A private revelation is any inspired revelation from God to an individual outside the "public revelation" of the Church. Private revelations are delivered through inner or audible speaking by God or the Virgin Mary, apparitions (an inner or external vision); or miraculous phenomenon (stigmata, miracles, etc.). The Catholic Church does not make pronouncements on all alleged private revelations.
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The Church teaches as de fide (of the Faith) that all the Father desired to reveal for our salvation has been revealed in His Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus communicated this Revelation to His Apostles, who either wrote or handed it down while preaching and teaching (1 Cor. 15:1-3, 2 Thes. 2:15), i.e., Tradition (with a capital T). The deposit of the Faith, therefore, is to be found in (1) Public Revelation, Sacred Scripture, and (2) Sacred (Apostolic) Tradition.
Catholics are required to believe in Public Revelations and Tradition, but not private revelations. Even when private revelations are approved, they are taught as probable and not indubitable. Pope Pius X said the Church does not guarantee the truth of facts narrated; She simply does not forbid belief in private revelations.
The Church through the local bishop examines (1) the doctrine of the alleged revelations, (2) the fruits (good works associated with them), and (3) the personal character of persons involved. For example: alleged revelations which propose to improve upon, correct or entirely supplant Public Revelation are rejected by the Church as inauthentic, regardless of the claims made for them. Such revelations include those of Mohammed in the Koran, Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, the writings of new age mystics, psychics and the like.
The question arises as to why God grants private revelations if He has aleady revealed all essential things in the Bible. The Catechism says: "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" (#66). God still naturally communicates to inspire the faithful.
The Church knows some private revelations are untrue because (1) they include content opposing the Public Revelation and/or (2) the fruits (good works) or (3) the character of the persons involved may be questionable. The Church may make rulings against some private revelations or it may make no rulings at all (no formal investigation).
Some examples of approved private revelations include Guadalupe in Mexico City (1521); Lourdes in France (1858) and Fatima in Portugal (1917). Today there are a myriad of alleged private revelations and apparitions vying for the attention of the faithful. None have been definitively judged by the Holy See, some have been approved by local authority (e.g. Akita, Cuapa, Betania), others have been found lacking in supernaturality (e.g. Medjugorje, Garabandal), some few have been condemned (e.g. Necedah, Bayside) and finally, the vast majority have received no attention from Church authorities whatsoever.
Since there are positive benefits from the private revelations, some Catholics will think the private revelation must be supernatural; however fruits alone -- although possibly many -- do not prove in themselves a supernatural origin. God can, and does, use human, fallible instruments to produce good works and conversion from questionable origins.
The Church urges us to be neither gullible nor incredulous, but to subject all private revelations to the same tests the Church would use i.e. does it conflict with Public Revelations, does it pass the human tests of credibility, are those receiving the visions sincere? What is the judgment of the local bishop? Unfortunately, the laity are often left to make this determination themselves, relying on the testimony of the events, the judgment of holy and orthodox priests, and common sense. It must always be kept in mind that however credible and reasonable such revelations seem to be, God would never ask one to separate oneself from the faith and discipline of the Church to follow it.
With respect to private revelations in a location very near the author: in Emmitsburg, MD, Father John J. Lombardi1 declared the "revelations" included doctrinal errors e.g., "the return of Jesus as a child; a questionable coming-reign of chastisement; a supposed universal revelation of everyone's soul before the Second Coming; the possibility of spurring excessive attachment to the supernatural. All these elements are contrary to Catholic Faith and doctrine."
In regard to Medjugorje, it is not an approved devotion and never has been. In fact it is forbidden for Catholic organizations to promote or perform pilgrimages there. "Regarding 'pilgrimages to Medjugorje of a private nature', the Congregation maintains that they are allowed 'under the condition that they are not considered an authentication of events still going on, which demand further investigations by the Church.'”
There is no question that the Medjugorje phenomenon has produced spiritual fruits in great abundance. Letters, oral testimonies, even medical certificates, attest to miraculous healings, unexpected conversions and renewed faith in Medjugorje's wake; in addition, Catholic radio and television programs have sprung up.
Unfortunately, the messages of Medjugorje are clearly not compatible with the messages of Our Lady of Fatima or Lourdes. They are clearly not Catholic, but rather promote religious indifferentism (the heretical belief that one religion is as good as another).
Numerous books and articles have been written concerning the authenticity of Medjugorje. Many articles on the Internet explain the Church's viewpoint, and Medjugorje has been officially denounced as not supernatural, but instead a hoax. The Medjugorje Deception, by E. Michael Jones, Ph.D, states this private revelation was one of the greatest hoaxes of our times. Of course, there are rebuttals also available online. When Pope Benedict XVI stripped the priestly powers from Fr. Tomislav Vlasic in 2006 for his part in building up the phenomenon of "Medjugorje," this should have ended the dispute.
Note (1) Reference: Revelations about Private Revelations: Church Teaching-Charity, Clarity and Focus by Father John J. Lombardi