ASK FATHER: Convert confused about “private revelations”

From a reader…


Father, I am a fairly new convert to the Church and while I have studied theology, which led me here, I sure do get confused at times.

It seems Catholics, hesitate at studying the scriptures but jump on any and all mystical revelations. I am in a Bible study about Blessed Mary and 1 person kept bringing up Emmerich’s book which I found was at odds with historical this book of revelations accepted I thought it had been discredited because the poet who wrote down supposed dictation made it up

Please help my confused mind

Welcome to the Church!

Now that you’ve been received into Holy Mother Church, we can let you in on a little secret. We’re all a bit confused at times. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true.

Depending on where you are and what circle you hang with, you’ll discover a vast variety of interests among Catholics.

Some people, indeed some parishes, are gangbusters about Scripture study. Some are into biographies of saints (hagiography), or even dogmatic (though that’s now a bad word, I guess) theology.  Within these categories, you’ll find a wide range of variations.

Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich was a holy woman.  She was a religious who suffered with poor health.  She received the stigmata and had numerous visions throughout her life. Clemens Brentano, a poet, visited her over the course of several years and took notes of their conversations regarding her visions. Brentano and Emmerich spoke different dialects. Many of his notes were written well after his visits. Ten years after Blessed Anne Catherine’s death, Brentano completed his notes for publication. The last three volumes, on the life of Christ, were published after Brentano died.  Fr. Karl Schmoger produced these volumes after editing Brentano’s notes.

So, there are problems with attributing the books to Blessed Anne Catherine, who never even had a chance to look them over.

The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints excluded the books from their examination of the life of Bl. Anne Catherine. They made the recommendation to St. John Paul II for beatification on the basis of her life alone.  What portion of the books can be safely attributed to Bl. Anne Catherine is unknown.

Private revelations are tricky. We know, definitively, that the age of Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle (John). All that is necessary for salvation has been revealed to the Church.

That doesn’t, of course, prevent God from revealing further things.  We cannot place limitations on God.

When the Church rules that a private revelation has indeed taken place, She merely declares that nothing in the revelation is contrary to faith or morals and that the circumstances of the revelation are such that it appears to be valid. No obligation is placed on the faithful to believe the content of the revelation.

The nature of private revelation is precisely that: private. God reveals something to that specific person or those persons. Were God to have wanted to impose the obligation of belief in some particular matter on all mankind, He would have done so through universal revelation (which, as stated above, ended with the death of the last Apostle).

Private revelations can sometimes help other people, bystanders like you and I, grow in faith.  They can be hindrances. Their utility is, first of all, for the one to whom the revelation occurs.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia, available at New Advent, has a good explanation of private revelation: HERE

In the meantime, welcome again to the confusion of Holy Mother Church. You’ll never get used to it.  You’ll never be bored by it.  You’ll may wind up adding to it yourself.  Christ is at the helm of our barque.  We can rest confidently knowing we’re headed for the right destination, provided we don’t pitch ourselves off the deck and into the cold drink on either the starboard side or to port (that’s right and left for those of you in Columbia Heights).

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Phil_NL says:

    Depending on where you are and what circle you hang with, you’ll discover a vast variety of interests among Catholics.

    And that’s Father Z.’s understatement for the day, I reckon. And this can be especially true regarding private revelation, and those related to Marian apperances are at the top of the list. Don’t be surprised if some people set extremely great store by them, sometimes making one wonder if such an approach is still healthy.

    But even if one decides that the various accounts of private revelation aren’t your thing (which is by and large true for me, anyway), one is not one iot less Catholic for it. Just accept the piety that usually accompagnies it, that aspect may be a good example for everyone.

  2. Maltese says:

    Regarding mysticism, I would like to recommend St. Julian of Norwich’s Showings. I am reading it in the original Middle English (Norton ed.). These were written in her own hand, in her own language (if you read the Middle English, which is close to Chaucer’s dialect, and actually fairly simple to understand), and in fact is the earliest book in English written by a woman. The Showings are stunningly beautiful.

  3. acmeaviator says:

    A very important distinction between protestant and Catholic is the perception of the bible itself. For the Catholic the only reason the bible has any authority at all is due to the fact that the Church has approved it. In other words the bible derives its authority FROM the Church. In protestant churches the opposite is understood to be true – that is the churches believe that they derive their authority FROM the bible. Why those churches would accept Catholic authority on what constitutes revealed scripture and deny Catholic authority on everything else is a discussion for another time – the important point is that the Catholic looks to the Church as the sole guide to God as it was the Church, not the bible, that was founded by Christ as the proper means to salvation.

  4. Siculum says:

    Father, this post is SO relevant for a discussion I just had last night, that I can’t believe it. God really worked through you on this one, at the perfect time.

  5. Gretchen says:

    Same here, Siculum! I’m so glad to have the additional information. Thank you, Father Z.

  6. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Reader

    There are a number of good books about private revelations, which, as Father said, is binding on no one, except, perhaps, the locutionary. Discernment of spirits is very important and requires an experienced spritual director (both St. Paul and St. John talks about this: 1 Thess 5: 21 – 23 and 1 John 4: 1 – 6, for starters) . There is a lot to say on this subject, but these are some books that might help:

    The Ascent of Mt. Carmel – St. John of the Cross. Available for free in older translations on the internet.

    A Still Small Voice by Fr. Benedict Groeschel (may he rest in peace). May be found on Amazon.

    The Grace of a Interior a Prayer by Auguste Poulain. This is the book on which Fr. Benedict’s smaller book is based.

    Apparitions: Mystic Phenomena and What They Mean by Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph. D. This can be found on Amazon.

    The Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay. Can be found on Amazon.

    Spiritual Theology by Fr. Jordan Aumann, O. P. Can be found online (might be bootlegged, since I don’t know if this is in the public domain, yet).

    There are more advanced treatments of the history of mystical theology and many more historical works available, but these will get you started. The topic of the modern widespread locutionary activity among those in the Charismatic Movement is much more problematic and I can even begin to get into that, here. The books I mentioned, above, are all from solid Catholic sources.

    The Chicken

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    The Grace of Interior Prayer by Auguste Poulain. Stupid iPad autocorrect.

    The Chicken

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I’ll second the recommendation of The Ascent of Mount Carmel. I read a lot of mystical literature in my younger days (fortunately it was all healthy stuff) and I thought I was knowledgeable, but reading that book was a schoolbook about mysticism itself. (Also, The Dark Night of the Soul gets all the press, but it’s just the sequel and you won’t understand it without reading this one first.)

    A lot of Catholics get interested in mysticism and private revelations when they are very young (raises hand) because the literature for kids about Fatima, Lourdes, etc. is quick and edifying reading on a level pointed primarily at children by a child visionary, and you learn to be serious about the Sacraments and having a prayer life. People also tend to run into private revelations when they are troubled or fallen away, and need something dramatic to combat their own personal dramas. Many of the approved visionaries are very definite about relating the Lord’s mercy in soulstirring terms, and providing definite steps to take toward amending one’s life. People often do follow these directions and find help. Stories of visions and revelations, much like experiencing personal “favors” and religious experiences from God, often serve as “milk” for Catholics who will later move on to stronger meat.

    So of course people are very attached to things that have been so important not just to their devotional growth, but to their lives. Problems show up when some people get a little too much of a taste for “milk” and neglect moving on to stronger meat, but that doesn’t mean “milk” doesn’t do the Body good. Nor does it always work that way, even when people do get a little too attached. I was a pretty big Bible reader in my younger years too. Once God gets your attention, He can point you at all kinds of stuff.

    It’s also difficult to tell a Catholic’s real level of Bible knowledge. I initially read the Bible by myself in grade school, read it all the way through (albeit I skimmed Leviticus), didn’t pay any attention to footnotes or parts of the story that went over my head, and was primarily interested in the story, moral teaching, poetry, and personal applications, and then how it tied into Mass, the Mass readings, and Catholic theology. We learned a fair amount about the Bible and salvation history in my CCD classes, but not much about the latter except for Gospel readings with direct in-your-face application. But honestly, if you’re not going to be doing apologetics or higher study, and you keep reading the Bible devotionally, that’s probably enough to last you your whole Catholic life. It was even enough to do some apologetics when Protestants picked a Bible fight in college, and I didn’t know what “apologetics” was. Nobody ever made me memorize passages, but I could quote or paraphrase important passages accurately, as most Catholics can (if they need to), because I’d heard them forty zillion times. But I didn’t feel that it was usually my place to quote the Bible at people, unless they got my Irish up; I had other arguments that I was more comfortable with, and that sounded less presumptuous. I knew I wasn’t a Scripture expert.

    But OTOH, that’s probably not enough for Catholics in today’s competitive religious environment. The Book of Psalms is particularly neglected by us, because it used to be the hymnbook and reading textbook of Catholics. Today, use of the “seasonal psalm” option at Mass and a lack of interest in preaching or tying in the Psalm readings, etc. has led to Catholics not even being taught the Christological interpretation so important to the early Christians and all other Catholic ages. Etc. So yeah, it’s a problem if people know private revelations and not the Bible, or if they give that impression. (Although sometimes it’s just a feature of the argument partner’s minister having focused hard on certain verses, while the person is ignorant of the rest of the Bible and all of salvation history, church history, etc. or has been taught objectively wacky interpretations, like that the mustard seed growing into a tree is evil instead of the Kingdom of God.)

  9. JesusFreak84 says:

    Also important to note: if the Bishop of the See in which an alleged apparition happens condemns it, THAT MUST END INTEREST. For most alleged-apparitions, that’s how it works, but because the condemnation of multiple shepherds hasn’t put Medjugorie to bed, it bares noting, especially for a convert who can, potentially, be more easily mislead by such heresies as, “All religions are equally dear to my Son.” (The convert finds himself asking, “So why did I bother converting, then?”) There’s sadly a lot of, “If you don’t believe in ‘revelation’ X, then you hate Mary and are the spawn of the devil!!!!!” on the internet.

    On the other side, even widely-accepted practices like the Rosary are STILL private revelation, at the end of the day, so if a convert isn’t comfortable using it, yet or ever, they’ve done nothing wrong. I had a Calvinist friend who remained uncomfortable for quite a long time with the Rosary; he did become Catholic, just not, as far as I was ever shared with, through that vector.

  10. Mike says:

    A well-led retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola can offer a sound basis for interior prayer and meditation. The FSSP Ignatian retreat I attended this past Summer was rigorous and restorative.

    Sad to say, if one’s retreat master is a modernist or otherwise given to his own style of private interpretation, one can end more confused than one began. And to take up the Exercises on one’s own without a director isn’t something I’d advise.

  11. Acanthaster says:

    How does something like Divine Mercy/Divine Mercy Sunday fit into this?

  12. KevinSymonds says:


    The Mercy of God is a matter of Divine Revelation. A liturgical feast day commemorating this fact is not entirely out of the question.

    Just ‘how’ such a feast got on the calendar is an entirely different matter :)

    @JesusFreak: The Rosary itself is not a private revelation. The Rosary is a devotion that has a history with private revelations.

  13. paladin says:

    JesusFreak84: great points in your first paragraph! Good grief, but why don’t more people get this idea (of “approved private revelation = not mandatory for belief” and “unapproved/pending apparition = wait for the verdict of the local ordinary” and “condemned by the local ordinary = avoid it like the plague”)?

  14. MikeM says:

    There are a variety of acceptable attitudes to private revelation. Mine, which I’ve found satisfies a lot of converts, Protestants, and others who have difficulty with the idea, is that I take them seriously insofar as what they’re telling me is something that, based on Scripture and Tradition, I already kind of know to be true and that what it’s asking us to do is something that I know would be beneficial.

    The Fatima revelation included some prophecies, but what it told us about morality was clearly true, and the specific actions that it called for could only have been good. Surely no harm was going to come out of consecrating Russia.

    Private revelation can highlight messages that are particularly relevant to a time or situation, which can be very useful. At the same time, I imagine that God would be more than understanding if I didn’t accept a novel message that I’m SUPPOSEDLY getting from him second or third hand.

  15. majuscule says:

    Thank you for the clarification. I had recently been reading some of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s (or more likely Bretano’s) writing. It was interesting to be immersed in the times…but some things seemed problematic to me.

    As a Catholic I realized it was private revelation so I could take it or leave it. Your explanation about her cause for beatification excluding the writings really helped! (I suppose I should have done some research myself.)

  16. Pat says:

    Can anyone clarify the validity of Adrienne von Speyr’s visions? They inspired von Balthasar’s writings and her books are widely distributed by Ignatius Press.

  17. KevinSymonds says:


    I have long suspected that von Speyr was a false mystic. Part of the reason for this is that there was never a formal investigation into her claims, which is a red flag in the Church’s theology of private revelation.

  18. Sandy says:

    I hope your readers, Father, don’t discount the writings on the life of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. If we are praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, He will show us the truth. Years ago, I found the 2 volume work about Emmerich’s life and visions to be so inspiring and educational. There were references, among other other things, to the groups trying to destroy the Church, so obvious now. Let us place ourselves under Mother Mary’s mantle and she will protect us from errors through her Spouse the Holy Spirit.

  19. Janol says:


    Von B’s First Glance At Adrienne Von Speyr in which he relates her many ‘gifts’ made my hair stand on end. As we know he was her spiritual director but it seems she directed giving him, giving him directions as to how to direct her, and he was in awe of her.

  20. Janol says:

    In my previous post, the last sentence should read: “As we know he was her spiritual director but it seems she directed him, giving him directions as to how to direct her, and he was in awe of her.

  21. StWinefride says:

    Sandy says: I hope your readers, Father, don’t discount the writings on the life of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich.

    That reminds me that I have a book called “Mary’s House” by Donald Carroll. The book relates Blessed Catherine Emmerich’s vision of Our Lady’s house in Ephesus and how it came to be found in the late 19th century on Nightingale Hill (outside Ephesus) by Sister Marie de Mandat Grancey and some others. The book is an interesting read: HERE

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Father, I have spent so much time on my blog scolding and helping apparition chasers to calm down and learn the Faith.

    There is way too much interest in private revelations while people refuse to read the CCC or encyclicals. Too many people want the desert without having eaten the solid food for dinner.

    Also, emotional religiosity goes for visions and such, instead of cultivating the mind. Most Catholics have forgotten or ignore the fact that our Faith is not only reasonable but demands intellectual assent.

    One the whole, I think the contemporary obsession with messages et al is unhealthy and retards real spiritual growth. We do not become holy reading about such visions or messages, but by living out the Gospel in our lives. And, one is not holy because one studies all the private revelations.

  23. Supertradmum says:

    oopsie should be dessert not desert…lol; I am so sleep deprived. God bless.

  24. The Cobbler says:

    Heh, Supertradmum, I originally took that to be a reference to fasting in the wilderness like the hermits, meaning people want to go through the spiritual trials without first being fortified for them.

    Personally, I wonder if one of the things that appeals to people about private revelations is the sense of direction — that is, the idea that we can ask God what to do and through some sign or another He’ll tell us. This idea isn’t altogether bad — we are, after all, supposed to learn discernment — but it becomes problematic to chase after it out of a lack of trust in the ordinary means of salvation and the development of our own intellect and prudence. I believe there have been times when God has acted more or less directly in my life beyond the ordinary action of grace, but ultimately the knowledge this granted me was not “what to do”, it was to trust; and with that trust I’ve come to see how God works in all the other aspects of my life, from the instruction of the Church to my own reasoning to my relationships with other people. I’ve also found that the mystics who helped me most were the ones who made good philosophical and theological distinctions, who direct us primarily to the Church herself, who explain their points in terms of theology (even if theology aimed at laymen rather than scholars), and who remind us that the goal is to follow Christ and the devotional means (beyond the essentials of the Sacraments) have to be fitted to one’s state in life with helping us to follow Christ as their common goal. And then, I’ve also noticed that even though only a fraction of the Saints were mystics in the sense of receiving private revelations and gifts, all the Saints are mystical in a more important sense, a sort of everyday Christian sense, of being given not special knowledge, let alone secret knowledge, but Divine Love; the Love of God is the thing that unites preachers like St. Paul with workers like St. Peter with mystics like St. John with thinkers like St. Thomas with confessors like St. Jean Vianney — for it is by definition the common thread of all Sainthood and the whole end of all true mysticism. (This also makes the Saints completely relatable: at the end of the day, the thing that drives them is the very thing God offers every one of us. That Love is special, but we and the Saints are, in a sense, most truly human and ordinary in our receiving it — grace doesn’t run roughshod over our humanity but rather heals and elevates it. And so I can think of men and women who might otherwise seem like giants in our midst as good friends, because I too, however poorly, have that in common with them, without ever having to have had a vision any more than I’d need to have mastered theology; I understand where they’re coming from, and I hope and strive to go where they have already gone — not merely the visions and the theology but union with Christ whom all true visions and all true theology point towards.)

  25. GreggW says:

    In case the reader in question that Fr. Z. responded to, or some other new Catholic, is reading the comments: Trust the Church, and don’t worry. Know the faith as taught in the scriptures and the Church’s Tradition, and if private revelations help to build on that faith, let them. If someone you meet asks you to join their Medjugorje Queen of Peace prayer group, don’t let Jesus Freak’s opinions freak you out. And if you don’t feel like joining the prayer group, that’s okay too. There are a hundred ways to walk the correct path of faith. That is one of the beauties of Catholicism.

    Drawing close to our Mother, who leads us to her divine Son, is a good practice. Getting wound up trying to figure the times and seasons of potential cataclysmic events is not a good practice. Private revelations or no private revelations, these things hold true for all of us.

  26. The Masked Chicken says:

    “If we are praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, He will show us the truth.”

    Usually, that is through the guidance of the Church. Ironically, in some instances, to pray for the guidance of the a Holy Spirit in certain matters is to ask for a private revelation. St. John of the Cross points out that the usual modes of discernment of action are through Scripture, rightly interpreted, Tradition (including the judgment of the Church on modern issues), and reason, rightly done.

    The Chicken

  27. Gerard Plourde says:

    Lots of excellent advice From Fr. and the commenters (especially The Masked Chicken, Suburbanbanshee, JesusFreak8, and Supertradmum) about the caution we should exercise concerning private revelation. As the Cobbler states a lot of us would welcome a sign from God (a kind of spiritual pat on the back) that we’re moving in the right direction. Before we allow ourselves to engage in this reverie we should remember the caution that Jesus gave in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man -“They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” (Lk 16:29) and to the scribes and pharisees – “An evil generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” (Mt. 12:39). Jesus set up the Church and appointed His Vicar to lead it in order to provide a sure guide for us. A real red flag to watch for is whether the alleged revelation given to the locutionary begins to prophesy future events in any sort of detail. By this I mean going beyond a call for repentance and admonitions reform our lives to avert a course that is readily discernible from the signs of the times and crossing into the apocalyptic territory often occupied by Dispensational Evangelicals like the authors of the “Left Behind” series and the “Late, Great Planet Earth” stuff peddled by Hal Lindsay. (Veronica Lueken’s Bayside orations provide an example of this.) “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Mt. 24:36)

  28. Supertradmum says:

    My rule of thumb is, if the Church has approved private revelations, follow those. If not, forget those until, if and when the Church approves, or disapproves.

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