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Did you know that Pope Pius XII once received a vision of the Lord (during the night of December 3, 1954)? (One day, it may be ruled upon.)

Did you know that high-ranking members of the Church have made direct statements on how some visions and apparitions can be diabolical?

("The Church certainly does not desire to keep hidden the miraculous occurrences performed by God; the Church does desire, however, to open the eyes of the faithful and to show what comes from God and what does not come from God, because often it could come from the adversary," intoned Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, years ago, below, right, with a future Pope).

Have you ever contemplated which cases of stigmata or visions might be the result of psychodynamic phenomena instead of a Divine communication, whether due to hysteria, automatism, schizophrenia, autosuggestion, imagination, or psychic influences?

At the same time:

Were you aware that the Vatican Council of 1870 decreed excommunication for Catholics who reject in principle the possibility of miracles?

("Christ promised the continuance of miracles in His Church, and the Catholic Church has always and does now display them, and will always do so," it said).

They are fascinating issues in a book critical for all who delve into the realm of holy mysticism, taking an in-depth look at everything from Lourdes to Theresa Neumann -- and obscure mystics of whom you have never heard. (Did you know there was a Brooklyn woman who went years without eating anything save for the Host and who bled like famous stigmatics (such as Anne Emmerich) -- but was thought to be a hysteric?

We did not. This is according to author Zsolt Aradi. But his splendid defense of legitimate phenomenology elucidates obscure cases of visions as well as exorcisms and leaves us with some extremely valuable guidelines (and safeguards).

How to tell a real revelation?

An authentic vision, writes Aradi, arrives suddenly. It is not expected. At first it stirs and agitates the soul, but immediately floods it with a sense of peace. It does not last long. It leaves a strong desire for perfection and abundant gifts with which to practice the Christian virtues. It remains for a long time on the mind of the recipient. The true vision "cannot be provoked or sought -- and it is followed by miracles as confirmation of the apparition."

We may question parts of these standards (at the Church-approved apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda, apparitions sometimes went on for an hour or longer). And we may find some psychological approaches questionable (for example, the common standard of bringing in physicians to evaluate authenticity, when so very many physicians and psychologists are non-believers; how to separate -- as psychiatrists are alleged to do -- psychosis or hysteria from actual possession, when the devil can cause such psychological effects?).

For as Aradi himself shows, the devil is very active in the area of mystical phenomena and his book presents the untold account of how an evil spirit once had imitated even his great foe -- the Archangel Michael (although it should be of no surprise, as the devil has mimicked Jesus and Mary).

This occurred, said Aradi (in the just re-released Understanding Miracles), in the case of a devout Catholic organization dedicated to the archangel in Romania by a poor peasant named Zelea Codreanu, who claimed the great angel spoke to him and directed him to start the Legion of St. Michael.

That was fine -- but this peasant man claimed that he was also "told" to fight oppressors "with fire and iron." He and his legion -- which swelled to thousands of members -- soon turned violent. Remarkably, Codreanu killed a police chief (and was imprisoned).

"The members of the Legion formed a semi-secret society," wrote Aradi. "They not only terrorized villages, small cities, and the countryside, but also threatened politicians. They concentrated on destroying the shops and houses of Jews and burning their synagogues. In 1933 Codreanu was freed. Acting as 'ordered by St. Michael,' in that year he assassinated the head of the Romanian government, Coriolan Duca. As the movement grew, a political party called the Iron Guard was formed in accordance with St. Michael's 'instructions' to Codreanu that he should use 'fire and iron' to achieve his aims. Eventually Codreanu himself was killed, but his lieutenants and the Guard, now numbering hundreds of thousands, carried on. Now," noted Aradi, "these people were not unbelievers. They were deeply 'religious' persons who really believed in God, and their cruel and bloody fanaticism was fed by the so-called apparitions that Codreanu claimed to have seen in 1923."

On the other hand: obscure too are the legitimate yet overwhelmingly powerful instances in which Michael has actually made himself visible.

One of the most powerful shrines in Europe is a cave dedicated to him in eastern Italy (on Monte Gargano, not far from the tomb of Padre Pio).

This place is not to be missed. And the apparition occurred to another member of the Church hierarchy, in this case the Bishop of Siponto, who saw Michael in great splendor and was told that a strange occurrence in the diocese was a sign that the angel had been in the area under special protection -- which proved true when Neapolitans attacked and the mountain was suddenly enveloped in dark clouds as lightning flew at the enemy (who took flight).

It is an incredible place to visit and there is also Saint Michel in France -- which has stood the test of time and where miracles occur because miracles there are: powerful, lasting, authentic.

We get the point. Miracles do happen. We just need to be cautious. As for Pope Pius XII, his visitation occurred shortly before he died when he heard a voice say, "There will be a vision."

"The mysterious announcement was confirmed next morning," said one reliable count Aradi quotes. "On December 2, while darkness was gradually dissolving, just before the first streak of dawn, the Pope had a vision that the Lord was close to him, silent in all His eloquent majesty. He thought that this was the call. Jesus came for him to tell him, just as He had once told Peter, 'Follow Me'; and he interpreted the silence to mean: Magister adest et vocat te ('the Master is here and calls you')." He died soon after.

[resources: Understanding Miracles and The God of Miracles]

[Also: Michael Brown retreats (the family tree, deliverance, discernment, the afterlife, the prophetic pulse: September 29: Chicago, October 13: Northern New Jersey-New York; and November 3, Minneapolis]

[photo of Mont San Michel courtesy of Skyscrapercity]

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