Apparitions, Miracles, & Private Revelations
A miracle is a discernible, divine act that is beyond the natural order and manifests some aspect of God’s power and love. Many Christians see miracles in almost every aspect of life -which can be true in a sense- but a true miracle cannot be explained by the action of created beings. When the Church investigates whether or not a phenomenon is miraculous, all natural possibilities must first be eliminated. Each claim of the miraculous must be rationally scrutinized through a discernment process in which the Church often employs non-believing, and preferably skeptical, experts in any pertinent areas. The discernability of a miracle must be able to be qualified and in some way accessible to the senses.
It should be understood that miracles are not a violation of the laws of Nature. The laws of nature express what things are capable of exhibiting by virtue of their inherent causal tendencies or dispositions. In other words, the laws of nature are descriptions of what objects are capable of producing by virtue of their nature. Miracles are supernatural occurrences brought about only by God’s direct causal activity and not by natural forces operative in created objects. A miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is above the known laws of nature and outside the ordinary course of nature. However, God does not act in such a way as to make it impossible to deny His existence. Such a grotesque use of miracles could be coercive in limiting our ability to choose Him freely. Without such freedom there is no true love as we understand it. Miracles are not intended to convince beyond doubt, but are rather aids to those who honestly seek truth.
Another important note is that a miracle is always a divine act. That means God is its principal cause, even if he uses intermediaries such as prophets, apostles, or other saints as instrumental causes. In the Bible, as in church history, we learn that inanimate things can be instruments of Divine power, not through any excellence of their own, but through a special relation to God. Such objects are called holy relics. Examples are the mantle of Elias (IV Kings, ii), the body of Eliseus (IV Kings, xiii), the hem of Christ’s garment (Matthew, ix), the handkerchiefs of St. Paul (Acts, xix, 12); the brazen serpent (Num., xxi); the Ark of the Covenant (Dan., v); and holy places like the Temple of Jerusalem (II Par., vi, vii), and the waters of the Jordan (IV Kings, v).
Apparitions are not miracles themselves, although miracles are often associated with them. “Apparition” is when a heavenly being—Christ, Mary, another saint, or an angel—makes himself known to human senses. There are many instances of apparitions within the Bible, including when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, when Samuel appeared to king Saul, the angel at the Annunciation, the Nativity, when Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus, Peter, James, and John on the Mount, the Resurrection, and John’s vision in the book of Revelation. The majority of reported apparitions are fraudulent or delusional in nature and are easily spotted as self-proclaimed visionaries that are eager to give interviews and “prophesy”. The genuine cases always involve modest individuals who try to avoid conversation on the topic and try to escape notice. You can know a tree by the fruit it bears and some apparitions have resulted in conversions to Jesus Christ by the millions. When Our Lady appeared in Guadalupe, 8 million pagans converted to Catholic Christianity, some from pagan religions that still engaged in human sacrifice. There are many times miracles of some kind that also accompany genuine apparitions and act as a sort of authentication. The strongest indicator, however, is whether or not it contradicts already revealed truth in that of the Bible or Sacred Tradition.
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. But myriads of men were carrying stones to it, some dragging them from the depths, others removing them from the land, and they handed them to these six young men. . . . [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 six young men . . . are the holy angels of God . . . the other persons who are engaged in carrying the stones . . . also are holy angels of the Lord . . . [And] when the tower is finished and built, then comes the end’” (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.’ . . . [After his arrest, the crowd called] loud demands for the Asiarch Philip to let loose a lion at Polycarp. However, he told them that the rules would not allow him to do so, since he had already declared the beast-fighting closed; whereupon they decided to set up a unanimous outcry that he should have Polycarp burnt alive” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 5, 12 [A.D. 155]).
“Polycarp was . . . bishop of the Catholic Church at Smyrna, and a teacher in our own day who combined both apostle and prophet in his own person. For indeed, every word that ever fell from his lips either has had or will have its fulfillment” (ibid., 16).
“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]).
Constantine the Great
“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. He said [to me], moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies. . . . [B]eing struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of [God’s] doctrines and inquired who that God was and what was intended by the sign of the vision he had seen” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1:28–32 [A.D. 337]).
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]).
“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.’ Thereupon being admonished to be baptized by me, he said it was done already. He who was talking with him replied, ‘Go, be truly baptized, for you only saw that in a vision.’ After this he recovered, went his way to Hippo. . . . He was baptized [and] at the close of the holy days [of Easter] returned to his own place . . . Why should we not believe these to be angelic operations through the dispensation of the providence of God?” (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]).
“And once more, after a few years, I was in Britain with my family. . . . And there indeed I saw in a vision of the night a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with countless letters. He gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter, which was entitled ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And while I was reading aloud the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voices of those who dwelt beside the Wood of Foclut [in Ireland], which is nigh unto the Western Sea. And thus they cried, as with one mouth, ‘We beseech you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us!’” (ibid., 23).
“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).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
“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. At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished, and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 15–16 [A.D. 155]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“[Heretics are] so far . . . from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the [Catholic] brotherhood on account of some necessity. The entire church in that particular locality entreating with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints” (Against Heresies 2:31:2–4 [A.D. 189]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“When a scorpion stings someone’s heel] we have faith for a defense, if we are not smitten with distrust itself also, in immediately making the sign [of the cross] and adjuring and besmearing the heel with the beast. Finally, we often aid in this way even the heathen, seeing we have been endowed by God with that power which the apostle [Paul] first used when he despised the viper’s bite [Acts 28:3-5]” (Antidote Against the Scorpion 1 [A.D. 211]).
Eusebius of Caesarea
“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]).
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. . . . [Arians] deny that the blind man received sight, but he denies not that he is healed. He says: ‘I, who could not see, now see,’ and proves it by the fact. . . . 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]).
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]).
“[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. Then shall his servants enter Gaza and the idol Marnas shall fall to the ground.’ At first he refused and said that he never left his cell . . . [but] the woman did not leave him till he promised he would enter Gaza after sunset. 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]).
“[I]n our generation, in the case of him who surpassed all in ungodliness, I mean [the Emperor] Julian, many strange things happened. Thus, when the Jews were attempting to raise up again the temple at Jerusalem, fire burst out from the foundations and utterly hindered them all; and when both his treasurer and his uncle and namesake made the sacred vessels the subject of their open insolence, one was eaten with worms and gave up the ghost, the other burst apart in the middle. Moreover, the fountains failing when sacrifices were made there and the entrance of famine into the cities together with the emperor himself was a very great sign. For it is usual with God to do such things when evils are multiplied” (Homilies on Matthew 4:2 [A.D. 391]).
Augustine of Hippo
“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]).
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints. . . . But who but a very small number are aware of the cure which was wrought upon Innocentius . . . a cure wrought at Carthage, in my presence, and under my own eyes? . . . For he and all his household were devotedly pious. He was being treated by medical men for fistulae, of which he had a large number. . . . He had already undergone an operation but clearly needed another. . . . [H]e cast himself down . . . and began to pray; but in what a manner, with what earnestness and emotion, with what a flood of tears, with what groans and sobs, that shook his whole body and almost prevented him speaking. . . . [And when the] surgeons arrived, all that the circumstances required was ready; the frightful instruments were produced; all look on in wonder and suspense. . . . [But the surgeon] finds a perfectly firm scar! No words of mine can describe the joy, and praise, and thanksgiving to the merciful and almighty God, which was poured from the lips of all with tears of gladness” (ibid.).
“A gouty doctor of the same city, when he had given his name for baptism and had been forbidden the day before his baptism from being baptized that year by black woolly-haired boys who appeared to him in his dreams (and whom he understood to be devils), and when . . . he refused to obey them but overcame them and would not defer being washed in the laver of regeneration, was relieved in the very act of baptism, not only of the extraordinary pain he was tortured with, but also of the disease itself” (ibid.).
“What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work that I cannot record all the miracles I know, and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me and to consider how long it would take me to
relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. . . . Even now, therefore, many miracles are wrought, the same God who wrought those we read of [in the Bible is] still performing them, by whom he will and as he will” (ibid.).
Pope Gregory I
“I determined, through the aid of your prayers for me, to send . . . a monk of my monastery for the purpose of preaching [to the heathen in Anglia]. And he, having with my leave been made bishop by the bishops of Germany, proceeded with their aid also to the end of the world to the aforesaid nation, and already letters have reached us telling us of his safety and his work, to the effect that he and those that have been sent with him are resplendent with such great miracles in the said nation that they seem to imitate the powers of the apostles in the signs they display” (Letters 30 [A.D. 597]).
“I have given some instructions to Boniface, the guardian who is the bearer of these presents, for him to communicate to your holiness in private. Moreover, I have sent you keys of the blessed apostle Peter, who loves you, which are wont to shine forth with many miracles when placed on the bodies of sick persons” (ibid., 26).
Additional Quotes on Miracles:
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