Alleged private revelations have occurred throughout the history of the Church and continue to occur today. Many Catholics are confused about the status of such events. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private revelations', some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith" [para. 67]. The only way that Catholics can avoid being led astray in the matter of alleged private revelations is to be completely docile, humble and obedient to the Church's legitimate declarations at all times.
Perhaps the most persistent local 'apparition' of recent times is that of 'Our Lady of Surbiton.' Operating as the Divine Innocence Trust, it has been the subject of many reports in the secular press over the years, including a very sympathetic article in The Spectator early this year. Its founder, Patricia de Menezes, lays claim to 2,000-3,000 followers in 42 countries. Patricia alleges that around 1984 she began seeing the Virgin Mary and Jesus in a pine tree located in a new housing development in Surbiton, south London, where, she says, Our Lady continues to appear to her at 12 noon Monday-Friday and 9pm on weekends. She also claims to have been personally catechised by Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Patricia and her followers often make much of the fact that her writings have been well received by certain theologians, but any opinions offered by these theologians, no matter how positive in tone, are only their private opinions and as such are of no consequence in this matter. It would be very misleading of anyone to claim otherwise. In recent years, many renowned theologians supported the fraudulent 'seer' Vassula Ryden, until the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially stated that her messages contained error and could not be considered to be of supernatural origin.
This could not be much clearer. Patricia's messages have been submitted to the diocesan Bishop and he has declared that they are not of supernatural origin. They are not being examined by the Episcopal Conference of England & Wales or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the only dicastery in the Vatican with competency in these matters.
The fact that it is claimed that Patricia's messages do not contradict Faith or Morals is neither here nor there. There are many other criteria that have to be fulfilled before the Church can declare an alleged supernatural occurrence to be worthy of credence. One argument put forward by supporters of Divine Innocence is that they don't trust Archbishop Bowen's judgment, although when he initially investigated these alleged events, he presumably would have had access to the Holy See's document issued to bishops in 1978 regarding such matters, titled "Normae S. Congregationis Pro Doctrina Fidei Modo Procedenti In Diudicandis Praesuptis Apparitionibus ac Revelationibus" ( The guidelines and norms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the Methods and Procedures for Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations). Even if Archbishop Bowen didn't use this document, or one were to doubt his competency to judge, it is worth remembering that Patricia herself has personally visited and given her messages to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome - and yet it has not seen fit to remove the case from Archbishop Bowen's jurisdiction.
False Claims, Contradictions
There have been problems regarding the usage of Patricia's premises in Berrylands, Surbiton as a "place of pilgrimage". As it is a residential area, it has caused much disruption and after many complaints from local residents, the Municipal Authorities have now become involved. There has been much written in the local secular press about this problem, causing scandal for the Church.
A recent article in a local newspaper stated that "Divine Innocence Trust" had a gross income in one year of £68,724 - not to mention the value of the property that it owns. Think what good that money could have done if it had gone to a genuine pro-life apostolate! Remember - if the Devil can't get people to sin, then he will often try to mislead them into doing what is the least good and effective action.
Manipulation and Control
(a) She could be suffering from delusions: If this is the case, then it would be very unkind to her if we helped to perpetuate these delusions by promoting them.
(b) She could be deceiving people: If this is the case, then it would obviously not be right to encourage her in any way.
(c) This phenomenon could be diabolic in origin: As stated before, the Devil could be using this to distract people from other pro-life work, or for another reason unknown to us.
Besides the official ecclesiastical declaration of Archbishop Bowen, there have been numerous complaints about Patricia's behaviour from ex-members who were closely involved with Divine Innocence. Some of these people have been given "individual private messages" by Patricia that are clearly ludicrous and even harmful to their spiritual life. For instance, two ladies, one of them elderly, reported receiving an alleged "divine warning" from Patricia to the effect that the River Thames would flood, causing lives and property to be lost. She went on to claim that Berrylands, where Divine Innocence is situated, would be divinely protected. This alleged "revelation" caused an immense amount of anxiety to the two ladies concerned, causing them to sell their house and move to the area that Patricia had designated as a "safety zone". They eventually became disillusioned with Divine Innocence and have since left it, but not before being subjected to deep spiritual turmoil - and, it has to be said - not before handing over donations in the region of £3,000.
Others have complained of being manipulated and made to feel guilty about certain things, when in fact they had been doing nothing wrong. Statements from ex-Divine Innocence members have been submitted to Bishop Howard Tripp, Auxiliary in the Southwark Archdiocese. These people told of how they felt manipulated by Patricia, stating that whenever she wanted anything of them, she usually said that Our Lord or Our Lady had made the request in a message. This generally caused feelings of guilt and anxiety if they felt unable to comply. They also stated that Patricia suggests a spiritual regime for her more immediate followers, often unsuitable for their state of life. For example, a divorced mother with a young family to bring up was expected to attend all the various daily prayer meetings, and a middle-aged couple were very distressed to be told by Patricia that they were being "called" to celibacy. After failing to comply with such things, these ex-members were made to feel that they had caused "disappointment" to Our Lord and Our Lady. Patricia has also offered "spiritual direction" to some of her followers.
The content of some of Patricia's messages are cause for concern. One such example, allegedly given by Our Lady and printed on page 54 of the Novitiate of the Holy Family booklet stated: "Those who are too proud to receive instruction from the Instrument chosen by heaven (Patricia) will not advance. It is in this instruction that you will all be trained, including the Instrument. Those who treat with disrespect the Mother of this Community (Patricia), treat with disrespect and contempt my Motherly instruction and the Motherly Authority given from heaven; they treat with disrespect God the Father, from whom all authority comes." In the past, members of Divine Innocence who have challenged Patricia on any point have been quickly ostracised. Is this what is meant by "disrespecting" her? It would seem that this message is little more than a veiled threat, given in order to silence any dissenting voices within the organisation, and is dangerously close to implying that Patricia's followers should show her total obedience. This is how cults operate.
Holy Father's Warning
The last word goes to the Holy Father who, like Cardinal Ratzinger, has expressed similar concerns about this type of phenomenon. In a speech reported in the 18th September 1996 edition of L'Osservatore Romano, John Paul II stated:
As stated at the beginning of this piece, the only way to avoid the pitfalls associated with unapproved alleged private revelations is to be obedient to the Church's official declarations regarding them.