Anyone can claim to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary or Jesus, but even if lots of people believe it, that does not mean it gets the Roman Catholic Church’s seal of approval. And until a ruling is made, the Vatican does not want to encourage any confusion about the validity of the claim.
On Oct. 21, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio (papal representative) to the United States, sent a letter to Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, the general secretary of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at the request of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) at the Vatican.
It regards one Ivan Dragicevic, who was one of six children in the small town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina that said an apparition of the Virgin Mary visited them in 1981. The children, now adults, said the apparitions continued after that time, and the small town has become a popular site for pilgrims, who report supernatural occurrences and miraculous healings.
The original event and subsequent reports are still under investigation, and the Vatican has made no official ruling on their validity.
Dragicevic was set to make two personal appearances in late October–one in Danvers, Massachusetts, and the other in Greenville, Rhode Island–which were canceled within days after the letter was sent.
Regarding these appearances, the letter said:
His Excellency wishes to inform the Bishops that one of the so-called visionaries of Medjogorje [sic], Mr. Ivan Dragicevic, is scheduled to appear at certain parishes around the country, during which time he will make presentations regarding the phenomenon of Medjogorje. It is anticipated, moreover, that Mr. Dragicevic will be receiving ‘apparitions’ during these scheduled appearances.
And therein lies the problem.
Before the Vatican approves an apparition or a private revelation, it undergoes a lengthy probe to rule out fraud, trickery, error, mental or physical illness that impairs the judgment of the person reporting the vision, and so on. In the case of Medjugorje, that process is ongoing at the CDF.
Nevertheless, people connected to the site–including the self-proclaimed seers–vigorously promote it and claim further messages. According to an extensive Website devoted to Medjugorje, these have continued right up to Nov. 2.
As indicated in the letter, many attendees at Dragicevic’s lectures assume an apparition will appear on command.
So, the papal nuncio instructed the American bishops to consider the “credibility of the ‘apparitions'” in light of a 1991 declaration from the Bishops of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which said, “On the basis of the research that has been done, it is not possible to state that there were apparitions or supernatural revelations.”
The letter continues, “It follows, therefore, that clerics and the faithful are not permitted to participate in meetings, conferences or public celebrations during which the credibility of such ‘apparitions’ are taken for granted.”
The Church has accepted some personal revelations and public apparitions as credible, following the New Testament exhortation, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:19-21)
Some of the better-known public ones include Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico (1531); Our Lady of Lourdes in France (1852); Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal (1916-17); and the apparitions at Knock, Ireland (1879), which included visions of figures surmised to be Mary, Jesus and St. John the Evangelist, along with a lamb on an altar and angels.
Private revelations–distinguished from public revelations, which the Church holds ended with the death of the last Apostle–are, as the name indicates, an experience of only one person. They stretch from pronouncements by such early Church Fathers as Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, through Augustine and St. Patrick, to the much more recent Devotion of the Divine Mercy.
In the 1930s, Polish nun Sister Mary Faustina Kowalska (now St. Faustina, as of 2000) recorded a vision of Christ with white and red rays of light emanating from his chest, representing the blood and water that gushed out when the Roman soldier pierced him with a lance after the Crucifixion (indicating, if Faustina’s vision is correct, that the lance made it all the way to the heart). She also received several messages, which she recorded in her diary.
In one of them, Christ tells Faustina he wants the Sunday after Easter to be devoted to the Divine Mercy. Faustina recorded, “On one occasion, I heard these words: My daughter, tell the whole world about My Inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners.”
After accepting the revelation, the Church did just that.
On that day, in Catholic churches around the world, many of the faithful pray a devotion called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, based on Faustina’s vision, often using rosary-type beads. Below is a popular musical version that airs regularly on Catholic TV network EWTN.
The next Divine Mercy Sunday–April 27, 2014–is also the date set for the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
Even if the Church accepts some of these incidents and messages as “probable and worthy of pious credence,” anything after the death of the last Apostle does not–and cannot–add to or contradict the deposit of faith, so Catholics are not required to believe.
Or, as Pope Benedict XIV wrote, “it is possible to accept such revelations and to turn from them, as long as one does so with proper modesty, for good reasons, and without the intention of setting himself up as a superior.” (De Serv. Dei Beatif)
Of public apparitions and private revelations, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensis fidelum (the “sense of the faithful”) knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations.”
If the day comes that Medjugorje gets Church approval–which will ultimately be the pope’s decision–no Catholic must or should think it’s dogma or necessary to salvation.
As apologist Jimmy Akin puts it in his blog at the National Catholic Register, “Private apparitions can be helpful to our spiritual lives, but they must remain secondary. If the pope were to decide that Medjugorje is not authentic, that should not challenge our faith. If he were to decide that it is authentic, that should not challenge our faith, either.”
“Keeping our prime focus on the public revelation Christ has given us is what is most important. Having a healthy respect for the judgment of the Church on matters of private revelation is also important,” he wrote.