Apparitions, Visions, Revelations

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Extraordinary Manifestations in Extraordinary Times

In 1973, there was a stormy discussion among theologians about the significance of Jesus' resurrection and the meaning of speech in the apparitions of the Risen One as the New Testament speaks of them. R. Pesch, a liberal Catholic biblical scholar, provoked that discussion with his assertion that talk about the resurrection is merely "the expression of the believers' recognition of Jesus' eschatological significance, his mission and authority, his legitimation in view of his death." Talk about apparitions would merely be the "legitimation" of the disciples, that is, their determination to proclaim that "significance of Jesus." His Protestant, very moderate colleague, M. Hengel, in his response particularly regrets that in present times visions are made equivalent to hallucinations and continues, "Since the rich mystical tradition of the Church has dried up, at least in our regions, theologians are then no longer in authority for these manifestations, but rather psychiatrists or drug experts. A vision is considered a pathological manifestation" (ThQ 3/1973, p. 255). It was as though it were a prophetic word for what will be shown also in the case of the apparitions in Medjugorje eight years later.

Still, the Bible speaks so often about apparitions and visions, relating God's revelation to people with these manifestations, that we can consider them to be one of its central themes. Why then are these manifestations in the Church regularly met with great caution and scepticism on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and clergy in general, and furthermore with the considerable indifference of theologians? One could say, in fact, that these manifestations are readily accepted only by the common faithful, admittedly sometimes too quickly and uncritically. In the veritable flood of theological literature today it is very difficult to find a solid theological work dedicated to these manifestations. If we start from the good old understanding of theology as the handmaiden of faith, then its primary task is "the penetrating of Revelation in light of reason" and "endeavouring about a living interpretation of the faith" in the practical life of the Church. Why, then, does theology have an aversion toward those manifestations, which are obviously directed toward the life of the Church?

Precisely such manifestations would have to be a real challenge for today's theology, which is very successfully dealing with individual questions and problems, but as though it is lacking a sense of the whole and the profound mystery that is hidden behind everything. Or is it perhaps the realization of the dire prophecy of A. Comte, the father of positivism, from some 150 years ago, when observing how the interest of theology shifted from the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, through Christology toward ecclesiology, he asserted that in this way the Church itself will slowly and inattentively slip into positivism. "It will no longer deal with God, but with man; it will no longer research the unresearchable truth but the positive manifestations of its own community." One of the most acute and profound theologians of our times, Hans Urs von Balthasar, seems to be indirectly acknowledging that this has already happened, when he says of today's Church that, "it has lost a good portion of its mystical features and has become a church of constant conversations, organizations, councils, congresses, synods, commissions, academies, parties, functions, structurings and restructurings, sociological experiments and statistics."

It is logical that this is also reflected in theology. Everyone who is a little bit more involved with theology knows to what measure it is today infiltrated with anthropology, sociology and psychology. These sciences can certainly enrich theological thought but they cannot replace it if it desires to be "a science about God," and not almost exclusively about man. The emphasis, namely, of theological reflection is sometimes shifted from God to man and from the reality beyond to the reality here below in such a significant measure that it is not difficult to understand why the spirit of today's times and the entire spiritual climate do not in any way favor talk about apparitions. And since such manifestations still demand their interpretation, it comes offered on non-theological grounds. Usually one wants to say that in today's world, faced with insecurity and fear regarding its future, prophetic-apocalyptic tendencies occur which then find an outlet in mass psychosis. These extra- ordinary manifestations are then made equivalent to pathological states and their interpretation is surrendered to psychology and parapsychology.

When it is a question of Mary and her apparitions, usually Jesus' unique mediation between God and man is emphasized and the impossibility of apparitions is deduced from that, because thereby, that otherwise certain truth would be brought into question. Frequently, at least in some countries, it is also about some superficial ecumenical tactics with reference to Protestants who are bothered by excessive veneration of Mary. For some theologians the reasons lie in the fear of being called conservative in times when it is fashionable for theology to deal with completely concrete problems of life, which is good, but insufficient.

Observing closely the events in the parish of Medjugorje already for a long time and trying to evaluate them theologically, and following the reaction to them by a part of the ecclesiastical public, it is difficult to avoid the impression that fundamental theological terms are often unclear and that is one of the main reasons for confusion and disorientation. Therefore, let us attempt to define these terms as clearly and precisely as possible!


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