"Can Anything that God Reveals Be Insignificant?" Karl Rahner

Towards a Positive Theology of Private Revelation

By Robert Wild
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The main purpose of this article is to help remove any theological difficulties people may have towards authentic private revelations (PR). (Actually I prefer the term "personal revelation" because, as we shall see, Rahner says authentic revelations are for the whole Church, and the term "private" does not do justice to the Lord's universal intention.)My approach will be to present the insights of some prominent theologians which point in the direction of a positive theology of PR.

I will not be going into the countless rules for discerning PR which can be found in classics such as Poulain's The Graces of the Interior Life, or, more recently, Benedict Groeschel's Still, Small Voice, (Ignatius Press). Nor do I ever mean to even faintly suggest that these guidelines, which are the fruit of the Church's wisdom over the centuries, are not to be used in discerning all PR. But in this article I am not so much concerned with the criteria for judging PR as with an attempt to present a more positive theology of authentic PR.

What I wish to change your thinking about - if it needs changing - is a mindset that goes something like this: "PR can happen, of course, and so and so may really have had a PR. But I don't have to believe in them. They are not my cup of tea. I can't relate to them. They are too `iffy,' too questionable for me to take seriously.I believe in Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe - but even these are optional: I don't have to accept them. I accept a few others, but most of the supposedly mystical locutions and prophecies we hear about today, well, I can do without them. If other people find them helpful, okay, but I'm not obliged to believe in them. I'll stick to the teachings of the Church, of the fathers and theologians, and the scriptures. We have all we need there."

My own attitude was much more open than the above (which is not a caricature but the mentality of probably the majority of Catholics.), but then, I read something, and a huge change occurred in even my more open thinking.

My Own Seismographic Shift
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Every once in a while you read something, or hear something, that effects a kind of paradigmatic, seismological shift in your mind. It does not merely add a new piece of information to a present body of knowledge: it raises a particular cluster of ideas to an altogether new level of significance. This has happened to me recently in the area of PR, and I want to try and briefly describe it.

Actually, several articles were involved in my shift, but the most paradigmatic was one by Karl Rahner [1] which, I believe, has enormous importance and consequences for the whole understanding of PR within the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger[2] will also provides important insights. Added to these two outstanding theologians is a remarkable pastoral letter by the Korean Bishop Paul Kim [3] who, for the first time (at least for me), put the abundance of reported PR in our times in the context of the New Pentecost of Vatican II.

Not everyone has access to the above articles I will be quoting. (I have rarely seen Rahner's insights used in articles or books on PR. Groeschel, quotes from Rahner's article on PR in Sacramentum Mundi, but doesn't seem to be aware of the earlier article I am referring to.)I'd like to perform the service of digestingthe reflections contained in the above mentioned articles, while adding some comments of my own.

Before I come to the "seismological insights" which Rahner caused in me, let me state what has been my own general approach to PR.

Catholics believe that we receive our ordinary teaching about the faith from the Magisterium of the Church, from tradition, from theologians, from the Holy Spirit working by grace through our prayer life, through the scriptures, through our spiritual reading, to mention the main sources. These are our ordinary channels of instruction and guidance, the normal avenues for the deepening of our understanding of the faith.

But then we also believe, as part of our Catholic tradition, that there are extraordinary messages from God.

Raised as a Catholic, PR has been part of my spiritual life for as long as I can remember. The First Friday devotions, originating with the revelations to St. Margaret Mary, were part of my Catholic life. So, whenever I first hear of a new PR, I don't have any problem with thepossibility of it being truly supernatural. But before I investigate it for myself, I may remain skeptical about it; but further study can convince me of its authenticity.

If you mentioned the word "private revelation" to a fairly well-informed, open-minded Catholic, he or she would know what you meant. A "private revelation" is something out of the ordinary: somebody has seen the Virgin, Our Lord, an angel, or one of the saints; somebody has received locutions or messages from them.Once in while God can use "extraordinary means," a "private revelation," to communicate with us: Our Lady can appear at Fatima, or the Sacred Heart can appear to St. Margaret Mary, Our Lord to St. Faustina. These PR are also part of our Catholic understanding of God's ways with us.But they are extraordinary.

The Normal Catholic Theological Positions
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The following theological criteria, which I personally used in the past in regards to PR, would also still be the general attitude of most informed Catholics. They would include the following:

1) PR are part of the life of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with various manifestations of the Lord and angels appearing to people and speaking to them.These phenomena did not stop with the apostolic age. In the words of Rahner:

"If there were such phenomena at the establishment of the Old Testament revelation and of the Christian revelation, then the possibility of similar manifestations occurring in subsequent history cannot be denied a priori. It is certain de fide that there have been genuine revelations and prophecies in former times, especially under the written law. The same is true under the law of grace. To deny that there have been genuine revelations and prophecies since the time of the primitive Church would not be heretical but would be a least temerarious and impious' (John of the Holy Ghost)." KR 16

2) There are no new revelations, since revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. From The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father's one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one. The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. As John of the Cross says, 'Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty'." (Nos. 65-66)

3) These revelations are "private," which distinguishes them from the "public revelation" of the Church contained in Scripture and tradition.

To elaborate on what I mentioned at the very beginning: Rahner thinks the word "private" is a misnomer. For too many people, it means that you don't really have to believe in them since they were given to an individual, privately, and therefore were not meant for the whole Church; certainly they don't oblige the whole Church:

"Many Christian prophets, like Catherine of Sienna, Brigid of Sweden and Faustina Kowalska attribute their prophetic discourses to revelations of Christ. These revelations are often defined by theology as private revelations. But the concept appears to be very reductive because the prophecy is always for the whole Church and is never purely private." (KR)

4) PR can only be believed with a kind of "natural faith," based on human criteria of judgment. We believe the truths of our faith contained in public revelation by "supernatural faith," given to us in Baptism. ( Rahner will make an important distinction between supernatural faith and Catholic faith. We adhere to PR with supernatural, but not Catholic, faith.)

5) PR are optional. One can believe in them or not, even if the Church has approved them (although not accepting them in the latter case would not show much trust in the Church's guidance.).

6) PR are on the fringes of the Church's life. We have all we need without them.

I believe this list is the ordinary Catholic's approach to PR.

Pastorally, as a priest, my personal approach to PR has been:

1) Make a study of the private revelations people are reading so as to be able to help them in their own discernment;

2) if my "natural faith" is satisfied after study, I use them myself for spiritual food; and I often use their content without mentioning their origin;

3) if the Church has no serious objections, I make people aware of them in a private manner, but never mention them from the pulpit as they are "private" and not the teaching of the Church.           

The main insights of Rahner, to be discussed shortly, have significantly altered for me almost all of these traditional guidelines. His more positive approach to PR, if accepted by the Church, has enormous implications.

The Nature of Private Revelations Treated Here
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I will be speaking here of authentic visions and prophecies which have passed the many tests of discernment offered in books such as the ones mentioned above. I will presume, then, in the reader's mind, that when I use the term PR I am referring to revelations which either have the explicit approval of the Church (Fatima), or have received a favorable judgment from many competent theologians in the Church (Ex. Vassula). I will be speaking of genuine prophecies which are "supernatural revelations of which God himself is the immediate cause. A Christian who seriously believes the testimony of Scripture cannot doubt that such revelations are possible." KR

As mentioned above, it is not my purpose here to enter into the discussion of what constitutes genuine prophecies. One of Rahner's main criticisms is that too much theological reflection about PR is confined to how to discern them. This is necessary but very inadequate. His main intent is to offer theological directions for a more positive approach to PR, namely: What is the Lord's intent in giving such PR to his Church?I simply state here that it is the teaching of the Church that miraculous occurrences (such as apparitions, locutions, etc.) are part of the Scriptural witness, that they have occurred throughout Church history, and that they can occur at any time. Otherwise the freedom of God is compromised.

The following distinction made by Rahner will be helpful for our discussion:

"From the history of religion we shall borrow the rather problematic distinction between the (purely) mystical vision and the prophetic (as well.) (By 'vision' we mean of course all those extraordinary occurrences of divine origin which form our present subject matter.) We call mystical those visions the object and content of which solely concern the personal religious life and perfection of the visionary. Prophetic visions are those which in addition induce or commission the visionary to address his environment and ultimately the Church with a message, instructing, warning, requiring something, or foretelling the future." KR

Fr. Ivan Dugandzic, OFM, has worked closely with the events of Medjugoorje. He offers these penetrating comments on the above Rahnerian distinction:

"In regard to their purpose, theology divides visions into the mystical and the prophetic. The former exclusively refer to a particular person and his personal spiritual growth as was the case with so many mystics in the Church. Naturally, it does not exclude a particular aspect of publicity which such visions will obtain with the possible later public veneration of these mystics should they be elevated to the degree of being blessed or being canonized. In that sense we could also take strictly private visions as a charism in the broader sense." [4]

My comment: If someone is canonized, his or her locutions will also become known; but this fact alone would not make them prophetic in the sense now to be elaborated upon by Fr. Ivan:

In contrast to this, the prophetic visions have a public character right from the beginning. They are a gift or a charism to the individual or several individuals for the benefit of the whole Church. It is required of the visionary to address his milieu and the entire Church with the message received. Gemma Galgani is taken as a typical example of the former [mystical] type of vision, and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque of the latter.

Observed from the point of view of the visionary's experience, the mystical vision is always more intense and more strongly influences the changing of the visionary's personal life than is the case with the prophetic vision. That is understandable also because it is persons who have ordinarily already achieved an enviable degree of holiness that have mystical visions, while the bearers of prophetic visions are most frequently ordinary believers chosen entirely 'by accident' and, in most cases, are children not yet fully mature for deeper mystical experiences. This is why such visions do not that strongly influence the person of the visionary, who changes personally much slower in regard to the maturity and the holiness of his personal life.

Comment: mystical visions certainly apply to someone like Theresa of Avila, who was already in the unitive way after a long life of meditation, practice of the virtues, and apostolic endeavors. Her mystical graces were intended to complete her path of holiness. She was able to "endure" their intensity because her prior holiness of life had prepared her for deeper touches of the Holy Spirit.

Continuing to speak of the prophetic charism, Fr. Ivan says:

"Since, in the first place, one is dealing with a [prophetic] charism for the sake of others, the visionary always needs somebody who is better acquainted than himself with the mysteries of the spiritual life, and who will direct him. Otherwise there is danger of discrepancy between the role entrusted to him and the holiness of his personal life. Due to the circumstances that these visionaries most frequently are children, their visions are of a physical-objective character, for which reason they are ordinarily called three-dimensional. (The experience of the mystics are exclusively imaginative, that is, internal mental states.) Thus, prophetic visions remain more on the surface and never effect a quick and rapid change of the visionary as a consequence. But the significance of the [prophetic] vision is in the slow change of the believers for whom the message is intended."

Comment: I don't see why mystical visions cannot also be "physical-objective," if God so chooses.

I believe that much of our too negative attitude towards PR comes from applying St. John of the Cross's criteria to prophetic visions. It is crucial to remember that he is speaking mostly about rules for mystical locutions, giving cautions for those who have attained a certain degree of Christian perfection. He is trying to steer them to a life of pure faith, and to help them avoid spiritual pitfalls.

Isn't it true, however, as Fr. Ivan says, that often very many of the prophetic locutions which the Lord or Our Lady intend for the whole Church are given to mere children, to mothers and fathers, to ordinary people who are by no means in the unitive way of Christian growth when they begin receiving them? (Vassula, who as an adult who was in no way even seeking the Lord, is a prime modern example of this. We shall consider her later, ) Since John of the Cross, we have been applying his strict rules for perfection in the unitive way to children and ordinary people whom the Lord has chosen for prophetic messages for his whole Church. (Would Saul, who was in a state of hatred and frenzy, have passed the tests outlined by Poulain!)

Prophetic visions, in the above sense, contain the element of mission which is greatly emphasized in the teaching of the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, who so influenced Hans Urs von Balthasar. Her book on the prophets is called The Mission of the Prophets. A number of the Old Testament prophets were simply living their ordinary lives, minding their own business - or minding their sheep - when the Lord invaded their peaceful lives and sent them on prophetic missions. They were not particularly pleased with the intrusion, and were certainly not in the unitive way!

Rahner mentions that we don't really have much of a positive theology of PR, which he speaks of in terms of the charism of prophecy which continues in the history of the Church.. We have an enormous amount of theology on prophecy andprophets in the Old Testament, and some on the prophetic gifts in the New Testament. But there is very little on the continuation of this gift throughout the history of the Church, even though PR have always been part of the life of the Church.

If you read the normal article or book about PR, it will mostly deal with criteria for judging their validity: the psychological/moral state of the seer; who has the right to make a decision about them; what should be the prudent attitude of spiritual directors, and so on. In other words, it's a kind of negative theology. Here is how Rahner puts it:

"Ordinarily, when one talks of these revelations in Catholic milieus, only their psychological aspect is fastened upon, or the problem of the criteria of authenticity and the truth of their content. No one would dream of fighting with the legitimacy of these considerations or even calling them into doubt. We believe, however, that such a study stops short at only one aspect of the problem. It should be completed by a theological study." KR

Niels Christian Hvidt, a rising young theologian from Copenhagen, did his theological thesis on Christian prophecy in 1994. (I've already cited his interview with Cardinal Ratzinger on this subject.) Hvidt introduces the interview with this reflection:

"To most theologians, the word 'prophecy' suggests the prophets of the Old Testament, John the Baptist or the prophetic dimension of the Magisterium. The theme of prophets is only rarely addressed in the Church. And yet the history of the Church is packed with prophetic figures, many of whom were not canonized until later, though during their lives they had transmitted the Word, not as their own but as the Word of God. There has never been any systematic reflection on the particularity of the prophets, on what distinguishes them from the representatives of the institutional Church, and how the word revealed by them is related to the Word revealed in Christ transmitted to us by the apostles. No theology of Christian prophecy proper has ever been effectively developed."

Private (Personal) Revelation Requires a Positive Theology 
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I will simply now present a few more of Rahner's (and Cardinal Ratzinger's) main ideas on this topic which could form a basis for an extensive positive theology of PR.

In speaking of the general traditional theology of PR, Rahner says it was both too negative and too affirmative. Too negative:

"Because when one takes as a point of departure the fact that 'public' revelation is closed, revelations called 'private' are only defined then negatively. Consequently it is difficult to develop a strictly theological theory of their meaning. It could be said - with a little exaggeration, perhaps - that the history of mystical theology is a history of a'devaluing' of prophetism and of putting the value on infused contemplation.

"The rudiments which Scripture provides for a theology of the prophetic element in the Church, and for the Church, are not properly developed. Indeed, it can be said with but little exaggeration that the history of mystical theology is a history of the theological devaluation of the prophetic element in favor of non-prophetic 'pure,' infused contemplation. People are (and with some reason, in view of practical experience) more suspicious of prophetic mysticism, which invokes revelations and instructions from above to claim a mission and right in the Church to admonish and guide the Church and her members, than of the image-free, ineffable mysticism of pure contemplation."

When Ratzinger was asked about this comment by Rahner, he said:

"Authentically Christian mysticism also has a missionary dimension. It does not seek to elevate the individual but confers a task upon him, putting him in contact in the Spirit with the Word, with Christ, with the Logos. This point is strongly emphasized by Thomas Aquinas. Before Thomas it was said: monk first and then mystic, or priest first and then theologian. Thomas does not accept this because the mystical mandate is fulfilled in mission. And mission is not the lowest rung of life as, by contrast, Aristotle thought. He believed intellectual contemplation to be the highest rung of life which, therefore, knows no further mission. This is not a Christian concept, Thomas says, because the most perfect form of life is the mixed kind, that is, mysticism and mission in the service of the Gospel." JR

What they are referring to here is the controversy about pure prayer. In another place ( I lost the reference!) Rahner points out that one Christian theory of prayer is built (erroneously) on the Greek hierarchy of knowledge: the less mixed with images and thoughts, the purer is the prayer. (In the Christian sense, the purity of prayer depends on the purity of the heart.)John of the Cross, of course, would see purity of heart as the determining factor. But a trend of Christian theology is tainted with this above-mentioned Greek hierarchy. Thus, PR with its visions and apparitions, dreams and locutions, is more suspect, and even to be avoided, if one is seeking purity of heart.

On the other hand, Rahner says traditional theology has been too affirmative, that is, (if I understand him correctly) treating PR in a too dogmatic, black and white, fashion, with sometimes rigid distinctions between private and public revelation, between divine faith and human faith, between what is optional and what is demanded of faith:

"First of all, [traditional theology] does not see with sufficient clarity and depth the fundamental difference between revelations anterior to Christ and those which are posterior to him. It only applies to them the general theory of revelation such as developed by fundamental theology.

"Secondly, it treats revelations in general with the restriction - purely intrinsic - that private revelation has no character of universal obligation which the recipient was transmitting to all."

As you can see, at the heart of one aspect of this discussion is the nature of revelation. If revelation has ended "with the death of the last apostle," then we have everything we need. There is no obligation, either, for believing in "new revelations." Vatican II expressed it this way: "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away: and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Dei Verbum 4). This is the aspect of the Church's teaching that has been emphasized.

What has been less emphasized is the teaching contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Yet, even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries." (No.66)

What Rahner and Ratzinger are arguing for is this: the gift of prophecy is one of the ways in which this making explicit of the contents of Revelation has taken place, and continues to take place. And this gift of prophecy after Christ unfolds the depths of the faith in a supernatural way. If this is so, how can it be optional? As Rahner so poignantly puts it: "Would God reveal anything that is insignificant? "

The Nature of Revelation
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Hvidt quotes Ratzinger from a number of the latter's works. I will spare the reader the references. The quotes are either Hvidt's summaries of Ratzinger (H), or quotes from Ratzinger himself (JR) taken from a variety of his writings.

"Ratzinger found that in Bonaventura the Revelation refers to the action of God in history in which the truth is gradually unveiled. The Revelation is the continuous growth of the Church in the fullness of the Logos." (H) "The Word (Christ) is always greater than any other word, and no other word could ever fully express it. Indeed, words partake of the inexhaustible fullness of the Word. For the Word, they open up and therefore grow in the encounter with every generation." (JR) "The prophet is someone who tells the truth on the strength of his contact with God." (JR)"Moses' particularity lay in the fact that he spoke with God as with a friend. I tend to see the node or the root of the prophetic element in that 'face to face' with God, in 'talking with Him as with a friend.'" (JR) "Christ is the definitive and true Moses who really does live 'face to face' with God as Son. This means that prophecy is also radically present in the New Testament. If Christ is the definitive prophet because he is the Son, then the Christological-prophetic dimension also enters into the New Testament because of the communion with the Son." (JR)

Death of the Last Apostle
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Dei Vebumfrom Vatican II puts the Church's basic teaching this way: "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definite covenant, will never pass away and so no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Hvidt poses the question to Ratzinger: "Doesn't the death of the last apostle put a definitive stop to further prophetic claims, excluding any such possibility?"Ratzinger responds that this thesis harbors several misunderstandings. (I give the one most relevant to our discussion):

"[One] misunderstanding is the reductive intellectual-type of conception of the Revelation, seen as a treasure of pieces of knowledge transmitted, to which nothing more can be added, totally complete. [However] the authentic event of the Revelation consists in the fact that we are introduced to this 'face to face' with God. The Revelation is essentially God who gives himself to us, who constructs history with us and who reunites us gathering us all together."

Revelation is not a list of propositions. Of course it contains truths about the economy of salvation, and no new revelation can contradict these truths. But revelation is essentially the gift of God himself who, in continued conversation with us, expounds the core of the revelation. Thus there is a true growth. Again, Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council:

"The Tradition that comes from the Apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder on these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realties which they experience. (Italics added) And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her." (No.8)

I call special attention to the phrase,"it comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realties which they experience." Surely this includes the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as prophecy which enables God's people to experience spiritual realities and become living instruments of this growth in understanding the Tradition.

Ratzinger said that"the authentic event of the Revelation consists in the fact that we are introduced to this 'face to face' with God." Dei Verbum states: "Thus God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church - and through her in the world - leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of God dwell in them in all its richness." (No.8)

We are really dealing with the question of what happens to the content of revelation in the time of the Church when the apostolic epoch ended. Ratzinger says that when the New Testament refers to the "apostles and prophets" (Eph 4: 11, ff.) it is speaking of the prophets of the New Testament, not of the Old.And in Acts 13, 1 ff. we read: "In the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers.... The Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul...."

This charism "envisages God who, through charisms, reserves for himself the right to intervene directly in the Church to awaken it, warn it, promote it and sanctify it. I believe that this prophetic-charismatic history traverses the whole time of the Church. It is always there, especially at the most critical times of transition." Ratzinger names Anthony of the desert, Basil, Dominic and Francis, Catherine of Sienna and Brigid of Sweden as examples of continuing prophecy in the Church. Then he says: "I think it is very important to stress how, at a particularly difficult time for the Church such as the Avignon crisis and the Schism that ensued, female figures rose up to emphasize Christ's claim, Christ who lives and suffers in his Church." He then places the Blessed Virgin Mary at the heart of the prophetic charism:

"There is an ancient patristic tradition that calls Mary not priestess but prophetess. The title of prophetess in the patristic tradition is Mary's supreme title. It is in Mary that there is a precise definition of what prophecy really is, that is, this intimate capacity to listen to, perceive, feel, that allows one to sense the consolation of the Holy Spirit, accepting him within oneself, making him fruitful, bringing him fruitful into the world. It might be said, in a sense, without wishing to be categorical, that it is none other than the Marian line that represents in the Church the prophetic dimension. Mary has always been seen by the Fathers of the Church as the archetype of the Christian prophet and it is from her that the prophetic line comes then to enter into the history of the Church."

Ratzinger refers to von Balthasar's opinion that behind every great theologian is a prophetic person - not necessarily a woman!Dominic is behind Thomas, Francis behind Bonaventure. As is well known, Adrienne von Speyr is behind Von Balthasar himself.

The Lord's saying (Matt.11:13) that "it was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the law were leading" does not mean that prophecy has ended, but that John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, a conclusive point. Otherwise this former interpretation would conflict with Paul's warning of despising the gift of prophecy (1Thes. 5:19-20).

On "private" revelations:

"Many Christian prophets, like Catherine of Sienna, Brigid of Sweden and Faustina Kowalska attribute their prophetic discourses to revelations of Christ. These revelations are often defined by theology as private revelations. But the concept appears to be very reductive because the prophecy is always for the whole Church and is never purely private." (KR)

"In theology the concept of 'private' does not mean regarding only the person involved and no one else. Rather, it is an expression of the degree of importance. That is to say that the 'revelations' of Christian mystics and prophets can never aspire to the same level as biblical Revelation; they can only lead to it and they must measure themselves by it. But that does not mean that these types of revelation are not important for the Church in its entirely. Lourdes and Fatima are the proof that they are important. In the final analysis they are but an appeal to the biblical Revelation and, for this reason, they are important." KR

Rahner on the Difference Between Revelation Before and After Christ
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Until very recently, whenever I heard that Revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, I understood it to mean that a definitive truth had been revealed by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and that no future revelation could contradict that. This is basically accurate. However, the Catholic Church has an enormous body of further teaching about Christ, about our Lady.What I understand Rahner and Ratzinger to be saying is that the gift of prophecy in the Church continues this making explicit of the biblical content of Revelation even in a conceptual way. If theological reflection is an avenue for the development of doctrine, so is the gift of prophecy. And one of the expressions of this gift is PR - apparitions, locutions, mystical intuitions. All need to be discerned, of course, by the Church, as do the writings of theologians! So these insights constituted a new deepening, for me, of the authenticity, and even the necessity, of PR.

But another of my long-standing concepts of Public Revelation vs. private revelation was this: Revelation up to the death of the last apostle was qualitatively like pure gold: God speaking as to a friend in the deepest meaning of such an encounter. PR after the death of the last apostle was not qualitatively on the same level. What level, I wasn't sure.

But what Rahner and Ratzinger are saying is that the very same gift of prophecy which inspired the scriptures is functioning in the post apostolic age. In fact (and this is my comment), if the Holy Spirit now indwells every Christian, can we not expect an even greater intensity, purity, and frequency of the gift of prophecy than in the Old Testament?Peter's quote from Joel (2:28-32) on the day of Pentecost seems to imply that an even greater age of prophecy is now upon us: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy." We are now in these last days until the Lord's coming.

The Difference Between Biblical and Private Revelation
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"Great as the resemblances may be," Rahner writes, "from a psychological point of view, between the revelations of the present, those anterior to Christ, and the revelation of Christ himself, there should still be an essential and qualitative difference between revelations posterior to Christ and those anterior to Him, since it is necessary to maintain the proper character of the 'end of the times' which can no longer admit of a revelation modifying our situation relative to salvation." Biblical revelation has a central and normative value. He continues:

"We should be quite precise about the nature of these private revelations posterior to Christ, and which have value for the Church and not just for the recipient; because these revelations should be perfectly inserted into this final phase of the economy of salvation. We have seen that it is not sufficient to say: private revelations are not addressed to the Church or humanity taken as a whole, and their content is not positively guaranteed by the Church's Magisterium. To content oneself with affirming that the content of these revelations has only an accessory and quasi-insufficient relationship with the Christian public revelation, would raise the question: Can anything that God reveals be insignificant?

"Again, to say that private revelations never contain anything but truths which one could know through the common revelations - for example, the possibility and utility of a new devotion - this is to pose yet another question: why then does God reveal it, and not rather leave to the intelligence of theologians the concern of making explicit this new aspect of revelation?"

It seems to me that the above statements contain an enormously important truth for the on-going life of the Church: that authentic private revelations are an integral - yes, even essential - part of the Spirit's on-going explicitation of the public revelation of the mysteries of the faith.

And then Rahner goes on to say, as regards content, exactly what is the theological nature of private revelations posterior to Christ and addressed to the Church. In what follows he is speaking mostly about how the content of PR after Christ differs from revelation before and during his life on earth.

Before Christ, history remains open to

"an event of the history of salvation as yet novel and capable of essentially modifying the situation of man toward God. Man had to keep himself always ready for a new revelation of God.

"Now, however, with Christ and since Christ, the 'end of the times' has arrived; the Divine economy of the salvation of humanity has entered into its decisive, definitive, unsurpassable phase. In the age of Christ we cannot wait any longer for our situation relative to salvation to be fundamentally modified."

This is a theological way of saying that private revelation cannot contradict anything in Scripture or Tradition about the faith. Nor are we awaiting some kind of new era superior to the end times inaugurated by Christ. (The Montanists, for example, in the second century, said that the Holy Spirit had only now come with Montanus and his women friends, and had not definitively come at Pentecost. Biblical revelation does not allow for such major additions to the death, rising, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.)

He tries, then, to pinpoint what the exact purpose of PR is.

It is not to reveal something that theologians have already been teaching; or simply to confirm the public revelation (as if we need confirmation from PR for that): "The essential point of a private revelation does not consist in an affirmation about the content of the common revelation, a sort of accidental determination of this common revelation, and/or materially identical with it."

Comment: This is not to say, of course, that PR will not contain the truths of the common revelation. R's point is that this is not the main purpose of them.

This is their main purpose: "Rather, private revelations have by nature an imperative character: namely, what is the conduct to be taken by Christendom in a given historical situation. This kind of revelation is not essentially an affirmation, but an order."

Comment: If we reflect on the prophecies in the Old Testament, are we not struck by their imperative mode? The Lord has a specific will at a specific moment of history, and the prophet communicates this. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." (Jonah 1:1.) The prophecies of the Old Testament are simply full of imperatives.

At this point R goes on a little philosophical excursus to bring out what he means.

In any historical period, theology cannot deduce, from among all the options, what the will of God is:

"In such a situation, what is to be realized as being the will of God cannot be deduced logically and without ambiguity from dogmatic or moral principles, not even by analyzing the concrete situation in which one is engaged. Theoretical considerations cannot, in principle, pronounce which one of the decisions possible, within a quite delimited field of action, is in fact the will of God to be chosen."

To try and make his point clear R turns to the Ignatian Exercises. "With St. Ignatius, in order to know the will of God in view of a 'choice', there are, in the light of faith, 'times of choice' which are without reflection and before it. In such 'times of choice' a man, under a special movement of God, becomes conscious of the divine will."

I went myself to the Exercises, and here is a modern translation of that section:

"There is a time of clarity which comes with undeviating persistence. We think of the dramatic change in St. Paul on the road to Damascus: once he began to respond to the Jesus whom he had been persecuting, he never hesitated. From the brief description of Matthew's call in the Gospel, we could draw a similar example. We can feel very gifted when God's call is so unmistakably focused in its drawing power, for this is the best of times for decisions." [5]

There is a general belief that Pope John XXIII was inspired to call the Council, contrary to much counter advice in the Vatican! R is saying that no mere theoretical consideration can give the Church a clear mandate, especially in times of crisis. St. Catherine of Sienna's prophetic gift of discerning the true Pope is another example. PR, then, is God's mercy in giving the Church clear commands in times of confusion. And this gift is an essential part of the economy of salvation: "These revelations should be perfectly inserted into this final phase of the economy of salvation." KR

The charism of discerning prophecy belongs to the Magisterium and the pastoral function of the Church. And, in the example of Pope John XXIII, the hierarchy also can exercise the prophetic charism. Hierarchy and charisms are not opposed. (Did not some of the great Fathers of the Church possess the charism of prophecy as well as that of teacher?) We often forget what the Council pointed out, that the hierarchical structure of the Church is itself a charism and the fruit of the Holy Spirit's guidance.

But this imperative aspect of the charism of prophecy, which the Lord uses to give clear direction to the Church at a particular moment, is not necessarily - or even frequently, as we look at Church history - connected with the hierarchy: "It cannot be maintained a priori that this divine movement through which God manifests His imperative will on the precise conduct to be taken by the Church, or part of the Church, must always come from the Hierarchy. In principle, the Spirit of God can address Himself to any one of her members in order to act upon the Church, to make known what He expects, and what precise task He assigns to her at such a moment."

This freedom of God to choose whomever he wishes to communicate a message is also emphasized by Fr. Ivan:

"Healthy Christian tradition never called into doubt the possibility of these manifestations because it knew that by this it would call into question its image of God who was not free only at the beginning in the act of creating the world, but retains that freedom permanently in relation to his creation. In different ways, he certainly can inspirationally influence the realization of that salvation in the present moment of history. One of those ways is his communication in image and word /private revelation/. Whoever would deny this would call God's freedom into question, as well as the character of Christianity as a revealed religion."

KR summarizes his main point thus: "Here then is what seems to us the characteristic of a private revelation posterior to Christ: an order/command of God inspired in a member of the Church so as to regulate the conduct of the Church in a concrete situation."

Why has PR not been taught as positively as R's theology indicates? There are many reasons. We clergy are ordained to preach the teaching of the Church. We have a dogmatic mind. We are wary of presenting these PR to people because we perhaps have not read them ourselves, or we're not sure of what's in them. We have the strong conviction that they are not necessary, not obligatory. They cannot contain anything new. The ordinary means of grace are the surest ways. (On the cover of Fr. Groeschel's book is a picture, not of Theresa of Avila who had private revelations, but of the Little Flower who didn't have revelations. The message is that her Little Way is the most sure.Thus Fr. Groeshel's book, in my view, does not explore or emphasize the more positive breadth of the meaning of PR in the Church.)) To repeat: We all know that St. John of the Cross has an extremely cautious position in regard to private revelations.Put these all his cautions together andyou have a strong mix which says: Don't bother with them at all!

Women Prophets
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Also, it requires a great deal of humility for the Hierarchy to accept that a real, true, and binding word of God could come from children (Fatima), or women (Catherine of Sienna, Joan of Arc, Vassula). Ratzinger pointed out above how frequently women have been given this gift of prophecy.

The clergy are wary here too. We have enough examples in history of how Church men have come under the sway of false women prophets: the great Tertullian succumbed to the influence of Montanus and his women prophets; Fenelon was led astray by Madame Guyon; in the rules for discernment spiritual directors are constantly warned about becoming the directee (especially as regards women) instead of remaining the director.

If Mary is the prophetess par excellance, and our Lord allowed himself to be taught by her, it is a sound theological position to believe that Mary - through the private revelations of women - may continue to teach her sons; and it requires humility on their part to be so taught. Thus, even without Mary appearing herself, the hierarchy can be called, on occasion, to accept the word of God from women as part ofMary's on-going prophetic mission, using her daughters to continue the guidance of the Church.


Theological Significance of Marian Apparitions
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Marian apparitions are the most frequent in the Church. It is not difficult to see why. Ratzinger says that hope is an essential element of prophecy, even after the coming of Christ. One of Mary's titles is Mother of Hope. He says there is a misunderstanding about the time after Christ, namely, that prophets are no longer needed because our hope has come. We are not waiting for any other Messiah. This hope was an essential element of OT prophecy. It is no longer needed. Ratzinger comments:

This thesis [that we no longer need prophets] harbors the idea that the prophet, who is essentially associated with the dimension of hope, has given way to presence. This is an error, because Christ came in the flesh and then rose again in the Holy Spirit. This new presence of Christ in history, in the sacrament, in the Word, in the life of the Church, in the heart of every man is the expression and beginning of the definitive advent of Christ who 'fills all things.' This means that Christianity always tends towards the Lord who comes, in an interior movement. This still happens now though in a different way because Christ is already here. However, Christianity always carries a structure of hope within it. The Eucharist was always conceived as our going to the Lord who comes. It therefore represents the whole Church. The concept that Christianity is already a totally complete presence and that it does not carry any structure of hope within it is [an] error to be rejected. The NT has a different structure of hope within it, but it is still always a radical structure of hope. In the new people of God it is therefore essential to be the servant of hope.

Mary is called the Mother of Hope because, through the mystery of her Assumption, which is like a second Easter, she is the only human person who now enjoys the fullness of our Redemption. She has even passed beyond the final Judgment and is seated at the Lord's right hand as his Queen and Mother. "In reality her concern for the Church of her Son is even stronger there where, as the only member of the Church she is already now in her glorified body, while the others are on the way to that state and are in need of help."I would add, in need of hope as well. Having already arrived at her eternal destination, and in possession of the goal of the hope of all of us, she can inspire hope in us.

In his concluding remarks, Rahner again emphasizes that the charism of prophecy should not too hastily be relegated to the primitive Church:

"The social and psychological forms of the prophetic charism and its intervention in the course of the Church's history can vary. But besides the official power transmitted by the imposition of hands, there should always be in the Church the humanly untransmittable vocation of the prophet. Neither of the two gifts can replace the other. Wherever in the Church, after Christ, the prophet exercises his or her specific action and communicates a Divine imperative in view of a determined situation, one has 'private revelation.' "

Rahner concludes his article with the following observations. In the present time of the Church there are multiple voices calling us in diverse directions. Many are teaching a precious middle of the road approach. But can such a nuanced and balanced approach sound the imperative alarm that is necessary in times of need? He calls this "middle of the road" approach the synthesizing theory:

"When the synthesizing theory is itself perplexed, then, among the many possibilities equally good in principle, should not the Christian's choice be made with the help of lights other than theoretical principles? Why could these lights not be that very enlightenment and that word of the Lord which we call -- too carelessly perhaps and with a certain disdain - 'private revelations,' and which we consider as a luxury left to certain pious souls? Then it is that the theology and the psychology of these revelations - each as indispensable as the other to a true discernment of spirits - will take on all their practical significance."

Consider the variety of views today about the state of the Church. In which direction should She move? How can She be revived, changed, reformed, and so on? KR is saying, do we not need to look more closely at the PR - the prophets - which the Lord is giving us in our time?Fr. Benedict Groeschel puts it this way:

"At present, when there is obviously a great deal of theological confusion and some real uncertainty in various quarters of what was once called the Catholic world, many would like to hear a direct response from someone who could give a word of assurance from above. I personally believe that such assurances can be and are given through private revelations." 72

Who are the prophets today? What are they saying to the churches?

Is the hierarchy humble enough to listen to Mary, to her sons and daughters, who are presently sharing in, and continuing, her great charism of Prophetess? Are people open to the penance and discipline which the prophets are calling us to? Do we disdain the prophets because we do not want to hear their often harsh words? They often speak about the evils in the world and the punishments threatened if there is no conversion. Remember Jonah. Are we killing them as did the people of the Old Testament? The Lord criticized the people of his day who, he said, were truly children of their fathers because they were putting the prophets to death, just as their ancestors did.

Some of the Prophets Today
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Through prayer, study and reflection I have come to believe in certain people today whom I believe are truly prophets, and have all the characteristics of the true prophet. This is not an exhaustive list; and I apologize ahead of time if I've not mentioned your favorite prophet! I will not enter into any of the controversies about these people. I simply say that I'm aware of most of the pros and cons about them, the Vatican Notifications, and so on. I believe that the following people have sufficient acceptance on the part of a number of bishops, priests, reputable theologians, and laity to make my judgment informed and prudent.

I will simply mention them here.I limit my list to the last century: Padre Pio, Conchita, Josepha Menendez, Maria Valtorta, Louise Peccarreta, St. Faustina Kowalska, Bl. Dina Belanger, Adrienne von Speyr, the seers of Medjugorje, Maria Simma, Vassula Ryden. All of these are deceased except Vassula and the Medjugorje seers. Anyone familiar with private revelations today knows who these people are.

If the writings of these people alone (and there are others) were put together in volumes along a shelf, the Church would have an enormous amount of prophecy and imperative guidance for our times. Many people complain that God is silent today. The Lord and his Mother have not been silent. We have not been listening.

Where Is the Official Recognition?
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Although millions of people accept these prophecies, and feed off of them spiritually, there doesn't seem to be any unequivocal apparatus in the official teaching Church, not only to judge the authenticity of a particular apparition, but to promote and encourage a genuine prophet. If prophecy is an essential and on-going part of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as Rahner believes, should there not be a more positive and forthright presentation of these for the guidance of God's people?

Individual bishops may allow the writings of certain prophets in their dioceses; certain priests may foster them; many lay people plan conferences, distribute their writings through printing, and so on. But where does the teaching Church publicly acknowledge them? Bishops often disagree among themselves, to the detriment of this prophetic word of God. A negative judgment of a local bishop can retard and delay the acceptance of a prophetic word. And, positively, if a bishop approves of a real prophet, but you are not in his diocese (or if you don't move in circles where these seers are known), you might never hear about them. Often it's a matter of chance whether you hear of a genuine prophet or not.

Should there not be some acknowledgment, on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the whole Church, of the existence of such prophets in the Church, and the Congregation's encouraging people to believe in such prophecies? In other words, these authentic words of God are pretty much left up to optional belief, that is, if you ever hear about them at all! Is thisresponsible stewardship of these authentic words of God to his people?

"Why would God reveal something insignificant?" If God truly continues the charism of prophecy in the Church, and if this gift is an essential part of the ongoing life of the Spirit, shouldn't there be more than a reluctant nod, a negative assessment, towards authentic prophecy?

I'm trying to express the situation in the Churchthat something is really lacking in the normal teaching apparatus which does not bring to the attention of the faithful so much legitimate prophecy in the Church. Are we neglecting the grace of God, killing the prophets through neglect, or, as Rahner said, through disdain?

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[1] Private Revelations, Some Theological Observations. Revue DAscetique et de Mystique (1949) Available on the Internet. Hereafter referred to as KR.

[2] Interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger by Niels Christian Hvidt. Available on the Internet. Hereafter all references to Ratzinger refer to this article.

[3] Bishop Paul Chang Ryeol Kim, Diocese of Cheju, South Korea, Easter Sunday, 1999, "The Age of the Holy Spirit Is Also the Age of Private Revelations." Pastoral Letter.Available on the internet. Hereafter all references to Bishop Paul refer to this Pastoral.

[4] Available on the internet. Hereafter referred to as D.

[5] David Fleming, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St. Louis, MO.) 107.