By Fr. Anthony Aneke
In our past editions, I had written a great deal on the phenomenon of Private Revelations: prophecies, apparitions, and visions especially as they play out within the socio-political and religious atmosphere of Nigeria. These are the themes:
- Recent epidemic of Prophecies in Nigeria Today: towards a Theology of Prophetism.
- Apparitions and Visions: Understanding the status of Private revelations in Nigeria.
The questions and comments about these articles and video documentary are in fact overwhelming especially with regard to recent happenings in the political atmosphere of the country. I feel it is necessary to strike a chord on some thought-provoking reactions I have received.
Before then, it is noteworthy to point out that Nigeria today is filled with Catholic and non-Catholic visionaries, seers and prophets. Thousands of people have continually gone on crusades and prayer centres for private revelations. Best-selling religious books tell stories of successful prophets and their testimonies. Nigeria Newspapers regularly cover stories of prophets and men of God whose alleged prophecies affect individual as well as national state of affairs. We have seen how men of God turn the society upside down with their claims and the crowd they draw. TV preachers constantly warn us about the antichrist and predict that the second coming is near at hand. What are Christians in Nigeria to make of all this? Are any of these things true? If so, which ones? How can we tell?
More than a century ago, Fr. Augustine Poulain wrote a classic work on the guidelines the Church has given us to discern the truth and reject the false regarding visions and revelations. REVELATION AND VISIONS is the titled of the work. In writing this work, he drew his material extensively from the Scripture, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, the lived experiences of the saints especially St. John of Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as well as his own experience as a spiritual director and teacher. His work was endorsed by Pope St. Piux X, and generations of Christians have benefitted from this work. Fr. Poulain’s work is concrete, practical, down to earth and witty. He provides solid guidelines for judging private revelations, visions and prophecies. Personally, I love this work for the fact that it is based on the lived experiences of the saints. This book forms the bedrock of our articles and documentary.
Most of the questions we received deal with what possible factors could make visions and prophecies false. We will address them with practical examples of the saints. These are the many causes of error that may have had an influence upon true and false prophecies at certain periods in the lives of the saints.
- Faulty interpretations of revelations or vision:This mistake may result from the fact that God’s communication has a deep meaning that is not understood; and it is taken too literal in the everyday sense. St. John of the cross posited on this subject that many prophecies and divine locutions disappointed in their fulfillment the expectations of many of the ancient people because they understood them too much according to the letter in their own. They understand them in the letter according to their apparent meaning when there is much more abundant than the letter, more extraordinary and surpass the limits. Many saints have interpreted their revelations wrongly. To give a practical instance, let us take the words heard by St. Joan of Arc in prison. She says in her examination; “I Inquired of my voices whether I should be burned; and they answered me that I should trust in Our Lord and that He would aid me…St. Catherine told me that I should receive succor.” She adds: “As a rule, the voices tell me that I shall be delivered by a great victory. And afterwords they say: ‘fear not because of your martyrdom. It will bring you at last to Paradise.” These predictions were quite acute, but Joan did not see their real significance. She thought, as she herself explains, that the world martyrdom meant “the great pains and adversity that she suffered in prison”, and the “deliverance by a great victory” caused her to think of something quite different to her death.
- Historical events are often given with approximate truth in Revelation:It is a mistake to attribute an absolute accuracy to historical events and circumstances given in revelation. Historic scenes and events may often have an approximate and probable likeness only. This is evident when we see the historical and scientific errors, contradictions and inconsistencies of visionary accounts of the lives of our Lord and of our Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Veronica of Binasco, St. Francis of Rome and so many favored saints. Practically, Blessed Veronica of Binasco saw Our Lord’s whole life pass before her eyes, as did also St. Frances of Rome and Catherine Emmerich. The Bollandists have reproduced her accounts of these visions, but they warn us in the preface that “learned men” consider that they contain many historical errors. The visions of St. Frances of Rome have been still more explicitly criticized.
- The mingling of human activity with supernatural action during revelation:This is the subsequent but involuntary modifications made by the person who receives the revelation. It may happen that during a vision, the human mind retains the power of mingling its action with the divine action in a certain measure. Therefore, it is a mistake then to attribute purely to God the information that is thus obtained. The ideas that appeal to our own desires especially when we have a project greatly at heart, and still more if we are moved by the imprudent desire to see it encouraged by a revelation, it will easily seem to us that God is speaking in order to advise or command its execution. We see this in the lives of St. Colette, St. Elizabeth, Blessed Hernamm Joseph, St. Hildegard, St. Mary Agreda etc.
St. Elizabeth, the Benedictine Abbess had many revelations on historical subjects, notably the martyrdom of St. Ursular and her companions, whose bones had just been discovered (1156). When these relics were brought to her, she thought she knew supernaturally the names and the lives of those to whom they had belonged. To obtain more information, she plied her guardian Angel and the saints with questions. At first she did not venture to do this; but her directors unfortunately encouraged her in this dangerous curiosity. And further, the revelations having ceased, she caused the community to pray urgently for seventeen days that they might be continued. These were just the dispositions for being led astray. But the saint was persuaded, on the contrary, that all her revelations were the pure truth. She maintained this even on her death bed, and was greatly astonished at encountering any opposition. Posterity has not endorsed the saint’s opinions. Why? Scholars prove that these visions are full of historical errors and attribute the greater part, at any rate, to imagination.
- Diabolical interference: A person who claims to have received revelations may be untruthful or possessed by the devil. Apart from the episode of a slave-girl in Acts 16:16-24, another good example is the sixteenth century Magdalene of the cross, a young Spanish Franciscan nun, born in 1487, entered the Convent at the age of seventeen, in 1504, and was three times abbess of her monastery. She made a pact with the devil at a very tender age, endowed with many “supernatural powers” and deceived even the greatest theologians in Spain, the Bishops, Cardinals, Inquisitors and great nobles of the court. People came from all sides to consult her, and gifts were showered upon her. Having been at death’s door, she confessed everything publicly, and then regretted her avowals. Exorcism had to be resorted to before the Devil lost his hold over her will. It is necessary to point out that the devil can conjecture many future unwelcome events and assist in its realization.
- The invention of falsifiers:political prophecies can be invented by falsifiers who are inspired by motives of political or pecuniary interest, or by the desire to mystify the public. Nothing is easier than to invent political prophecies in this way. It only needs to announce the advent of great misfortunes to be followed by extraordinary deliverances. These statements can be put about without fear, for no one can prove the contrary. These abound particularly at time of great political or religious upheaval. In the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure complained of hearing “to satiety” prophecies dealing with the Church’s troubles and the end of the world. At the end of the fourteenth century, during the great schism, “Seers arose on all sides, and their visions gained such an influence and a circulation as had been unknown before…in some on the gravest sermons reliance was put upon these baseless predictions.
A suspicious character in modern political prophecies is the fact that they never lead us to withstand wicked men, and never suggest any serious manner of resisting them. Some even predict that the world is to change suddenly, by miracles. “A new era” is on the point of appearing; everyone will become holy in an instant. The conclusion drawn from such predictions is that we should fold our arms and wait. Since God is to do everything and make a point of proclaiming it in advance, it would be an indiscretion and foolishness on our part to wish to help Him and to anticipate His appointed hour. Let us, then, go on doing nothing! This is a convenient doctrine.
If Father Augustin Poulain were alive today, I would have to ask him: why have you decided to insult the sensitivity and reverence we have for these favoured and renowned saints whose lives will ever be true path to piety and righteousness by demonstrating the possibility of errors in their prophecies and revelations? In your selection of material Father Poulain, why have you decided to diminish the respect that we owe to these “infallible men of God”?
I should think that Father Poulain would gladly answer: in making this selection Fr. Anthony, I have not acted with any intention of diminishing the respect that we owe to these saints, but rather for a grave reason of utility. It is the best way of persuading certain pious persons to be more careful about their own revelations, and of persuading their directors to do the same. And if Father Poulain happen to know I am a Nigerian, he would scream: be very careful Nigerian Christians, you dance where the angels fear to tread, if the saints were to be victims of many errors of their own revelations in spite of their piety and holiness, how much more you who are surrounded by religious impostors, charlatans, wolves in sheep clothing who seek prophecies basically to satisfy their curiosity and selfishness.”