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By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

Rev. Thomas J. Reese S.J.
Senior fellow Woodstock Theological Center

Originally Published in the Washington Post

Thomas J. Reese(2/08) The Catholic Church approaches visionaries with a great deal of skepticism. Belief in visions or any post-apostolic revelations is not required of churchgoers. In most cases, the church actively discourages the faithful from getting involved in them.

Despite the official skepticism, there has always been a great deal of interest in alleged appearance of Jesus or Mary and in private revelations to visionaries. Some of them are fraudulent, many are delusional and a rare few may actually be legit.

For example, the "revelations" of Anne Catherine Emmerich, used by Mel Gibson in "The Passion of the Christ," were found to be "devout fiction or, to put it more harshly, as well-intentioned frauds" created by Clemens Brentano, a German Romantic poet. (See "A Movie, a Mystic, a Spiritual Tradition" by John OíMalley, S.J., America, March 15, 2004.) The revelations were not used by the church in judging her sanctity.

In examining private visions and revelations, the church asks a series of questions: Is it consistent with the Scriptures and church teaching? Does it lead people to true devotion and love? Does it unite people or is it divisive? Or as Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them." Those that foster hate and division are not of God. They can be very destructive.

J. F. Powers has a wonderful short story about the investigation of a woman in Wisconsin who claimed to have received a revelations from Mary. She has all the characteristics of a holy person except that the revelation is nuts.

Sadly many people are attracted to special revelations because they reinforce their own prejudices. For example, a pacifist priest I know became a believer in Maryís appearances at Medujorge because she appeared to reflect his pacifist views. Meanwhile, Fatima attracted those who wanted Communism struck down.

Others are attracted to visionaries because the "special" revelations make them feel special. Such gnosticism has always been a temptation for Christians who are not satisfied with what God gives to everyone.

My response to Catholics who are caught up in private revelations and apparitions is to ask them a series of questions.

  • "Do you believe the Bible is Godís revelation?" They of course have to say yes. Then I ask, "Have you read it?" Sadly, the answer is usually no. "Why are you chasing after questionable revelations when you have Godís Word sitting at home?"
     
  • "Do you believe that Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament?" Again, they have to say yes if they are Catholic. "Have you visited him recently?" Sadly again the answer is often no. "Why are you running around the country when you can visit Jesus in any Catholic church?"

Despite the skepticism with which we should approach private revelations, there is no question that many people can be led closer to God by them. No matter what you think of the appearance of Mary at Lourdes, there is no question that the sick are treated with love and compassion there. The fruits are rich.

Although false visionaries can be very dangerous, it is also possible for God to work through frauds and crazies. In The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett has a wonderful story about the builder of a cathedral who buys a fake statue that cries. He then stages a miracle in order to bring pilgrims and their money to the cathedral. In the middle of the chaos caused by the fake miracle, a real miracle occurs.

Thousands of people search for God in questionable places, but that does not mean that they do not find the God who wants to be found.

As editor of the Catholic weekly magazine "America" (www.americamagazine.org) Rev. Thomas J. Reese promoted discussion on current issues facing the Catholic Church and the world. The "On Faith" panelist is author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. He is frequently quoted as an expert on Catholic issues.

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