The self declared visionary Joe Coleman has been making waves in Irish religious circles for the past few weeks. He claims that that the Virgin Mary speaks to him on a regular basis, specifically since he died on an operating table in 1986. Until recently, Mr Coleman was a spiritual healer who claimed to cure cancer by laying his hands on people with the disease. Now he devotes himself entirely to “our Blessed Mother.” A humble man from Ballyfermot in Dublin is now our channel for love and a channel for God.
There is strong opposition from church fathers. Dr Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, stated that
“It is not healthy, does not give glory to God and certainly is not good witness to the faith to be looking for extraordinary phenomena. The apparition of 1879 was neither sought nor expected by the humble, honest people who were its astonished witnesses . . . Unfortunately, recent events at the Shrine obscure this essential message. They risk misleading God’s people and undermining faith. For this reason such events are to be regretted rather than encouraged.”
Of course, there are those who would see these words as evidence of corruption in a Catholic church that has lost touch with the times and the people. The old chestnut of prophets not being appreciated in their own time is being trotted out on a regular basis. While this may be true, there is a kind of desperation in the willingness of people to believe regardless of common sense or logic.
In Ireland, People who consider themselves religious profess to have a special bond with Mary. It is perhaps why apparitions in Ireland are always apparitions of Mary. In the Irish language, Gaeilge, there is a unique name preserved for the mother of God – Muire – and Mary is translated as Máire. When praying, people pray to Mary to intercede on their behalf with God the father. This is not unique to Ireland, many countries have their version of Mary. Elsewhere though, the symbol of Mary is used to uplift, in contrast to the self-flagelation that occurs in Ireland.
The Irish famine in the latter half of the nineteenth century had a profound effect on the Irish psyche. The Roman Catholic Church gained in power and influence. Education was heavily influenced by the Church. It is not, therefore, surprising that in 1879, there was a recorded apparition of Mary, the mother of God, at Knock, in which she was accompanied by St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (as the Lamb of God). The numerous doubts and theories about the authenticity of the apparition were laid to rest in the eyes of the Church when, in 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine and endorsed the indelible seal of Vatican approval.
The influence of the Catholic Church may have waned in these modern times, but there is nothing like a recession to increase mass attendance and the attempted spinning of supernatural phenomena. One example is that of the tree stump in Limerick earlier this year, and the moving statues in Ballinspittle in 1985. Thousands of pilgrims descended on these sites; they prayed, ate and left rubbish lying around. One might compare it to a rock festival.
As in all tough times, no fewer that 15 000 people turned up at Knock to witness the Marian apparition, say the rosary and pray. Mr Coleman informed the people than those with open hearts would see the mother of God. Subsequently, he added that women in short skirts and/or t-shirts were showing disrespect to the Virgin Mary and would not experience the apparition.
It is after the rosary that accounts get a bit confused. Some people claim that a Marian statue lit up while Mr Coleman was in the church with his devotees, which caused a stampede when those inside the church heard that piece of news. Then there are those who claimed they saw the sun dancing. A sceptic might point out that staring at the sun might indeed cause visions and electric light does tend to illuminate statues. A YouTube video shot on the day has been held up as proof of both the apparition and the lack of apparition.
Despite Mary’s usual message of peace, Mr Coleman claims that now she is angry and will close paradise to those who do not return to the church:
“She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock. And the gates of Heaven will be closed. She says she’ll do it, I don’t know how she’ll do it, but she’s angry.”
It is possible that the Virgin Mother has grown tired of waiting for lapsed Catholics to take up the cross again. Another possibility is that Catholics are not converting enough people to the faith. Yet another explanation is that Mr Coleman is a fraud who is manipulating vulnerable people. After all, being a visionary is a recession-proof business. Indeed Mr Coleman has also predicted that the lost city of Atlantis will rise in 2012. I am looking forward to that particular occurrence myself.
It is all very well to argue about materialistic modern ways but those who would have Ireland return to days of old should remember the words of William Butler Yeats,
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.