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A Case History From the 21st Century – Vassula Rydén (Prof. Niels Christian Hvidt)

At the end of our exposé on the continued presence of prophecy in the history of the church, we shall present what comes across as one of the most interesting and complicated case histories of today, namely the experience and activity of Greek Orthodox Vassula Rydén. Few other contemporary mystics reflect the traits of Christian prophecy as does Mrs. Rydén, and she certainly is one of the most debated modern mystics. Nevertheless, after an initial critical attitude, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has scrutinized and passed a not unfavourable judgement upon Mrs. Rydén. Without wanting to discuss the authenticity of her experience, the aim here is to show what a prophetic experience could look like in practice in our times.

Mrs. Rydén says her conversion began with the stroke of a pen. Vassula, as she is normally called, comes across as an ordinary, rather appealing woman. Up until her conversion, she lived a normal life, little different from any of the other women expatriates in Third World countries who try to alleviate the tedium of their exile with a social life devoted to tennis, bridge, and receptions; she rarely thought about God, until the 28th November 1985 when everything changed. While she was writing a grocery list, she reports to have suddenly experienced a light electrical feeling in her right hand and at the same time an invisible presence. She says she felt led by this presence, and permitting her hand to be guided, she wrote a line in a very different style than her own with the words, “I am your guardian Angel and my name is Daniel.”

This experience was the beginning of the reported conversations between Vassula and Daniel from whom she claims to have obtained “a crash-course in Christian doctrine.” A few weeks later, she started having visions and locutions from Christ, through which she learned to seek God in prayer. Before this experience, God rarely crossed her mind. Now she often dedicates six hours a day to prayer and spiritual writing, when she is not traveling to hold conferences about her messages.

Since the beginning of these experiences, Vassula has written down thirteen volumes of conversations with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as well as with the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael, and especially in the beginning, her guardian angel, Daniel. The books, entitled True Life in God, have been translated into over 40 languages since 1991 and have become bestsellers. In Brazil, where an estimated half million copies of her books have been translated and distributed by a priest and two nuns in Portugal, running their own printing press at night, Vassula has drawn crowds as large as 30,000. Her meetings have attracted crowds of over 100.000 people.

Vassula’s case is interesting as it fits well with the image of Christian prophecy that emerged in the exposé of Old and New Testament prophecy: a prophet is a person who receives a message that he or she is ordered by God to forward to the church for its benefit. Vassula did not become “a prophet” through human qualities as she had no theological training that would equip her for her task; she believes herself that she was chosen exactly because she did not have any merits or assets and that all initiative thereby had to be Christ’s. She claims not to have chosen her mission and that it came to her as a surprise, that she would have preferred to stay home with the family, but after Christ had asked her to serve him she could not refuse his request to proclaim his words to his people. And last, Vassula and people who studied her case believe that God through her message seeks to consolidate his church, especially by bringing it into unity, which is the main theme of her books.

Vassula’s experience has thus caused believers of all denominations in the 21st Century to raise the same old questions that prophets provoked earlier in the life of the church. Does Almighty God reach down to earth and speak to human beings even today? Would he not thereby cheapen his divine works? Would the Creator of all things, the “Inaccessible Light,” lower himself, step down from his throne and speak words in modern English to modern man?

The interest in Vassula Rydén today indicates that many Christians still consider this to be the case. They confirm the uninterrupted Christian conviction that God did not only speak to Abraham and Moses in the time of the Old Testament, but has revealed himself throughout the Christian era to this day. In fact, theologians speak of a proliferation of prophetic manifestations in our times, with Vassula as one of the main examples. Some believe that the third Millennium shift has given man reasons to reflect upon where he is heading; they see this as the reason for the recent proliferation. Others, including Vassula herself, believe Christ speaks because his creation is endangered in the “great apostasy”[439], caused mainly by a “spirit of rationalism”,1 the main “weapon to combat” God’s Divinity, a subject considered to be less of an issue in the New Testament period than it is today.[2]

Vassula was born in a desert. Her parents were part of the Greek community in the town of Heliopolis in Egypt, and she was baptized in the Greek-Orthodox Church. Early in her life the family moved to Switzerland. Her husband’s work brought the couple from one Third World country to another to Switzerland where they lived for eight years and finally to Rome, Italy, in 1998. Vassula has two sons, both of whom have left home, one to work in Sweden, the other in Singapore.

When the revelations began the family was living in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. “My only responsibilities were the occasional cocktail parties I had to arrange for my husband,” Vassula says. “Otherwise I was living a rather placid and privileged life which I filled with tennis and painting, my two favorite occupations. Whenever you wanted to find me, the place to call would be the tennis club, where I spent most of my time.” Vassula won the doubles finals of the Bangladesh national championship. Also, her paintings were becoming well known. She won a competition with a portrait of the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, which was transformed into a postage stamp that was printed in nineteen denominations. “I loved my family, my friends and had no worries, no sorrows, nothing that moved me to reflect deeply about life or about religion,” she continues. “I did not speak to my children about God, nor did I speak against him. I was as many people are today—indifferent. Religion was just not important to me. Thus, when I had the first revelation of my Angel, I was totally unprepared. I took the experience with great joy and considered it a pearl that I revealed only to my closest family and friends. They immediately believed me; they knew I was not crazy.”

Vassula says she understood that what had happened to her was unique, and she did not know where her angel would lead her. She was unaware that many people in the history of Christendom had visits from God or from angels, but came to know Christ as one who keeps a constant watch over his creatures and therefore will keep sending prophets: “Jesus says he has come many times in the history of the church to guide his people and remind them forcefully of what he had already taught,” Vassula says. In one message Jesus explains why he is revealing himself through his
‘Love hymn’:

The Holy Bible is indeed the truth, the true Revelation, but I have not ceased to exist. Look, I am the Word and I am active in Spirit. My advocate is with you all, the Spirit of truth that many tend to forget or ignore, for all that the Spirit tells you is taken from what is mine. He is the reminder of my Word, the inspiration of your mind. This is why my child, I am continually recalling you the same truths. Understand the reasons and why I am constantly stirring you up with the reminder. Accept my Holy Spirit of truth. I come to remind you of my Word, I come to call you to repent before my day comes.
Implementation and Actualization of Revelation

Although Vassula’s writings in this way are no “new” revelations, they point out many aspects of Revelation and of the Christian faith that according to the writings are not implemented properly or at times are even ignored. To believers who never thought about these truths, they could well appear as “new” insights. Furthermore, many passages concern realities in today’s world that were no issues in the early church. Many examples could be given, but we shall limit ourselves to two, namely the aforementioned damaging effect of rationalism and the “grave sin” of the division of Christians.

Vassula reports to have been instructed over and over again on the danger of rationalism, both to the life of individual believers and to the church as a whole. The warnings go against an interpretation of faith that reduces faith’s transcendent elements to the minimum, thereby leaving little more than an empty technological silhouette, whereas faith was meant to irradiate the dynamic truth and life of God:

It is the spirit of rationalism and of naturalism that led most of you into atheism—this is the spirit that makes you believe you are self-sufficient and that you can achieve everything by your own efforts and by your own strength.

Those who serve in the church but follow an over-rationalistic interpretation of Christian faith are accused of turning the temple of God into a factory: «You have industrialized my House, this House which should have been a House of prayer!» (Message of February 7, 1991) These are even called apostates:

They have apostatized from me, yes, they have accustomed their steps to walk with apostasy and have as their guide and traveling companion rationalism, the weapon to combat my divinity. If any man is thirsty for knowledge let him come to me and drink and I shall give him living water; do not go and drink from a man’s doctrine which is coming from his own rationality. That man is putting honor from men before the honor that comes from God.

The main theme of the writings is the unity of the church. The present disunity among Christians is presented not only as a sad fact but as a sin against the will of Christ that annihilates the credibility of Christians: «All are the same in my eyes; I have never wanted my Body parted, it is you who have dismembered me! You have decided upon my Body! You lamed me».(Message of October 27, 1987) The instructions on unity are good examples of prophetic exhortations, as they point to aspects of the Christian message of reconciliation that have not been followed. Furthermore they give instructions on how the called-for goals can be implemented in practice. In the case of the unity of the church, Vassula claims that Christ told her the way back to the initial unity of the church, Christ’s “sovereignty,” is not mainly through lengthy theological discourses but by means of a simple non-dogmatic act, namely the unification of the dates of Easter: «My sovereignty was split in two and from thereon into splinters... How glorious you were in your earlier days! Come and rebuild my house into One by unifying the dates of Easter.» .(Message of October 5, 1994) And in another passage:

I have sent you My Spirit to live in your hearts, this is why the Spirit that lives in you will show you that My Church will be rebuilt inside your hearts and you will acknowledge each other as your brother in your heart. Will I, brother, one more season go through the pain I have been going through year after year? Or will you give Me rest this time? Am I going to drink one more season the cup of your division? Or will you rest my Body and unify, for my sake, the Feast of Easter?

Vassula notes that “Christ promised us that if we unify the dates of Easter, He will do the rest.”

Poetic Language

Vassula’s writings are rich in poetry, metaphors and parables, similar to the Old Testament Psalms or to the Gospels. In one revelation the Creator speaks about the joy he experiences over Vassula’s conversion, portraying her revival through a parable:

I happened to be taking a walk nearby a river when I saw a driftwood drifting away with the worldly current; I leaned over and picked it out of the stream; I brought it Home with Me and planted it in My Garden of Delights. From a dry piece of wood I made out of you a Tree; I said: “grow! grow and take root in My garden, in My own property, and from your blossoms exhale a perfume to appease My Justice… I, Yahweh, will see to it that you prosper; I take pleasure in picking now and then on My way pieces of driftwood. I can give life to anything I pick on My way.

After her initial happiness and joy at meeting God, Vassula entered a period of doubt, but was soon reassured by her interlocutor. She relates:

«I had doubts whether if what I was receiving was truly from God. Everything pointed to the fact that it was: After all the revelations had brought me to love him with a fire inside me. Nonetheless there was one big question that led me to my doubts: “Why on earth did he chose me?” I asked Jesus this question many times. He answered me saying, I choose unworthy souls to form, ones who know little or next to nothing. I will supply you, Vassula, for I am wealthy; with Me you will lack nothing. He had to teach me everything. Sometimes he uses words I don’t even know. Once he spoke about this present generation and said: Fastidious you have become. I did not know what fastidious meant. This happened many times.»

As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of the prophet is that he or she has no authority to lean upon other than God’s, and Vassula as other commentaries have seen this as a reason that the majority of Christian prophets are women and children in their enhanced ability trust. A spiritual zero before the revelations began, Vassula believes that God chooses those otherwise incapable of such achievements so as to leave no doubt that it is his power at work. She believes that she was chosen for all that she was not. “Jesus wanted a nothing,” she explains, “in order to prove that I have not invented all this and that it comes from Him. He said it in a message: All you have comes from Me and is My Work and not yours. Without Me, you are unable to even wink your eyes—so abandon yourself to Me.

Before long, Vassula’s inner doubts were compounded by outward skepticism. She learned that prophets are usually persecuted for their direct words. Vassula recalls that Jesus from the very beginning made her understand that her path would not be easy and that it would entail suffering and persecution: “You will appear as the loser My Vassula, but have I not appeared as the loser too? I appeared to have failed My Mission; I appeared in the world’s eyes as the greatest loser ever”.

Some prophetic characters were never recognized as being sent by God, partly because the church saw problematic aspects in their writings and activity Joan of Arc, who had many revelations and visions, charged with being a witch, was burnt at the stake. Twenty years after her execution she was exonerated and later canonized in the Twentieth Century. Another less violent case parallel to Vassula’s happened in the last century. The Polish nun Sister Faustina Kowalska had frequent revelations and communications with Christ that she wrote down in a diary. In 1958, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith banned her writings by placing them on the Index of forbidden books, and she died considered a heretic. Twenty years later the same CDF revoked its decision due to the intervention of a certain Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. In April 2000 the same man, then known as Pope John Paul II, canonized Sister Faustina in Rome.

Pro et contra

Vassula’s writings and activity have caused similar uproar as two examples mentioned above with articles and books published in support or disregard of her. In his publication, Vassula and the CDF, Edward O’Connor calls Vassula’s story one of the more troubling ironies in life today. This affirmation is repeated by René Laurentin in his publication, When God gives a Sign. Here René Laurentin sees in the criticism leveled against Vassula a continuation of the “spirit of the inquisition”.[3] In the Catholic Church there are some who accuse her of being a guru of the New Age Movement, a witch bent on destroying the Catholic Church, or simply the greatest false prophet today; some just criticize her for not becoming a Roman Catholic.

Ironically, members of her own Orthodox community have accused her of being one of the cleverest mouthpieces of Catholic propaganda paid by the Pope to turn the Orthodox into Catholics. Others have called her the Antichrist disguised as a woman.

The first Catholic book against her was published by Fr. Dermine in Italian in 1995.[4] It was followed by a series of related negative books and articles, classifying Vassula as a false prophet or an adept of the New Age movement.

An even more extensive array of positive articles and books has been published by theologians such as Fr. René Laurentin, Fr. Umaña, Fr. Edward O’Connor, Fr. Ovila Melançon, Jacques Neirynck and the late Fr. Michael O’Carroll. The late Archbishop Franic of Split, for years the head of the Yugoslav Catholic Bishop’s Conference and an expert on mystical phenomena, wrote strongly in favour of Vassula. He expressed the astonishment shared by many theologians and church leaders who cannot understand how a normal woman who never received theological training can write down messages the beauty and profundity of which occupies a prominent position on the list of contemporary spiritual writing.

Investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith

In 1996 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) issued a so-called Notification in which it affirms that Vassula’s messages are “merely the result of private meditations.” The authors of the unsigned Notification hold that her messages, “in addition to positive aspects…[contain] a number of basic elements that must be considered negative in the light of Catholic doctrine”. In reaction to this, most newspapers in Switzerland, where she lived at the time, had headlines such as “Vassula condemned by the Vatican,” which enabled the critics of her experience to refer to the Notification as proof that they were right and therewith considered the case “Vassula” closed. As with other prophetic polemics, Vassula’s case proved that things are less simple with prophecy. In fact, her travelling activities have only increased after the Notifications just as more prominent church leaders stood forth to defend her case, arguing for the conformity of her writings with Catholic faith.

The Prefect of the CDF, Joseph Ratzinger himself on several occasions mitigated the condemnatory interpretations of the notification, i.e. in an interview, published in 1999. The Cardinal’s words of then deserve attention as they reflect some of the difficulties involved with prophecy. The problem is not only that there is true and false prophecy, but that even true prophetic inspiration must pass through the non-infallible filter of human language. The former Prefect of the CDF affirms:

[The] Notification is a warning, not a condemnation. From the strictly procedural point of view, no person may be condemned without a trial and without being given the opportunity to air their views first. What we say is that there are many things which are not clear. There are some debatable apocalyptic elements and unclear ecclesiological aspects. Her writings contain many good things but the grain and the chaff appear to be mixed. That is why we invited Catholic faithful to view it all with a prudent eye and to measure it by the yardstick of the constant faith of the church.

Is the procedure to clarify the question continuing?

Yes, and during the clarification process the faithful must be prudent, maintaining a discerning attitude. There is no doubt that there is an evolution in the writings which does not yet seem to have concluded. We must remember that being able to set oneself up as the word and image of interior contact with God, even in the case of authentic mysticism, always depends on the possibilities of the human soul and its limitations. Unlimited trust should only be placed in the real Word of the Revelation that we encounter in the faith transmitted by the church.[5]

From 2000 to 2004 a dialogue followed between Vassula Rydén and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith implying examination of her writings by the Congregation’s collaborators. Subsequently, the CDF submitted five questions to her in a letter dated 4th April 2002. At the request of Ratzinger, Vassula’s answers were published in the 12th Volume of her writings. As a conclusion to this dialogue, Ratzinger wrote in a letter to a number of bishops’ conferences that Vassula Rydén through the published answers had supplied “useful clarifications regarding her marital situation, as well as some difficulties which in the aforesaid Notification were suggested towards her writings and her participation in the sacraments.”

In spite of this affirmation, some resistance continued by opponents to Vassula’s writings, insisting that the dialogue did not change a thing. The most interesting of these negative interpreters of the dialogue is the Secretary general of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference who had received the Cardinal’s communication. In a letter dated February 23rd 2005 he asserts: “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith maintains all its reservations regarding the writings and actions of Mrs. Ryden.”

This is not the message conveyed in a letter sent by the CDF to Mons. Roland Abou Jaoude, Vicar of Patriarch Sfeir and President of the Catholic Agency of Information in Lebanon and in all of the Middle East. Mons. Jaoude had enquired regarding the status after the dialogue and received the reply that Mrs. Rydén had provided valuable replies to the questions raised by the Vatican and therefore TLIG prayer groups or pilgrimages will be left for the control and decision of the diocesan bishop, implying this was different before the dialogue where bishops were bound to limit the scope of Mrs. Rydén’s messages and activities.

Like any other person claiming to have revelations from God, Vassula Rydén is likely to continue to draw attention from all sides, both from those who trust her authenticity and from those who do not. The attention drawn to her experience, however, is not only due to the fact that she speaks with Jesus. Believers attending her meetings have reported experiencing inexplicable phenomena. Medical reports confirm cures of grave illnesses in her presence. Many people have reported the phenomenon of seeing Jesus appear in Vassula’s face, and with other prophetic experiences of the past, such alleged miraculous occurrences to buoyance belief that the message originates in God.

To most people in Vassula’s neighborhood she is just a normal modern woman living a normal life. However, when she is on the prophetic podium she is sure to be a lightning rod of controversy and a “sign that will be opposed”. Because her claim is so enormous, there is very little middle ground between skeptics who can only dismiss or ridicule her and faithful followers who are utterly convinced that they are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd through her writings.

Extract Publication of Doctoral Thesis of Niels Christian Hvidt, "The Problem of Christian Prophecy: Its Preconditions, Function, and Status in the Church", Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2001, pp. 168-180.

[1] «I come to find no love, no faith and no hope, My House lies in ruin, reduced into rubbles by Rationalism, Disobedience and Vanity, My glorious pastures of the past are now barren, because of the Great Apostasy which penetrated into My sanctuary» October 10 1989

[2] «They have apostatized from Me, yes, they have accustomed their steps to walk with apostasy and have as their guide and traveling companion rationalism, the weapon to combat My Divinity.» July 6 1990

[3] René Laurentin, When God gives a Sign (Independence, MO: Trinitas, 1993) 69 ff.

[4] François-Marie Dermine, Vassula Ryden: Indagine Critica (Torino: Ediz. Elle Di Ci, Leumann, 1995). Fr. Dermine’s opinion was voiced in a later book of his: François-Marie Dermine, Mistici, Veggenti e Medium (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002).

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity always carries within it a structure of hope—The Problem of Christian Prophecy, 30Days, January 1999, 83.

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