In Comment On Secret, Pope Showed Deep Appreciation For "Private Revelations"
In his commentary on the third secret of Fatima, Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph-Cardinal Ratzinger, lent fascinating insight into his view of private revelations -- a view that appears to be at once open and at the same time highly prudent, a view that may portend acceptance or rejection of major apparitions and other such phenomena during his reign.
The commentary, which he wrote upon the Vatican's release of the famous secret in June of 2000, was also the formulation for the Vatican's interpretation of a prophecy that he saw as a symbol of suffering during the twentieth century and the trials of several popes, including the shooting of John Paul II.
In the vision, recounted by seer Lucia dos Santos, was an angel ready to torch the world for its sins, and a parade of bishops and priests climbing a mountain to a rough-hewn cross, with one of the bishops, dressed in white (like the Bishop of Rome, who is Pope), gunned down by soldiers. Cardinal Ratzinger saw that as a representation of the 1981 shooting, which was linked to Communists and in line with the rest of the Fatima secrets, centering, as they did, on the struggle with Russia.
That interpretation is now etched in stone as the official one, but just as intriguingly, alongside it, was a treatise by the future Pope on mystical phenomena in general -- revealing Benedict XVI's belief that private revelations, while not obligatory, and while not at the crux of Christian belief, are important to the Church in inspiring a deeper faith and appreciation of everything from the Bible to the liturgy.
The views are especially interesting at a time when many priests, bishops, and Church academics -- who long have viewed the Pope as one of the world's major theologians -- have shown open distaste for such alleged phenomena. That discounting of mysticism is at odds, it appears, with Benedict's view of it.
Indeed, the Pope -- saying that private revelation "is a help to faith" -- quoted a predecessor with the same name -- Benedict XIV -- who in a treatise on beatification and canonization implied the same prudent acceptance.
"Because the single Revelation of God addressed to all people comes to completion with Christ and the witness borne to Him in the books of the New Testament, the Church is tied to this unique event of sacred history and to the Word of the Bible, but this does not mean that the Church can now look only to the past and that she is condemned to sterile repetition," wrote then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the Fatima commentary. "The way in which the Church is bound to both the uniqueness of the event and progress in understanding it is very well illustrated in the farewell discourse of the Lord" (when, taking leave of His disciples, He said He had yet many things to say to them, and would send the Holy Spirit, John 16:12-14).
A private revelation can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time, wrote the Pope in 2000, "therefore it should not be disregarded. It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use."
Showing deep insights into such revelations, Benedict XVI warned that missives from Heaven are filtered through the consciousness of those who receive them, and that interior visions and locutions are more problematic than what seem like exterior apparitions -- even though the latter can also be distorted by the preconceptions of the visionary.
This is why, said Cardinal Ratzinger, that children tend to receive apparitions. "Their souls are as yet little disturbed, their interior powers of perception are still not impaired," he stated.
"Interior vision," emphasized the Pope, "is not fantasy but, as we have said, a true and valid means of verification. But it also has its limitations. Even in exterior vision the subjective element is always present. We do not see the pure object, but it comes to us through the filter of our senses, which carry out the work of translation."
Indeed, he indicated the possibility that even some of Fatima seer Lucia dos Santos's conveyances were influenced by popular piety.
Citing the role of private revelations in instituting such effects on the liturgy as establishment of the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the future Pope pointed out that such revelations are not only valid but contained in "perhaps the oldest of the New Testament texts," the First Letter to the Thessalonians, which admonishes the faithful, "do not despise prophesying, but test everything, holding fast to what is good (5:19-21).
In the scientific West, a straying from Scripture and a replacement of it with philosophy, especially in seminaries, has led to a climate that is often skeptical and even hostile to such revelations. Thus far, no apparition has ever been formally approved in the United States. Several have been rejected or even condemned.
"The prophetic word is a warning or a consolation, or both together," wrote Benedict in his commentary on the third secret. "In this sense there is a link between the charism of prophecy and the category of 'the signs of the times,' which Vatican II brought to light anew."
Private revelations approved by the Church, said the Pope, "help us to understand the signs of the times and to respond to them rightly in faith."
That assistance has taken the form of a huge "Marian movement" around the world and an appreciation of apparitions that reaches its height with situations such as Fatima, Lourdes, Medjugorje, and Guadalupe in Mexico City -- which some years attracts as many visitors as St. Peter's Basilica.
While concerned about the potential falsity of some cases, Pope Benedict XVI, as prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, saved from one such major situation, Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina, from a bishop's condemnation. His current position on the apparition is not known.
But one must be very cautious, says the Pope, especially with messages that pander to a curiosity about the future and "the desire for novelty," looking instead for whether a message orients one toward Scripture, the liturgy, and Jesus.
In viewing the third secret, the Pope clearly saw it as representing "the threat of judgment" (another notion that has been rejected by Western modernists) and points out that the purpose of prophecy is not so much to predict the future as declare the Will of God at a particular moment and indicate what could happen if sin progresses and dangers are not countered by prayer. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that John Paul II's survival from the 1981 assassination attempt was an example. Prayer came to his rescue, despite Sister Lucia's interpretation that the Pope felled by bullets in the secret dies.
Sister Lucia herself was seen as one of the most credible and circumspect of seers in history, cloistering herself and living in strict obedience to her bishop until her death earlier this year. Pope Benedict quoted a theologian who said there are three elements to Church approval of an apparition like Fatima. Such occurs, he said, when it is found that the message contains nothing contrary to the faith or morals, determined as "lawful" to be made public, and it is declared that the faithful are authorized "to accept it with prudence."
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