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Revelations Public and Private Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Friday, 28 January 2011

Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe. I confess when I was an early Catholic convert, I found all of this business about Marian apparitions somewhat disconcerting. These weren’t the sorts of things that I, as a young, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant boy who aspired to college and a successful life in American culture, had generally trafficked in. And yet, one of my fondest memories as an early Catholic was of going to Lourdes and sitting amazed on the steps of the basilica there, watching the daily Eucharistic procession. 

Literally hundreds of sick people were wheeled out into the bright sunlight in the plaza below me, several football fields long. Even more amazing were the hundreds of volunteers who tended dutifully to the needs of each of the sick, walking from wheelchair to wheelchair, checking repeatedly on each one. Hundreds of people, I came to discover, spend their entire two or three weeks of vacation in Lourdes carrying sick people back and forth without pay, without support (they have to arrange their own accommodations), just for the joy of it. 

“There isn’t a hospital anywhere that I know of,” I said to myself (having worked in several fairly wealthy hospitals) “that would have the resources and wherewithal to get all of its patients safely out into the sun and back to their rooms several times a day.” In secular society, we often talk about doing “humanitarian” activities, but you have to go to an odd little village in the French Pyrenees where a young woman claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary to actually see the thing, full bloom, in all its glory.

I was thinking about this the other day while reading Pope Benedict’s remarkable new apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, “on the word of God in the life and mission of the Church.” The document is long, but well worth reading, and contains a veritable mini-catechism of many of the basic elements of the Catholic faith. An interesting little section, tucked way inside, discusses the importance of distinguishing “public revelation,” such as is given to all in Sacred Scripture, from “private revelations,” such as those that have been given to particular individuals since the time of the apostles  to Bernadette at Lourdes, for example. Understanding the difference is more important than you might think. As a professor of theology, I get asked all the time whether Catholics “have to believe” in the apparitions of Mary? (The short answer is that, in the proper circumstances, the faithful are authorized to give [them] their “prudent adhesion,” but their use “is not obligatory.”)


         The grotto at Lourdes.

Pope Benedict’s discussion of this question in Verbum Domini is nearly identical to comments he had made in June of 2000 while still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in “The Message of Fatima.” In both documents, he affirms that “public Revelation” differs from “private revelations” not only “in degree but also in essence.” It is not merely that the Scriptures are more authoritative than the messages of Fatima or Lourdes (although they certainly are); rather the two cases are different in kind.

Crucial, in this regard, is understanding that “revelation” (as it is understood by the Church) is not primarily a communication of information; it is rather the “self-communication” of the Trinitarian God by whom we are invited into “a further union, a deeper communion” (as T. S. Eliot describes it) with Him.

“Public revelation,” says the pope, refers to the revealing action of God directed to humanity as a whole, which finds its literary expression in the Old and New Testaments. This revelation “is valid for all time and has reached its fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” In Christ, “God has said everything, that is, he has revealed himself completely,” and it for that reason that the Church says, “revelation came to an end with the fulfillment of the mystery of Christ.” 

“Private revelations” do not add to or complete God’s definitive revelation in Christ, but are meant to help believers live more fully by the Gospel “in a certain period of history.” The criterion for judging the truth of a private revelation, therefore, is precisely “its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel, and not away from it. Private revelation is an aid to this faith, and it demonstrates its credibility precisely because it refers back to the one public revelation.” Such messages “can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time.” Therefore, they “should not be disregarded . . . .It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use.”  

He quotes this wonderful passage from St. John of the Cross: “In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say . . .because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.”

So, when students ask me, “What happens at these Marian apparitions? What mysteries are revealed? What are the secrets?” I tell them that the ultimate message is simple. Mary always has just one thing to say: Pray to my son. That’s a message you can hear in any church on any Sunday.


Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
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written by Bill, January 28, 2011
If people do not convert and amend their lives, there will be a war worse than this war.(1917) Russia will become a great power and spread its errors throughout the world. The Pope will suffer much. Only I can help you.Pray the Rosary! You have seen Hell where poor souls go who have no one to pray for them (this vision was shown to three children, the oldest was nine). There will come a time when the Church will suffer a diabolical disorientation, bishop against bishop. Many of the faithful will be led astray. My Son is deeply offended... (I am only citing Fatima!) Perhaps your students would do better to read of these apparitions on their own.
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written by Randall Smith, January 28, 2011
In the article, I am "only" citing an encyclical by Pope Benedict (as opposed to "only" citing Fatima). I suggest to my students that they read the encyclical and then make up their own minds. But I never suggest to my students that they listen to mystical visions or prophetic proclamations without the guidance of the magisterium of the Church. My advice is not dissimilar to St. Paul's admonition in 1 Thess 19-22: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil." Who is the final arbiter? Who "tests"? The Church herself, which has an authority that is apostolic, as was Paul's. And in the final analysis, whatever bits and pieces of other "information" might be communicated, the central message will always be this: Look to Christ! He is our life and our salvation. Whatever evil there is in this world and in this generation, Christ can overcome it, if we look to Him for help, guidance, and His grace. The rest is not unimportant, but we mustn't lose cite of that central message.
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written by Randall Smith, January 29, 2011
My apologies, but an odd misspelling crept into that previous post. In that last sentence, I clearly meant that "we mustn't lose SIGHT of that central message." But then again, we also mustn't ever stop CITING it to others. If as Alfred North Whitehead once suggested, "all of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes to Plato," then clearly all of Christian theology is merely a series of footnotes to Jesus Christ. Theologians who do their work well shouldn't fail to cite Him. Mary never fails to do so.

Cute, perhaps, but I still made a spelling mistake.
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written by champd, January 31, 2011
Crucial to this is understanding that Revelation is not primarily a communication of information. While this is true in the ultimate sense, this distinction does not really help distinguish between public Revelation and private revelations, so I was a bit curious as to why it is employed in this presentation. Private revelations also can be of a "personal" nature, and both Public Revelation and private revelations in fact do present us with information, for that is fitting man as intellectual. I am not trying to disagree with anything here, but just noting that the "crucial" insight above the Christocentric notion of Revelation (which is true and crucial) is not so crucial to this specific presentation.

Thanks and Peace.

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