Today, I would like to spend some time deepening our understanding of what is referred to as “private revelation,” how it is authenticated, and how it can enhance our faith. Recognizing that God is not absent and that He can, and does, still communicate with His people, the Catholic Church maintains a unique openness to private revelation, which serves to draw our attention to supernatural realities. However, before we get too far, I want to explain “public revelation” briefly.

Public revelation refers to how God has made Himself known by deeds and words to His people throughout salvation history. It includes all of Scripture, but most fully in each of the Gospels, as God comes to live amongst us in human flesh to teach us His will for us. Jesus is the fullness of public revelation; as such, there will be no new public revelation until He comes again. The Catechism states, “Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for the Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries” (CCC 66). This means the Church is responsible for interpreting public revelation to develop doctrine guided by the Holy Spirit, passed on to us through the Magisterium. We are called to have faith and trust, even when we do not fully understand, and to give our assent to all Church teaching.

On the other hand, private revelation is when people receive supernatural communications from God, our Blessed Mother, saints, angels, or other supernatural origins. Private revelation draws our attention to particular truths of the Faith, but it never changes doctrine, and it’s always subordinate to public revelation. Still, it serves to shed light on things we need to pay attention to during specific times in history. “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” (CCC 67). Private revelation supplements public revelation by urging us to deepen our spiritual lives in one way or another.

Some examples include St. Faustina’s communications with Jesus in which he implores her to spread devotion to his Divine Mercy or Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three children in 1917 to urge the world to repent of their sins and convert their hearts, since many souls are headed toward an eternity in Hell, which wounds her Son’s heart. While the Protestant Reformation was taking place in 16th Century Europe, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico, where people were participating in the human-sacrificing Aztec religion. About nine million people converted to Catholicism within seven years of her appearance. There are many other examples, but these are a few to illustrate what we have available to us in our treasury. Because of the diversity of private revelations, we find that certain ones will attract people differently and will be reflected in an individual’s particular devotion to certain aspects of the Faith. It is important to note, however, that unlike public revelation, which requires our assent, private revelations do not, and we are free to accept or disregard any officially approved private revelation according to our personal faith journey. However, given that the goal of private revelation is to enhance our spiritual lives and relationship with God, it is good practice to adopt at least some of the messages and not outrightly reject them all.

Now, notice I said “officially approved” private revelation. While the Church is open to private revelation, she is also, thanks be to God, cautious and prudent in investigating the revelation before asking us to consider it. This means that just because a person claims to have received a message from heaven does not mean we have to accept that message, and we look to the Church to sort that out for us.

The process for evaluating a private revelation begins with the local bishop. After observation and consultation, if he discerns this is worth investigating, he will consult with the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which defines all the positive and negative criteria for deeming a private revelation genuine. They will assemble a commission comprised of lay and religious experts to investigate the revelation and determine its validity. The members can come from any relevant field, including medical, psychological, or theological, to ensure whether or not the experience can be explained by something other than the supernatural. The commission will also evaluate the message against existing doctrine because any message from God cannot contradict what has already been revealed through public revelation and expanded upon by the Church in doctrine. Finally, the commission will evaluate the fruits of the revelation because Jesus Himself said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them…” (Matthew 7:15-17). In other words, authentic supernatural revelation will inspire conversion and change in conduct amongst those who hear and believe the message. During an investigation, it is a good sign if people are led deeper into communion with God.

After the investigation, the commission has three possible conclusions. The first is to categorize the apparition or message as constat de supernaturalitate or conclusively determined to be of supernatural origin. This is a definitively positive conclusion. The second category is non constat de supernaturalitate, which states that the supernatural character of the revelation is neither conclusively confirmed nor condemned. The third possible conclusion is constat de non supernaturalitate, which says that the revelation has been determined to not be of supernatural origin, and the faithful are not permitted to express devotion to it or spread its message.

It is important to make a few clarifications on these three conclusions. There can be confusion between the second and third conclusions, given the placement of the word non. Remember that in the second type, the revelation has not been outrightly rejected, while in the third, it has. However, both conclusions may warrant further investigations. In the second category, those investigations will likely continue as the situation develops until a positive or negative determination is made. If the revelation is determined to not be of supernatural origin, the faithful are permitted to appeal to the bishop, who can discern whether to reopen an investigation. Once a positive conclusion that the revelation is authentic has been reached, it will not change status. It enters the Church’s treasury and is openly accessible to the faithful. However, the second two categories can, and often do, change status. Many of the beloved devotions that we take for granted today did not begin as clearly authentic. Ongoing revelations or human error can hinder investigations, requiring time for the complete truth to emerge. Rather than allowing it to frustrate us, we ought to be thankful for the rigorous process to ensure we are not being led astray. Instead, we can pray for clarity for those partaking in the investigations.

This week, reflect on the gift of private revelation. How has devotion to particular visions and messages enhanced your spiritual life? The Church offers countless messages of supernatural origin that can be of benefit, including from little-known sources. Consider exploring a Church-approved apparition with which you are unfamiliar in order to deepen your understanding of divine realities.

To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.