A Few Thoughts about Apparitions

In the series of interviews with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori which appeared as The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Ratzinger was asked about Marian apparations. He confirmed that reports of Mary’s appearances were reaching the Vatican from around the globe and in guarded language suggesting that these phenomena are a “sign of the times.”

Ratzinger also discussed the so-called Third Secret of Fatima, which was supposed to have been revealed by the pope in 1960. John XXIII is said to have read it, concluded that it “was not for our time,” and placed it in a drawer in the papal study in the Vatican. The newly elected John Paul II examined it and agreed—until he was shot on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981. While recovering in the hospital, he reportedly asked for a copy of the message and had a Portugese translator go over it carefully. It may be that the increasingly eschatological tone of his papacy, particularly with regard to the year 2000, has something to do with that one sheet of paper.

Why, it might be asked, hasn’t the Third Secret been made public? Cardinal Ratzinger, who has read it, said that its divulgence would expose the Church to the “danger of sensationalism.” Besides, he added, the crux of Mary’s message should already be known to Christians—namely, the need for prayer and penance.

The sobriety of Ratzinger’s response could be profitably imitated in certain quarters of the Church. There are Catholics who spend more intellectual energy speculating about future chastisements and the conversion of Russia than they do meditating on the life of Christ. Indeed, there is a growing number of “apparition chasers” among the laity, for whom private “messages” have virtually usurped Scripture and the authority of the Magisterium. Ronald Knox, in his classic study of religious enthusiasm, described not a few visitors to Bayside, Queens, a current (and very doubtful) site of Marian appearances: “More and more, by a kind of fatality, you see them draw apart from their co-religionists, a hive ready to swarm.”

What are Catholics to make of private revelations, which, as numerous canonization processes make clear, occur in every age of the Church? There are a few ground rules:

Public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. The messages of Lourdes and Fatima are not part of the deposit of faith, which rests solely on Scripture and Tradition and has been entrusted to the Church for interpretation. No Catholic is obliged to believe either the content or the occurrence of any apparition. Even when the Church approves them, she does not make them the object of faith, but as Benedict XIV stated, she simply permits them to be published for the instruction and edification of the faithful.

There is ample reason to accept the Church’s finding that Guadaloupe, Lourdes, Fatima, and a handful of other Marian appearances are “probable” and “worthy of credence.” Recent and ongoing apparitions are a trickier matter. The list is lengthy: Medjugore, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Conyers, Georgia; Garabandal, Spain; and numerous spots in Africa and Russia. Medjugorje, in particular, departs from the traditional pattern of authentic apparitions in one important respect: it goes on and on.

Lourdes and Fatima were like the single, clear chime of a bell; there was great economy in Mary’s words to St. Bernadette in 1858 and to the three Portugese children in 1917. With all due respect, even the most devout Catholic would fall asleep trying to read all the messages of Medjugorje, which have been occurring daily since 1982.

Admittedly, these recent apparitions have produced many good fruits, among them dramatic conversions. And, whether or not they turn out to be authentic, they broadcast a salutary message to the hierarchy—perhaps the reason why Catholics are flocking to apparitions is that so much mystery has been drained from Catholic ritual.

If the urge to travel to the site of a Marian apparition is upon you, you might want to consider the traditional itinerary. Having visited Lourdes, I can offer the words of Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote a beautiful little book about his visit there in 1908: despite all the tourists and shops peddling garish madonnas, the place is “soaked, saturated and kindled by the all but sensible presence of the Mother of God.”

If you are an armchair pilgrim, there are several books worth reading; among them are William Thomas Walsh’s classic Our Lady of Fatima; Abbe Trochu’s Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a splendid model of modern hagiography; and 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle by Warren Carroll.


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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