Revelations Public and Private

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.