|False and unapproved apparitions
Please note that "unapproved" in this connection means "unapproved by the Universal Church" - some of these, including Amsterdam and Akita, have received forms of local episcopal approval. This is not the same as approval by the whole Church though.
False apparitions seem to fall into two general categories. Firstly, we have those false apparitions which come at more or less the same time as the genuine Marian apparition, and often in great numbers. Their purpose seems to be to sow confusion by making people believe that it is impossible to tell true from false, and that perhaps everything is false.
Secondly, we seem to have those false apparitions which come some time after genuine apparitions and whose purpose is to obscure the true message which has come from apparitions such as Lourdes and Fatima. There is also the general phenomena of opposition to genuine apparitions, which can be both immediate and longer term.
How can we tell which apparitions are false?
Mgr Farges gives the following advice:
"The signs of diabolical intervention are well known. The devil's deeds always carry with them at least some ridiculous, unseemly, or coarse details; or even something opposed to faith and morals. If his vices were too obvious his influence would soon be unmasked; they are therefore always disguised under more or less inoffensive appearances, even under deceitful traits of virtue and sanctity. He transforms himself at will into an angel of light. God occasionally allows him to assume the most majestic forms, such as those of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, or the saints. Nevertheless - for God could not otherwise permit it - the disguise, no matter how bold, is never complete, and he always betrays himself in some particular which cannot escape an attentive and prudent observer. Furthermore, the work of the devil becomes very soon unmasked by evil results, for an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit."
In regard to imaginative visions The devil, like all the angels, good or bad, has the ability to manipulate or influence the human imagination. But he cannot impress new images, which ordinarily come through the senses, on it, and thus he cannot produce images which go beyond previous knowledge. Thus genuine prophecies or revelations are impossible for the devil and reserved to God.
In these cases it is important to closely examine the personality of the seer or seers, particularly those who are vain, or credulous, or generally imperfect, since these are the most easily deceived by the devil. St. Teresa of Avila cautioned that women were more likely to be the victims of false imaginative visions than men. These points can also be applied to external apparitions.
The moral status of the visionary
This also an important pointer as the true nature of the alleged vision. While, in theory, visions or apparitions are possible for anyone, in practice those approved by the Church have most often been to young children, but also adults, be they young or old, who are "pure of heart." Although many of the most celebrated seers, such as St. Catherine Labouré or St. Bernadette have been female, it is also the case that "the number of women deceived by the illusions of the their imagination or of the devil is much greater than that of men; one might even say, without exaggeration, that the greater number of falls notorious in the Church have been due to sentimental or visionary women." Thus great prudence is needed when dealing with women visionaries.
Apart from dealing with explicitly sinful persons, Mgr Farges also makes the following comment: "Without being so obviously unworthy, other seers, who, far from being humble, virtuous, pure, or vowed to a perfect [religious] life, appear flippant, worldly, more or less unbalanced, unedifying, and little worthy of the holiness of God, must also be set aside: they cannot be either agents or instruments of heaven, but more likely of the devil."
He then goes on to make the following very important point:
"But among the faults which may make us unworthy of divine vision there is one which we must point out more particularly: it is the desire to be favoured with it. Whether this desire is born of an unhealthy yearning for ostentation or vain display, or even of only sincere but ill-regulated piety, it should inspire ... great distrust. It might, indeed, bring about - at least in certain cases - sufficient mental tension to provoke fixed ideas or hallucinations with or without the complicity of the devil."
The actual mode of the vision or apparition
The mode of the vision also gives us clues as to its authenticity. The approved apparitions have a sense of dignity and refinement which is often lacking in their counterfeits. In particular it is seldom that more than a few words are spoken, and so a garrulous, talkative, apparition is most probably false. This is an imperfection which is condemned quite frequently in the Bible. (e.g. Si 20:8; Mt. 6:7).
As regards their content, Mgr Farges points out Satan tries to deceive men into accepting falsehood, and that this will sooner or later become apparent: "Either he will insinuate opinions contrary to the orthodox faith or to the first principles of reason, or else he will incline the will to evil, above all to a more or less open rebellion against lawful authority. This tendency to insubordination, to revolt, is the most frequent mark of the rebel angel; an echo of the eternal non serviam! [ I will not serve!]
Similarly, if the vision has no apparent object, in terms of the good of the Church, or is one which merely repeats information from earlier apparitions, it is probably not from God who does not "repeat himself uselessly." Genuine apparitions, after perhaps a moment of fear or anxiety, give way to deep sense of calmness and peace, whereas hallucinations often exhibit morbid aspects and symptoms such as stupor, agitation, and at times cries and contortions.
In particular genuine apparitions should give rise to progress in the spiritual life, especially in humility:
"Consequently if the seer, or he who thinks himself favoured with this heavenly gift, draw from it vanity, if he refuse to submit his visions in all their details, with perfect submission, to competent judges charged with their examination, it is useless to push the trial further: it is certain that the apparition is not divine and that it can only be hallucinatory or diabolical."
False apparitions which followed genuine apparitions
Regarding reports of imitative apparitions following on from a recognised apparition, many of which seem to be cases of collective hallucination, these can have a purely human, or equally, a diabolical origin. Thus many of the recognised apparitions were followed by imitations, which in one sense is only natural, because in any given population there will always be a number of people susceptible to such imitation, due to their being emotionally disturbed, subject to hallucinations, or even mad.
For details of false apparitions which followed Lourdes click here
For details of false apparitions which followed Knock click here
For details of false apparitions which followed Beauraing click here
"All these later imitations ... even when involuntary, among persons otherwise very pious and in good faith - as soon as they are seen to be mere useless and vain repetitions - should be looked upon with suspicion at first sight ... The first vision, or series of visions, alone has the right to escape suspicion of mimicry."
For details on spiritual movements in history click here
For details on Fr. Poulain's five causes of false revelations click here
Source: Mgr. Albert Farges, Mystical Phenomena, trans. S. Jacques, (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1926).