Just recently – this past week – photos have been made available for the first time of an encounter between the Greek Orthodox mystic Vassula Ryden and Pope Benedict XVI. The newly released photographs show Vassula meeting Benedict during a General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in January 2008. Vassula is shown presenting the Holy Father with a copy of the True Life in God messages, a book based on compilations of Vassula’s alleged revelations (and transmitted messages) from God. For years, Vassula has made the powerful, albeit controversial, claim of receiving personal messages (including prophecies) from God.
It was a few years earlier that Vassula originally met then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) before becoming Pope as John Paul’s successor. From 2001-2004, the CDF and Vassula partook in a diplomatic dialogue in relation to her revelations and messages. A photograph taken in 2004, with Vassula and Cardinal Ratzinger, at the culmination of this dialogue, is available here.
Vassula, like any contemporary mystic, constitutes a controversial figure in the Christian world, including the Catholic Church. The CDF was encouraged to dialogue with her, bringing clarity to her work, for a couple of reasons. One obvious reason pertains to the faithful. While being Greek Orthodox, Vassula Ryden has a strong following among many Catholics as well — plus, her messages often stress traditional Catholic devotions like praying the Rosary and reverence for the Seat of Peter, the Pope as leader of Christ’s Church, in addition to emphasizing ecumenical goals like Christian unity throughout the world. Notwitstanding, in 1995 the CDF issued a Notification on Vassula’s messages and actions, noting particular sacramental concerns and advising very strong discretion against following her work. After the dialogue, Cardinal Ratzinger requested that Vassula publish, alongside her True Life in God messages, the clarifications of the dialogue that the CDF had made in regard to the earlier Notification. Those clarifications, portraying a more positive perspective of her work, have been published in a booklet.
Depsite the fact that I am very open to the mystical side of the Christian faith, believing that it works as a cornerstone for renewing Christianity in our modern secular culture — since people need to see that the supernatural, that God, is a reality of the present and not just a construction of the past — I have been very cautious about openly writing or commenting on Vassula and her case. Vassula Ryden has been an absolute mystery to me. I consider her an extremely enigmatic figure. One that I’m still not sure what to make of.
There are aspects of her messages that appear so orthodox, so authentic, so Catholic (considering her Orthodox background, this is a fascinating trend); but, on the other hand, there are other aspects of her messages that appear unorthodox, perhaps un-Catholic. She is on the right page in terms of advocating the need for the ecumenical movement, but there are facets of Vassula’s ecumenism — like advocating a universal Eucharist open to all (a concern that is alluded to in the Vatican’s 1995 Notification) — that are far from orthodox in appreciating the reverence of the sacrament. Vassula has influential supporters in both the Latin and Eastern churches, including such names like the great French Mariologist Rene Laurentin, perhaps Catholicism’s most renowned living Mariologist. At the same time — as with any mystic — there are many influential Catholics who caution against Vassula and her movement. Interestingly, a most recent display of disapproval came not from the Catholic Church but from Vassula’s own ecclesial tradition, the Greek Orthodox Church, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople issuing a warning against her messages and movement.
There are many modern mystics, in the twentieth century and entering into the twenty-first, who claim to have experienced extraordinary phenomena like visions, apparitions, revelations and messages from God — what are, in theological parlance, most often understood as private revelations. A few popular names that come to mind include Simone Weil, Adrienne von Speyr, Faustina Kowalska, and Maria Valtorta.
Weil, a child prodigy who throughout her life exuded a brilliant intellectual capacity, was — perhaps most interestingly — a French Jewish woman who experienced mystical visions of Christ. Von Speyr, a Swiss doctor and wife, was — for many years — the protege of the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, when von Balthasar was a Jesuit priest and von Speyr’s spiritual director. Speyr dictated a number of her books to von Balthasar while in a state of spiritual ecstasy. Valtorta, an Italian woman who experienced visions of Christ’s life in first-century Palestine — culminating in her most famous work, The Poem of the Man God – was a mystic who died in the latter half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous of these (in the Catholic world, at least) is Faustina Kowalska, the Polish sister whose visions and revelations of Christ in the early-twentieth century brought the Church one of the most popular devotions in modern Catholicism, Divine Mercy: as seen in both the liturgical feast day Divine Mercy Sunday and in the prayer devotion of the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Vassula is one of the few popular mystics with extraordinary supernatural claims who continues her ministry into the twenty-first century. This blog entry is not a condemnation, nor a recommendation, of Vassula’s work. If I have seemed too harsh towards her, I apologize, knowing very well that the TLIG messages and Vassula’s own testimony have been responsible for many conversions to Christianity, including to Catholicism. However, Ms. Ryden remains, for me, an enigmatic figure, someone whose authenticity I am still uncertain about. As the Church advises on spiritual discernment, prudent discretion is proper and always necessary.