Since May, the Church has observed the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portgual. It is there that Mary called herself “Our Lady of the Rosary,” and since then she has been known with affection as Our Lady of Fatima.
Yet what are Catholics today to make of these apparitions from a century ago? While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not talk about Fatima per se, it does give guidelines for understanding apparitions.
Let’s first define apparition. The supplemental glossary in the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an apparition as “an appearance to people on earth of a heavenly being — Christ, Mary, an angel, or a saint.” For example, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in his risen body, these post-resurrection appearances are referred to as apparitions. Jesus’ apparition to Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul the Apostle) on the road to Damascus is another example (see CCC, 659).
So, what about these apparitions of Mary, and those of an angel, at Fatima? Are these worthy of belief today? The short answer is that they may help to build your faith. And yes, they are worthy of belief.
The apparitions of Fatima are what the Church labels as private revelation. That would indicate there is such a thing as public revelation. We’ll examine both theological terms.
Public versus private revelation
Public revelation, or divine revelation, is God revealing himself to humanity. The Church teaches that public revelation, as revealed in salvation history, was perfected and completed in Jesus Christ.
“The Christian economy … since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” [see Dei Verbum 4; see also 1 Timothy 6:14; Titus 2:13]. Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries (CCC, 66).
The Church has long taught that public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, as the Apostles faithfully taught Jesus’ message. The Church carefully guards its deposit of faith, awaiting its fulfillment in the final coming of Christ.
Yet while the Church maintains that “no new public revelation is to be expected,” the possibility for private revelation continues. However, not all private revelation is viewed as authentic.
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.
Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations” (CCC, 67).
The Church teaches that alleged private revelations cannot supersede, change, or improve what has already been revealed through public revelation, of which Jesus Christ is the final Word. This argues against new age mystics, or psychics predicting futures or reading palms. It also rejects as inauthentic the revelations of non-Christian religions such as the words of Mohammed in the Koran, or Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.
Church-approved private revelation
So why are Fatima and other Church-approved apparitions considered authentic, or worthy of belief? It is because, based upon investigation, the revelations have a supernatural source. They also bear good fruit: They do not contradict public revelation, and they call others to a deepening of faith in what has already been revealed.
St. Thomas Aquinas writes that private revelation does not offer a “declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but … the direction of human acts.” This includes, for example, private revelations such as those given to certain saints concerning the devotions to the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, or the Miraculous Medal. It also relates to the apparitions of Mary to the children at Fatima. There Mary called for deeper piety and penance — spiritual directives for human action — as Aquinas teaches.
The Church, therefore, views the message of Fatima — as testified by the numerous papal visits to the site — as a means of building up the faithful.
TO LEARN MORE
(For details about the history, message, and miracle of Fatima, consult Fr. Edward Looney’s article and Diana von Glahn’s travel feature. Tom Hoopes reflects on the July 13, 1917, apparition here and has a reflection about the Sept. 13, 1917, apparition here. Steven Greydanus writes about Fatima at the movies here.)