Q —There are many saints throughout the history of the Church whom we refer to as mystics.  Have the heavenly revelations of mystics shaped Church doctrine as it has evolved over time?

Certainly the phenomena of heavenly revelations through mystics continues in the present day. Is there a policy in place for discerning the authenticity of such revelations and letting them guide the Church?

A — Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church into the fullness of the truth, the truth that is founded in the holy Scriptures, and handed on in the life of the church (tradition) guided by the pope in union with the bishops. This is often referred to as public revelation. Part of that “handing on” is the experience of mystics in the life of the church, both in terms of their actual lives and also of their writings. This is often known as private revelation.

Private revelation does not have the foundational importance of public revelation, but it often serves to bring to the fore or to greater public recognition particular aspects of public revelation.

A useful example may be found in St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). She became the chief founder of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She received a number of “private revelations” of the Sacred Heart. Initially her revelations were treated with contempt by her superiors who thought of them as delusions.

Due to the influence of her confessor, the Jesuit Claude de la Columbière, the opposition to St. Margaret Mary gradually softened, and the church became more open to her revelations.

Framed pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became omnipresent in the Catholic world.

The influential 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner considered the Sacred Heart a premier symbol of God’s infinite-incarnational love for humankind.

In terms of a particular policy for discerning the authenticity of such revelations, the church gathers the appropriate data carefully, slowly and prudentially weighs the data, consults widely, and gradually moves toward a considered conclusion.
This is very much like the advice of Rabbi Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles when the assembled Sanhedrin was considering what to do about the growing number of Christians.

Gamaliel said: “If this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).