No Catholic questions the possibility of miracles or doubts that they do not happen. Christ's mission and His divine Nature were proven by the many great miracles He performed here on earth. The early Church overcame initial difficulties and persecutions because the Holy Ghost gave her special help that expressed itself visibly in the gifts the Apostles enjoyed and in the large number of the elect among the first generations of Christians. Once the Church was consolidated these special gifts of the Holy Ghost, as we can well understand, grew less; but they have not ceased. The help of the Holy Ghost and the presence of Christ in His Church will last until the end of time. The former shows itself by supernatural signs, and by miracles.
By way of example, it is enough to call attention to the miracles that are examined during the process of the beatification of the servants of God or the canonization of the Blessed. Such miracles are rigorously tested both scientifically and theologically. One might add that the rigour with which the miraculous cures at Lourdes are examined is common knowledge.
Let no one call us enemies of the supernatural, therefore, if we set ourselves not to the task of warning the faithful against unchecked statements concerning certain supposed supernatural happenings, statements which are fairly widespread at the present time, and which might jeopardize the recognition of a true miracle and bring it into discredit.
Our Lord Himself has put us on our guard against "false prophets" who "will show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray if possible, even the elect." (Matt. 24:24). Such wonders have occurred from the earliest days of the Church (Acts 8:9). For this reason the Church has the right and duty to judge the truth and the nature of facts and revelations said to have come about by a special intervention of God. And it is the duty of all good children of the Church to submit to this judgement.
As a mother, the Church has to bear the burden of a mother's heavy and sorrowful duties, and, like all mothers, she sometimes had the duty not only to take action, but to suffer, to keep silent, and to wait. Fifty years ago who would have thought that the Church would now be in a position of having to warn her children, even her priests, to be on their guard against so-called miracles, against all those happenings acclaimed as preternatural, which are arousing the interest of the masses, now here, now there, in almost every continent and country? Fifty years ago, when the 'scientific' and positivist attitude was rife, people would have laughed at anyone who paid attention to and believed in what was called superstition of the dark ages. Fifty years ago people reviled the Church because she alone persisted in upholding the existence of miracles, their spiritual worth, negative or positive, and their beauty or ugliness. One of the commonest and most solemn of subjects in the field of apologetics at that time was the miraculous. Now the Church has to warn her children through the lips of bishops, repeating the words of the Divine Master (Matt. 24:24) not to allow themselves to be easily led astray by such happenings and not to believe in them save with the eyes wide open on only when the authorities, after needed inquiries, have given their reports.
For some years past we have witnessed an increase of popular hankering after the wonderful, even in the sphere of religion. The faithful repair in vast crowds to places where visions and wonders are supposed to have taken place, whilst, at the same time, they abandon the Church, the Sacraments, preaching and instruction. People who are ignorant of the first words of the Creed set themselves up as ardent apostles of religious belief and practice. Some of them do not hesitate to speak of the Pope, the bishops and the clergy in terms of severe blame, and then are very annoyed when the latter do not take part with the crowd, in all the enthusiasm and outbursts of certain popular movements.
Although this is not pleasant, it causes no surprise. Man's feelings are natural, even religious feelings. Just as man is a rational animal, so he is a political and a religious animal. By bringing disorder and confusion into the nature of man and his feelings, original sin has, one may say, also attacked religious feeling. This is the explanation of the wanderings and errors and twistings of truth in the history of mankind. Yet it is a fact that such errors are much more troublesome where religion is concerned. When they come to redeem man from his darkness and shortcomings, revelation and grace restored him to his true nature especially in matters of religion. Once having healed man's wounded and stricken nature, grace gives it an overflow of strength to be used in the service and love of God. The Church, the custodian and interpreter of the true religion, was born of the word and of the blood of Our Lord.
To think oneself religious, in whatever way that may be is not necessary. What is needed is to be truly religious. As in the case of other feelings, there can be, and in point of fact there are, wanderings away from true religious feeling. Religious feeling must be guided by reason, nourished by grace, and governed, as is our whole life, by the Church, and even more strictly governed. There are such things as religious instructions, religious education and religious training. Those who have set themselves against the authority of the Church and religious sentiment so light-heartedly, find themselves, today, faced with imposing outbursts of an instinctive religious feeling that completely lack the light of reason and the consciousness of grace - a religious feeling that has no check or control.
There follow deplorable acts of disobedience to the ecclesiastical authorities when they intervene to apply the needed brake. This happened in Italy after the so-called visions of Voltago; in France over the Espis and Bouxierres incidents which were akin to those in Hampsur-Sambre (Belgium); then in Germany at Heroldsback, and in the United States of America in the case of the manifestations at Necedah. One could quote other examples in other countries near and far.
The present period stands between these two excesses which are: open inhuman irreligion, and unrestrained blind religious fervour. Persecuted by the supporters of the first and compromised by those who uphold the second, the Church simply repeats a motherly warning. But the warning is unheard amid denial on the one hand and exaltation on the other.
There is no doubt that the Church does not wish to cast a shadow over the wonders worked by God. What is desired is simple to keep the faithful watchful concerning what comes from God and what does not come from God, but could, instead, come from His and from our adversary. The Church is the enemy of the 'false' miracle.
A good Catholic knows from his catechism that the true religion rests on the true Faith, on that Revelation which ended with the death of the last Apostle, and has been entrusted to the Church, its interpreter and custodian. Nothing else necessary for our salvation can be revealed to us. There is nothing more for which we need look. We have every thing, if we wish to make use of it. Even the most accredited visions can indeed furnish us with new motives for fervour but not with new elements of life of doctrine. True religion abides essentially, apart from its place in the conscience, in the love of God and in what follows from it, namely, love of our neighbour. And, the love of God consists in doing the will of God, and obeying His Commandments rather than in acts of worship and ritual. This is true religion.
A good Catholic knows that in the saints themselves holiness consists not in the preternatural gifts of vision, prophecy, and wonder-working, but in the heroic exercise of virtue. That God should in some way endorse holiness by miracles is one thing, but that holiness consists in performing miracles is another. We must not confound holiness with what can be, and is generally, simply and unmistakable sign of holiness, yet not always so clear as not to need the supervision of religious authority.
On this point the teaching of the Church has never been equivocal. The man who turns to events of doubtful interpretation rather than accept the word of God, loves the world more than God. Even when the Church authoritatively canonizes a saint, this does not guarantee the preternatural character of all the extraordinary facts connects with his life. Still less does the Church approve all his personal opinions. There is even less guarantee of all that is written, often with unpardonable levity, by biographers whose imagination outstrips their judgement.
We repeat that to be religious, it is necessary to be so with propriety and as matter of duty. If we would be good and devout Catholics we must act with the same attention as that with which we apply ourselves to the most serious things in life. Being incredulous is just as harmful to the sincere believer as being ready to believe. True, not everyone can form his own opinion on every point. Yet we may ask, why should there be bishops? why the Pope?
Strange it is that no untrained person would dare to build a house by himself, be his own tailor, make himself a pair of shoes or cure himself of sickness. Yet when it is a question of religious life, people set aside authority, refuse to place any trust in it, and even distrust and disobey it with impunity.
During the past 200 years, especially the last half century, the Catholic priesthood has been so much the object of accusation, insult and defamation at the hands of both politicians and writers that one can well understand how it is that the faithful have the greatest difficulty in approaching a priest and becoming friendly with him. But now when, undoubtedly, there is a return to God, as we see, the faithful must overcome their bias and once again begin to share their feelings, their thoughts, and their faith with the priest.
For the last ten years, while the religious authorities have shown restraint, the people have hastily busied themselves with wonders which, to say the least, have not been verified.
To be honest, we must admit that such events may be simply the expression of natural religious enthusiasm. They are not Christian events, and they give a dangerous pretext to those who are ready to discover at all costs the mingling and survival of paganism and superstition in Christian belief and life and especially in Catholicism. Just as wrongdoing may find its way into our daily lives, so may error. We must know it for what it is. Just as the Church has the power to forgive sins, so has it also been commanded by God to keep us from error.
Catholics should give ear to the word of God which the Church, and the Church alone, preserves and repeats whole and untarnished. They should not run like sheep without a shepherd, and listen to other voices seeking to drown the voice of the Church. We have the Holy Scripture; we have tradition; we have the chief Shepherd and a hundred other shepherds next door to our own homes. Why should we offer a spectacle of foolishness or unhealthy excitement to those who oppose and despise us? "Christians, be more prudent" wrote Dante in his day, "Do not be like feathers that are the sport of every wind." The great poet gave the very same reasons that we give today; "You have the Old and the New Testament, and the Shepherd of the Church to Guide you." Dante's conclusion too, is the same as ours: "This is sufficient for your salvation." (Canto 5, Vv. 73-77)