Apparitions, visions, revelations

Dr. fra Ivan Dugandzic, OFM, 1995

(Theological possibility and significance of these unusual manifestations)


In 1973, there was a stormy discussion among theologians about the significance of Jesus' resurrection and the meaning of speech in the apparitions of the Risen One as the New Testament speaks of them. R. Pesch, a liberal Catholic biblical scholar, provoked that discussion with his assertion that talk about the resurrection is merely "the expression of the believers' recognition of Jesus' eschatological significance, his mission and authority, his legitimation in view of his death." Talk about apparitions would merely be the "legitimation" of the disciples, that is, their determination to proclaim that "significance of Jesus." His Protestant, very moderate colleague, M. Hengel, in his response particularly regrets that in present times visions are made equivalent to hallucinations and continues, "Since the rich mystical tradition of the Church has dried up, at least in our regions, theologians are then no longer in authority for these manifestations, but rather psychiatrists or drug experts. A vision is considered a pathological manifestation" (ThQ 3/1973, p. 255). It was as though it were a prophetic word for what will be shown also in the case of the apparitions in Medjugorje eight years later.

Still, the Bible speaks so often about apparitions and visions, relating God's revelation to people with these manifestations, that we can consider them to be one of its central themes. Why then are these manifestations in the Church regularly met with great caution and scepticism on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and clergy in general, and furthermore with the considerable indifference of theologians? One could say, in fact, that these manifestations are readily accepted only by the common faithful, admittedly sometimes too quickly and uncritically. In the veritable flood of theological literature today it is very difficult to find a solid theological work dedicated to these manifestations. If we start from the good old understanding of theology as the handmaiden of faith, then its primary task is "the penetrating of Revelation in light of reason" and "endeavouring about a living interpretation of the faith" in the practical life of the Church. Why, then, does theology have an aversion toward those manifestations, which are obviously directed toward the life of the Church?

Precisely such manifestations would have to be a real challenge for today's theology, which is very successfully dealing with individual questions and problems, but as though it is lacking a sense of the whole and the profound mystery that is hidden behind everything. Or is it perhaps the realization of the dire prophecy of A. Comte, the father of positivism, from some 150 years ago, when observing how the interest of theology shifted from the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, through Christology toward ecclesiology, he asserted that in this way the Church itself will slowly and inattentively slip into positivism. "It will no longer deal with God, but with man; it will no longer research the unresearchable truth but the positive manifestations of its own community." One of the most acute and profound theologians of our times, Hans Urs von Balthasar, seems to be indirectly acknowledging that this has already happened, when he says of today's Church that, "it has lost a good portion of its mystical features and has become a church of constant conversations, organizations, councils, congresses, synods, commissions, academies, parties, functions, structurings and restructurings, sociological experiments and statistics."

It is logical that this is also reflected in theology. Everyone who is a little bit more involved with theology knows to what measure it is today infiltrated with anthropology, sociology and psychology. These sciences can certainly enrich theological thought but they cannot replace it if it desires to be "a science about God," and not almost exclusively about man. The emphasis, namely, of theological reflection is sometimes shifted from God to man and from the reality beyond to the reality here below in such a significant measure that it is not difficult to understand why the spirit of today's times and the entire spiritual climate do not in any way favor talk about apparitions. And since such manifestations still demand their interpretation, it comes offered on non-theological grounds. Usually one wants to say that in today's world, faced with insecurity and fear regarding its future, prophetic-apocalyptic tendencies occur which then find an outlet in mass psychosis. These extra- ordinary manifestations are then made equivalent to pathological states and their interpretation is surrendered to psychology and parapsychology.

When it is a question of Mary and her apparitions, usually Jesus' unique mediation between God and man is emphasized and the impossibility of apparitions is deduced from that, because thereby, that otherwise certain truth would be brought into question. Frequently, at least in some countries, it is also about some superficial ecumenical tactics with reference to Protestants who are bothered by excessive veneration of Mary. For some theologians the reasons lie in the fear of being called conservative in times when it is fashionable for theology to deal with completely concrete problems of life, which is good, but insufficient.

Observing closely the events in the parish of Medjugorje already for a long time and trying to evaluate them theologically, and following the reaction to them by a part of the ecclesiastical public, it is difficult to avoid the impression that fundamental theological terms are often unclear and that is one of the main reasons for confusion and disorientation. Therefore, let us attempt to define these terms as clearly and precisely as possible!


It must be admitted that theology, which has to stand in service of the faith and the life of the Church, does not have an easy task in the present times. It is required for it to serve practice and that practice is often very complex. On the one hand are those who understand practice as established and stable behaviour, which does not tolerate anything new, and as dangerous a theology, which advocates anything new. On the other hand, as practice we have religious experience, whether it is related to apparitions and conditioned by them or related to different forms of charismatic movements. Here again there is a danger to declare theology lifeless and unconvincing and to reject it for the sake of that kind of experience.

It is important, however, that theology neither on the one nor the other side, permit itself to become the victim of practice, nor should it sacrifice practice. Where there is no religious experience, it must inspire it and there where it is, it must be on guard not to permit that experience to take on undesirable directions, "so that nothing correct in the new experiences is lost or extinguished, but also that anything that might be incompatible with the Christian mystery secretly imposes itself. . ." It is well known, namely, that in critical moments of the world and the church, the religious spirit strongly yearns for all the more convincing and tangible experience of the reality beyond as a comfort for the present and a promise for the future. Here theology has to distinguish the enthusiastic and unhealthy from the healthy and beneficial, that is, from that which belongs to the deposit of faith and the established courses of salvation.

What in fact does theology understand by the term apparitions and visions? In the broadest sense of the word, these are "mental experiences in which invisible realities such as God, angels, even the saints, but also created things, become accessible to the physical senses in a natural way, and all this being related to the supernatural goal of human salvation. Spatially distant events as well as past and future events also belong here." Healthy Christian tradition never called into doubt the possibility of these manifestations because it knew that by this it would call into question its image of God who was not free only at the beginning in the act of creating the world, but retains that freedom permanently in relation to his creation.

Although public Revelation terminated with the New Testament, God, who stands in partnership with the world and man, maintained for himself freedom of action in human history, admittedly, under the aspect of the essential qualification of the New Testament which is his eschatological dimension. Namely, God must respect the fact that with Jesus Christ the final or eschatological times have begun, which are characterized with the event of salvation that began with him. In this span of time from Christ's resurrection to his second coming, God cannot broaden revelation in the sense of making some new covenant as was the case in the Old Testament. He can only still execute the final promised intervention at the end of time by which He will bring to fulfilment the already begun salvation of the world. But before that, in different ways, he certainly can inspirationally influence the realization of that salvation in the present moment of history. One of those ways is his communication in image and word. Whoever would deny this, would call God's freedom into question, as well as the character of Christianity as a revealed religion. Therefore, the essence of private apparitions and revelations after Christ must be such that it substantially corresponds with this eschatological salvific reality."

The church has always related to these manifestations with caution, keeping in mind the New Testament warning about the discernment of spirits (1 Cor 12:10; 1 John 4:1; 1 Pet 5:8). It has already been said in the fore mentioned definition, that all manifestations in their intention are related to human salvation. This also implicitly contains the first criterion for their evaluation. Do they correspond to the regular courses of salvation or not? Do they give direction toward them or divert away from them? It is not difficult to establish whether such manifestations divert away from a healthy devotion to Jesus Christ, placing Mary at the centre of devotion in a way that competes with Christ. Furthermore, whether they lead believers to a sincere listening of the word of God and to a sacramental life. It is a known fact that, before the Council, both in Mariology and Marian devotion, one-sidedness and exaggeration was known exist. Along with this goes also a criterion in relation to the visionaries and their way of experiencing the visions. Namely, we must keep in mind that particular times are favourable to such manifestations, just as are times of world anxiety and crisis of faith. Therefore, the obligation of theology is to watch over these manifestations and to observe whether apparitions are "an empty echo in which man is listening only to himself or a response in which man is hearing God." In the same way, one should distinguish the intuitive recognition or the intellectual enlightenment that might occur during prayer or meditation, from actual visions. One should say that the caution mentioned is not the same thing as negligence toward these kind of manifestations, but, on the contrary, is the best service to them.


In regard to their purpose, theology divides visions into the mystical and the prophetic. The former exclusively refer to a particular person and his personal spiritual growth as was the case with so many mystics in the Church. Naturally, it does not exclude a particular aspect of the publicity, which such visions will obtain with the possible later public veneration of these mystics, should they be elevated to the degree of being blessed or being canonized. In that sense we could also take strictly private visions as a charism in the broader sense. In contrast to this, the prophetic visions have a public character right from the beginning. They are a gift or a charism to the individual or several individuals for the benefit of the whole church. It is required of the visionary to address his milieu and the entire Church with the message received. Gemma Galgani is taken as a typical example of the former type of vision and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque of the latter.

Observed from the point of view of the visionary's experiencing, the mystical vision is always more intense and more strongly influences changing of the visionary's personal life than is the case with the prophetic vision. That is understandable also because it is persons, who have ordinarily already achieved an enviable degree of holiness, that have mystical visions, while the bearers of prophetic visions are most frequently ordinary believers chosen entirely "by accident" and, in most cases, are children not yet fully mature for deeper mystical experiences. This is why such visions do not that strongly influence the person of the visionary, who changes personally much slower in regard to the maturity and the holiness of his personal life.

Since, in the first place, one is dealing with a charism for the sake of others, the visionary always needs somebody who is better acquainted than himself with the mysteries of the spiritual life, and who will direct him. Otherwise, there is a danger of discrepancy between the role entrusted to him and the holiness of his personal life. Due to the circumstance that these visionaries most frequently are children, their visions, (though of a physical-objective character, for which reason they are ordinarily called three dimensional), in relation to the experience of mystics (which are exclusively imaginative, that is internal mental states), nevertheless, remain more on the surface and never have a quick and rapid change of the visionary as a consequence. But the significance of this vision is in the slow change of the believers for whom the message is intended. Certainly, that effect could not be achieved if also the bearers of the message would not at the same time be changed for the better. And that they are incapable of, as we said, without the help of somebody else.


Starting from the simple fact that for God our human boundaries between the natural, parapsychological and supernatural realms do not present any kind of barrier whatsoever, and that God is acting in every good deed done by man, K. Rahner warns that the formulation "this vision originates from God" is, in fact, in itself quite indefinite and open to many meanings. Since from the viewpoint of his salvation, man can discover God's grace and inspiration for his personal salvation also in an event that can be explained in a completely natural way, "some 'vision that is able to be interpreted in a natural way,' in so far as it remains within the boundaries of Christian faith and morals, and in so far as it does not harm the mental health of the visionary, but uplifts him morally and religiously, could then be accepted as 'done by God' and as a grace, although that vision has its direct, natural foundation in psychical mechanisms . . ."

From the theological viewpoint, there is no obstacle whatsoever for God to use the completely natural possibilities of human nature for the realization of extraordinary goals with regard to human salvation. It is difficult, actually it is impossible, to answer the question, why would God always have to make use of some extraordinary means for that which he can achieve through ordinary human capabilities and possibilities. The German philosopher, Robert Spämann, criticizes the approach of modern experimental sciences to spiritual reality because of their "homogenisation of experience," i.e. due to the attempt to classify all experiences into some kind of preconceived experimental framework. Others speak of reductionism when thinking of the same manifestations, especially in modern psychology. They use the term "psychologism" by means of which "the spiritual is reduced to the mental and that again reduces to the mechanics or hydraulics of some kind of fictional 'psychical apparatus' which is later on then adopted as real. . . The very overcoming of psychologism will enable an unobstructed observation and evaluation of the spiritual in man, and, in particular, of the religious in its sovereignty."

In opposition to the tendency to immediately assign all parapsychological manifestations to the negative realm, K. Rahner wonders why the parapsychological natural capacities of telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry etc. in some religious person could not be directed in the same way as 'normal' capacities to objects of religious nature, and thus be an impetus for religiously relevant acts, and why would such acts not be allowed to be evaluated as 'done by God,' as 'grace?'

All these are important premises in order to be able correctly to evaluate also that vision, in the particular sense, that has its origin in a special divine intervention. That kind of vision, that is regularly accompanied by some special sign which is recognizable to all, is not, accordingly, the only whatsoever authentic vision. In light of that, a question indeed presents itself, "Why would not the ecclesiastical recognition of some vision make sense, even when it is limited only to the assertion that such a vision according to its content and its impact on the visionary and others, is only positive and, in that sense, that it "originates from God" or when it is a legitimate echo of the real mystical experience of the visionary which corresponds to the norms of faith and reason, without necessitating that the Church in both cases must presume the actual, miraculous intervention of God?"

According to that, even if in some vision there is no miraculous sign that clearly surpasses natural laws and the ordinary courses of events, but can in everything be interpreted as a natural and parapsychological manifestation, there is still not here that kind of theological reason to deny to such a vision all possibility of originating from God. As a matter of fact, the greatest mistake is made when everything as a whole without any distinctions is characterized too hastily as possible or impossible, as done by God or as the devil's delusion or a human illusion. For this reason, many theologians with Rahner in the lead ask for a particular "leniency" toward visionary experiences, and they are of the opinion that they can be accepted as inspired by God, even then when we cannot accept every detail in them. On the other hand, one should bear in mind that, even then when their authenticity is in some way already recognized by the church (particularly on the grounds of external criteria about which more will be said later), it does not mean thereby that every particular in the content is correct and that we must agree with it. There are cases when obviously individual errors were proven in the visions and prophecies of the saints. Johannes Torello lists three types of these manifestations and their causes:

1) the possibility that a real revelation should be misunderstood wrongly because of insufficient clarity. St. Joan of Arc in the dungeon heard a voice that, "A savoir will help" her and that, "through great victories she will obtain freedom," which she interpreted as her liberation from the dungeon which never happened.

2) It may happen that the receiver of a revelation does not notice some important condition, and he understands the message absolutely. St. Vincent Ferrer, on the basis of a certain revelations of his, prophesied the end of the world for the last 21 years of his life, and even performed miracles in confirmation of that prophecy.

3) One must not try to compare visions of historical events with the course of history in minute detail, because these kind of revelations aim only at the global and the essential. Different mystics disagreed about the number of nails with which Jesus was nailed to the cross, and they claimed equally to have seen it (St. Gertrude, St. Bridget, St Catherine of Sienna).

Even in an authentic vision, errors may occur in regard to the image and the message some person transmits. It is possible that visionaries unconsciously and accidentally connect their opinions, the desires, the suggestions of others, the hopes or fears of their environment, with the actual message. All of that can be conditioned by the circumstances of the environment, the times, the theological knowledge of the visionaries as well as by their temperament, which is particularly reflected on the manner of their transmitting the message received. . . K. Rahner mentions the piece of information that little Francisco in Fatima did not always hear everything that the Blessed Mother spoke to the visionaries, but he only saw the motion of her lips and it is not considered an argument against, but on the contrary, a good sign of the authenticity of the little visionaries.

Maybe it will not hurt to draw a parallel with the New Testament reports about the apparitions of the Risen Lord. The vision the women had at Jesus' grave Mark describes as "a young man. . . dressed in a white robe" (Mk 16:5). Matthew as "the angel of the Lord" (Matt 28:2), and Luke speaks of "two men in dazzling garments" (Luke 24:4). John is the closest to him when he mentions "two angels in white garments" (John 20:12). Biblical science has discovered in these places different theological intentions of the evangelists and the different traditions they used, but we wonder, has everything been said by that? Why do the witnesses of the Risen Lord not recognize Jesus immediately in him? Why is he "appearing in different forms" (Mark 16:12), once as a fellow traveller whom they cannot recognize because "their eyes were restrained" (Lk 24:16), another time as "spirit" (Luke 24:37) or again as "a gardener" (John 20:15)? The disciples see Jesus regularly, but they do not know that it is Jesus (John 21:4), until he begins to speak. And then, as soon as they recognize him, he disappears before their eyes. Accordingly, also even here on the basis of Revelation itself, it is not an exact seeing that is the most important thing, but the message and faith. The Risen One lets himself be experienced, but it is obvious that he nowhere gives himself completely up to man. All this tells us that apparitions and visions are generally a very complex manifestation, really difficult to describe, in which it is difficult to draw the line between the objective happening and the subjective experiencing of the visionaries. God, even when he reveals himself to men in the clearest manner, remains inexpressible - inefabilis. That is why, when there is a question of any kind of revelation, enough questions and ambiguity always remain. It cannot be otherwise, because the role of faith can never be replaced by any kind of knowledge. Faith played the decisive role in the miracles performed by Jesus, in the recognition of the Risen Lord, and also in the proclamation of the message of resurrection. It also played that kind of role in later visions and revelations. Naturally, one should guard against extremism and take care that we do not understand this meaning of faith in the sense that it was known to be used to reproach Christianity, "A miracle is the dearest child of faith!" Accordingly, it is not a faith that invents miracles, but it is faith as unconditional readiness to recognize and to accept the supernatural activity of God. Of course, it should be complimented also by the definite, objective signs, which that manifestation offers, and which fall under the criteria for discernment.


There is nothing else to apply here beside the already mentioned criteria for the discernment of spirits. The evangelist John writes thus, "Beloved, do not trust every spirit, but put the spirits to a test to see if they belong to God, because many false prophets have appeared in the world. This is how you can recognize God's spirit: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, while every spirit that fails to acknowledge him does not belong to God (1 John 4:1-3; cf 5:1-4). Admittedly, this text shows a particularity of John's community in which the heresy of gnosticism denied the incarnation of Jesus, but it can still be used as a general criterion in so far as it articulates the central significance of Jesus Christ for human salvation. The place and role of Jesus Christ in the life of the faithful is also in question with Paul in Corinth but under a different aspect. "The spirit filled Corinthians do not have a problem with false doctrine, but with the demonic machinations of pagans" which is directly felt in the virtuous life of the individuals in the community. But, in both the former and the latter case, such stimuli cannot come from the Spirit of God but only from the Evil One.

In still another place the Apostles speaks about the authentication of gifts, but again under a different aspect, namely, with regard to their usefulness for the up building of the community (1 Thess 5:19-21; cf 1 Cor 14). The more that particular gifts contribute to the up building and strengthening of the Church, the more sure it is that they are the fruit of the Spirit, but, if they tear down communion, they can be only from the Evil One. Naturally, here only a real communion of faith and charity is in question, and not any kind ideology. That is why Paul can say in another place, "There may even have to be factions among you for the tried and true to stand out clearly" (1 Cor 11:19). That is nothing else but an interpretation of the words of Jesus, "Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true; I have come for division" (Lk 12:51). In question is a complete commitment to Jesus, which some always meet with rejection.

There is one more general caution for vigilance and sobriety (1 Peter 5:8) and that is all the New Testament has to say about this delicate question. Nevertheless, though there are not many concrete words, the New Testament contains something which like a red thread runs through all of its scriptures and which present the condition for God's activity. It is that openness and readiness of acceptance in regard to the Holy Spirit that we find in Mary. That openness is founded on the readiness and availability for everything that he will give to man and demand from him.

Furthermore, the Christological dimension of salvation that has been emphasized several times, must also be the criterion here. The crucial question is, whether some particular apparition leads closer to Christ or farther away from him. Should Christ be pushed aside, no matter how much other forms of devotion be developed, one should approach that manifestation with scepticism. In other words, the closer the message is to the one of Jesus offered to us by the New Testament, the core of which is a call to conversion, the greater the possibility is for authenticity. It has already been said that revelation, which comes through private apparition, may be of just an inspirational character, in relation to what has already been contained in Revelation. Therefore, it is logical that paucity of content and brevity of message must be taken as a positive sign, especially if that message still finds a responsive chord in the people of God and brings forth fruits of conversion.


All that has been said in general about apparitions is valid in a particular way for Marian apparitions, which are the most frequent. Pope Paul VI, speaking about veneration of Mary today, emphasized that devotions to the Virgin must "clearly show the place she holds in the church." Everything Mary is, she is because of Christ and his Church and, therefore, there is no healthy Marian devotion, which does not lead to Christ and the up building of the Church. How are we to place into this context Marian apparitions, all the more frequent in the last two centuries, and how are we to evaluate them? It is possible to consider this manifestation only in the light of the already mentioned unique role and place of Mary in the church. It is impossible to consider her separately, only for herself. With everything she is, Mary is plunged into the plan of salvation and she stands in the closest relationship with the central realities of salvation, Christ as the Redeemer, and the church as the community of the redeemed.

Mary's personal holiness and her ministry in the plan of salvation are not two things that stand together just by the concurrence of circumstances, but they represent an indivisible whole. K. Rahner expressed this as the union of the personal holiness and the apostolate that necessarily arises from that holiness, by which Mary is, "the official representation of the church in an exceptional way." This connection with the church does not cease even with the termination of her earthly life. In reality, her concern for the church of her Son is even stronger there where, as the only member of the church she is already now in her glorified body, while the others are on the way to that state and are in need of help. Sagi-Bunic says nicely that also "in the council text Mary's assumption into heavenly glory is not understood as some departure and separation, but rather as the achievement of blossoming possibilities to continue in a greater way her effective role in the history of salvation, of course, in a corresponding relatedness with Christ the Lord."

Marian apparitions certainly belong among those "blossoming possibilities" and they seem to have a special place among them. Regardless of their message, already by themselves they have theological significance. Their manifestation itself is their first message. Because, in itself it proclaims the mystery of Mary's life and shows her role in the history of salvation. But again that does not happen because of Mary but because of the church. Manifesting her glory to us, Mary reveals to us our own possibilities, which the mystery of her Son Jesus presents to us. L. Scheffczyk says, "A Marian apparition in a realistic personal way places the entire mystery of Mary before the visionary and through his mediation also before believers."

Accordingly, it is not an exaggeration to say that a Marian apparition as such, in itself, is the greatest message to the church as an encouragement on her path to eternity but also as an obligation. Since the time of the church is eschatological and since Mary is the only one who does not know those eschatological tensions between the given and yet incomplete salvation, then we should always consider her activity also in this context. It will "always have a retrospective character aiming toward the mystery of Christ, but at the same time, it will be directed also into the future toward the fulfilment. That is why her apparitions have a particular eschatological dimension and tendency toward the final completion of the times," which should not be understood in the sense of a quick completion, and especially not of one that can be precisely calculated.

As the one who once and forever tied her destiny to the destiny of her Son and through him to the community of those saved, Mary cannot stand on the side while the church, together with all creation is in the "pangs of birth" (Rom 8:22). With her motherly benevolence and love, she mediates light to the Church in the trials of this world, which in the long run come from the light of Christ. As a human being, Mary can give only that which she herself received and, for that reason, her apparitions, "in essence have a character more of a dynamic impetus to the heart and will of the faithful in order to incorporate the recognized truth of Revelation at a particular time in a new way." Therefore, her apparitions have always found a responsive chord more in the hearts of the faithful than in the reflections of theologians. In light of the logic and dynamic of salvation in the Church, it is entirely understandable that Mary is the most active member of the church, for which she is at the same time by the fullness of her holiness the prototype, the mother, and the final ideal toward which she herself aspires.

Regardless of initial confusion and misunderstandings, all Marian apparitions have had a strong influence on the life of the Church, starting from the creation of new forms of devotion through the renewal of the sacramental life and all the way to the deepening of the image of the church itself and of love for it. Because veneration of Mary is really nothing else but "a form of veneration of the mystery of the Church, which sees its model in Mary and its already now accomplished form of perfection." In its essence, "The Church is nothing else but a copy of Mary. . . , a living impression of Mary's image in the Christian community." That is why Marian apparitions cannot be just a marginal manifestation for the church, but a happening of herself and, therefore, they deserve the due attention and openness of the Church.

fra Ivan Dugandzic, OFM, 1995

Dr. Fr. Ivan Dugandzic - Franciscan priest, member of the Herzegovina Franciscan province. Born 1943 in Krehin Gradac, country Citluk, Herzegovina. After graduating in Dubrovnik in 1962, he entered the Franciscan Order. He completed theological studies in Sarajevo and Koenigstein, Germany. Ordained priest in 1969. Postgraduate study and doctorate in biblical science in Wuerzburg, Germany. Since 1990 he lives and works in Zagreb. He is professor of New Testament exegesis and biblical theology at the Catholic Theological Faculty and its institutes. He has published works in technical theological reviews. He publishes in religious newspapers in a contemporary style on various biblical themes. He has lived and worked in Medjugorje on two occasions: 1970 - 1972 and 1985 - 1988.