Kevin Orlin Johnson
Author of Apparitions: Mystic Phenomena and What They Mean
Every day, it seems, the papers are splashed with another report of an angel appearing by a hospital bed, the Blessed Virgin’s image showing up in a window screen, or the face of Christ appearing on yet another tortilla. Many Catholics find these reports embarrassing. But then there are sites like Lourdes or
Fatima, places that nobody would have heard of except for the reports that Mary appeared there and conveyed messages of hope and repentance.
So, what’s the deal, when it comes to reported apparitions? Arguments break out; accusations and contradictions are slammed back and forth by both sides. There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings, no matter where you look or whom you listen to. Here are the top ten contenders.
1. People who believe that stuff are crazy.
Well, now, hang on a minute. "Apparition" just means that a heavenly being—Christ, Mary, another saint, or an angel—makes himself known to human senses. That being the case, pick up your Bible and check Genesis: The first apparitions were to Adam and Eve, when God walked with them in the cool of the garden. Then
have a look at Exodus, when God appeared to Moses and spoke to him in the burning bush. Carry it through to the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Resurrection. Look at the Apocalypse, in which John describes his vision of the whole heavenly Jerusalem.
The whole Bible is the transcript of one apparition after another. Every Mass includes Christ’s apparition among us—in the appearance of bread and wine. If it’s crazy to believe in apparitions, then every Jew and every Christian who ever lived would have to be crazy.
2. Real apparitions come only to exceptionally holy people.
You’d be surprised. Bernadette was a remarkably sweet-natured child before Mary appeared to her, and she got even better afterwards, but at the time she was totally ignorant of her catechism and not unusually pious. Melanie Matthieu, on the other hand, was practically a feral child before the apparition at La
Salette in 1848, and her teachers described her afterwards as a complete savage. She later became a vagrant, running all over Europe denouncing the Church for refusing to pay her saintly honors during her lifetime.
To take a middle case, Marie Lataste (1822–1847) started life as a remarkably obnoxious little girl in Dax, France, but then Christ started appearing to her almost routinely after her first Communion. Her vices disappeared, her virtues grew, and those around her felt an abiding sense of joy, just from her
presence, although she never went out of her way to impress them. (The surprising thing was that she wasn’t surprised at all of this; evidently she thought that’s the way religion works, and you have to admit she had a point. It just happened faster with her.) Anyway, it just goes to show you that God picks up his
tools as he will, and that he doesn’t always pick the sharpest knife in the drawer (Judg. 6:15, Matt. 9:9–13, Acts 9:1–4).
3. People claim to see apparitions just to get in the spotlight.
That one happens to be true. Not in all cases, though, but in most. Overwhelmingly, the two greatest causes of reports of apparitions are human fraud and human delusion; then, in terms of frequency, there are the diabolic high jinks that almost always help the frauds along. Least frequent of all is a genuine
outreach by God, either directly from Christ or through Mary, another saint, or an angel as an intermediary.
The genuine ones come, invariably, to people who didn’t want them before they happened, who later wish that they hadn’t had them, or who don’t want them at all, ever. The modesty of their conduct contrasts sharply with the posturings of the fakes and the deluded. Declining to pose as a divine messenger with more
authority than Christ, or even refusing to claim to speak for him, is really about the barest minimum of humility a person can have, yet the overwhelming majority of self-declared mystics trip over that very low threshold. The minute you see self-proclaimed visionaries giving interviews to the press, dashing off
reams of prophecies for all and sundry, asserting that they’ve seen Mary and that they have an urgent message that can save the world; the minute you see someone even permitting himself to be interviewed on such a matter; certainly as soon as you see a reported visionary routinely blessing people, "curing"
pilgrims, or even receiving pilgrims at all—you can safely assume that the person is a fraud or, if you want to be particularly charitable, that the person is deluded, genuinely believing that what he said he saw was real. Either way, it’s not worthy of your attention.
Here, as in so much else, John of the Cross is the best model. When dispatched to investigate a reported apparition, he walked cheerfully up to the woman and said, "Are you the lady to whom the Holy Spirit is appearing?" When she answered "Yes!," he bid her good day and reported to the bishop that the woman was
either a fraud or delusional. Credit-worthy visionaries speak of "the Lady" or "the person," but they don’t even claim that it was Mary or Christ.
4. You can tell if a reported apparition is real because miraculous things happen around it.
Miracles are distinct kinds of mystic phenomena, entirely separate from apparitions and not necessarily occurring anywhere near them. Incidentally, one thing that’s practically the hallmark of a false apparition is the report that a set of rosary beads has changed color.
5. I’ll see an apparition some day.
Not likely, this side of Armageddon. It’s an outreach by God, and you can’t compel God. Thinking that he owes an apparition to you, that you’ve earned it, or even that you deserve it, is pride—a cardinal vice that puts a stop to even the possibility, not to mention to further personal growth. "I consider it
certain," Teresa of Avila said, "that spiritual persons who think that they deserve these delights of spirit for the many years that they have practiced prayer will not ascend to the summit of the spiritual life," which is in line with Matthew 12:39 and 23:12 and everything else that the Church teaches. John of the
Cross attributed the taste for these experiences to a "spiritual sweet tooth," a matter of unwholesome greed. It makes a person an enemy of Christ, he said. Or, as Bernard put it, a soul striving toward union with God "will be far from content that her Bridegroom should manifest himself to her in the common manner,
that is, by . . . dreams and visions."
The best advice? Stick to the sacraments and the normal spiritual discipline of the Church. Remember what Th