Every day, it seems, the papers are splashed with another report of an angel appearing by a hospital bed, the Blessed Virgin’s image showing up in a window screen, or the face of Christ appearing on yet another tortilla. Many Catholics find these reports embarrassing. But then there are sites like Lourdes and Fatima, places that nobody would have heard of except for the reports that Mary appeared there and conveyed messages of hope and repentance.
So what’s the deal when it comes to reported apparitions? Arguments break out; accusations and contradictions are slammed back and forth by both sides. There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings, no matter where you look or whom you listen to. Here are the top ten contenders.
1. People who believe that stuff are crazy.
Well, now, hang on a minute. “Apparition” just means that a heavenly being—Christ, Mary, another saint, or an angel—makes himself known to human senses. That being the case, pick up your Bible and check Genesis: the first apparitions were to Adam and Eve, when God walked with them in the cool of the garden. Then have a look at Exodus, when God appeared to Moses and spoke to him in the burning bush. Carry it through to the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Resurrection. Look at the Apocalypse, in which John describes his vision of the whole heavenly Jerusalem.
The whole Bible is the transcript of one apparition after another. Every Mass includes Christ’s apparition among us—in the appearance of bread and wine. If it’s crazy to believe in apparitions, then every Jew and every Christian who ever lived would have to be crazy.
2. Real apparitions come only to exceptionally holy people.
You’d be surprised. Bernadette was a remarkably sweet-natured child before Mary appeared to her, and she got even better afterward, but at the time she was totally ignorant of her catechism and not unusually pious. Melanie Matthieu, on the other hand, was practically a feral child before the apparition at La Salette in 1848, and her teachers described her afterward as a complete savage. She later became a vagrant, running all over Europe denouncing the Church for refusing to pay her saintly honors during her lifetime.
To take a middle case, Marie Lataste (1822-1847) started life as a remarkably obnoxious little girl in Dax, France, but then Christ started appearing to her almost routinely after her first Communion. Her vices disappeared; her virtues grew; and those around her felt an abiding sense of joy, just from her presence, although she never went out of her way to impress them. (The surprising thing was that she wasn’t surprised at all of this; evidently, she thought that’s the way religion works, and you have to admit she had a point. It just happened faster with her.) Anyway, it just goes to show you that God picks up his tools as he will, and that he doesn’t always pick the sharpest knife in the drawer (Judg. 6:15, Matt. 9:9-13, Acts 9:1-4).
3. People claim to see apparitions just to get in the spotlight.
That one happens to be true. Not in all cases, though, but in most. Overwhelmingly, the two greatest causes of reports of apparitions are human fraud and human delusion. Then, in terms of frequency, there are the diabolic hijinks that almost always help the frauds along. Least frequent of all is a genuine outreach by God, either directly from Christ or through Mary, another saint, or an angel as an intermediary.
The genuine ones come, invariably, to people who didn’t want them before they happened; who later wish they hadn’t had them; or who don’t want them at all, ever. The modesty of their conduct contrasts sharply with the posturing of the fakes and the deluded. Declining to pose as a divine messenger with more authority than Christ, or even refusing to claim to speak for him, is really about the barest minimum of humility a person can have, yet the overwhelming majority of self-declared mystics trip over that very low threshold. The minute you see self-proclaimed visionaries giving interviews to the press, dashing off reams of prophecies for all and sundry, asserting that they’ve seen Mary and that they have an urgent message that can save the world; the minute you see someone even permitting himself to be interviewed on such a matter; certainly as soon as you see a reported visionary routinely blessing people, “curing” pilgrims, or even receiving pilgrims at all—you can safely assume that the person is a fraud . . . or, if you want to be charitable, that the person is deluded, genuinely believing that what he said he saw was real. Either way, it’s not worthy of your attention.
Here, as in so much else, St. John of the Cross is the best model. When dispatched to investigate a reported apparition, he walked cheerfully up to the woman and said, “Are you the lady to whom the Holy Spirit is appearing?” When she answered, “Yes!,” he bid her good day and reported to the bishop that the woman was either a fraud or delusional. Credit-worthy visionaries speak of “the lady” or “the person,” but they don’t even claim that it was Mary or Christ.
4. You can tell if a reported apparition is real because miraculous things happen around it.
Miracles are distinct kinds of mystical phenomena, entirely separate from apparitions and not necessarily occurring anywhere near them. Incidentally, one thing that’s practically the hallmark of a false apparition is the report that a set of rosary beads has changed color.
5. I’ll see an apparition someday.
Not likely, this side of Armageddon. It’s an outreach by God, and you can’t compel God. Thinking he owes you an apparition, that you’ve earned it, or even that you deserve it is pride—a cardinal vice that puts a stop to even the possibility, not to mention to further personal growth. “I consider it certain,” Teresa of Avila said, “that spiritual persons who think that they deserve these delights of spirit for the many years that they have practiced prayer will not ascend to the summit of the spiritual life,” which is in line with Matthew 12:39 and 23:12 and everything else that the Church teaches. John of the Cross attributed the taste for these experiences to a “spiritual sweet tooth,” a matter of unwholesome greed. It makes a person an enemy of Christ, he said. Or, as St. Bernard put it, a soul striving toward union with God “will be far from content that her Bridegroom should manifest himself to her in the common manner, that is, by . . . dreams and visions.”
The best advice? Stick to the sacraments and the normal spiritual discipline of the Church. Remember what St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most influential of the Church’s mystics, said: “To ecstasy, I prefer the monotony of sacrifice.”
6. People who don’t bother with modern apparitions just aren’t spiritually gifted enough to understand.
No, they’re within their rights, and they’re doing basically what the Church hopes people will do. Belief even in events like Lourdes and Fatima is only enjoined, never required. No such event is necessary for salvation or for the business of the Church; like Christ’s own miracles, they only help bring people’s attention back to the faith (John 3:1-21).
No latter-day apparition should be taken as the centerpiece of one’s ideas about what religion is all about. That’s because Christianity—a revealed religion—works with two different kinds of revelation. The revelation that came to us from Christ, through the prophets before him and the apostles after, is an unchanged body of teachings called the “deposit of faith,” and it’s public revelation, so called because Christ said it was to be given to all nations (Matt. 24:14, 28:19; Mark 11:17, 13:10; Luke 24:47). It’s the substance of our religion. Since the death of the last apostle, public revelation is closed. Everything that God needed to reveal about Christianity already has been revealed, so nothing needs to be added; Christ himself revealed it, so nothing has to be changed. “The Christian dispensation,” Vatican II repeated, “as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But there’s also a phenomenon called private revelation. This is not part of public revelation, but just a reminder of some part of it, given by God, sometimes by way of an angel or a saint, to an individual person. It can be the answer to a simple prayer or a sky-splitting apparition—or anything in between. Whatever the form, it’s not essential to the Faith. No genuine apparition is going to be anything other than private revelation; none will convey new or revised public revelation, so none is necessary to the substance of the Faith. You’re supposed to take the reminder, if you need it, and then get to work increasing your devotion to public revelation.
That’s why even spectacularly gifted saints can take apparitions or leave them. St. Louis IX of France looked up calmly when his servant burst into the room yelling about how Christ was appearing in the Eucharist in the palace chapel, and then the king turned back to his work. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and Teresa of Avila went so far as to fight off their visions of Christ, begging him to leave them in the normal routine of their orders. If you stay at home when the next visionary claims that Mary is appearing in the backyard, you’ll be in very good company.
7. Bishops encourage crowds to flock to any reported apparition, no matter how nutty it is.
Just about the last thing any bishop looks forward to is that late-night call about yet another hometown visionary. His efforts will be directed at keeping things orderly until an investigation can be made—if in fact the report warrants investigation. Usually, the thing is so far outside the spectrum of genuine mystical activity that he’ll respond only with silence, and silence from the local bishop is really a public proclamation that the thing deserves no notice. Even if it does turn out to be real, the most that any post-biblical apparition gets is a negative approval—an official declaration that there’s nothing in the report or in its implications that’s contrary to the Faith, so it’s “worthy of belief.” That means that you can believe it or, if you aren’t interested, not.
8. Bishops discourage people from flocking to any reported apparition, no matter how wonderful it is.
Wrong again. They know that only a tiny percentage of reports—maybe only one in a thousand, or really even fewer—turn out to have anything wonderful about them. To the average bishop, the overwhelming majority of reports are obviously, even blatantly fraudulent or delusional.
There is an immense amount of spiritual treasure in the messages of genuine apparitions, a lot that can deepen and enrich your life in the Church through the sacraments. But it’s also true that fakes and delusional cases distract thousands of people from basic—and fully adequate—participation in those sacraments, and they draw them away from growing in the normal life of prayer. So the good of a real apparition is potentially overwhelmed by the evil from a myriad of fakes. Bishops have to be careful.
Those reports that have enough substance to merit official examination are studied by panels of qualified experts—theologians, medical doctors, perhaps chemists and physicists—assembled by the local bishop, the only person authorized by law to investigate. They take their time. Time weeds out empty promises, and it may take a century or more before a final determination is announced. In the meantime, follow the lead of King Louis or of John of the Cross, who just turned back to reading his Bible when his brother friars called him to run into town to see a purported apparition. Maybe he was looking at Matthew 12:38-39.
9. If enough people go to see an apparition, the bishop will give it his blessing eventually.
A genuine apparition is an outreach by God. The reality of it is not determined by voting and most particularly not by the voting of people unqualified to evaluate the matter. We tend to forget that mystic theology is a regular academic discipline—you can get a doctorate in it at accredited Catholic universities. It’s sobering but safe to remember that the layman on the street has no experience of genuine mystic activity, no book-learning about what it really is, and—judging by the numbers who flock after even the most preposterous reports—sadly insufficient knowledge about the basics of the faith. A little learning goes a long way toward winnowing out the nonsense. You’d be surprised how far it goes toward opening up the wonders of the apparitions that have been declared worthy of credit, wonders that are closed to people who rely on their emotions and won’t make the necessary effort to grow in knowledge and discipline.
Most experts, undoubtedly, would just like to see a little more common sense in these things. Christianity does not change (Heb. 13:8-9), so certainly an apparition of a saint (Matt. 17:3) or an angel (Luke 1:11) is as possible today as it ever was. But there’s no biblical reference for the appearance of anybody’s face on a food item or flower petals. Lack of biblical precedent should be enough to turn anybody from the silliest reports, but there are also the writings of the great Doctors of the Church such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, which ought to settle any doubts the laity is likely to have about the value of a given report, pending official judgment—or official silence.
By the way, continuing to fuss with a purported apparition that has been declared false by the local bishop is disobedience—a sin rooted in pride.
10. Apparitions can be photographed.