Hearing voices is so out of the ordinary that the phenomenon inspires medical attention or religious devotion. Many Catholic saints claimed to have heard the voices of God, his mother, angels and other saints. Generally these encounters involve directions to revive a spiritual practice, create a religious order, build a church or shrine, or alter the fate of history. The Church accepts the reality of the auditory experiences, although instances of such dramatic mysticism are today rare.

Procedure for Catholic Sainthood

Dialogs with the divine are not a prerequisite for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Those reported conversations may embellish the rich spiritual biographies of saints and may supply the catalyst for building churches and monastic orders, but they don't count for canonization. The current procedure for declaring someone a Catholic saint is threefold: years after the death of a reported saintly person, their local bishop investigates their life and claims and presents the case to a Vatican panel. If the case holds up, the panel looks for any evidence of failure to uphold Church doctrine. A sucessful candidate's petition then goes to the pope, who may declare the holy person "venerable." Clear evidence of a miracle or martyrdom -- dying in defense of your faith -- takes the process one step further to beatification. Then one more certifiable miracle is required to reach canonization. Miracles are considered evidence that the soul of the proposed saint is in heaven with God and intercedes favorably for petitions of devotees on earth. Nowhere in the canonization process are direct conversations with or messages from God, angels or other saints required, although such assertions would be part of any discussion of candidacy for sainthood.

The Catholic Mystic

Mysticism is more commonly associated with Eastern spiritual traditions today but it was once a vibrant part of Catholicism and most of the saints who saw visions and heard voices date from these earlier times. Christian mysticism is an overwhelming yearning for the direct experience of God. Jesus Christ said often that he spoke with his heavenly father -- himself, according to the doctrine of the Trinity in which God is at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- so there is ample precedent for deeply religious Catholics to seek mystical experience. The confounding nature of some of these beliefs and assertions defies easy explanation, as do the reported visionary and auditory experiences of mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Augustine and Saint John of the Cross. In the reports of the lives of the saints, extreme fervor and devotion was a hallmark of mystical faith that inspired or immediately followed hearing divine voices. The voices are not limited to pronouncements from God but may include directives or conversations with angels and with Mary, the Mother of God.

The Enigma of Joan

Joan of Arc was a devout, illiterate peasant girl in fifteenth century rural France who went on to lead a strategically brilliant military campaign against the invading English and clear the way for Charles VII to be crowned king. That, in itself, is an extraordinary achievement. But the historical evidence suggests these happened. She also claimed, from an early age, that she heard voices -- Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret specifically, gave her instructions -- telling her of her mission and the actions she must take to accomplish it. Ultimately, after completing a route of the English in key battles and insisting on the coronation at Reims, as commanded by her voices, Joan was captured and imprisoned. She was betrayed by her political allies, tortured, tried as a heretic and sorceress, vilified, and burned at the stake. Nearly 500 years later, the Catholic Church beatified and canonized her. Joan's conversations with celestial beings are probably the most spectacular example of saints hearing voices, but there are numerous reports of the phenomenon, usually accompanying an exemplary and heroic religious life.

Francis, Bernadette and Patrick

St. Francis of Assisi was an educated and hard-partying young Italian noble in Assisi when he heard a voice he believed to be God urging him to change his ways. Supposedly, he conversed with birds and animals in his love for all of creation, but listened to God. The voice spoke to him again in the abandoned church of Saint Damiano, telling him to rebuild the Church. Francis went on to found the Franciscan Order of Friars and to repair and rebuild several churches. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, a child from a poor family in the small French town, had visions of the Immaculate Conception, an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, at a natural stone grotto. She uncovered a spring at the grotto and delivered the message from her apparition: a shrine should be built and the Immaculate Conception honored at the spot. Water from the spring is said to cure those suffering from incurable or disabling maladies and Lourdes remains a focus of devote pilgrims today. Saint Patrick of Ireland was a captured slave when he heard a voice telling him to prepare because the ship to return him home was arriving. That was the first of many voices that Patrick heard, guiding him to return to Ireland as an ordained bishop and spread Catholicism throughout the island.