Apparitions, Visions, Revelations
Date: July 21, 2005 , Originally published November 10, 2001
Author: Dr. fra Ivan Dugandzic, OFM
Category: Theology reports , Priests of Medjugorje
Content of the article
The Concept of Apparition and Vision in Theology
It must be admitted that theology, which has to stand in service of the faith and the life of the Church, does not have an easy task in the present times. It is required for it to serve practice and that practice is often very complex. On the one hand are those who understand practice as established and stable behaviour, which does not tolerate anything new, and as dangerous a theology, which advocates anything new. On the other hand, as practice we have religious experience, whether it is related to apparitions and conditioned by them or related to different forms of charismatic movements. Here again there is a danger to declare theology lifeless and unconvincing and to reject it for the sake of that kind of experience.
It is important, however, that theology neither on the one nor the other side, permit itself to become the victim of practice, nor should it sacrifice practice. Where there is no religious experience, it must inspire it and there where it is, it must be on guard not to permit that experience to take on undesirable directions, "so that nothing correct in the new experiences is lost or extinguished, but also that anything that might be incompatible with the Christian mystery secretly imposes itself. . ." It is well known, namely, that in critical moments of the world and the church, the religious spirit strongly yearns for all the more convincing and tangible experience of the reality beyond as a comfort for the present and a promise for the future. Here theology has to distinguish the enthusiastic and unhealthy from the healthy and beneficial, that is, from that which belongs to the deposit of faith and the established courses of salvation.
What in fact does theology understand by the term apparitions and visions? In the broadest sense of the word, these are "mental experiences in which invisible realities such as God, angels, even the saints, but also created things, become accessible to the physical senses in a natural way, and all this being related to the supernatural goal of human salvation. Spatially distant events as well as past and future events also belong here." 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.
Although public Revelation terminated with the New Testament, God, who stands in partnership with the world and man, maintained for himself freedom of action in human history, admittedly, under the aspect of the essential qualification of the New Testament which is his eschatological dimension. Namely, God must respect the fact that with Jesus Christ the final or eschatological times have begun, which are characterized with the event of salvation that began with him. In this span of time from Christ's resurrection to his second coming, God cannot broaden revelation in the sense of making some new covenant as was the case in the Old Testament. He can only still execute the final promised intervention at the end of time by which He will bring to fulfilment the already begun salvation of the world. But before that, 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. Whoever would deny this, would call God's freedom into question, as well as the character of Christianity as a revealed religion. Therefore, the essence of private apparitions and revelations after Christ must be such that it substantially corresponds with this eschatological salvific reality."
The church has always related to these manifestations with caution, keeping in mind the New Testament warning about the discernment of spirits (1 Cor 12:10; 1 John 4:1; 1 Pet 5:8). It has already been said in the fore mentioned definition, that all manifestations in their intention are related to human salvation. This also implicitly contains the first criterion for their evaluation. Do they correspond to the regular courses of salvation or not? Do they give direction toward them or divert away from them? It is not difficult to establish whether such manifestations divert away from a healthy devotion to Jesus Christ, placing Mary at the centre of devotion in a way that competes with Christ. Furthermore, whether they lead believers to a sincere listening of the word of God and to a sacramental life. It is a known fact that, before the Council, both in Mariology and Marian devotion, one-sidedness and exaggeration was known exist. Along with this goes also a criterion in relation to the visionaries and their way of experiencing the visions. Namely, we must keep in mind that particular times are favourable to such manifestations, just as are times of world anxiety and crisis of faith. Therefore, the obligation of theology is to watch over these manifestations and to observe whether apparitions are "an empty echo in which man is listening only to himself or a response in which man is hearing God." In the same way, one should distinguish the intuitive recognition or the intellectual enlightenment that might occur during prayer or meditation, from actual visions. One should say that the caution mentioned is not the same thing as negligence toward these kind of manifestations, but, on the contrary, is the best service to them.