The Role of Visionaries (Biblical-historical)
Date: November 10, 2005 , Originally published November 10, 2001
Author: Dr. fra Josip Marcelic
Category: Visionaries , Theology reports
Content of the article
While thinking about the theme assigned, the word of John comes to mind: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us -- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." (1 Jn 1:1-3)
He is clearly speaking about seeing, and belongs among God's visionaries. The essential characteristics of a visionary are revealed in his words:
a) to see - to hear, means: to be receiving;
b) to see God's activity in Christ, in the history of salvation;
c) to testify, means: to transmit what is received.
d) to introduce into the mystery of Christ; to build up the individual and the community.
along with a) The reception from God can be realized on different levels:
- on the natural level of reception of God's messages from nature (natural revelation); ordinary supernatural reception of God's gifts on the level of the theological virtues (through faith, hope and love); extra-ordinary supernatural reception of God's manifestations in the mystical life; extra-ordinary supernatural reception of God's revelations of the charismatic type, when God reveals something to someone for the building up of God's people.
In our case we are dealing with the latter way of God's giving of gifts, when, namely, the Lord reveals something to someone so that, having been transmitted to others and to the community of the church, they may serve for its edification. John, namely, particularly plunges into the mystery of Christ and saw what others, his contemporaries, did not see!
(Perhaps it is well here just to call attention to the justified and grounded debate among theologians on the difference between a vision and an apparition. It is possible, namely, for the vision to be able to arise from our interior seeing, granted by God - vision in the strict sense. Again, it can come externally and then it is an apparition, i.e. a vision in the broad sense. In our case, I think, it does not itself touch the essence of the theme, and, therefore, we will not dwell on it!)
along with b) One should be aware of and receive the salvific activity inside us, in the Church, in the world, in the history of salvation: that St. John clearly refers to Jesus Christ.
along with c) The witnessing to or the transmission of what has been received in our case becomes a reality according to the testimony of John's word, but it can be realized in various ways, about which we will speak more later.
along with d) John's testimony serves the purpose of inspiring others to faith and to lead them into the mystery of Christ. Compare also the conclusion of John's gospel which refers to that: "but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31).
The example from John helps us to observe the essential elements of the visionary's role. Those roles can also be observed in biblical-historical and in ecclesiastical-historical development. Then we notice all of their complexity and range, their weaving into the human psyche, the social order and the historical interventions of God.
We shall dwell on these elements, first historical-biblical, and later through the history of the Church, in order to apply them to the present time.
I. The Biblical - Historical View
The Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, the prophets
The Bible of the Old Testament offers us ample examples for reflection on the role of visionaries: beginning with Abraham, Moses, Samuel and numerous prophets.
The example of Moses is particularly suitable for us and rich for the observation of individual elements of that role:
- he meets God in the burning bush;
- he hears his word from the bush, from the cloud, from the sky (Ex 1-2-3);
- he begins to understand the history of Israel in a new light; he learns about the promises given to the patriarchs;
- he hears the promise of liberation;
- he should transmit it to his people; he should lead his people out of the land of slavery;
- he leads God's people out of Egypt and through the desert; through him the Lord makes a covenant with His people;
- he calls the attention of Israel to the Covenant: he inspires and encourages them; he reproves and threatens them; he comforts the people in their afflictions; he heals their wounds in the name of God.
Of the prophets we could mention Jeremiah whose history is stormy and painful, which he feels deeply and describes in his call to the prophetic ministry and in his oracles where he speaks of his own bitter experiences and his break downs in the ministry of God's message: cf. Jer 1:4-19 - Jeremiah's vocation; 20:7-18 - Jeremiah's "Oracles."
Like Moses the prophets also will:
- receive God's word; be visionaries (hence their title "roeh" - seer);
- God will reveal his mysteries to them, as friends,
- these mysteries are related to his plans of salvation,
- they should transmit them to God's people in order thereby to assist their covenant with God, their life with God: if they are sinful to convert, if righteous, to become more righteous, if in despair, to strengthen them, if in sorrow and darkness, to comfort and enlighten them. . .
The New Testament: Jesus, Mary, Elizabeth, Simon, the apostles
Although Jesus is the source and archetype of every mediation between God and men, because he is the only Mediator, still it is not advisable - in our case - to dwell especially on him. He is, namely, at the same time essentially different from all the other New and Old Testament mediators: He sees the Father face to face and reveals him to us, He is the LIGHT OF THE WORLD, and all other mediators are only a reflection of him. He is the WORD OF THE FATHER, and all the others will be only his voice or echo, like John the Baptist.
Accordingly, there is an essential difference between Jesus and the other visionaries: He is the SOURCE of light, the others are merely a reflection, a mirror; He is the WORD, while the others are only the voice, the sound system. Therefore, we will rather dwell on the other New Testament personalities, as for example:The Virgin Mary is a visionary,
- who receives the annunciation from Archangel Gabriel and by the Spirit of God she receives the Word of God, she becomes the Mother of God:
- she immediately gets under way and is in the service of redemption:
- she transmits the action of grace of her own Son to Elizabeth and her son John;
- in the hymn Magnificat she exclaims her praise to God and announces to Elizabeth and to all of us the great works of God.
Her role of "visionary" is very simple in its sublimely great loftiness: simple, as is the role of a mother conceiving a child, serving a child, carrying it, nourishing and bringing it up, and - when the child grows up - she gives it over to others!
Mary's example, I think, is particularly important because in the history of the Church Mary very often appears to visionaries:
- as if to hasten to the Judean mountains to assist her needy cousin Elizabeth, all of us in need;
- and she carries the Saviour to us because she is His Mother;
- and she reveals that in the words of her own hymn of praise: the Magnificat; in which the activity of the Saviour is seen in the little ones, the poor and rejected;
- and she announces how salvation history is being fulfilled in Israel, and in the people of God in general!
Let us dwell also on John's Revelation, who reveals in visions the condition of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev 1-3), and watches the final battle that unfolds between God and Satan for mankind (Rev 4-20). And here are the fundamental characteristics:
- the noticing, the observation of the condition of the individual Church,
- in order to call it to conversion, to inspire it to perseverance, to comfort it, to reprove it,
- to conduct it into the fruits of redemption,
- the visionary in his visions observes the difficult battles at the end of human history,
- discovers this difficult reality, the horror sin, the power of evil; he discovers also the power of God, the works of salvation; the role of God's angels;
- the final victory of God.
We could conclude this cursory overview of the role of the prophets-visionaries in the Bible in the words of St. Paul: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Clearly emphasized are the roles of Scripture and of those who transmit that Scripture:
- various benefits for improvement and growth,
- growth in the works of love toward perfection.
The message of God and, consequently, the role of visionaries as well, is in the service of life:
- I have set before you life and good, death and evil; therefore choose life, that you may live! (Deut 30:15,19);
- Jesus comes to give us life, and the fullness of life (John 10:10);
- for that reason John also writes his Gospel - that by believing we might have life (John 20:31);
- for that reason Jesus also sends the apostles throughout the whole world to proclaim the Good News and to baptize all nations (Matt 28:19) so that through baptism they may become the children of God and have the life of God within themselves and have a share in the kingdom of heaven (cf. John 3:5).
II. Through the History of the Church
The economy of salvation in the Old and the New Testament reaches out for God's messengers: angels, prophets, visionaries, apostles, - consequently, it is to be expected that also in the history of the Church the Lord will act in a similar manner.
Indeed, all throughout the history we see that it talks about how God in given moments reveals his will speaking through individual visionaries. . .
From more recent times we recall the visionary St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in Paray-le-Monial, Bernadette in Lourdes, and the visionaries in Fatima: Lucy, Francisco, and Jacinta, who are recognized by the Church as authentic.
With St. Mary Margaret we see how through her the Lord calls to the living of the mystery of love of his Divine Heart. The revelations given through her were not immediately accepted but they met with resistance among the clergy of the church. It was only later that the Church accepted the essential part of these messages and starting from the biblical revelation, it especially recommended the devotion to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus (cf. Pius XII Haurietis aquas de fontibus Salvatoris: You shall drink water from the fountains of the Saviour). Here one nicely sees how visionaries do not add anything new to the public revelation, but they direct toward some aspect of it, which emphasis, in the given circumstances, inspires the faithful to a deeper Christian life!
With Bernadette and the Fatima visionaries we notice:
- they are illiterate children who are not in a position by their own thinking to arrive at the messages of which they speak; accordingly, they received messages from Our Lady;
- they announced them to the people,
- they transmit them also to the pastors of the church,
- they lived them in their own lives;
- in the transmitting of the Our Lady's messages they find themselves in difficulties, from people, from civil and ecclesiastical authorities,
- finally, the authenticity of their messages is noticed (from their lives, from the agreement of the messages with Sacred Scripture, but the fruits in their life, from the miraculous signs that accompany these messages.
Wishing to emphasize the role of the visionaries - which is our theme - we can point out the following:
- the reception of the messages,
- the proclamation of the messages,
- the living of the messages.
The Role of Visionaries in the "Reception" of the Messages
The philosophical principle is: Whatever is received, is received according to the manner of the receiver.
That explains clearly enough that messages are received in different ways by children and by adults, men and women, in different cultural milieus, at different periods of time (so that God proclaims the same substantial message differently to a black person than to a European; differently in the Middle Ages than in our times.) God chooses a "language" that the receiver understands: a child, an adult, a Jew, a Christian, a European, an African; a man with a medieval image of the world and of science, a man with a modern view of the world and of history.
Here it is sufficient just to point this out.
The Role of Visionaries in Relation to the "Content" of the Messages
By analysing the messages that the visionaries received in Lourdes, Fatima, and elsewhere (through the history of the Church) we see:
- that they simply transmit messages that are already contained in the public revelation given to us,
- that they transmit only some certain messages which have special importance for a certain time,
- that they emphasize and underline these messages.
Since we already took St. Mary Margaret and the Fatima shepherds as an example, we will also emphasize that the former revelations emphasize the Love of God revealed in the Divine Heart of Jesus, and the latter revelations in Fatima put before us devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is interesting to notice this correlation: the love of God is revealed and offered to us in images that are available to us - in the Heart of Jesus and Mary! Both the former and the latter devotion renew our hearts and the complete Christian life.
In relation to the messages that they transmit they are, accordingly:
- an echo that re-echoes to the messages of the Bible,
- the selectors of the messages that they transmit to a particular generation in its specific circumstances,
- the amplifiers of these messages, which then can resound more strongly and better be heard.
- the mission of John the Baptist can emphasize for us in a specially clear way the role of visionaries: He pointed out the Saviour, and directed his own disciples to him, and said: "I must decrease and He must increase" (Jn 3:30). The visionary should recede into the shadow and the Light of God has to rise on the horizon. We can also make a comparison with the Morning Star: It announces the day - but the closer the day is, it of itself disappears and fades away in the splendour of the Sun! The Sun is main thing and Morning Star just introduces it! It is the same with visionaries!
- the visionary is in volunteer service of the gospel: "You received without paying, give without pay" Mt 10:8).
- the visionary stands in the service of transmitting gifts, and becomes a gift in oneself! (That is the role of the visionary and at the same time a criterion of authenticity: service and service free of charge! To burn like a candle - that shines and thereby disappears so that others may live!);
- the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church: "Go out to the whole world. . ." (Mt 28:19)
- through his role the visionary enters into relationship:
- with the public Revelation of God;
- with the hierarchy of the Church, which the Lord established to govern the Church;
- with the people of God,
- with the world.
(These are themes that we are only mentioning and which require a special deeper treatment, analysis and elaboration in regard to the messages that the individual visionary transmits!)
Content of the Messages
(This is neither the time nor the place to dwell in a particular way on the content itself of the messages, which is - otherwise - all too important and necessary!)
Perhaps we could present the role of the visionaries metaphorically:
- they are receivers. However, not every receiver is equally fit for the reception of all wavelengths; one should be on the same frequency; we should tune the radio dial for each station separately. It is interesting that among visionaries there are many children, and that among them somehow we more frequently meet females; it must be that children are more sensitive and unburdened with their own frequencies, and they more easily accept God's frequency; and it seems that females are the more sensitive receivers, and therefore Heaven more easily establishes that link of transmission with them.
- they are microphones,
- they are also selectors,
- they also have the role of amplifiers,
- their own frequency is mixed in with the reception and transmission of the messages just as is the frequency of their own environment. Here in its own way a "vitalization" of the messages is included: namely, the messages pass through their lives and become more noticeable and more legible. We recall how in the Old Testament the Lord transmitted his messages many times through symbolic and sometimes even very painful actions (cf. Ezekiel, Hosea etc.)
Relationship of the Visionaries to the Hierarchy
This is a particularly sensitive question and it is necessary to say something about it. Here one is actually dealing with the relationship between the charism and the Institution in the Church.
Vatican Council II explicitly referred to the relationship between the charismatic gifts of grace and the hierarchy. It said that it is necessary to be open to all the gifts of grace of the Holy Spirit, to the ordinary and the extraordinary, and that the pastors of the Church are called not to reject these gifts, but to discern between them; to accept the good and to reject the unauthentic. (Cf LG 12)
Therefore, the question is raised on various levels about the criteria of authenticity of charisms, that is, of those who have these charisms, concretely - in our case - of the visionaries. So, we shall mention some of the principal criteria for the discernment of that authenticity.
The Criteria of Authenticity
We recall, moreover, that the question of the authenticity of the visionaries-prophets was raised both in the Old and the New Testaments. There were, namely, also self-proclaimed prophets and apostles, and therefore in the Old Testament for example Moses strongly advised caution, and in the New Testament, Jesus himself speaks of false prophets and Paul in many places warns against false apostles.
Accordingly, criteria are necessary for the discernment of authentic prophets, apostles and visionaries. One should seriously take account of these criteria. We shall mention some of those that refer to the role of visionaries:
- the visionary should proclaim God and God's plans of salvation; if he does the opposite in his proclamations and does not proclaim the plans of God, but rather his own, then, of course, that visionary is not authentic.
- the visionary proclaims God's revelation in order to build up the People of God, that is, the Body of Christ, the Church; therefore, if a visionary's proclamation sows division, undermines the Temple of God, tears apart the Body of Christ, that visionary is undoubtedly not authentic;
- the activity of God's revelation should be obvious first of all in the same visionary, as St. Paul emphasizes, defending his own apostolic mission.
I would particularly mention here the principal criteria that I have adapted from the book by Dr. Heribert Muehlen New Encounter with God, (Croatian translation, Jelsa 1994, pp 205-207, 314-319):
- are the visionaries on the way of abandonment to God:
- according to faith, hope and love?
- do they lean on their own capabilities and methods or on God's strength?
- how is their love toward the Church:
- are they moved by love for the concrete Church: the people of God?
- how is their relationship toward the pastors of the Church?
- do they inspire the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church?
- are they open to the service of people?
- are they seeking their own glory and profit or the benefit of other people?
- are they disposed to cooperation?
- is their criticism, if expressed, for building up or for tearing down?
- do they imitate Jesus in their daily life?
- how do they fulfil their own duties of their state of life: in school, in the family, at work?
- do they carry within themselves the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
- do they spread peace or confusion?
- do they carry joy in their heart which also encompasses love?
- do they possess love which wants to be given away?
- how are they regarding exaggeration and negativities?
- do they exaggerate the truth and the good?
- do they stress the negative?
- do they dwell on dark sides, on interior wounds and injuries?
(This indicates the activity of Satan - who undermines people)
A Review of the Medjugorje Visionaries
The above-mentioned data from the history of the Old and New Testaments, as well as of the history of the Church, should, of course, be applied concretely to the Medjugorje visionaries:
- one should inspect closely all the circumstances of their reception of the messages: visions (observed physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and mystically),
- the content of the messages which they transmit in the name of Our Lady (biblically, theologically, ecclesiastically, juridically, ascetical-mystically),
- the degree to which they receive the messages in their own life (personal life and community life), family life, their relationship toward the Church and Church authorities, concretely toward the bishop, the pope and the parish priest)
- their way of proclaiming the messages (in words, deeds and life),
- the fruits of the messages (conversion, prayer, penance, the sacraments, the rosary, confession, the Eucharist, reconciliation, Marian spirituality. . .).
Here we have only adverted to this subject.
That is the theme of a separate long and detailed researching and studying.
The role, therefore, of the visionaries in public and private revelation - is the role of mediator.
It responds to our individual and communitarian structure, as well as to the historical environment and dynamic of the human race.
Of course, their role is completely subordinated to the role of mediation - which is always silent, unobtrusive, hidden - just as, metaphorically speaking, is the role of the microphone and the loud speaker in the broadcasting of the words. The less the microphone and the loud speakers are noticed, all the better do they serve their purpose. The more they impose with their screeching and deformations of the voice, the weaker they are.
The archetype for created mediators is the Virgin Mary. She in complete silence transmits the INCARNATED MESSAGE - THE WORD. She disappears in its shadow and appears again only at Calvary. It seems that precisely like that, throughout history, Mary appears frequently in times of crisis, again beside Jesus and bringing Jesus repeatedly wounded and crucified, in us human beings and in our hearts, so He can come alive in us, because it was Jesus Himself who - from the cross - entrusted all of us to her as children, and Her to us as Mother!
In a certain way Mary's visionaries participate in our "Canas," in our "Calvaries," by listening to and repeating the words that he Lord puts in their hearts: "Do whatever he tells you!" (John 2:5)
fra Josip Marcelic, 1995
Dr. fra Josip Marcelic- is a third order Franciscan, born in 1929 in Prek, Zadar. He was ordained a priest in Split in 1953. He graduated in philosophy and received a doctorate in theology from the University of St. John Lateran in Rome. From 1971 to 1972, he lectured in dogmatic theology and Scriptural studies in Split and repeatedly filled the office of Chancellor and Vice-chancellor in same University. He is co-founder and co-producer of the circular "Water and the Spirit", a series about renewal in the Spirit (Jelsa, 1984 and following) from which many translations and other publications were made.