The Greatest of Pastoral Care

The Church has the charge for the “cura animarum” (the care of souls).  Jesus commands His Apostles to go and preach unto all nations (Matthew 28:16-18).  In the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote his much celebrated “Regula Pastoralis” (Rule for Pastors) that spoke about caring for souls in various states or conditions.  In more recent times, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the pastoral role of priests.[i]

In the contemporary world, there is an aspect of pastoral care that merits discussion: what the people of God believe.  I spoke recently about the ravages of Secularism and poor catechesis in relation to private revelation.  This is a notable concern for our time, one that the Holy Father acknowledges in his recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini” (14).[ii] 

Otherwise good, devoted and faithful Catholics intuitively feel they are under attack from society and cultural changes—even changes within the Church.  Perhaps one of the worst effects is the lack of access to true and authentic liturgical worship.  Many Catholics are starving and they turn to private revelation for comfort and solace, believing that God is “making things simple” for them.

Being desirous for some sense of sanity in a world gone awry is not something with which to fire the proverbial “anathema sit.”  No, it is actually quite noble and is indicative of a fundamental cry of the human heart for the peace that only God can bring.  While this is noble, Jesus reminds us the path to God is narrow, unlike the wide and straight path that leads to hell (Matthew 7:13).  Some people have indeed gotten it wrong, or misplaced their devotion, but the Church is solicitous towards her children and beckons them back to her bosom.

The expression “bosom of Holy Mother Church” is a metaphor helping to call the wayward children of God back to their dignity as children of the light.[iii]  Let us observe the life, joy and happiness that springs forth from such a place and ask from where do these come?  They come from the love that passes between two people and the experience of nearness.  For Christians, love and nearness take place between soul and Sacrament, Christ and Christian.

In her Sacraments, the Church communicates Jesus Christ to us — Christ, the life of the soul.  She continually calls us back to the means Christ Himself gave us for our salvation.  There is no other community, no other source to which the Church can turn her faithful to bring Christ to them because this is the way Christ chose to communicate Himself.  No other Gospel exists (2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:8).  Thus the Sacraments are indispensable for our salvation and irreplaceable is the grace they effect in the soul.

From the above facts flow the devotional life and piety of the Church and her faithful.  Pious traditions and/or practices such as the veneration of the relics of Saints, the prayer of the Rosary, the various chaplets, etc., all flow from that same divine wellspring of salvation to be found in the Sacramental life of the Church.  These and other practices help to orient the soul to Christ in the Sacramental mysteries.  Efforts to help people come into these mysteries are most praiseworthy, to be encouraged and supported by all, especially the pastors of the Church.

Such praiseworthy efforts must be founded upon and rooted in the Truth of Jesus Christ — the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).  There is no lie in Christ and while He can draw good from evil, this does not thereby justify the use of evil or counterfeit means to obtain the good (Romans 3:8, 6:1-2).  Consider the example of the woman in Acts 16:16-24.  While St. Paul and his companions were preaching the Gospel, a woman with a spirit of divination cried out these men were from God and preaching salvation.  These words were nothing but the truth, yet after a few days of hearing this, St. Paul was annoyed and exorcized the spirit of divination from her.

Why did the woman receive an exorcism for speaking the truth?  St. Paul knew the source was demonic.  Demons do not have humanity’s best interests at heart and there was some scheme, machination or deceit with this woman.  To let the charade go on would later undermine the preaching of the Good News of salvation, for after the preaching would come the wolves (Acts 20:28-30).  In short, “all which glitters is not gold.” 

The above story gives us opportunity to reflect for a moment upon alleged visionaries and mystics.  Oftentimes many of these people—or their associates—appear authentic in their words or actions.  More often than not, these seemingly authentic things are linked with alleged messages and lead people to believe that the person is communicating with heaven.  As Acts 16 shows, however just because someone claims to do some good or speak truth, it does not thereby follow that this person is receiving supernatural revelations.

As the history of the Church demonstrates, it is not an easy task to tell the difference between false and authentic visionaries/mystics.[iv]  Some false ones have perfected the art of deception so craftily that theologians have been forced to go back to the drawing board and draw the finest of theological distinctions.  In our contemporary period where there is no lack of claims to private revelation, the Church is forced once more to re-examine her theology in the face of a multitude of rising theological and pastoral questions.

It is peculiar to the contemporary period that pilgrimages abound to places of private revelation (whether approved or not).[v]  The faithful go to hear or see the purported “seer” or any reported phenomena and return to their homes with fantastic stories of conversions, sights they saw, etc.  The rise of these reports has created theological and pastoral concerns.  The concerns surround how potentially false private revelations can lead to conversions, a return to prayer, etc., and how the pastors of the Church ought to “break the news” to the faithful when negative elements turn up in the face of reported good.

The above questions are most vexing because the pastors of the Church ought neither to want to bruise the reed, nor should they allow error to persist.  To be frank, they are caught between a rock and a hard place.  Despite the difficulty imposed by this awkward position, God will not let us be tempted beyond our means and will give us a means of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).  There is an observation pastors may find very helpful in their task of shepherding souls influenced by alleged private revelation.

Consider the following characterization.  An alleged visionary/mystic who claims to receive private revelation will say (or write) a few words that appear to be harmonious with the Gospel.  He or she will appear to give proper deference to the Sacraments.  People experience Sacramental grace and believe that this experience validates the alleged visionary’s claim to be speaking with or for heaven.  In response, the alleged visionary/mystic will say that it is “all God’s doing”.  The apparent humility is impressive to the mind of the audience, adding credibility to the claims.

On the surface, the above sequence of events is rather straightforward, but a subtle and often underestimated association is made that cannot be taken for granted.  Once the person experiences the above sequence of events, the alleged visionary/mystic and the Sacramental grace (and oftentimes a commensurate conversion) are associated.  Therefore, to doubt the former is to doubt the latter.  For the developing interior life of a neophyte, for example, the ramifications of this doubt are not negligible and most people will not entertain the notion.[vi] 

Theologically, there is a distinction to be made between Sacramental grace and the alleged visionary’s claims: one does not equate the other.  They are two separate realities.  Christ gives us grace in the Sacraments and has made them to be efficacious, regardless of what alleged visionaries/mystics say or do.  If such persons were to use the Sacraments for his or her own gain (God forbid), Christ is still present in the Sacraments and comes to the soul by them. 

Consider the following scenario.  Suppose an alleged visionary/mystic is giving a talk within the context of Eucharistic Adoration.  The talk encourages devotion and piety to the audience who are inspired by these words.  Now, suppose further the speaker is in fact not receiving authentic private revelation but is instead using his or her own private meditations.  Was Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament during that time or did He somehow remove His Presence from a consecrated Host for fear of involving Himself in a fraud?

Let us look at the basic facts of the above scenario.  People are gathered before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration.[vii]  A talk is being given to facilitate the disposition of the soul to receive grace.  The source and origin of the talk is a separate consideration, but nevertheless the talk may be helpful to people in the audience.  Does this mean that the alleged visionary/mystic is truly speaking for God?  Not necessarily.  Further discernment using other means is necessary.

There is considerable danger in associating Sacramental grace with the “ministrations” of an alleged visionary/mystic.  The truth and power of the Sacraments runs the risk of becoming obfuscated.[viii]  Questions are also created concerning the role of the pastors of the Church as the dispensers of the Divine Mysteries.  Overall, a very subtle undermining takes place, but one in which later and disastrous consequences can result for the faithful if not quickly uprooted.  Like the woman in Acts 16, the deception is not manifested right away because it is intended for later.

The greatest of pastoral care is necessary for souls caught in the chains of the above falsehood.  To this effect, St. Teresa of Avila offers a compelling image and a challenge.  In her Interior Castle, she uses the image of a painting and its painter to discuss how the traps of the devil sometimes work against him.  In speaking of the indispensible role of confessors with respect to extraordinary favors God grants to souls, St. Teresa says the following:

His Majesty is able to bring good out of evil and you will gain by following the road by which the devil hoped to bring you to destruction.  For, as you will suppose that it is God Who is granting you these great favours, you will strive to please Him better and keep His image ever in your mind.  A very learned man used to say that the devil is a skilful painter, and that, if he [the devil] were to show him [the learned man] an absolutely lifelike image of the Lord, it would not worry him, because it would quicken his devotion, and so he would be using the devil’s own wicked weapons to make war on him.  However evil the painter be, one cannot fail to reverence the picture that he paints, if it is of Him Who is our only Good.[ix]

The challenge St. Teresa offers in her teaching is for pastors to “catch” the counterfeit and thereby aid the soul and orient all to Christ.  In such cases, pastors would do well to recognize any good (making sure the flock sees this) while directing the sheep towards the larger community of the faithful and the parochial life of the Church.  A well-ordered liturgical life in accordance with the mind of the Church is presumed in this process as the Eucharist is the source and summit (fontem et culmen) of the whole Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11).

If Pope St. Gregory the Great were writing his Regula Pastoralis today, I would like to think he would either include a new chapter about this matter or add to an existing one.  I do not dare to venture a guess what remedies Gregory would prescribe, but there is no doubt he would encourage the pastor to act in accordance with what the individual soul needs and can handle.  Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that shepherding requires gentleness and at other times, it is necessary to give a good rap of the shepherd’s staff over the heads of the sheep. 

May it please God to send wise and discerning pastors into our midst.

[i] <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100611_concl-anno-sac_en.html> (Accessed 22 April, 2012).

[ii]  <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini_en.html> (Accessed 22 April, 2012).

[iii] C.f. 1 Thessalonians 5:5.

[iv] The famous story of Sr. Magdalen of the Cross was a topic of discussion on the Internet owing, in part, to this article from the blog “Mystics of the Church.”  <http://www.mysticsofthechurch.com/2011/12/sister-magdalena-of-cross-nun-who-made.html> (Accessed 22 April, 2012).

[v] In its pastoral guidelines for discerning alleged private revelation (“Normae S. Congregationis”), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has specified that the means of social communication (“mass media”) and the ease of travel are largely to be credited with the growth of this phenomenon.  See the Prefatory Note of this document.

[vi] This can result in persistence believing in the alleged visionary/mystic to the detriment of judgments made by the competent ecclesiastical authority.  In effect, the person may be separating his or herself from the Church, without which there is no salvation.

[vii] A further distinction can be made between two different actions at work.  The first is Christ working independently in the soul through His Real Presence in the Eucharist.  The second is the alleged visionary/mystic’s talk.  The latter is focused upon in this article so as to observe simplicity.

[viii] For more on this, see Bishop Ratko Peric’s statement on the “fruits” of an alleged apparition in relation to the Sacraments: <http://www.newjerusalem.com/ThroneOfWisdom.htm> (Accessed 18 December, 2011).  He says:

The fruits which are so often mentioned, are not proof that they result from “supernatural apparitions or revelations” of the Madonna, but insomuch as they are authentically Christian, they can be understood as a product of the regular workings of the grace of God, through faith in God and the intercession of Mary the Mother of Christ, and through the Holy Sacraments present in the Catholic Church.

[ix] E. Allison Peers (trans), Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle.  (New York: Image, 1989), 189.  The point St. Teresa makes about God drawing good from evil is not to be confused with the earlier point made in this article on how we ought not to do evil so that good may come about.

Kevin Symonds writes from South Carolina.  He received his B.A. and M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is the author of the book, Private Revelation: What Does the Catholic Church Teach?