Can mistakes be made when it comes to private revelation?

Q: I have a question on discernment of private revelations. I don't mean big ones like Medjugorje, etc., but individuals who say they "have had a word from the Lord." Couldn't this be just their own opinion interpreted as God talking? (Ireland)

A: Yes, this is a concern. With these kinds of more personal private revelations, we always need to be aware of the possibility that a person could be mistaking their own opinion for God's will. The church never expects us to take such revelations uncritically and at face value.

Even the "big" approved private revelations such as Our Lady of Lourdes and Fatima are never obligatory for the faithful to believe in, despite being a recognized part of the life of the church to the point of having feast days on the general liturgical calendar. After very careful objective investigations, the church only ever acknowledges them as "worthy of belief" -- i.e., that we may believe in and follow them, not that we have to.

Because very personal supposed private revelations like the one you mentioned do not go through any formal approval process, it's important to regard them with a healthy skepticism.

A technical term for such revelations, where a person has an interior sense of words coming to them, is "locutions." Locutions are considered extraordinary phenomena. As such, they are not necessary to our life of faith -- unlike the essentials of prayer, catechesis, growth in virtue and the sacraments.

In fact, St. John of the Cross, a doctor of the Church and one of our foremost authorities on the theology of the spiritual life, goes so far as to counsel those who think they are receiving locutions to basically ignore them! In his work "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel," he goes so far as to note that on judgment day, God will call to task many of those who received (or thought they were receiving) locutions, because they neglected their actual obligations and duties of their state in life.

If a person believes they are receiving private revelations, they should be mindful of the possibility that they may be misinterpreting their own interior experience on the one hand; or, on the other, of the danger of becoming prideful or letting their presumed locutions distract them from the normal responsibilities of a faithful Christian. It's important for that person to bring up their perceived revelations in an honest and open way with a confessor or qualified spiritual director. And any spiritual experience that leads someone to commit a sin, or to disobey legitimate authority in the church, or believe something contrary to the church's teachings, should automatically be rejected as a false revelation.

That all being said, we as Catholics do believe that God can and does communicate his particular will for us in the unique circumstances of our lives, whether this being discerning our vocation or state in life or discerning how to apply the teachings of the Gospel in specific concrete situations. Another great spiritual master, St. Ignatius of Loyola (most famous as the founder of the Jesuits), wrote extensively on the process of discerning God's will.

St. Ignatius acknowledges the possibility that God might, in rare situations, make his will known in extraordinary ways, such as through locutions and visions. But it's far more common that God will communicate with us in subtle ways and in the context of a regular and devoted prayer life. Namely, when we are striving for holiness and make a point to be open to God in prayer, we will know something is of God by the sense of peace we feel; and we will likewise know that something is not God's will for us when it induces a sense of anxiety.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.