& Private Revelations:
Definition of Terms:
Apparitions refer to reported supernatural appearances of heavenly beings, especially the Virgin Mary or other saints, to individuals or groups. These apparitions are believed to convey specific messages, offer guidance, or call for prayer and repentance. The Catholic Church treats such claims with caution and investigates them thoroughly before offering any official recognition. While the Church acknowledges that private revelations are possible and are within God’s providence, it encourages the use of caution and conducts investigations to determine whether the content of an apparition is indeed supernatural and “worthy of belief”.
As part of the criteria for this determination, the Apparition must not introduce new doctrines but rather reinforce and emphasize existing teachings. It may include relevant insights to existing teachings, but often is a call for repentance, prayer, and devotion to God. The Catholic Church exercises careful discernment when investigating apparitions and, while a number of Marian apparitions are approved or received positive judgments, many receive no-decision or even negative judgments from the church. Lay Catholics are also reminded to discern the fruits of apparitions and not let them replace their primary focus on Christ and the Gospel. Through discernment and adherence to the Scriptures, the Catholic Church seeks to ensure that apparitions are in harmony with the Gospel and do not lead to idolatry or detract from the centrality of Christ in the faith.
God’s allowance of apparitions is understood as an expression of His love and concern for His people. They serve as signs of His providence, offering guidance and consolation to believers during times of spiritual need. Apparitions can also be a way for God to call people to deeper conversion and faith. While the concept of apparitions is not explicitly outlined in the Bible, there are biblical instances of supernatural visions and encounters with heavenly beings. During the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. At the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9), Moses and Elijah appear before Peter, James, and John, and speak with Jesus. God’s ability to communicate through visions, dreams, and supernatural appearances is evident in various biblical narratives.
While the term “apparitions” may not have been used in the same way as it is in later Catholic tradition, the accounts of visionary experiences align with the concept of heavenly encounters and communications that are also seen in later apparitions of the Virgin Mary and other saints. While the Church Fathers‘ accounts of apparitions may not be as extensive or detailed as later accounts, such as with Marian apparitions, they demonstrate the early Christian belief in God’s ability to communicate and reveal Himself to His people through various extraordinary means.
The “Shepherd of Hermas” is an apocalyptic and visionary work, attributed to Hermas, a Christian in Rome during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In this text, the author describes visionary experiences in the form of dialogues with heavenly beings, including an angelic figure and a virgin who reveals messages to the author. St. Perpetua (203 A.D.), along with her fellow martyr St. Felicity, is said to have had a vision of her deceased younger brother who had died unbaptized. In the vision, she saw him in a state of happiness, which provided her comfort and assurance.
St. Macrina the Younger (4th century), sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, is said to have had a vision of her deceased mother, St. Macrina the Elder. In the vision, her mother appeared radiant and surrounded by light, reassuring her about the afterlife. In Book IX of his “Confessions,” Augustine recounts the vision of St. Ambrose’s voice, which led to his conversion. He describes the vision as a “rushing light” that dispelled his doubts and led him to embrace Christianity.
One of the earliest recorded instances of a Marian apparition is associated with the reported apparition at the Pillar of Mary in Saragossa, Spain, in the early 1st century. According to tradition, Mary appeared to Saint James the Great, who was struggling to evangelize in the region. The earliest account of this apparition can be traced back to the 4th century in a work attributed to Saint Ambrose of Milan. In his work “De Virginitate” (On Virginity), Ambrose recounts the tradition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, appearing to James atop a pillar (column) while he was praying by the Ebro River in Saragossa. She encouraged him and assured him of divine support in his missionary efforts. This apparition bolstered James’ faith and strengthened his resolve to continue spreading Christianity in Spain. The devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar) grew over the centuries, and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Saragossa, built over the supposed site of the apparition, became an important pilgrimage site. The basilica is one of the oldest Marian shrines in the world and continues to attract pilgrims and visitors to this day.
In “The Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus” written by St. Gregory of Nyssa, there is an account of an apparition involving two figures. According to the biography, when St. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a young man seeking to deepen his knowledge of philosophy and the sciences, he had a vision of two divine figures – the Apostle John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary. They appeared to him in his sleep, offering him spiritual guidance and blessings. In this vision, St. John gave him a copy of the Gospel of St. Matthew and the reassurance that he would be instructed in divine wisdom. The Virgin Mary blessed him and entrusted him to the care of St. John. This vision was said to have a profound impact on St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, leading him to turn away from worldly pursuits and dedicate his life to Christian discipleship and ministry.
Our Lady of the Snows (Our Lady of the Liberian Basilica) is associated with the construction of the Liberian Basilica (now known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome in the 4th century. According to tradition, Mary appeared to Pope Liberius (352-366 AD) and a wealthy Roman couple in a dream, instructing them to build a church where snow fell on the Esquiline Hill in August. The following day, snow miraculously covered the designated area despite it being the height of summer, and the basilica was built in the spot indicated by the apparition.
Another early recorded apparition of the Virgin Mary belongs to St. Mary of Egypt (5th-6th centuries), who was a repentant prostitute turned ascetic. She is known for her hagiographical account in which she describes a vision of the Virgin Mary guiding her to a life of penance and devotion in the desert.
There are other early recorded mentions of Mary appearing in Christian tradition. While the accounts of these apparitions may vary in their historical credibility, they have played a significant role in shaping Marian devotion throughout history. Accounts of Marian apparitions have continued to the present day. Because they are private revelations, their content and promises are not essential to the faith and Catholics are not required to believe them, however, they have remained a great source of popular devotion;
- Our Lady of Guadalupe: In 1531, an apparition of Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man in Mexico. She instructed him to tell the local bishop to build a church in her honor. As a sign, she caused roses to bloom in a barren spot, and when Juan Diego presented these roses to the bishop, the image of Mary appeared on his cloak. This image, known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, became one of the most venerated Marian images in the world and holds great importance in Mexican and Latin American culture.
- Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces (1830): St. Catherine Labouré, a French nun, claimed to have received visions of the Virgin Mary at the convent of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. The details of these visions were recorded in her own words and became associated with the Miraculous Medal.
- Our Lady of Lourdes: In 1858, a series of apparitions occurred in Lourdes, France, to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous. Mary appeared to Bernadette 18 times, identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception. During one of the apparitions, a spring of water with healing properties emerged from the ground, leading to numerous reported miracles. Today, Lourdes is a major pilgrimage site for those seeking healing and spiritual solace.
- Our Lady of Fatima (1917): Three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal—Lucia dos Santos, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto—claimed to have experienced a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. These visions included messages about prayer, penance, and peace. The apparitions culminated with the Miracle of the Sun, an astronomical phenomenon witnessed by a crowd of approximately 70,000 people, and even by others located miles away.
- Our Lady of Graces (1936): Maria da Luz, 13 years old, and Maria da Conceição, 16 years old, were walking in fear of encountering thieves cangaceiros along the way. The two girls then saw a woman with a baby in her arms, surrounded by luminous rays. The girls asked her her name and she replied “I am grace”. At this, they recognized that the woman they saw was Mary and her child that she was carrying with her was Jesus. In the days that followed, Mary revealed to the girls that she had appeared to them to warn them of the danger of communism and to warn the people to do penance and to devote themselves to the heart of Jesus. To prove his presence, he made clear, crystalline water come out of a dry rock, stating that those who would drink from it would be cured of their illnesses. The last apparition occurred in 1985 to Maria da Luz, who later became a nun and adopted the religious name Adélia. At that time she was suffering from terminal cancer and was cured after witnessing a new apparition.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”
1 Thessalonians 5:19–21
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good”
“These signs will accompany those who believe.’ . . . And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”
Church Father Quotes:
The Shepherd of Hermas
“The vision which I saw, my brethren, was of the following nature . . . [An] old woman approached, accompanied by six young men . . . [And] she said to me . . . ‘Lo! do you not see opposite to you a great tower, built upon the waters, of splendid square stones?’ For the tower was built square by the six young men who had come with her. . . . [And the woman said:] ‘The tower which you see building is myself, the Church . . . the tower is built upon the waters . . . because your life has been and will be “saved through water” [1 Pet. 3:20–21] .’” (The Shepherd 1:3:1–8 [A.D. 80]).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
“While he [Polycarp] was thus at his prayers, three days before his arrest, he had a vision in which he saw flames reducing his pillow to ashes; whereupon he turned to his companions and said, ‘I must be going to be burnt alive.’ . .” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 5, 12 [A.D. 155]).
“When he [Polycarp] had . . . finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire [to burn him to death]. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we to whom it was given to witness it beheld a great miracle and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within, not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odor, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 15–16 [A.D. 155]).
“For the prophetical gifts remain with us [Christians], even to the present time. And hence you [Jews] ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 82 [A.D. 155]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church who possess prophetic gifts and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages and who bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God” (Against Heresies 5:6:1 [A.D. 189]).
Eusebius of Caesarea
“And while he [the Emperor Constantine] was praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history [Eusebius], when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after-time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes a trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, ‘Conquer By This.’ At this sight he was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1:28–32 [A.D. 337]).
“The citizens of that parish [in Alexandria] mention many other miracles of Narcissus . . . among which they relate the following wonder as performed by him. . . . [T]he oil once failed while the deacons were watching through the night at the great Paschal Vigil. Thereupon, the whole multitude being dismayed, Narcissus directed those who attended to the lights to draw water and bring it to him. This being immediately done he prayed over the water and with firm faith in the Lord commanded them to pour it into the lamps. And when they had done so, contrary to all expectation, by a wonderful and divine power the nature of the water was changed into that of oil. A small portion of it has been preserved even to our day by many of the brethren there as a memento of the wonder” (Church History 6:9:1–3 [A.D. 312]).
Basil the Great
“But where shall I rank the great Gregory [the Wonderworker] and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among the apostles and prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they? . . . For by the fellow-working of the Spirit, the power which he had over demons was tremendous. . . . He too by Christ’s mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course and caused a lake . . . to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no way to fall short of the great prophets” (The Holy Spirit 74 [A.D. 375]).
Ambrose of Milan
“As I do not wish anything which takes place here in your absence to escape the knowledge of your holiness [my sister], you must know that we have found some bodies of holy martyrs. . . . All the bones were perfect. . . . Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on, transferred them to the basilica of Fausta. . . . On the following morning we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. . .. He declares that when he touched the hem of the robe of the martyrs, wherewith the sacred relics were covered, his sight was restored” (Letters 22:1–2, 17 [A.D. 388]).
Jerome of Stridon
“[A woman with three sick children came to Hilarion and] on reaching the saint she said: ‘I pray you by Jesus our most merciful God . . . to restore to me my three sons, so that the name of our Lord and Savior may be glorified in the city of the Gentiles. . . On coming thither he made the sign of the cross over the bed and fevered limbs of each [child] and called upon the name of Jesus. Marvelous efficacy of the name! . . . In that very hour they took food, recognized the mourning mother, and with thanks to God warmly kissed the saint’s hands” (Life of St. Hilarion 14 [A.D. 390]).
Augustine of Hippo
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints . . . The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there . . . [and when people] had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream and discovered by him” (City of God 22:8 [A.D. 419]).
“In the same city of Carthage lived Innocentia, a very devout woman of the highest rank in the state. She had cancer in one of her breasts, a disease which, as physicians say, is incurable. . . . This lady we speak of had been advised by a skillful physician, who was intimate with her family, and she betook herself to God alone in prayer. On the approach of Easter, she was instructed in a dream to wait for the first woman that came out of the baptistery after being baptized and to have her make the sign of Christ upon the sore. She did so, and was immediately cured” (The City of God 22:8 [A.D. 419]).
“A certain man by [the] name Curma [was in a coma] . . . Yet he was seeing many things as in a dream; when at last after a great many days he woke up, he told that he had seen. . . . [He also saw] Hippo, where he was seemingly baptized by me . . . After much that he saw, he narrated how he had, moreover, been led into paradise and how it was there said to him, when he was dismissed to return to his own family, ‘Go, be baptized if you want to be in this place of the blessed.’ . . . He was baptized [and] at the close of the holy days [of Easter] returned to his own place.” (The Care to be Had for the Dead 15 [A.D. 421]).
“Gregory of Nazianz presided over those who maintain the consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity, and assembled them together in a little dwelling, which had been altered into the form of a house of prayer, by those who held the same opinions and had a like form of worship. It subsequently became one of the most conspicuous in the city, and is so now, not only for the beauty and number of its structures, but also for the advantages accruing to it from the visible manifestations of God. For the power of God was there manifested, and was helpful both in waking visions and in dreams, often for the relief of many diseases and for those afflicted by some sudden transmutation in their affairs. The power was accredited to Mary, the Mother of God, the holy Virgin, for she does manifest herself in this way” (Church History 7:5 [A.D. 444]).
Patrick of Ireland
“And there truly [in Ireland] one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me, ‘You fast well; soon you will go to your fatherland.’ And again, after I very short time, I heard the heavenly voice saying to me, ‘Lo, your ship is ready.’ And it was not near at hand, but was distant, perhaps two hundred miles. And I had never been there, nor did I know any person living there. And thereupon I shortly took flight and left the man with whom I had been for six years. And I came in the strength of God, who prospered my way for good; and I met with nothing to alarm me until I reached that ship” (Confession of St. Patrick 17 [A.D. 452]).
“Let those who will, laugh and mock. I shall not be silent nor conceal the signs and wonders which were shown to me by the Lord many years before they came to pass, since he knows all things even before the world’s beginnings” (ibid., 45).
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, and Catholic theologian.
”It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him.
He has willed to make himself . . . appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not.” –Pensee 430