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Private Revelations

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There are two kinds of revelations: (1) universal revelations, which are contained in the Bible or in the depositum of Apostolic tradition transmitted by the Church. These ended with the preaching of the Apostles and must be believed by all; (2) particular or private revelations which are constantly occurring among Christians (see CONTEMPLATION). When the Church approves private revelations, she declares only that there is nothing in them contrary faith or good morals, and that they may be read without danger or even with profit; no obligation is thereby imposed on the faithful to believe them. Speaking of such revelations as (e.g.) those of St. Hildegard (approved in part by Eugenius III), St. Bridget (by Boniface IX), and St. Catherine of Siena (by Gregory XI) Benedict XIV says: "It is not obligatory nor even possible to give them the assent of Catholic faith, but only of human faith, in conformity with the dictates of prudence, which presents them to us as probable and worthy of pius belief)" (De canon., III, liii, xxii, II).

Illusions connected with private revelations have been explained in the article CONTEMPLATION. Some of them are at first thought surprising. Thus a vision of an historical scene (e.g., of the life or death of Christ) is often only approximately accurate, although the visionary may be unaware of this fact, and he may be misled, if he believes in its absolute historical fidelity. This error is quite natural, being based on the assumption that, if the vision comes from God, all its details (the landscape, dress, words, actions, etc.) should be a faithful reproduction of the historical past. This assumption is not justified, for accuracy in secondary details is not necessary; the main point is that the fact, event, or communication revealed be strictly true. It may be objected that the Bible contains historical books, and that thus God may sometimes wish to reveal certain facts in religious history to us exactly. That doubtless is true, when there is question of facts which are necessary or useful as a basis for religion, in which case the revelation is accompanied by proofs that guarantee its accuracy. A vision need not guarantee its accuracy in every detail. One should thus beware of concluding without examination that revelations are to be rejected; the prudent course is neither to believe nor to deny them unless there is sufficient reason for so doing. Much less should one suspect that the saints have been always, or very often deceived in their vision. On the contrary, such deception is rare, and as a rule in unimportant matters only.

There are cases in which we can be certain that a revelation is Divine. (1) God can give this certainty to the person who receives the revelation (at least during it), by granting an insight and an evidence so compelling as to exclude all possibility of doubt. We can find an analogy in the natural order: our senses are subject to many illusions, and yet we frequently perceive clearly that we have not been deceived. (2) At times others can be equally certain of the revelation thus vouchsafed. For instance, the Prophets of the Old Testament gave indubitable signs of their mission; otherwise they would not have been believed. There were always false prophets, who deceived some of the people but, inasmuch as the faithful were counselled by Holy Writ to distinguish the false from the true, it was possible so to distinguish. One incontrovertible proof is the working of a miracle, if it be wrought for this purpose and circumstances show this to be so. A prophecy realized is equally convincing, when it is precise and cannot be the result of chance or of a conjecture of the evil spirit.

Besides these rather rare means of forming an opinion, there is another, but longer and more intricate method: to discuss the reasons for and against. Practically, this examination will often give only a probability more or less great. It may be also that the revelation can be regarded as Divine in its broad outlines, but doubtful in minor details. Concerning the revelations of Marie de Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich, for example, contradictory opinions have been expressed: some believe unhesitatingly everything they contain, and are annoyed when anyone does not share their confidence; others give the revelations no credence whatsoever (generally on a priori grounds); finally there are many who are sympathetic, but do not know what to reply when asked what degree of credibility is to be attributed to the writings of these two ecstatics. The truth seems to be between the two extreme opinions indicated first. If there is question of a particular fact related in these books and not mentioned elsewhere, we cannot be certain that it is true, especially in minor details. In particular instances, these visionaries have been mistaken: thus Marie de Agreda teaches, like her contemporaries, the existence of crystal heavens, and declares that one must believe everything she says, although such an obligation exists only in the case of the Holy Scripture. In 1771 Clement XIV forbade the continuation of her process of beatification "on account of the book". Catherine Emmerich has likewise given expression to false or unlikely opinions: she regards the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius as due to the Areopagite, and says strange things about the terrestrial Paradise, which, according to her, exists on an inaccessible Mountain towards Tibet. If there be question of the general statement of facts given in these works, we can admit with probability that many of them are true. For these two visionaries led lives that were regarded as very holy. Competent authorities have judged their ecstasies as divine. It is therefore prudent to admit that they received a special assistance from God, preserving them not absolutely, but in the main, from error.

In judging of revelations or visions we may proceed in this manner: (1) get detailed information about the person who believes himself thus favored; (2) also about the fact of the revelation and the circumstances attending it. To prove that a revelation is Divine (at least in its general outlines), the method of exclusion is sometimes employed. It consists in proving that neither the demon nor the ecstatic's own ideas have interfered (at least on important points) with God's action, and that no one has retouched the revelation after its occurrence. This method differs from the preceding one only in the manner of arranging the information obtained, but it is not so convenient. To judge revelations or visions, we must be acquainted with the character of the person favoured with them from a triple point of view: natural, ascetical, and mystical. (For those who have been beatified or canonized, this inquiry has been already made by the Church.) Our inquiry into the visionary's character might be pursued as follows:

  1. What are his natural qualities or defects, from a physical, intellectual, and especially moral standpoint? If the information is favourable (if the person is of sound judgment, calm imagination; if his acts are dictated by reason and not by enthusiasm, etc.), many causes of illusion are thereby excluded. However, a momentary aberration is still possible.
  2. How has the person been educated? Can the knowledge of the visionary have been derived from books or from conversations with theologians?
  3. What are the virtues exhibited before and after the revelation? Has he made progress in holiness and especially in humility? The tree can be judged by its fruits.
  4. What extraordinary graces of union with God have been received? The greater they are the greater the probability in favour of the revelation, at least in the main.
  5. Has the person had other revelations that have been judged Divine? Has he made any predictions that have been clearly realized?
  6. Has he been subjected to heavy trials? It is almost impossible for extraordinary favours to be conferred without heavy crosses; for both are marks of God's friendship, and each is a preparation for the other.
  7. Does he practice the following rules: fear deception; be open with your director; do not desire to have revelations?

Our information concerning a revelation considered in itself or concerning the circumstances that accompanied it might be secured as follows:

  1. Is there an authentic account, in which nothing has been added, suppressed, or corrected?
  2. Does the revelation agree with the teaching of the Church or with the recognized facts of history or natural science?
  3. Does it teach nothing contrary to good morals, and is it unaccompanied by any indecent action? The commandments of God are addressed to everyone without exception. More than once the demon has persuaded false visionaries that they were chosen souls, and that God loved them so much as to dispense them from the burdensome restrictions imposed on ordinary mortals. On the contrary, the effect of Divine visitations is to remove us more and more from the life of sense, and make us more rigorous towards ourselves.
  4. Is the reaching helpful towards the obtaining of eternal salvation? In spiritism we find the spirits evoked treat only of trifles. They reply to idle questions, or descend to providing amusement for an assembly (e.g., by moving furniture about); deceased relatives or the great philosophers are interrogated and their replies are woefully commonplace. A revelation is also suspect if its aim is to decide a disputed question in theology, history, astronomy, etc. Eternal salvation is the only thing of importance in the eyes of God. "In all other matters", says St. John of the Cross, "He wishes men to have recourse to human means" (Montée, II, xxii). Finally, a revelation is suspect if it is commonplace, telling only what is to be found in every book. It is then probable that the visionary is unconsciously repeating what he has learnt by reading.
  5. After examining all the circumstances accompanying the vision (the attitudes, acts, words, etc.), do we find that the dignity and seriousness which become the Divine Majesty? The spirits evoked by Spiritists often speak in a trivial manner. Spiritists try to explain this by pretending that the spirits are not demons, but the souls of the departed who have retained all their vices; absurd or unbecoming replies are given by deceased persons who are still liars, or libertines, frivolous or mystifiers, etc. But if that be so, communications with these degraded beings is evidently dangerous. In Protestant "revivals" assembled crowds bewail their sins, but in a strange, exaggerated way, as if frenzied or intoxicated. It must be admitted that they are inspired by a good principle: a very ardent sentiment of the love of God and of repentance. But to this is added another element that cannot be regarded as Divine: a neuropathic enthusiasm, which is contagious and sometimes develops so far as to produce convulsions or repugnant contortions. Sometimes a kind of unknown language is spoken, but it consists in reality of a succession of meaningless sounds.
  6. What sentiments of peace, or, on the other hand, of disturbance, are experienced during or after the revelations? Here is the rule as formulated by St. Catherine of Siena and St. Ignatius: "With persons of good will [it is only of such that we are here treating] the action of the good spirit [God or His Angels] is characterized by the production of peace, joy, security, courage; except perhaps at the first moment." Note the restriction. The Bible often mentions this disturbance at the first moment of the revelation; the Blessed Virgin experienced it when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. The action of the demon produces quite the contrary effect: "With persons of good will he produces, except perhaps at the first moment, disturbance, sorrow, discouragement, perturbation, gloom." In a word the action of Satan encounters a mysterious resistance of the soul.
  7. It often happens that the revelation inspires an exterior work - for instance, the establishment of a new devotion, the foundation of a new religious congregation or association, the revision of the constitutions of a congregation, etc., the building of a church or the creation of a pilgrimage, the reformation of the lax spirit in a certain body, the preaching of a new spirituality, etc. In these cases the value of the proposed work must be carefully examined; is it good in itself, useful, filling a need, not injurious to other works, etc.?
  8. Have the revelations been subjected to the tests of time and discussion?
  9. If any work has been begun as a result of the revelation, has it produced great spiritual fruit? Have the sovereign pontiffs and the bishops believed this to be so, and have they assisted the progress of the work? This is very well illustrated in the cases of the Scapular of Mount Carmel, the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the miraculous medal. These are the signs that enable us to judge with probability if a revelation is Divine. In the case of certain persons very closely united to God, the slow study of these signs has been sometimes aided or replaced by a supernatural intuition; this is what is known as the infused gift of the discernment of spirits.

As regards the rules of conduct, the two principal have been explained in the article on CONTEMPLATION, namely

  1. if the revelation leads solely to the love of God and the saints, the director may provisionally regard it as Divine;
  2. at the beginning the visionary should do his best to repulse the revelation quietly. He should not desire to receive it, otherwise he will be exposing himself to the risk of being deceived.

Here are some further rules:

As regards inspirations ordinarily, those who have not passed the period of tranquility or a complete union, must beware of the idea that they hear supernatural words; unless the evidence is irresistible, they should attribute them to the activity of their own imaginations. But they may at least experience inspirations or impulses more or less strong, which seem to point out to them how to act in difficult circumstances. This is a minor form of revelation. The same line of conduct should be followed as in the latter case. We must not accept them blindly and against the dictates of reason, but weigh the reasons for and against, consult a prudent director, and decide only after applying the rules for the discernment of spirits. The attitude of reserve that has just been laid down does not apply to the simple, sudden and illuminating views of faith, which enables one to understand in a higher manner not novelties, but the truths admitted by the Church. Such enlightenment cannot have any evil result. It is on the contrary a very precious grace, which should be very carefully welcomed and utilized.


Consult the writings of ST. TERESA AND ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, passim; PHILIP OF THE BLESSED TRINITY, Summa theologica mysticae (Lyons, 1656), pt. II, tr. iii; DE VALLGORNERA, Mystica Theologia (Barcelona, 1662), Q. ii, disp. 5; LOPEZ DE EZQUERRA, Lucerna Mystica (Venice, 1692), tr. v; AMORT, De revelationibus (Augsburg, 1744); BENEDICT XIV, De servorum Dei canonizatione (Rome, 1767), l.III, c. liii; SCARAMELLI, Direttorio mistico (Venice, 1754), tr.iv; SCHRAM, Institutiones theologicae mysticae (Augsburg, 1777), pt. II, c. iv; ST. LIGUORI, Homo apostolicus (Venice, 1782), append.i, n. 19; RIBET, La mystique divine, II (Paris, 1879); POULAIN, Des graces d'oraison (5th ed., Paris, 1909), tr. The Graces of Interior Prayer (London, 1910).

About this page

APA citation. Poulain, A. (1912). Private Revelations. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Poulain, Augustin. "Private Revelations." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tom McGovern.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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