how private revelations have influenced the church
Edward R. Benet
St Bernadette's incorrupt body at Nevers
A Catholic is expected to consent firmly to the articles of the Creed – the Trinitarian nature of God, the incarnation of Jesus, his passion, death and resurrection, the establishment of the Church, the second coming and the final judgment. In contrast to public revelation, the faithful are not bound to accept private revelations, even those, such as Lourdes or Fatima, that have been officially approved. In other words, Catholics are free to hold the opinion that St Bernadette was hallucinating in Massabielle, but they cannot claim that they are still Catholic whilst denying the virginal birth of Christ.
This sounds like a nice clear distinction: a Catholic must adhere to the content of public revelation, but can make up his own mind on private revelations. The distinction is genuine, but the waters get muddied somewhat when we consider the many instances of Church teachings, pastoral practices, and liturgical devotions that would not have seen the light of day if it were not for the impetus given to them by revelations of a private sort.
PRIVATE REVELATIONS INFLUENCE THE “HOW” BUT NOT THE “WHAT”
The process of the development of doctrine is a beautiful manifestation of the life of the Spirit in the Church. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14, 25-26) In the case of certain teachings, it took the Spirit many centuries to clarify doctrines and have them defined formally. This activity took place through the discussions of theologians, in the appeals of the ordinary faithful for the matter to be defined, and by means of key decisions of the successors of Peter. But the Spirit was also active through crucial private revelations that shaped the formulation of Church teaching.
Or to state all of this differently: The Second Vatican Council reaffirms the Church’s ancient teaching that Christ is the definitive revelation of God. After Christ, nothing new can be added to the deposit of faith. This means that the Church will never define new dogmas that are not already, at least implicitly, contained in Scripture and Tradition. Having said that, it is also true that private revelations have influenced and shaped – sometimes in a decisive manner – the way in which the Church has developed its doctrines and presented its teachings, even if the content of those teachings remains ultimately dependent on Scripture and Tradition.
HOW DOCTRINES TYPICALLY DEVELOP
Given the protestant suspicion of alleged Catholic “additions” that are supposedly not found in the Bible, it is ironic that a former protestant, St John Henry Newman, became the theologian who best clarified how authentic doctrines develop over time. Typically, there are three stages in the Church’s progressive elaboration of a truth implicitly contained in revelation.
In the first stage, the Church possesses the truth in a tranquil and non-self-conscious manner. In the second stage, there is a period of discussion and controversy as theologians seek to clarify the matter and understand its relationship to other established doctrines. In the final stage, the teaching is received by the entire Church through a formal definition by the successor of Peter, or through a magisterial document promulgated by an ecumenical council of the Church.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF MARY
The most dramatic example of Catholic development of doctrine is that of the Immaculate Conception. Those who claim that the doctrine is without Scriptural foundation do not know their Bible. In recent decades, both Catholic and protestant scholars have established that the expression used by St Luke to translate the words spoken to Mary by Gabriel - “full of grace” - kecharitomene in Greek, is a unique expression that appears nowhere else in the sacred or secular Greek literature of the time. It is a word invented by Luke to try to express what the angel said to Mary. However, the meaning of the word is clear. It refers to she who has been made perfect by the grace of God, in other words, an implicit reference to the Immaculate Conception. (Read this beautiful article on the Greek expression and how it is, effectively, God’s own name for Mary.)
What is written in Scripture, however, still needs interpretation by the Church. That fact has become acutely clear in the five hundred years since the Reformation. Even relatively clear-cut expressions such as “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6,55) can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways by different denominations. On the matter of the Immaculate Conception, in the first centuries, there was a general acceptance of the unique privileges of Mary, her divine maternity, her perpetual virginity and her sinless life. In the second phase, there was heated discussion among Scholastic theologians, some of whom could not see how Mary would have needed redemption by Christ if she was already immaculately conceived some decades before he wrought salvation by his passion, death and resurrection. These same theologians, however, still believed that her unique position as Mother of God meant it was appropriate for her to be free from personal sin. The question remained: was she also free from original sin? (incidentally, the tone of the debate between these Scholastic theologians was very different to the tone of the modern debate on this subject between Catholics and protestants. Both sides of the medieval debate were fervent champions of Our Lady).
The controversy would eventually be resolved (many centuries after his death) by the work of Franciscan Duns Scotus (d. 1308). He argued that Mary was preserved free from sin by the foreseen merits of Christ. Thus, like everyone else, Mary was redeemed by her son, but in a more noble way, since it is more wonderful to preserve someone from sin than to forgive them their guilt after they have fallen into it.
With the theological obstacle removed, the majority of theologians adhered to the belief in the Immaculate Conception by the middle of the fifteenth century. However, it would take a private revelation and pressure from the faithful before the Church finally defined the dogma. In 1830, Our Lady appeared to Catherine Labouré at the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Our Lady asked Catherine to organise the distribution of the miraculous medal, which bore the words, “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”. The stunning popularity of the medal among the faithful prompted many French, Spanish and Italian bishops to ask the Holy Father that the Immaculate Conception be defined as an article of faith. Pope Pius IX thus decided to petition the bishops of the world for their consent. Thus, a dogma that was contained in Scripture and which crystallised through the life of the Church was only finally defined on the heels of a private revelation to a simple nun in Paris. Marvellously, just four years after the definition, the correctness of the dogma was confirmed when Our Lady appeared to an illiterate girl in Lourdes and revealed her very name to be “the Immaculate Conception”.
THE ASSUMPTION OF OUR LADY
It is generally agreed that the dogma of the Assumption has less foundation in Scripture than the Immaculate Conception (but see Rev 12:1-2). Despite that, in the first sixteen centuries of Christianity, theologians were more unanimous in accepting the Assumption than the Immaculate Conception. This is an example of how the Catholic deposit of faith depends both on Scripture and Tradition A public revelation of the Assumption must have been made to at least one of the Apostles, because such revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, and this article of faith was thus conserved and handed on by the Church.
When Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, many people began to petition the Apostolic See for the definition of the Assumption also. Between 1849 and 1940 more than 2,500 such petitions were received from bishops and superiors of religious orders. On May 1st, 1946, Pope Pius XII sent an Encyclical Letter ("Deiparae Virginis") to every bishop in the world asking them about the devotion of their faithful regarding the Assumption. Nearly twelve hundred bishops answered that the dogma could safely be defined, and only sixteen questioned the advisability of the proclamation at that time.
In his letter Pius XII had asked for a prompt response from the bishops, but he had also entreated “an abundance of divine favours and the favourable assistance of the heavenly Virgin”. Amazingly, that assistance came eleven months later in the form of a private revelation to a most unlikely character in Rome. On April 12, 1947, Bruno Cornacchiola, an avowed anti-Catholic and wife-beater who planned to kill the pope, had a vision of Our Lady at Tre Fontane outside Rome, the same spot where St Paul had been martyred.
During the apparition, Our Lady revealed to Bruno that she had been assumed into heaven. Bruno later recounted this in a private audience to Pius XII. Consider then the timeline: In May 1846, the pope writes to the bishops of the world regarding the Assumption, and entreats Our Lady for divine favours to assist with the decision on this dogma. Less than eleven months later, Our Lady appears to a man who was vehemently opposed to all Marian devotion and tells him that she was assumed into heaven!
Pope Pius XII formally defined the Assumption as a dogma of the Catholic faith on November 1, 1950. The constitution cited testimonies from the Fathers, with theological reflection on many biblical passages which indicate that Mary was assumed into heaven. Exactly seventy years later, on November 1st 2020, Cardinal Piacenza offered Mass at the Tre Fontane shrine in Rome. In his homily he noted the link between the Marian dogma and the shrine, which he said “Pius XII knew very well.”
Just as the visions at Lourdes confirmed the definition of the Immaculate Conception, so too Pius XII had private visions which he took as verification of the dogma of the Assumption. In handwritten notes, the pope testified that he saw the so-called “Dance of the Sun” of Fatima on four occasions (October 30, 31, November 1, 8, 1950), in the Vatican gardens.
THE SACRED HEART DEVOTION
As Fr Michael Gaitley makes abundantly clear in his wonderful series Divine Mercy: The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is part of God’s providential plan to correct a wayward direction taken by many theologians and faithful from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onwards. Followers of the Jansenist school portrayed God as an exacting judge who demanded strict penances and sacrifices in exchange for the pardoning of our sins. This negative image of God, and the defective spirituality that accompanied it, would gain enormous influence in France and other parts of Europe right up to the Second Vatican Council, but it began to be countered in an effective way already with the rise of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, a devotion that “corrected” the wayward image of God and emphasized his love and mercy before all else.
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart is pierced by a Roman spear and out flows blood and water. This image, which St John solemnly declares to have witnessed himself, has always been taken as a sign of the sacramental life of the Church which issues from the sacrifice of Christ onto death. In later centuries, it has also been taken as one of the scriptural foundations of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. An incredible pantheon of mystics and saints have promoted the devotion to the Sacred Heart since medieval times to the present. These include Bernard of Clairvaux, Melchtilde of Helfta, Gertrude the Great, and Francis de Sales, among many others. The most significant visions occurred in the 1670s to Margaret Mary Alacoque at Paray-le-Monial. But the Church still resisted introducing the feast on a universal level and the growth of the devotion was consequently impeded.
A German nun, Sister Mary of the Divine Heart, began to have interior locutions and visions regarding the Sacred Heart of Jesus during the final decades of the nineteenth century. On June 10th, 1898, her confessor wrote to Pope Leo XIII stating that Christ had requested Sister Mary to petition for the consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart. The pope took no action. Six months later, Sister Mary wrote again to ask that the first Fridays be observed in honour of the Sacred Heart. In response, Pope Leo commissioned a group of theologians to examine the matter on the basis of revelation and sacred tradition. The outcome was positive and a papal encyclical, Annum Sacrum, was published in May 1899. The encyclical promoted the First Friday Devotions and established June as the month of the Sacred Heart. Sister Mary was to die at age thirty-six on the eve of the feast that same year, and the following day Pope Leo consecrated the entire world to the Sacred Heart. On May 8th 1928, Pius XI’s encyclical, Miserentissimus Redemptor, affirmed the truth of the visions of Margaret Mary Alacoque. Subsequent popes have all reaffirmed the importance of the devotion.
Space does not permit a treatment of the many other instances of official Church teaching that have been influenced by private revelations. Perhaps the most spectacular is the devotion to Divine Mercy, a devotion condemned by the Church during the 1950s because of a poor understanding of the real content of Sister Faustina’s diaries. This devotion would go on to become the central element in the papacy of St John Paul II. After canonising Sister Faustina in 2000, he declared that he had just completed the most important task of his pontificate.