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Discernment of Apparition Claims

Official Church Statements


answered by Michael H. Brown
In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of alleged apparitions, locutions, stigmatics, and healers. Which are real and which are not?

I would never attempt such a list, because I don't have the authority to do so. We simply go by what the Church has decided, unless there is not yet a decision, in which case we try to exercise discernment.

How do you tell if an apparition is real?

This is one of the hardest questions in the world to answer. The process of what we call "discernment" is intensely complex. It's also very personal. There is no formula. Some apparitions miss certain criteria and yet bear signs of authenticity while others seem to fill most standards but have problems at their very root. In the end, only through prayer and fasting can we get a true inkling. It is the spirit -- not the mind -- that discerns.

You mean a "gut feeling"?

No. I mean a feeling in the depths of the spirit after a period of fasting. When we fast, we are more sensitive to evil. We are more likely to know if it is present. This is very important.

But aren't there some tips to discernment?

In the Bible it says that "by their fruits you will know them," and so this is certainly one major facet. But we have to be careful about what we consider "fruits." I have seen many cases in which people adhering to what turned out to be a deceptive circumstance had a great first impression, or even found the visit a major step in their return to the faith, to their conversion. God can take good from evil. He can draw with crooked lines. It is for that reason that we must be careful in speaking negatively about a circumstance, even if there are indications of problems; we don't want to discourage those who have had good experiences.

Are there often problems?

Most claims of apparitions, visions, or locutions are a mix -- in other words, there are parts that seem inspired, parts that come from the person's subconscious, and parts that may be from a source that is deceptive or demonic. All of us are in touch with God and those who feel they have a special "line" of communication may in some cases have such a special gift, although too frequently this leads to ego, and ego leads to a person putting his or her own spin on what they think they have been "told." This is very common, and why so many predictions do not materialize: The prophecy was not a direct communication but filtered through the ideas, preconceptions, and feelings of a person. It is the demonic component that of course concerns us the most. A demonic influence can cause not only spiritual trickery but also deep discouragement, division, and illness.

Is divisiveness a standard of discernment?

Certainly, it's one. Now, remember that even with the authentic apparitions like Fatima or Lourdes or Medjugorje, which the Pope discerned as worthy of devotion (in recently publicized private letters), there is resistance. There is spiritual warfare. And that can lead to division. There will be some division. But that division usually is far outweighed by good fruits such as conversion. If division is the main effect, or if there is constant, lasting rancor, and a lack of peace, then there is a problem with the apparitions. We can also say to watch out for pride among the seers, attempts at self-promotion, and the spawning of a cult-like following. Cults in the bad sense of that term are a bad fruit (there are also holy cults, when proclaimed as such by Rome). Those who begin to exclude others because they don't believe in a certain apparition are not in tune with the Holy Spirit, Who tells us through the Church that we don't have to accept a private revelation. Meanwhile, we must watch for prophecies that are too gloomy and dark, that give messages of tremendous specificity, that ramble on at great length, and that contain messages threatening people who don't believe in the particular revelation. There are some messages that have denounced anyone who won't help purvey a private revelation. As soon as I see that, I know there is deception.

What about those that mention the anti-christ?

We have to weigh these with special caution. In my discernment there is truth to the coming of a personage of evil, and certainly major events, but we have to be cautious about believing that the coming scenario will exactly fit the scenarios spawned by those who have speculated on specific end-times schedules. Are we in the end times? We are at the end of an era. It is a very, very important time. It is not the end of the world. What is about to happen will fit the general prophetic pulse we have heard now for nearly 25 years (since the onset of Medjugorje, which caused the explosion in private revelation), but it will occur in ways we don't specifically anticipate and that make sense (the feeling of, "oh, yeah, of course") only in retrospect.

What percent of seers are authentic?

It's impossible to say. What we can say is that very, very few are corporeal apparitions at the level of a Lourdes or Fatima. "Corporeal" is to see the Blessed Mother as a full-bodied, multi-dimensional apparition similar to the way we see another person: with eyes wide open. Some who claim this are imagining it, are projecting a "vision," and a vision can be authentic, but it is not at the level of an apparition.

How prevalent is actual demonism in alleged revelations?

It is not uncommon. That is one way to put it. This is the fast lane of mysticism, which is one reason the Church is cautious. I might add that I am always perplexed by why a local bishop usually uses the term, "no evidence of the supernatural," to dismiss a troublesome apparition. Often, there is plenty of evidence of the supernatural, but it's supernaturality that is coming from the wrong source. At the same time, and overall, private revelation is of great benefit and as in Jesus' time, among the Pharisees and Sadducees, it is sorely neglected by the official Church.

Is the U.S. Church more closed and skeptical toward apparitions and phenomena like weeping statues than other nations?

Yes, due to our scientific bent, much more skeptical.

Why do you believe in Medjugorje?

I have been there I think seven times, and I didn't believe in it the first few hours I was there. I thought it was collective hysteria. Then I started to see phenomena myself -- a lot of it -- and tremendous, tremendous fruit, whereby virtually everyone who was going there was experiencing a deepening of faith or outright conversion unlike any other religious encounter with which I was familiar, just really profound and in most cases lasting. I had never seen people touched on such a massive scale. Millions have been affected in a way that can be compared only with older sites such as Lourdes or with trips to the Holy Land. Medjugorje leaves a feeling of peace and well-being and conversion.

Whereas a false apparition?

Another way of discerning a false apparition or a false anything is that it tends to drain you. It takes your energy. This is a hidden means of discernment: it takes more than it gives. It is temporary. This is often a good way to evaluate any situation, although like everything else in this field, there are exceptions (no foolproof means of discernment). We are very open to mysticism -- it is crucial to our time and to any time -- but we urge folks not to become involved in new such claims unless they are fasting and staying close to the New Testament. Daily reading of the Bible puts us in the correct frame of mind and is probably the best way to discern an apparition

[resources: The Day Will Come and The Last Secret]

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