Private revelations—the kind that God still gives today—are endlessly fascinating. But where can we get reliable information about them and how they work? Here we’ll take a look at private revelations, drawing on reliable Catholic sources.
1. Why are they called “private” revelations?
The term private is widely acknowledged to be misleading, and some sources use other terms. The Council of Trent, for example, used the term “special revelation.”
Whatever term one prefers, the idea is to distinguish these revelations from the body of revelation found in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. That revelation is binding on the entire Church throughout all its history. It is thus sometimes called public revelation because it is directed to everyone in the Church.
Private revelation by contrast is directed to a narrower audience. It may be directed to a single person, to a group of people, or even to the entire Church in a particular age, but it is not directed to all of the Church throughout history.
2. Are there private revelations in the Bible?
It depends on what you mean. At least today, everything in the Bible is part of public revelation. However, this wasn’t necessarily the case in the beginning.
For example, when Jesus appeared to St. Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9), this was not a revelation directed to the entire Church at the time. It was a revelation given to Paul and, to some extent, was also perceived by those around him (cf. Acts 22:9).
As a result, some authors classify this kind of personal experience as a private revelation (cf. Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, 19), even though it is found in the Bible. The record of this event then became part of public revelation when St. Luke wrote the book of Acts.
3. Who may appear in an apparition?
Hypothetically, anyone at all. God could give a person a vision of anyone he chooses—even people who don’t personally exist.
For example, in Acts 16:9, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” This vision motivated Paul to make a missionary trip to Macedonia.
Luke doesn’t tell us how Paul knew the man was Macedonian. He may have been in Macedonian dress, he may have had a Macedonian accent, or Paul may have just known that he was Macedonian (as we sometimes “just know” things in dreams).
What is significant is that Luke doesn’t give us any indication that Paul ever met this man in the flesh, and that’s the kind of thing we would expect him to record. It would be an amazing confirmation of the revelation if Paul had met the exact man he saw in the vision, but Luke never says that he did.
It’s most likely that the Macedonian man was a symbol of the people of his homeland and their need for evangelization. He would be like the figures who appear in Jesus’ parables. They’re not meant to be historical individuals but symbols that convey important messages.
On the other hand, real, living individuals may also appear, as when Paul saw that Ananias would come to restore his sight (Acts 9:11-12).
4. Who most commonly appears in apparitions?
Both in the Bible and in Church history, the most common figures are God, his angels, and the saints.
In the Bible, God appears to Old Testament prophets such as Moses (Exod. 33:18-34:7), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1, 26-28), and Daniel (Dan. 7:9).
Historically, Catholic theologians have debated whether these Old Testament appearances were “personal” or not. Benedict XIV stated, “According to the general opinion of theologians, the apparitions of God under the Old Law were not personal, but, as they say, impersonal: for God himself did not assume a body and appear, but he did that by the ministry of angels who represented him” (cf. John 1:18, Gal. 3:19, 1 John 4:12).
However, Benedict also notes that some believe these were appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ in visible form. Various Church Fathers identified one particular angel—referred to as “the Angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7-13) or sometimes as “the Angel of Great Council” (Isa. 9:6, Septuagint)—as a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 76, 126, Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:16:3).
Other angels appear in multiple instances, often in human appearance (Gen. 19:1, John 20:12, cf. Luke 24:4), though not always (Isa. 6:2, Ezek. 1:5-11, Dan. 10:5-6). Sometimes angels appear in great multitudes (Luke 2:13-14, Rev. 5:11).
Departed saints also appear. Samuel appears to the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:11-19). Some have proposed that, because mediumship was forbidden (Lev. 20:27, Deut. 18:11), this was not really Samuel but a demon. But the biblical text refers to the spirit as Samuel, and he gives a genuine prophecy to King Saul. Also, Sirach 46:20 confirms that it was Samuel who, after his death, “revealed to the king his death and lifted up his voice out of the earth in prophecy.”
The deceased high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah also appear to Judah Maccabee in a vision (2 Macc. 15:11-16).
Finally, in Revelation 12:1-5, John sees a woman who gives birth to Christ, identifying her as the Virgin Mary (though the figure contains other layers of symbolism).
Throughout the Church age, God, the angels, and saints have continued to appear, and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been particularly common.
5. Can demons appear?
In the Old Testament, God at one point allows a lying spirit to deceive a group of prophets (1 Kings 22:21-23), and the New Testament warns that not every spirit is of God, so spirits need to be tested (1 John 4:1; cf. 1 Thess. 5:19-21). Paul also states that the devil disguises himself “as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
Among the tests that the Bible gives for detecting lying spirits are whether they deny that Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3) and whether they preach a different gospel (Gal. 1:8-9).
A more generalized version of this test is that an apparition is to be regarded as false if it contains anything that is contrary to official Church teaching (CDF, Norms).
6. Can souls in purgatory, or even the souls of the damned, appear?
The common opinion is that they can. After commenting on how the souls of saints can appear to people, St. Thomas Aquinas states, “It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory” (ST III-II:69:3).
Regarding the souls of the damned, Benedict XIV notes that, although the devil sometimes appears in the form of a beast or monster, “the souls of the dead, although of the damned, when, by the permission of God they appear to the living, assume that form by which they are known”—that is, the form that they had in life.
7. How would “bodily” visions work, where the seer’s physical eyes and ears detect spiritual beings that don’t have bodily form?
This could happen a number of ways (e.g., God or his agents causing light and sound waves for the physical senses to detect). However, a theory that has been popular historically is the idea that spiritual beings may assume “aerial bodies” that temporarily condense out of air.
Benedict XIV says that “bodies which become visible to human eyes—I mean aerial bodies—ought to be easily made and formed, and to admit of human color, and when they are laid aside, or dissolved, to leave nothing behind which the eyes of the bystanders can discern.”
8. If the Church has approved an apparition, are we bound to accept it?
No. In 2010, Benedict XVI explained:
Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation essentially means that its message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals; it is licit to make it public and the faithful are authorized to give to it their prudent adhesion. A private revelation can introduce new emphases, give rise to new forms of piety, or deepen older ones. It can have a certain prophetic character and can be a valuable aid for better understanding and living the Gospel at a certain time; consequently, it should not be treated lightly. It is a help which is proffered, but its use is not obligatory (Verbum Domini 14).
In the 1700s, Benedict XIV observed that the Church accepts these revelations only “as probable” and added, “It follows that anyone may, without injury to the Catholic faith, give no heed to these revelations, and differ from them, provided he does so modestly, not without reason, and without contempt.”
The lack of contempt is needed because one needs to show respect to the Church authorities who approved them, but if one thinks there is a good reason not to accept a particular, approved apparition, the Church holds that one is free to do so.
9. If a saint has been canonized, does that mean the Church approves of the apparitions he reported?
It does not. The Church has a separate process—described in the CDF’s Norms—for approving apparitions. The fact that someone has been canonized does not mean that this process has been used.
On the other hand, if a saint claimed to have received revelations that were heretical, he would not have been canonized. One may presume that the visions a saint reported didn’t contradict Church teaching, at least as far as it was developed in his own day.
Further, the Church assumes that God was at work in the saint’s life in at least a general way, including in revelations the saint reported receiving. But this does not mean that every particular revelation he or she reported or that every detail in them was genuine.
John Paul II expressed this when commenting on St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373): “There is no doubt that the Church, which recognized Bridget’s holiness without ever pronouncing on her individual revelations, has accepted the overall authenticity of her interior experience” (Motu Proprio, Oct. 1, 1999, n. 5).
The Church thus recognizes the authenticity of Bridget’s inner experience in a general way without pronouncing on the validity of the individual revelations she reported.
10. Can you always trust that a particular text of a revelation is genuine?
Sometimes—either due to hoax or simple error—revelations get attributed to seers that they never experienced. Catholics in every century have needed to guard against accepting such apocryphal texts as genuine.
Benedict XIV noted that “the revelation ascribed by some to Blessed Colette, is considered apocryphal, in which it is said that St. Anne had three husbands.”
More recently, the CDF warned bishops about a booklet containing fifteen prayers and promises attributed to St. Bridget of Sweden which are not found in her authentic writings: “Since it is asserted in this pamphlet that God made to St. Bridget certain promises, whose supernatural origin is uncertain, let local ordinaries take care not to grant permission for publishing or reprinting pamphlets or other writings which contain these promises” (Notification, Jan. 28, 1954).
11. Can a person who has received authentic revelations later, unintentionally, think he is receiving a revelation when he isn’t?
Yes. Benedict XIV notes that, “sometimes the holy prophets, when consulted, from the frequent practice of prophecy, utter some things of their own spirit, suspecting them to proceed from the spirit of prophecy.”
It is thus possible that “a saint may have revelations, not from the Holy Spirit, but resulting from his own individual judgment and reasonings, so far as his intellect, influenced by pious dispositions and, imbued with opinions on any subject connected with religion, judges that he has the divine spirit when, however, he is in invincible error.”
A person, even one who has previously received revelations, thus may innocently think God is speaking through him when he is not.
12. If someone receives a genuine revelation, does that mean every detail he sees is authentic?
No. Commenting on St. Bridget, John Paul II noted, “Even the experiences of the great saints are not free of those limitations which always accompany the human reception of God’s voice.”
This means that the seer’s own consciousness may slip in details. The CDF’s Norms state that, although a genuine revelation will not contain doctrinal error, one must take into account “the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation.”
Benedict XIV adds that “it may happen that a saint may think, from pre-conceived opinions and from fixed ideas in the imagination, that certain things are revealed to him by God, which yet God does not reveal. . . . Raptures may be above nature, and in their substance divine, but in their circumstances conformed to the ideas naturally received, which God leaves in the state they are in, since it was of no moment [to the] end he had in view.”
As examples, Benedict mentions “revelations of holy women in which Christ appeared nailed with three nails to the Cross, sometimes with four and also those in which St. Jerome stands with a lion or St. James appears in the dress of a pilgrim.”
Benedict goes on to suggest that God’s real purpose in showing people visions of Jesus being crucified is to help them love Christ and meditate on what he did for us, not to teach them the precise number of nails that were used— imagination of the seer supplying that detail.
Similarly, St. Jerome is often depicted in art with a lion, and St. James is often depicted in art dressed as a pilgrim. Benedict says Jerome didn’t really own a lion, and James is depicted as a pilgrim because people often make pilgrimages in his honor in France. But these images are how people are used to visualizing these saints, so that’s how they sometimes appear in visions.
We thus need to be careful in discerning private revelations and heed St. Paul’s dictum: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:19-21).
Sidebar: Key Documents
Finding authoritative books on private revelations is sometimes difficult, but here are key resources you should consult to study the topic in depth.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: See paragraphs 65-67 for a brief, authoritative discussion of public and private revelation.
- Dei Verbum: This Vatican II document is the most authoritative discussion of revelation today. It focuses on public revelation.
- Heroic Virtue: This is the English title of a work by Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758) on beatifications and canonizations. Since it was written before he was pope, it is not a text of the Magisterium, but it is considered the classic exposition of these topics, and it extensively discusses private revelations (see especially vol. 3, ch. 11-14).
- The Message of Fatima: A collection of documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2000. It deals specifically with the 1917 apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, but it also contains principles applicable to private revelations in general.
- Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations: A document the CDF issued in 1978. It describes the process by which bishops are to investigate reported apparitions. It was originally released privately to bishops, but it was leaked, and in 2011 the CDF published it on its website.
- Verbum Domini: An apostolic exhortation by Benedict XVI (r. 2005-2013) that contains the most recent, authoritative statement on private revelations (n. 14).