Obedience to the Catholic Church has always been the “litmus test” that that Church uses for discerning the authenticity of a mystic or visionary and their alleged private revelations. A true mystic or visionary will always obey the legitimate religious superiors and authorities in the Church. We can be sure that if a mystic or seer is in any way disobedient to the local Bishop or their religious Superiors, then the alleged revelations and messages cannot be authentic. God's graces flow through His Church in union with the legitimate authority (ie- Pope, Bishops, Religious Superiors) that He Himself has established.
Jesus established the authority in the Catholic Church through the Apostles, with Peter as their Head. Through Apostolic and Papal succession, the Bishops are the successors to the Apostles, with the Pope (Peter) as the Head. And, as successors to the Apostles, it is the Bishops duty to safeguard and protect the faithful in the purity of the Catholic faith. The very real danger in following an alleged visionary is that one can very easily be led astray by the erroneous teachings and revelations of a false mystic or visionary. In fact, throughout the centuries, some Catholics have been led out of the Church by false visionaries and seers.
The authority to judge, and the obligation of the faithful to obey“We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who does not belong to God refuses to hear us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.” (1 John 4:6)
The “us” John is referring to is Peter and his fellow Apostles and their successors, that is, the Pope and the Bishops. Obedience to “us” is the key that John gives us to “knowing the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit”. The Catholic Church, through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit given to the Pope and the Bishops alone has the authority to judge the private revelations of mystics and visionaries, and it is our obligation and duty to obey the judgment of the Church. Catholics should be aware that willful disobedience to the Church is a sin. Willful disobedience is when one knowingly and intentionally disobeys the legitimate authority and judgment of the Church. (ie- local Bishop). Even should the local Bishop mistakenly disapprove of a genuine revelation, obedience to the Church always remains paramount. It is a sin to propagate a private revelation disobediently, but it can never be a sin not to propagate one.
While we are free to have an personal opinion regarding a private revelation, we must submit to the judgment of the Church with practical obedience. What this means is that while we are free to disagree privately with a Bishops decision, (the Bishop is not infallible these matters), we are obligated to obey with practical obedience, that is, we may not act against the Bishops decree or judgment; we may not propagate the private revelation or alleged messages that the Bishop has judged negatively, or continue to say publicly that you regard it as genuine. No private individual has the authority to judge definitively and officially which private revelations are true and which are not. The authority to rule on the authenticity of a private revelation rests solely with the local Bishop.
Setting up Christ against His Church
Authentic mystics, like Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena and St Margaret Mary Alacoque are models of obedience. They never pretended to set up Christ against His Church through the revelations that they were given . In fact, there are countless occasions in the lives of the Saints where Our Lord gave them a directive, but then their religious superior or spiritual director forbade it. On every one of these occasions in the lives of the Saints, Jesus always instructed them to obey the directives of their religious superior, even when they were against His own directives or wishes.
Concerning a Mystic or private revelation one might say "That Bishop is a bad Bishop. I think the Bishop is wrong and his judgement is incorrect".
"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach".
So we see how Jesus commands us to be obedient to those who are placed as leaders of the Church, even if a particular Bishop happens to be a "bad bishop" in one's own opinion.
Those who disobey the negative judgement of the local Bishop concerning a mystic defend their disobedience to the Bishop by saying- "I would rather believe in God than man", which is really saying that God has no power over the very bishop that He commands us to obey, and that God, through the Holy Spirit, does not enlighten the Bishop, or influence him to make the proper judgment. This person, therefore, becomes their own bishop, judge and authority, apart from Christ's Church. In other words, such persons would rather believe in the mystic than the Church, and thereby set up Christ against His Church.
Can a bishop make an error in discernement and judgement of a private revelation? Yes, if God permits it. The Church teaches us that private revelations are never to be held as the source or the basis of our faith, and as Catholics we are not required to believe in any of them, not even the Church approved ones such as Lourdes or Fatima. Only the doctrines and teachings of the Church are to be our sole guide and rule of our faith. And God, to emphasise this fact, and to test our humility and obedience to those He has placed in authority in His Church, can permit a Bishop to make an negative judgement concerning an authentic mystic or private revelation. But even if such is the case, one is always obligated to obey the judgement of the local Bishop in matters of faith and morals.
The Example of the Saints
On one occasion, the Sacred Heart of Jesus made a request to St Margaret Mary Alocoque, but when she told her Superior this request, her Superior did not approve. Soon afterwards, when Jesus came to her again, she asked Him about this, and He replied: "…not only do I desire that you should do what your Superior commands, but also that you should do nothing of all that I request of you without their consent. I love obedience, and without it no one can please Me" [Autobiography of St Margaret Mary].
Elsewhere in her Autobiography, we read that St Margaret Mary was told by Our Lord: "Listen, My daughter, and do not lightly believe and trust every spirit, for Satan is angry and will try to deceive you. So do nothing without the approval of those who guide you. Being thus under the authority of obedience, his efforts against you will be in vain, for he has no power over the obedient" [cf. -Autobiography]
In the life of St Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) we discover that his Bishop, Archbishop Gagliardi, falsely accused Padre Pio of various wrongdoings, and had unjust sanctions imposed upon him. When people would speak against the Bishop concerning these unjust sanctions, St. Pio would quickly respond “The will of the Bishop is the will of God.” Conscious of the importance of obedience, Padre Pio was always showing an example of true religious obedience and respect to his superiors. For him, the superior was the image of Christ, and obeying him was obeying Christ. But it happened that God used Padre Pio's superiors as instruments for him to suffer from the Church, and for the Church. And so we see that even if the Bishop may be wrong in his judgment, we are always doing God's will by obeying him.
In the Diary of St Faustina Kowalska we read:
"...Jesus says; 'Obedience. I have come to do My Father’s will. I obeyed my Parents, I obeyed My tormentors and now I obey the Priests' ...I understood that our efforts, no matter how great, are not pleasing to God if they do not bear the seal of obedience.... I understand, O Jesus, the spirit of obedience and in what it consists. It includes not only external actions, but also one’s reason, will and judgment. In obeying our superiors, we obey God.." -Diary of Saint Faustina Kowalska
And elsewhere in her diary she writes: "Satan can even clothe himself in a cloak of humility, but he does not know how to wear the cloak of obedience." (Diary, par. 939).
And St Catherine of Siena states- “Oh! How sweet and glorious is this virtue of obedience, which contains all the other virtues! Because it is born of charity, and on it the rock of the holy Faith is founded; it is a queen, and he who espouses it knows no evil, but only peace and rest.”
The life of the false mystic Sr. Magdalena de la Cruz should be a very stark warning to all about the grave dangers of being misled by a false visionary or mystic. During her youth, Sr. Magdalena made a pact with the devil and eventually became a Franciscan nun, and then the mother Prioress of her convent. She became famous for her (false) mystical graces, prophesies, stigmata, visions etc, and ended up misleading many within the Church, along with numerous high dignitaries throughout Spain and abroad. Those interested can read an article on Sr. Magdalena of the Cross that I wrote here
All that glitters is not necessarily gold, and the devil does not counterfeit tin or copper---he seeks to counterfeit gold. So, Catholics need to be very careful not to be misled by the false gold of phony visionaries and mystics.
In closing, I highly recommend Father Peter Joseph’s excellent article concerning the discernment of apparitions and obedience to the local Bishop located here: http://www.christianorder.com/features/features_2004/features_oct04.html