Private Revelation in the Catholic Church
The need for revelation is sometimes questioned. After all, Saint Paul teaches us that God’s “invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).
Similarly, the church teaches that God “…can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason,” (CCC 36). Unfortunately, in the course of history our personal circumstances, attachments, and appetites often obscure the truth (CCC 37).
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God provides revelation for two reasons. First, God provides revelation to illuminate truths that we can know by reason alone but often only with some degree of error. Secondly, God provides revelation to illuminate truths which go beyond the natural light of reason (Summa Theologica 1-1 q1 a1). In other words, God provides revelation so that the truth “….can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error,” (CCC 38).
Forms of Revelation
The two types of revelation the Church recognizes are public and private revelation. “The term ‘public Revelation’ refers to the revealing action of God directed to humanity as a whole and which finds its literary expression in the two parts of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments,” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "The message of Fatima", 2000). Public revelation is given for the direction of the church as a whole.
On the other hand, God continues to reveal himself to individuals “not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II q174 a6 reply 3). This is private revelation, a supernatural gift from God to an individual for the benefit of their soul and it is often beneficial to other souls.
Private Revelation in the Public Eye
Sometimes, private revelation takes on a public character. The 2004 blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ depicts the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John. Director Mel Gibson also drew inspiration from the writings of Venerable Mary of Agreda and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. Anne Catherine Emmerich was an Augustinian nun born in 1774 in Germany. The most famous of her writings is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which describes her visions concerning the sufferings of Jesus. She also bore the wounds of Christ with the stigmata. Nearly 70 years after her death, her cause for beatification was opened. Later Anne Catherine Emmerich was declared Venerable, meaning she lived a life of heroic virtue. In 1928, her cause for canonization was suspended because it was suspected her secretary fabricated writings attributed to her. Her cause has since been opened solely on the basis of her life (L'Osservatore Romano N. 29, 16 July 2003, 2). In 2003, a decree of a miracle was declared by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, opening the way for her Beatification in 2004.1
The question of fabricated writings helps illustrate why we must not place private revelations above the Scripture and Tradition. Believing in a specific private revelation is not necessary for salvation, although the content of the private revelation may agree with what is needed for salvation as revealed through Scripture and Tradition. “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 in Our Spiritual Lives
Still, private revelations can provide great benefit to those in the church. For example, our family has a strong devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, introduced by Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (commonly referred to as St. Faustina). St. Faustina was a young, uneducated nun in Poland in the 1930s who received extraordinary visions from Jesus Christ. Per Jesus’ request, she wrote down these visions in notebooks. Following her death, her notebooks were published as the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. While the message of Divine Mercy was not new to the teachings of the Church, her writings did spark a great movement with a significant focus on the mercy of Christ. Through Saint Faustina, Jesus also revealed special ways to live out the response to His mercy. This includes the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
Each night before bed, my husband, two-year-old son and I pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, offering it up for our specific intentions. Our two-year-old son’s involvement includes passing out the rosaries and helping to voice our petitions.
My husband and I each had a devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy before we met. When we started dating six years ago, we began to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together each night. Praying this devotion together has been a great asset to our spiritual life, and we frequently encourage family and friends to join us in praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
St. Faustina's Diary, however, is an exception to a general rule. Many private revelations will never receive official approval from the Holy See. Catholics must discern for themselves whether they are credible and can add to the person’s own individual spirituality. It is helpful to weigh the person’s reputation for sanctity; the person’s spiritual director’s witness; and the judgment of the bishop in the person’s diocese. While a bishop is not infallible in his judgment, he is the authentic teacher of the faithful entrusted to his care. The faithful must adhere to the authentic magisterium of their bishops, even if the faithful does not agree with the decision (Canon 753). No private revelation has the power to supersede the public teaching of the church. Still, while private revelations and particular devotions are not essential to our salvation and our faith journey, they can be a great source of illumination to our Catholic faith, so long as they in no way violate Church teaching.