The Bible describes Jesus as the Word made flesh (John 1:14). As the Incarnate Word, Jesus shows us that God is the ultimate communicator. He desires to communicate with us, and He does. Hearing God speak is called the gift of prophecy.
Prophecy was experienced by the ancient Jews, the early Christians, and it continues today whenever God speaks. Listening for God in prayer is part of a long and venerable tradition within Catholicism called contemplative prayer, and prophecy is a fruit of that. Prophecy can be understood in the words of St. Teresa who described contemplative prayer as, "a close sharing between friends" (Catechism paragraph 2709). The modern, stressful world often forgets or denies that when we pray, God can speak back. Helping people discover how to listen and respond to God speaking in prayer is an area the charismatic renewal has to offer. This aspect of prayer is a gift from God. Nurturing it develops a deeper prayer life which fosters spiritual maturity as people learn to find, discern, and obey God's will.
Different Kinds of Revelation
Prophecy comes in two main forms: one which is public in nature and the other which is private. Public revelation is called the "Deposit of Faith" and is the only revelation necessary for salvation and Christian living. Prophecy is found as part of the Deposit of Faith in the writings of the prophets in the Bible. As part of the biblical canon, we know without a doubt that they are God's words, and that He uses prophecy to communicate with His people. As part of Divine Revelation, the prophetic writings in the Bible must be believed and counted as part of the Christian faith. The Church teaches the high value of prophecy in the Bible saying, "the Old Testament was deliberately so oriented that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ" (Catechism paragraph 122).
Private revelation must be discerned in light of public revelation. If something conflicts with biblical revelation, then it is not true and must be rejected. But, if one believes they have received a message from God and it is in harmony with what He has already said, then while not being mandatory, it can be beneficial to receive and apply to one's life. The Church explains the difference between public and private revelation saying, "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." And, that private revelations, " do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history" (Catechism paragraphs 66-67).
Since the Deposit of Faith is transmitted from generation to generation through the teaching of the Church, this concept of holding private revelation up to the standard of public revelation makes sense if we understand that we can trust the teaching authority of the Church to whom Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit as the guide to "all truth" (John 16:13). We can believe this because when Jesus established the Apostle Peter as the Church's first earthly shepherd, He promised He would protect it from the gates of Hell (Matthew 16:18), which includes protection from deception. Jesus also promised to be with the Church He established until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). Jesus views the Church as His Bride, and since Jesus taught permanent union between spouses (Mark 10:9, Matthew 5:32), we can take confidence that He is faithful to keep His Word to His Bride (Ephesians 5:23-32, Revelation 19:7-9).
Because God is faithful, today the Church continues to inherit these promises because it still teaches the faith received by the Apostles through the centuries. Since the Apostle Peter was the leader of the Christians in Rome, his successors carry his special leadership role into the future and receive the gifts necessary to fulfill it. The succession of the Bishops of Rome from the Apostle Peter to today's Pope is recorded in history and can be found in this chart of papal succession. Knowing we have a trustworthy authority in the Church to interpret public revelation enables us to discern private revelation wisely.
God still speaks to His People Today
As evidence that the ancient biblical prophecies are true, Jesus used them in His ministry, quoting from Old Testament prophecy to refer to Himself in Luke 4:16-28. St. Paul taught that prophecy did not end with the Old Testament prophets, but is a gift available to Christians, and that Christians should desire that God would speak through them to benefit the larger Church.
"Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit. On the other hand, one who prophesies does speak to human beings, for their building up, encouragement, and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church. Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up." - 1 Corinthians 14:1-5
God uses the gift of prophecy on a smaller scale in private revelation; meaning it does not always pertain to messages that everyone needs to know, but can be very helpful for people in particular times and places. The Bible shows God can give prophecy for individuals as He did with Ananias in Acts 9:10-12. In this account, God told Ananias to go to St. Paul shortly after his conversion and what to do when he found him.
"There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there praying, and (in a vision) he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay (his) hands on him, that he may regain his sight." - Acts 9:10:12
In this passage we see that God speaks to individuals. Quietly in prayer, we can hear with our hearts God's messages of guidance for one's life, or for a situation that may involve others. Often it is easier to hear the voice of God when one is quiet, focused in prayer, and detached from distractions and worldly concerns. The environment one is in also can help or hinder hearing God's voice. Elijah heard God's voice in a "tiny whispering sound' and not in grand displays of wind, an earthquake, and fire (1 Kings 19:3-18). Focusing on hearing from the Lord is usually easier while one is worshipping, especially at Mass, at Eucharistic Adoration, or gathered with others in a prayer group. An atmosphere of praise can help turn our hearts towards God and while loving Him, hear Him as the close friend St. Teresa knew Him to be.
Once we are listening to Jesus who is our friend, we should be open to hearing Him communicate. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that prophetic words or visions can come in a variety of ways, such as when, "sensible forms are divinely presented to the prophet's mind, sometimes externally by means of the senses -- thus Daniel saw the writing on the wall (Daniel 5:25) -- sometimes by means of imaginary forms, either of exclusively Divine origin and not received through the senses (for instance, if images of colors were imprinted on the imagination of one blind from birth), or divinely coordinated from those derived from the senses--thus Jeremiah saw the "boiling caldron . . . from the face of the north" (Jeremiah 1:13)"
How God Uses Prophecy
Cardinal Ratzinger, who served as the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, explained how prophecy in private revelation is useful in daily life to help discern the will of God. He wrote in the Theological Commentary on the Third Secret of Fatima:
"In every age the Church has received the charism of prophecy, which must be scrutinized but not scorned. On this point, it should be kept in mind that prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future. A person who foretells what is going to happen responds to the curiosity of the mind, which wants to draw back the veil on the future. The prophet speaks to the blindness of will and of reason, and declares the will of God as an indication and demand for the present time. In this case, prediction of the future is of secondary importance."
We should welcome the gift of prophecy, and wisely discern its message and application. The Bible addresses this very simply in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 saying, "Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good."
What Does God Say in Prophecy?
With love, God will say whatever He needs to say. No topic is off limits for Him; as our Creator, He knows what is best for us, and how to effectively show us the way with gentleness, and with mercy call us to a better life. He can give words of encouragement, guidance, clarification, or warning, but often God also speaks simply with words of love. As with the way people who share true love communicate such as between a parent and child, or between a husband and wife, God does not tire of telling His children how much He loves them. The Sacred Heart devotion is an example of how the gift of prophecy has made a lasting impact on the Church. In the 17th century, Jesus gave St. Margaret Mary Alacoque powerful private revelations about His love. In the 20th century, Jesus gave so many messages to St. Faustina about the Divine Mercy that they became a large book, "Divine Mercy in My Soul." He gave messages about numerous topics including prayer, Heaven, spiritual warfare, suffering, abortion, forgiveness, purity, and grace, to name a few.
Pope Benedict XVI, while serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made this connection between prophecy and its practical application in the Theological Commentary on the Third Secret of Fatima:
"The prophetic word is a warning or a consolation, or both together. In this sense there is a link between the charism of prophecy and the category of “the signs of the times”, which Vatican II brought to light anew: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; why then do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). In this saying of Jesus, the “signs of the times” must be understood as the path he was taking, indeed it must be understood as Jesus himself. To interpret the signs of the times in the light of faith means to recognize the presence of Christ in every age. In the private revelations approved by the Church—and therefore also in Fatima—this is the point: they help us to understand the signs of the times and to respond to them rightly in faith."
Examples of Prophetic Private Revelation
About Christ's love:
“Behold this heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love.” - Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, apparition of June 16, 1675.
"And even if the sins of soul are as dark as night, when the sinner turns to My mercy he gives Me the greatest praise and is the glory of My Passion." - Jesus to St. Faustina, 20th century, "Divine Mercy in My Soul," paragraph 378.
"You should not worry too much about adversities. The world is not as powerful as it seems to be; its strength is strictly limited. Know, my daughter, that if your soul is filled with the fire of My pure love, then all difficulties dissipate like fog before the sun's rays and dare not touch the soul. All adversaries are afraid to start a quarrel with such a soul, because they sense that it is stronger than the whole world... " - Jesus to St. Faustina, 20th century, "Divine Mercy in My Soul," paragraph 1643.
A word of guidance:
"Francis, go and repair my church, which, as you see, is falling into ruins." - Jesus to St. Francis, 1206 AD, Italy
About trusting God:
"I will always protect you." - Jesus to St. Clare, 1240 AD, Italy
Prophetic Visions Prophecy can consist of words, but it may also be come in the form of or be accompanied by images or visions. These visions may be interior impressions perceived only by the soul, or they may be visible and seen with the eyes. An example of a vision that had a significant effect on many people was the following which God sent during Mary's apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. This vision serves to teach about aspects of the Christian faith, provide a warning to the world if it continued to live sinfully, and call the world to change its direction by prayer and conversion. The visionary, Lucia Santos, recorded this vision:
"Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror."
Mary then explained this vision, saying:
"You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world."
It is sobering to recall that this prophetic vision happened in 1917, and preceded the culmination of the Fatima visions on October 13, 1917. Within one month, the Bolsehvik Revolution began in Russia and set the stage for atheistic communism to persecute Christians, kill millions under Stalin - including over 100,000 priests, nuns, and monks - and cause disaster in many nations for much of the 20th century. As the century continued and a Pope was elected who took the name that Mary prophesized - Pius XI - the beginnings of the worse war began in 1938 when Nazi Germany occupied Austria. The Second World War became the deadliest war in history, but before that, as in the ancient days of the Old Testament, God first sent His prophets with a call to change, repent of sins, convert and believe in the Gospel, and thus avoid war and live in peace as God intends.
Prophecy is real. God uses it. The Bible, Church teachings, and history show that as responsible Christians we must be open to prophetic gifts, discern them, and wisely apply their messages.
"Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches." - Revelation 2:7
"Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good." - 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21