As visionaries begin to fade from the scene, the question remains: how many were real?

by Michael H. Brown

         In the aftermath of Medjugorje, within years of word that the Virgin Mary had appeared in that remote hillside territory in former Yugoslavia, hundreds if not thousands of others have claimed similar experiences. As was the case with Lourdes, there was a deluge of seers.

         Now, as what may be another "sign of the times," these seers have largely vanished, leaving us with the simple question: How many were real? What has been going on during the past 15 years? 

         That was about when it began: in the mid-1980s. While seers rose nearly immediately in Yugoslavia itself, it was from 1985 through the 1990s that the world and particularly the United States were swept into a flurry of visionaries. 

         I have counted at least 40 nations with apparitional claims and have estimated that at least ten percent of the American parishes had someone who was alleging locutions (the hearing of a voice), which comes to at least 2,000 churches. I remember one city that had at least five well-known seers. They healed. They prophesied. They exuded oil. In some cases, they developed what looked like stigmata. The range was breathtaking. Was it a ruse of the devil (as at Lourdes, where the legitimate apparitions of Bernadette were all but drowned out by a cacophony of false ones), or was it an outpouring of the Spirit?

         Was it a combination?

          Some of them were strange and even hair-raising. In 1992 in California I met a young executive who claimed she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Her stomach had weirdly inflated, a condition known to psychiatrists as pseudocyesis or "phantom pregnancy." In another case I was appalled as the face of an alleged seer transfigured into what look like a hag during her "apparition." 

         Others seemed like legitimate manifestations of the Virgin Mary. Or at least a mix. While Medjugorje, like Lourdes and Fatima, is a powerful "first-tier" apparition, the many that followed have been less conclusive and present us with gray areas. 

         Sometimes it seemed like a seer was in touch with heaven and at other times with his or her subconscious. 

         I have seen this time and again, and that's why Scripture tells us the following: We are not to stifle the Holy Spirit and we are not to despise prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22) -- but at the same time we are to "test everything" and retain from a seer only what seems good. Mystics are not always right, but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Pope himself has received dozens of seers, at least informally, and while the mainstream media hardly mention it, John Paul himself is often prone to prophetic utterances.

         But what of all the other seers? Many are no longer with us. In the last ten years bishops have rejected at least seven major cases. At the same time an even greater number of alleged locutionists have left after positing predictions that didn't pan out. Every year, and especially during Lent, have been prophecies of particular events occurring at such and such time. Other predictions were tied and died with the year 2000.

         This in itself is a sign: the field is beginning to clear. When the dust settles the real prophecies will be known and events, already starting up, will intensify. 

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