not as a man guilty of deicide. Even St. Augustine believed that Pilate had converted.

Antibiblical versus nonbiblical

There is another distinction we must draw when considering pious traditions, which are not found explicitly in Sacred Scripture. As Catholics, we are aware that simply because something is not in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s not true: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

This is an issue that often comes up in debates between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants, operating under the principle of sola scriptura (the Bible as the sole rule of faith), often refer to anything that is not to be found explicitly in Scripture as “unbiblical” or “anti-biblical.” However, there is a shade of distinction that makes a world of difference: rather than being unbiblical, these traditions are simply nonbiblical. That is to say, although they are not to be found in Scripture, they are not contradictory to Scripture.

Scripture is inerrant. It is the Word of God. But there is much that is true that is simply not recorded in Scripture. Such is the case with many pious traditions: while they are not recorded in Scripture, many still believe them to be true. And there can be a great deal of good that comes from such belief.

Sidebar 1: An Alternate Explanation

Although there is no doctrinal reason to disbelieve the miraculous account of the house of Loreto’s move (discussed above), there may be another explanation as to where the tradition came from.

In the thirteenth century, a Byzantine family named Angeli (Italian for “angels”) salvaged relics and materials from the house in Nazareth and brought them to Italy so that a shrine could be built. The house has been visited by pilgrims for hundreds of years, including by holy people such as St. Francis de Sales, St. Louis de Montfort, and St. Charles Borromeo.

Christopher Columbus, Pope St. Pius V, Queen Christina of Sweden, and even Napoleon have paid tribute to the house in their own ways. For a time, there was even a liturgical feast on the Church’s calendar to commemorate the Translation of the Holy House.

Pope Francis recently added the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto, December 10, to the universal calendar.

Sidebar 2: Was Joseph Assumed into Heaven?

There is another pious tradition related to that of St. Joseph’s sinlessness: that St. Joseph was assumed bodily into heaven. Pope St. John XXIII declared that this could be piously believed, along with the bodily assumption of St. John the Baptist.

There are a number of saints and theologians who supported this idea. St. Bernardine of Sienna, as well as the fifteenth-century French theologian Jean Gerson, helped this idea to spread in popularity, as did St. Vincent Ferrer and many others.

St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church, observed that it is very reasonable to believe that Joseph was assumed bodily into heaven. One reason for this is that there seem to be no earthly remains of the spouse of Our Lady. There are no relics, and no claims to the tomb of St. Joseph.

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