When I considered whether the subject of private revelation in the Catholic Church has any value for apologetics or evangelism, my first reaction was that it decidedly did not. When I think back to the days when I was an evangelical Christian, if someone had tried to convince me of the veracity of the “Miracle of the Sun”, or the tears flowing from the statue of Mary in Akita Province, Japan, I would have reacted cynically. As an evangelical, you are strongly conditioned to have that type of response to anything Catholic.
Most Protestants maintain the theological position that the spiritual gift of prophecy left the Church when the last apostle died, even though there is no clear basis for this in the Bible or early Church history. It is a belief devised by dispensationalist theologians. Trying to talk private revelation with a dispensationalist is a waste of time; to them, the only prophecy is biblical prophecy. Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth is an example of a dispensationalist, so was Harold Camping, who, to much derision, had predicted that the exact date of the Christ’s return would be on October 21, 2011. Unfortunately, they have given a bad name to prophecy. This important gift of the Holy Spirit is now quickly disparaged as a part of the profitable industry of selling doom and gloom.
Many protestant theologians,however, actually do believe in the gift of prophecy as an enduring charism in the Church today. There is ample evidence from the Bible and from early Church history to prove this. One of the best studies on this gift and the Church comes from a book by influential evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today; it’s one of the better examples of Biblical exegesis I’ve ever read. But there is one problem: there is almost no prophesying or any history of such in the Protestant church. Interpretations of biblical prophecy are abundant, hence Lindsey and Camping, but actual prophecy similar to what has been evident in the history of the Catholic Church is absent.
An exception to this is the late author and minister David Wilkerson, author of The Cross and the Switchblade and founder of Teen Challenge, who claimed to have the gift. Shortly before he died in an automobile accident in 2011 he warned on his website that a calamity would occur soon that would destroy most of the cities in the coastal areas of the north-eastern United States, including New York. He suggested that it would be a good time to move. He was heavily criticized for this by evangelical theologians like John Piper, who himself believes the gift of prophecy endures to this day. Protestant denominations that actually believe in prophecy are nevertheless apathetic toward the gift, probably because they’ve never seen a credible example of it. They would likely have the same dismissive approach to Catholic prophetic literature as do most other Protestants. Unfortunately, even many Catholics today share that apathy.
Yet the history of prophecy in the Catholic Church might still be of value for apologetics and evangelization since Protestants are not the only non-Catholic group that the Church interacts with. She discusses and debates with essentially anyone’s particular belief system. For instance, what about people who have a curiosity about the paranormal? A recent poll showed that in the U.K., more people believed in ghosts and UFOs than in God. Think also of the popularity of movies like The Exorcist and The Shining, and the novels of Stephen King, and, of course, the quatrains of Nostradamus. People are naturally attracted to the possibility of the existence and experience of the supernatural. Should this be exploited? Of course! They’re following a natural human instinct; in fact a world of mysticism is waiting there for them, albeit good or evil.
Rev. Lindsey, who has a zeal for evangelism, took The Late Great Planet Earth on the road in the 1970s. He would fill large auditoriums using the same approach as a Billy Graham Crusade: he got as many churches as he could to support the program, and insist that everyone attending bring as many non-believers as they could to the auditorium. After Lindsey’s presentation, which was emotive and scary, he would invite anyone who felt the call to come to the auditorium floor, where there would be people waiting for them who would help them pray a prayer accepting Christ as their savior.
If someone can be convinced to at least take a sincere look at certain Catholic prophecies whose fulfillment can be substantiated, it would naturally have a impressive effect. The problem is that in general, Catholic prophetic literature as it is, is difficult to take seriously. It usually takes the form of collections of prophecies made throughout history, assembled by topic with a view to building a chronology of events that can be expected to occur in the future. The trouble with that approach is that the authors tend to mix prophecies by well known saints with historical figures of which little is known, or prophecies whose authorship is questionable, or unknown. The end result, then, is that the chronology of events is also questionable.
This raises the issue of authenticity. The Bible offers much guidance in this regard:
Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. (1 Thess. 5:20,21)
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone. (1 Cor. 2:12-15)
Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
One of the best books on the subject is by Fr. Thomas DuBay S.M., Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997). Fr. DuBay points out that the Greek word for “test” in 1 John 4:1, diakrisis, refers to distinguishing, judging, evaluating, and in itself is a gift (1 Cor. 12:10). He concludes that a Catholic should be confident in his ability to discern:
…[T]he New Testament is optimistic in holding that we can contact God, and we can know when that contact is authentic and when it is imaginary. (p.73)
So far, the reaction to my book on Catholic prophecy (The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard: Prophetic Symbols of Modern Society) by non-believers has not been negative or cynical; they have found it fascinating. I took a medieval saint, Hildegard of Bingen, whose writings have been recently elevated to the level of St. Thomas Aquinas’ by having been named a Doctor of the Church, and demonstrate that four of five sequential prophecies she wrote down have already been fulfilled during the late 19th century through the present. There is no authorship question here, we have access to an original manuscript which had been analyzed and approved by a papal commission.
The ultimate judge of a person claiming to have the spiritual gift of prophecy is whether the prophecy comes to pass; and for St. Hildegard, four out of five isn’t bad, in the proper sequence as well. If my interpretation of the fulfillment of the first four prophecies is compelling, it makes the fifth one, the only one left to be fulfilled, a blueprint for the Christian of what lies ahead. Unfortunately, according to St. Hildegard, what lies ahead is not pleasant news.