St. Ignatius Lolya by Francisco Zurbaran
I recently came across some material on a contemporary visionary whose messages concerning the mark/number of the Beast has an interesting correlation with some of my own conclusions on this subject. I don't really like putting too much emphasis on contemporary seers, given the difficulties this can involve - so thought it would be useful beforehand to look at how the Church handles such matters before posting on any more subjects that require discernment.
Some people can place too much trust in individuals who in many cases turn out to be fakes intent on nothing else than generating fame and money for themselves. And it just so happens that one of the easiest ways to do this is by feigning to be blessed with heavenly apparitions. Sometimes this can lead to the development of schismatic sub-sects - we need only look to the sedevacantist "seer" Veronica Lueken and the Bayside "apparitions" for an example of this phenomenon. In some cases, the seers themselves may even be genuine in the fact that they are witnessing some form of visions or apparitions, but in reality they are actually inflicted with visions of diabolical rather than heavenly origin. The Apostle Paul warns of such deception:
"...I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough..."
"...what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
(2Cor 11:3-4; 12-14)
Sulpicius Severus tells us that St. Martin of Tours (316-397) was subjected to an apparition of the Devil masquerading as Christ:
For, on a certain day, prayer having been previously offered, and the fiend himself being surrounded by a purple light, in order that he might the more easily deceive people by the brilliance of the splendor assumed, clothed also in a royal robe, and with a crown of precious stones and gold encircling his head, his shoes too being inlaid with gold, while he presented a tranquil countenance, and a generally rejoicing aspect, so that no such thought as that he was the devil might be entertained--he stood by the side of Martin as he was praying in his cell. The saint being dazzled by his first appearance, both preserved a long and deep silence. This was first broken by the devil, who said: "Acknowledge, Martin, who it is that you behold. I am Christ; and being just about to descend to earth, I wished first to manifest myself to thee." When Martin kept silence on hearing these words, and gave no answer whatever, the devil dared to repeat his audacious declaration: "Martin, why do you hesitate to believe, when you see? I am Christ." Then Martin, the Spirit revealing the truth to him, that he might understand it was the devil, and not God, replied as follows: "The Lord Jesus did not predict that he would come clothed in purple, and with a glittering crown upon his head. I will not believe that Christ has come, unless he appears with that appearance and form in which he suffered, and openly displaying the marks of his wounds upon the cross." On hearing these words, the devil vanished like smoke, and filled the cell with such a disgusting smell, that he left unmistakable evidences of his real character. (Sulpicius Severus Life of St. Martin XXIV. See here for the full text)
For these reasons, the Church is extremely reticent about offering approval to claims of apparitions. A long period of investigation is often required to ascertain the truth and origins of such claims, and in a great deal of cases full approval is only granted during the process of beatification of individual visionaries. Sometimes Church approval occurs relatively swiftly, as at Lourdes, La Salette and Fatima, and more recently Akita and Kibeho.
Others cases are more difficult to establish, such as those of Medjugorje - which is one of the most heavily scrutinised Marian apparitions in history. The local bishops of Mostar have viewed the claims of the visionaries at Medjugorje with a hefty dose of scepticism. There are also a lot of highly critical websites currently on this subject, such as Richard Salbo's Unity Publishing, as well as a meticulously researched book by Donal Anthony Foley titled Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? Here some of the many contradictions concerning the statements of the seers are highlighted, as well as the controversies that has surrounded some of the key players within the Medjugorje movement, such as the laicization of Br Jozo Zovko by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. The seers themselves have also been subject to criticism for seemingly profiteering from the vast amounts of pilgrims that pass through the small mountain village, and for the fact that there has been no uptake of religious vocations from among the visionaries.
On the flip side however, Medjugorje has many influential and high ranking supporters within the Church hierarchy, such as Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, and it is also often claimed that Pope John Paul II personally believed these apparitions to be genuine (although we should be aware that papal infallibility does not extend to the personal beliefs of incumbent pontiffs, and only applies to official pronouncements made ex cathedra). We also have the testimonies of some prominent, level-headed Catholic members of the clergy, such as Fr Dwight Longenecker, concerning the various miraculous solar phenomena that has been witnessed at Medjugorje (see here).
As well as the various miracles reported here, supporters point to the many fruits that have been wrought by Medjugorje (conversions etc.). The various contradictions could also be put down to simple human error, as often can be the case in even genuine private revelations - a fact which is affirmed by the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross on mysticism. St. John of the Cross sums this point up in his monumental work The Ascent of Mt. Carmel:
For two reasons we have said that, although visions and locutions which come from God are true, and in themselves are always certain, they are not always so with respect to ourselves. One reason is the defective way in which we understand them; and the other, the variety of their causes. In the first place, it is clear that they are not always as they seem, nor do they turn out as they appear to our manner of thinking. The reason for this is that, since God is vast and boundless, He is wont, in His prophecies, locutions and revelations, to employ ways, concepts and methods of seeing things which differ greatly from such purpose and method as can normally be understood by ourselves; and these are the truer and the more certain the less they seem so to us. This we constantly see in the Scriptures. To many of the ancients many prophecies and locutions of God came not to pass as they expected, because they understood them after their own manner, in the wrong way, and quite literally. (St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book II, chapter XIX. The full text is available online here)
So whatever the case, there is definitely something going on at Medjugorje, and whether it is of heavenly or diabolic origin can only be determined by the International Commission established by the Vatican in 2010 in order to fully investigate this phenomenon. The optimist in me wants to believe in these apparitions, but the various criticisms of Medjugorje do highlight some very serious concerns which urges caution. At the end of the day though, I simply do not know enough about the inner workings of this phenomenon to form a definite opinion - I think it would take to have a seat on the commission to be fully informed of all the facts in relation to this issue.
Could the apparent failings of the seers themselves just be put down to human frailty? That Our Lady chose to appear to sinners without the level of heroic virtue required for sainthood? Heavenly apparitions can certainly appear to sinners, we need only think of Saul on the road to Damascus, or the apparition of Our Lady to Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne (see here). But then again, even saints can be inflicted with demonic apparitions. Diabolical apparitions often manifest themselves at the highest level of mysticism, where the seer acts as an otherworldly conduit. Demons have appeared to numerous saints with the intent on deceit or distraction, such as St. Martin of Tours mentioned above, and also to others such as St. Anthony the Hermit, St. John Vianney or St. Pio of Pietrelcina. And recognising them as being of demonic rather than angelic origin can sometimes be difficult for even the holiest of saints. St. Igantius Lolya, the founder of the Society of Jesus developed an entire system devoted to discerning the true source of such mystical inspirations in his Spiritual Exercises. So theoretically, the apparitions at Medjugorje could be of a demonic source, with the seers being subject to delusion.
We will only know for certain at the outcome of the International Commission spearheaded by Cardinal Ruini, which Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo has recently announced is due to be published by the end of this year (see here). We can be sure that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church to the truth on this matter. If the commission comes back with a negative verdict, and there is an exodus from the Church as a result (given that many people have threatened to leave if a negative decision is given), then we could only be left with the conclusion that the seers have been deceived by the Devil - who wishes to sow the seeds of division. Belief in private revelations is not a necessary part of the Faith, and we are not required to believe in even the Church approved apparitions. If they lead us away from the unity of the faith, then they are surely not from heaven.
But we should not automatically dismiss apparition claims either, as St. Paul states:
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
For those apparitions which still have not been granted official recognition by the Church, we are left to use our own discernment. We are certainly not forbidden from showing interest in someone who claims to be experiencing heavenly apparitions which have not yet gained Church approval - even Fatima took years to be deemed "worthy of belief". For such claims which have yet to be approved we are warned to approach with caution, first making sure that the messages concerned do not conflict with Catholic ethics or theology, and secondly being sure that they are emanate from a credible source. Cardinal Ratzinger outlines the intiail steps in the discernment process in his rather excellent Theological Commentary in The Message of Fatima document:
The Flemish theologian E. Dhanis, an eminent scholar in this field, states succinctly that ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation has three elements: the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals; it is lawful to make it public; and the faithful are authorized to accept it with prudence.
As long as any alleged apparitions meets these initial criteria, his would make them at least worthy of careful study. But it would be a grave mistake to blindly follow every alleged seer that claimed to experience heavenly apparitions. And we should be careful not to attach too much importance to even those private relations that have been approved by the Church, treating them as if they were Scripture. By doing so we could fall into the trap of the ancient heresy of Montanism, which threatens to usurp the two principle sources of Church authority - Scripture and Tradition. Christ Himself bestowed the Petrine office upon the Church to ensure unity in a single source of authority.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep."
...I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
To deny that Jesus intended to establish a sole line of succession in appointing Peter as the leader of the apostles is to deny the prophetic foresight of God Himself. Jesus knew full well the implications of these words, and how they would be interpreted by the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived - those who adhere to the unity of the Catholic faith in the office of Peter. Without this Divine commission of a single point of authority the Church would have disintegrated in its infancy, splintering into myriad rivalling factions - each contradicting one other, rendering each of them neutral - just as has happened within Protestantism since the Reformation. By appointing Peter as his successor in authority on earth, who Jesus knew in turn would be replaced with another "Peter" in a single line of apostolic succession, guided by the Holy Spirit, Christ ensured that the Church would only ever have one leader to guarantee purity of doctrine - no rivals, no factions.
For this reason, the Church tends to be extremely careful about granting too much attention to individuals who receive private revelations, since the temptation is ever present to follow those who appear to have a "direct line to heaven", bypassing the authority of the Petrine office - which is grounded in reason and the guidance of the Spirit of God. And the Devil is aware of this innate human inclination only too well, and focuses his energies on corrupting those with mystical charisms, knowing that by doing so will he can lead many astray - this is spiritual warfare of the very highest order.
With these insights it is possible to see the importance of discerning private revelations, or investing too much of our emotions, trust and devotion in individuals who appear to be blessed with heavenly messages. Our faith should be grounded solely in Scripture and Tradition, and all else should be considered an interesting aid to illuminating our beliefs - if not then they should be discarded. In this respect it is worth once again repeating the words of St. Paul: "test everything; hold fast what is good"... Cardinal Ratzinger cuts straight to the point in this regard:
The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation is therefore its orientation to Christ himself. When it leads us away from him, when it becomes independent of him or even presents itself as another and better plan of salvation, more important than the Gospel, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it.
(The Message of Fatima)