On February 11, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in commemoration of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The feast was instituted in 1907 by Pope St. Pius X who also called for the establishment of a medical bureau to investigate claims of miracles at the apparition site. Over the years, there have been over 7,000 miraculous healings attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes but only 70 miracles have been officially recognized by the Church following thorough investigation. Regardless of the specific number of miracles, the appearances of Our Lady in Lourdes, France continue to be a source of inspiration, exhortation, affirmation, and comfort for millions of the Catholic faithful.
Apparitions such as Our Lady of Lourdes are considered to belong to the category of private revelations. Some other popular, Church-approved apparitions include Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and Our Lady of Knock. They usually involve Our Lady, Our Lord, or one of the saints appearing to a person or group of people and often include some sort of simple message that is appropriate to the person or people and to the historical period. Since these apparitions can be quite compelling and can capture the imagination of the faithful, the Church in her motherly wisdom has provided some guidance in how to interpret and understand private revelations.
The Church makes a very clear distinction between public revelation and private revelations. As we know from the doctrine of the faith, we can come to know public revelation through three means that all work in conjunction with each other: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Magisterial teaching. Remember that the Magisterium consists of the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him. Notice what is missing from the means of public revelation – apparitions. Apparitions and private revelations, while they can be awe-inspiring and can include helpful messages, are not included in public revelation even if they are approved for veneration in the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following in paragraph 67: “Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.” This means that the faithful should never regard private revelations, even those recognized by Church authority, as being on the same level as public revelation. As the Catechism states in paragraph 66, “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There are no private revelations that add to, correct, or complete anything that is already contained in public revelation.
How then should we regard private revelations such as Our Lady of Lourdes? We should listen to the message of Our Lady in the historical context of Lourdes at the time of the apparitions and see how the same message might apply today. Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette at a time when France had already experienced the French Revolution and there were secular attempts to dechristianize France. There were a number of Catholics experiencing a loss of faith while priests and religious were leaving their vocations. Our Lady thus provides St. Bernadette with the spiritual tools to counteract this movement of secularization, namely prayer and penance. The Blessed Mother shows the great love and mercy that she has for souls and for all her children as she asks Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners. She teaches us that the proper response to the enemies of the Church and to those who persecute Christians is not fear, anger, rage, hatred, or violence, but love, kindness, and mercy. As Our Lord teaches us at the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), we are called to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. This is an important lesson for all of us today. We might not experience anything as dramatic as the French Revolution, but we should always show love, kindness, and compassion towards those who mock people of faith and towards those who are inimical towards the Church. We should pray and do penance for such people. The conversion of sinners is not brought about through force, bitterness, hatred, arrogance, or violence but through love. Our Lady gives us an example of how we should love those who hate us by recognizing their inherent human dignity, praying for them, offering sacrifices for them, and showing them acts of kindness. We should always remember what the first pope teaches us: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA