|Some problems with contemporary apparition discernment
Clearly there is a great deal of interest in contemporary visions and visionaries, but not all of this is healthy, and there is a great deal of confusion. There seems to be a marked emphasis in many of these visions on "apocalyptic" themes, and this is in some contrast to the "optimistic" approach taken by Pope John Paul II, as well as Mary's genuine message at Fatima, that her Immaculate Heart would triumph, Russia would be converted, and a period of peace would be given to the world.
There is a real danger that the writings emanating from all the visionaries now flourishing could develop into an alternative "Magisterium," and thus cause further problems for the Church. At present it seems that people can more or less believe in any "apparition" which takes their fancy, regardless of the ground rules that have been developed by the Church for the discernment of the approved Marian apparitions.
That is, such matters as local Episcopal approval, conformity with the general faith and teaching of the Church, genuine signs of conversion and religious progress in the locality and elsewhere, and of course Papal support.
To this end it seems that more emphasis needs to be placed on the nine major approved apparitions of the modern era, from Guadalupe in 1531 to Banneux and Beauraing in the early 1930's, with particular stress being put on Fatima. There is more than enough material there for edification and instruction, and if people were more aware of those apparitions which have been approved they would be less likely to go astray regarding alleged new apparitions. This seems to be the attitude taken by the present pope in particular through his strong support for the apparitions at Fatima.
Is it possible to have a "canon" of apparitions?
It seems necessary that sooner or later some separating of the wheat from the chaff will have to be done; the Church will have to clearly say which apparitions are approved and which are definitely not. At present such information is difficult to come by, particularly regarding the "fringe" apparitions, for example, Garabandal, which is subject to conflicting claims.
Perhaps there should be some sort of "canon" of approved apparitions, just as there is a "canon" of Scripture. Admittedly this would be a difficult concept to put in place because many of the modern apparitions are ongoing, and so it is hard to make a definitive judgement on them at present. Nevertheless the drawing up of such a "canon" by the Church would probably be a good thing.
An interim form of such a "canon" could clearly indicate those apparitions which are definitely approved and those definitely rejected. Those not falling into these areas could be categorised as accurately as possible, with some indication of what level of Church approval (if any) they enjoy. Ongoing apparitions should be in a special category, with as many details given about them as possible, and a warning to the effect that they are not approved and may well be false. As indicated an important principle in drawing up such a canon should be that newer alleged apparitions must be judged against the approved Marian apparitions, and not vice-versa.
Is there a precedent for such a "canon" in the biblical writings?
In adopting such a "canon" for Marian apparitions there is a precedent in the way the Church drew up the canon of Scripture for both the Old and New Testaments. The early Church did not accept into the Bible every text which claimed to be authentic, but only gradually, over a considerable period of time, was the canon of Scripture completed. The four Gospels and the Pauline epistles were acknowledged quite early on, whereas some of the smaller books were held to be doubtful for some time before they were finally accepted. By the fourth century the present New Testament canon had reached its present form.
Comparing this with the Marian apparitions we can see the major apparitions such as Lourdes and Fatima as parallel to the Gospels and Epistles, with some of the lesser known apparitions, such as Knock, as akin to the shorter writings of the New Testament.
However regarding the New Testament that leaves a great number of works which were excluded from the canon, the apocryphal New Testament writings. It is noteworthy that there were many more of these than those texts which were accepted into the canon. For instance there were "Gospels" accredited to the Hebrews, to the Egyptians, to Peter, to Marcion, to the Twelve Apostles, to Philip, and so on.
Similarly there were a number of different "Acts" attributed to various writers, copying the style of the Acts of the Apostles, as well as apocryphal epistles and "revelations." So we have a situation where there were a small number of genuine New Testament writings and a large number of forgeries. Some of these were no doubt done with the best of intentions, but others were clearly a vehicle for Gnostic and other speculations, or even heresies, and thus were very harmful.
The pattern then seems to be that God "reveals" his teaching in a relatively compact way and the forces of evil "counterfeit" God's work by "flooding the market" with forgeries. This is obviously significant regarding the large number of alleged apparitions now taking place. It is quite possible that they are due to "pious" wishful thinking, if not downright satanic influence, rather than being genuine divine interventions.
There seems to a widespread feeling that because the world is in such a terrible state then it is "bound" to be the case that most of the alleged Marian apparitions taking place today really are interventions from heaven. But is this necessarily true? If we look at the history of the people of Israel as a precedent then this is not readily apparent.
Prophecy and the Old Testament canon
This point can be illustrated by the history of the compilation of the Old Testament canon of accepted books. From the time of Malachi until that of John the Baptist, a period of about four hundred years, prophecy was silent in Israel. And yet from a human point of view it would seem that the people had more need than ever of prophetic guidance.
But they did not get this and had to depend on the prophetic oracles they already had. What they did get though was the Pseudepigrapha, the "false writings," books claiming to be written by some of the great Old Testament characters of the past. These included apocalyptic works such as the Book of Enoch and the Psalms of Solomon. So in place of genuine prophecy or teaching they got false writings.
It could be argued that after giving a particular series of "revelations," be they prophecies, Gospels, or apparitions, then God is actually obliged to withhold further revelations. This is because once a particular pattern has been laid down it is very easy for fraudsters to copy that pattern and claim that what they are producing comes from God.
We find this in the Old Testament where, for example, the Prophet Jeremiah clashed with the false prophet Hananiah, who was copying the authentic actions of a true prophet of God (Jer 28). So it was a problem even then. Obviously there is no difficulty today for anyone wishing to counterfeit a Marian apparition, since there is an abundance of material available. The same can be said for people claiming "inner locutions" or other "spiritual" experiences.
Conclusion: a sceptical attitude to alleged apparitions is justified
These historical examples seem to show that we have no right to expect special revelations in the form of Marian apparitions to necessarily continue indefinitely: God speaks and it is up to mankind to listen and act on his message. It also shows that there is a real danger that after a series of genuine and approved apparitions - those from Guadalupe to Banneux - there is a strong possibility of false apparitions being conjured up to satisfy mankind's insatiable appetite for religious novelty.
Thus it is prudent to adopt an attitude of scepticism in relation to alleged new apparitions, on the basis that most of them are probably false. This mirrors the approach taken by the medical commission at Lourdes where an extremely rigorous and indeed sceptical attitude is taken towards claims of miraculous healing. In evaluating apparitions any sign of a departure from Church teaching, or of impropriety on the part of the "visionaries," or of greed for money, should be taken as evidence of probable falsehood. Anything like this should not be downplayed or ignored, as unfortunately seems to happen in some cases.
If they are genuine then those involved will be leading the same sort of lives as those privileged with previous approved Marian apparitions including St. Catherine Labouré, St. Bernadette and the children of Fatima. Therefore a reasonably detailed knowledge of the approved Marian apparitions is necessary, so as to draw up a list of those criteria which led the Church to approve them.
This allows us to construct a "model" to evaluate more recent alleged apparitions, one including matters such as local Episcopal approval, miraculous healings, conformity with Christian teaching and Papal support.
Such a model will include the basic pattern which we find in the approved apparitions, that is that those involved were generally children, poor people, or religious sisters, and that the heavenly messages were generally brief. This corresponds to the way in which the early Church was able, for example, to discriminate between true and false Gospels because of the false picture of Christ which they portrayed.
It is probable that a detailed study of the apocryphal writings and the Pseudepigrapha would shed a great deal of light on such an appropriate model for judging modern alleged Marian apparitions.
Source: F. L. Cross, ed.,The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (OUP, London, 1958).