How does the Church approve an apparition?
Al Kresta writes that investigations are empirical, rational, moral, and theological . . .
When there is credible evidence of an apparition, the Church engages in empirical, rational, moral, and theological investigation. From the beginning, the Church assumed responsibility for investigating unusual supernatural phenomena.
The local bishop usually has the task of investigating allegedly supernatural claims, and his is normally the last word as far as the Church is concerned. While the pope can overturn the judgment, he is unlikely to do so unless there are some extenuating circumstances.
The bishop looks at three basic areas: the content of the message; the means by which the message was transmitted, such as trances, ecstasies, voices, visions, and so on; and the character of the spiritual fruit displayed in the life of those influenced by the message.
He might assemble a commission to investigate. He may close the apparition site for a while and call in experts in moral and dogmatic theology, forensic pathology, optics, photography, medicine, abnormal psychology, chemistry — even meteorology, if weather conditions significantly played into the claims. Can this phenomenon be explained away as natural or perhaps even diabolical?
The investigators interview the seers. Is there evidence of hallucination, grandiosity, schizophrenia, or self-delusion? Inquiries regarding the character of the visionaries are made among their friends, families, acquaintances, spiritual directors, and pastors — as well as those who have attended any public sessions where supernatural manifestations allegedly occurred. Devotion, however, is no guarantee that a revelation is authentic.
The investigators gauge the moral and spiritual impact on the seers and the proponents of the apparition. They pore over any alleged messages from Christ, Mary, or the saints to see whether these messages contradict Scripture or Sacred Tradition.
It’s important to keep special supernatural manifestations in perspective. Saint John of the Cross wryly observed, “One act done in charity is more precious in God’s sight than all the visions and communications possible — since they imply neither merit nor demerit — and many who have not received these experiences are incomparably more advanced than others who have had many.” Normally, the local bishop’s disapproval buries the claim. In the case of St. Joan of Arc, however, the bishop’s decision was reversed. The apparitions at Medjugorje (since 1981) have faced strong and repeated rejection by local bishops. Other prominent theologians and churchmen, however, have disputed the bishop’s judgment. A definitive decision in this case is probably far off.
After looking at all the facts, the bishop’s commission may conclude that these particular private revelations are “probable.” Usually that’s about as much “approval” as they will give. Nobody is required to believe these apparitions. The approval of a private revelation may simply be “negative” — that is, there is nothing against faith and morals in the revelation or the phenomena emanating from it. It is “worthy of belief” and people are free to believe it.
AL KRESTA is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. Reprinted with permission from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001.
The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 66, 67