Apparitions and the Direction of Human Acts

As the Church commemorates the apparitions to St. Bernadette at Lourdes today, a few thoughts on such phenomena. Some non-Catholic Christians express concern over Catholic involvement with visions or apparitions. While the Church is in fact extremely circumspect in accepting the validity of any new visions or apparitions, she also believes that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37) and therefore does not reject outright the possibility of special spiritual occurrences, as some Christians do. If God could reveal Himself or send intermediaries in both the Old and New Testaments (even after the Lord’s Resurrection), why should this be out of the question today?

Any apparitions approved by the Church (whether of Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary or of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes or Fatima) have a remarkable similarity of theme: there is no new revelation but a restatement of the heart of the Gospel message, “Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mk 1: 15) This is no more and no less than the message of most “Bible-believing” preachers.

What is the purpose of such apparitions?  One could say that they are to serve as “wake-up calls” from Heaven. The parable of the vine-dresser (see Mt 21:33-41) comes to mind in this regard. Jesus says that the owner of the vineyard constantly sends messengers who are ignored and even maltreated. The divine logic then concludes that they will heed the alter ego of the owner – his very own son.

As God calls the world to conversion and then to maintenance in holiness, He offers myriad aids: the Church; the Sacred Scriptures; the sacraments; the example of holy people, both living and dead. But the witness of history is that all too often the world is tone-deaf to these divine overtures. And so, in the equivalent of a last-ditch attempt (humanly speaking), God makes direct interventions in extraordinary ways, approaching humanity personally or through heavenly intermediaries (angels, Our Lady, other saints) and choosing individuals to receive His warnings (or consolations).

These individuals, in turn, are obliged to share the message they have received with the rest of the Church or even the whole world. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas sums it up well:

As regards the guidance of human acts, the prophetic revelation varied not according to the course of time, but according as circumstances required, because as it is written (Proverbs 29:18), “When prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered abroad.” Wherefore at all times men were divinely instructed about what they were to do, according as it was expedient for the spiritual welfare of the elect. . . .Not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts.” ( II, II, Q. 174, art. 6)

While the Church has a cautious attitude toward miracles and apparitions, it is good to realize that every modern pope has felt the need to make himself a “Marian pilgrim.”  St. John XXIII’s first trip outside the Vatican after his election was to the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto.  St. John Paul II never missed an opportunity to visit a Marian sanctuary and there commend himself to Our Lady’s maternal care.

St. Bernadette of Lourdes

What these popes seem to be saying by their actions is that, in their role as Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ on earth, they want to bring the whole Church to Mary, Mother of the Church, especially to those places she has graced by her presence in a particular way. Thus, while blind, unthinking credulity of visions and apparitions is to be avoided at all costs, a coarse skepticism born of excessive rationalism should also be shunned. Here we are reminded of the wisdom of that line we find in the all-time favorite film, The Song of Bernadette: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

As a result of the appearance of the Blessed Mother at Guadalupe, human sacrifice ceased in Mexico and an entire people came into the communion of the Church. Lourdes is the best-known site of miraculous healings in history. The Virgin at Fatima issued a clarion call for repentance and reparation, which would provide the necessary conditions for world peace. In each instance, Our Lady assumed the prophetic mantle as God’s spokeswoman and merely repeated her directive to the wine stewards at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5)

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, like many converts, had a long row to hoe before coming to an appreciation of Marian doctrine and devotion, but once he did, he came to profound, poignant, and even touching insights.  Here are but three of them:

I recollect one saying among others of my confessor, a Jesuit Father, one of the holiest, most prudent men I ever knew. He said that we could not love the Blessed Virgin too much, if we loved Our Lord a great deal more. (Diff. I, 21)

As then these ideas of her [Mary’s] sanctity and dignity gradually penetrated the mind of Christendom, so did that of her intercessory power follow close upon them and with them. (Diff. II, 73)

This simply is the point which I shall insist on – disputable indeed by aliens from the Church but most clear to her children, that the glories of Mary are for the sake of Jesus; and that we praise and bless her as the first of creatures, that we may duly confess Him as our sole Creator. (“On the Glories of Mary” (Discourse XVII), Mix., 344)

May we always love Jesus “a great deal more.”

You may also enjoy:

+Karen Walter Goodwin’s Eucharisteo

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Three Lessons from Lourdes

Father Peter Stravinskas holds doctorates in school administration and theology. He is the founding editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press. Most recently, he launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.