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Reinforcing God's Public Revelation
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Must I Believe in Apparitions?
Why Did Senator Ted Kennedy Have a Catholic Funeral?
What Feast Is Celebrated on January 1?


Q: How does the Roman Catholic Church decide if claimed apparitions and miracles resulting from them are legitimate? What formal declarations are used to describe the results of these investigations? Do such declarations require a Catholic to believe in an apparition?

A: Any investigation begins with the diocese where the apparition reportedly occurred. A national or regional bishops' conference may be asked to assist in an investigation.

The Church is very cautious about reports of apparitions. At most, it will declare that they are "worthy of assent" but never that they must be believed. The reason for this approach is that even apparitions considered credible cannot be public revelation, which is reserved to the life of Jesus and the canonical Scriptures. This means that the apparitions at Lourdes or Fatima or other places, for example, could not cancel out any book of the Bible or a defined doctrine.

The Church first developed its theology about public and private revelation to answer second-century Gnostic Christians, who claimed to possess secret writings and teachings about Jesus, not intended for all his followers.

The Catholic Church concluded that God's revelation is necessarily public. It must be understood within the context of the entire Church, under the bishops united with the successor of St. Peter. Genuine apparitions must reinforce the Scriptures.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "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 [sense of the faithful] knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church" (#67).

The apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe and many other shrines have withstood the test of time because their content has consistently reinforced the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about reported apparitions in some other places. In Bayside, New York, for example, Mary is said to have denounced, among other things, receiving Holy Communion in the hand and other liturgical practices authorized by legitimate authorities.

I had the opportunity last October to visit and celebrate Mass in Fatima and Lourdes, as well as in the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal and the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris. Apparitions and miracles have been reported in the first three places. My fellow pilgrims and I saw that these shrines clearly reinforce the faith of the people who visit, reminding everyone of God's generous grace and their own need to keep converting to the Lord's ways. Local Church leadership is clearly respected at these four shrines.

As for reported physical healings, they are investigated in the diocese where the person lives. Regarding miracles submitted for someone's beatification or canonization, there is an investigation by local doctors and then by a team of medical experts in Rome.

Countless spiritual or inner healings also occur at many shrines. At least one member of our group reported such an experience. Genuine apparitions and healings are always signs of God's love for us.

Q: On August 29, 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy had a Catholic funeral at Boston's Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. How can I explain to my non-Catholic friends how he could marry Vicki when his first wife is still alive?

How could someone who voted many times in favor of abortion be given a Catholic funeral?

A: Ultimately, it is the local bishop who decides if a deceased Catholic meets the conditions of Canon 1184 for people who may be denied a Catholic funeral. Those include "notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics; those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith" and "other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful."

Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley, O.F.M.Cap., led the prayers of final commendation at Kennedy's Mass of Christian Burial. In his September 2 blog, the cardinal addressed Catholics "who have voiced both support and disappointment at my having presided at the senator's funeral Mass" (www.bostoncatholic.org).

Cardinal O'Malley wrote: "Needless to say, the senator's wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publicly support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn.

"Given the profound effect on Catholic social teaching on so many of the programs and policies espoused by Sen. Kennedy and the millions who benefited from them, there is a tragic sense of lost opportunity in his lack of support for the unborn. To me and many Catholics it was a great disappointment because, had he placed the issue of life at the centerpiece of the social Gospel where it belongs, he could have multiplied the immensely valuable work he accomplished."

Later in the same blog, the cardinal explained: "As archbishop of Boston, I considered it appropriate to represent the Church at this liturgy out of respect for the senator, his family, those who attended the Mass and all those who were praying for the senator and his family at this difficult time. We are people of faith, and we believe in a loving and forgiving God from whom we seek mercy.

"At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Jesus' words to us were that we must love one another as he loves us."

Respected Catholic columnists such as Father John Dietzen of Peoria and Msgr. Frank Maniscalco of Rockville Centre, New York, supported the cardinal's position. So did Msgr. Anthony Sherman, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At Kennedy's burial, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, emeritus archbishop of Washington, D.C., quoted from Kennedy's summer letter to Pope Benedict XVI. The pope assured Kennedy of his prayers.

Regarding your question about Senator Kennedy's first marriage, it seems that he received a declaration of nullity, affirming that the marriage was legal under civil law but, for reasons judged valid by a Church tribunal, was not truly a sacramental marriage.

Of course, having or not having a Catholic funeral does not determine God's judgment about a person's salvation. I encourage all those distressed about Senator Kennedy's funeral Mass to entrust him—and themselves—to God's loving mercy.

Q: As a child, I remember January 1 as a holy day of obligation, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus Christ. Now it is titled "Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God." When did that happen? Also, why in the last two years was this solemnity not listed on my parish calendar as a holy day of obligation?

A: The title "Mother of God" was given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. According to Jovian Lang, O.F.M., in Dictionary of the Liturgy (Catholic Book Publishing Company), from the fifth century through the Middle Ages, this feast was celebrated on January 1. Eventually, Jesus' circumcision was celebrated that day.

From 1961 through 1969, January 1 was celebrated simply as the Octave of the Nativity. The 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar restored the present title. The 44th World Day of Peace, originally proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, occurs on January 1, 2010.

The U.S. bishops have decided that Catholics are not obliged to attend Mass if the following holy days of obligation fall on a Saturday or Monday that year: Assumption, All Saints and Mary, Mother of God. (That happened last year.) The Ascension of Jesus is celebrated on Sunday in most U.S. dioceses but on Thursday in the others. Christmas is always a holy day of obligation. In the United States, the same is true for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, our country's patronal feast.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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