In Ireland, 1985 is back again. We are deep in recession with the unemployment rate rising sharply and our government about to beggar us with their ridiculous National Asset Management Agency. ‘Spin me round’ is on the radio. The oddest clothing is back in fashion, thankfully not leg warmers though.
Of course, no trip back to the 80s would be complete without reports of a miracle in Ireland. The religious cravings are back in full flavour. Few may remember or have heard of those summer evenings of mass gatherings in Ballinspittle, in county Cork and Mount Mellory in county Waterford, where the faithful experienced a transformation. Statues of the Virgin Mary were moving and appearing and disappearing apparently at will. Many believed that the Virgin was sending a message of hope to her most faithful.
The Virgin chose an interesting time to shore up Catholicism. Ireland was finally loosening the stranglehold of the Catholic Church from around its neck. Attendance at mass was dropping and unmarried mothers were no longer imprisoned as slave labourers to the holy nuns. Politics continued without direct consultation with the Church.
Whether it was mass hallucination, a practical joke, an orchestrated hoax or a true apparition, no one can tell, but now in these recessionary times, the Virgin has appeared again, in a somewhat unorthodox place.
The Virgin has appeared in the stump of a tree, but not just any stump. The tree stood on the grounds of Holy Mary Parish Church at Rathkeale in county Limerick. It was a chainsaw that revealed the outline of the Virgin.
Questions might arise as to how this is different from Jesus appearing in that sandwich and that tortilla chip that were auctioned on eBay. Yet this is clearly a different affair because the stump was located in the grounds of a church, there are prior claims of apparitions in recent memory, and the denizens of Rathkeale believe fervently in the truth of the miracle.
Whether it is an apparition, a hoax or an alternative path to worship, the people of Rathkeale are determined to keep the holy stump. Nearly 2000 people have signed a petition to prevent the stump being removed. A local shopkeeper claims it is uniting people of different faiths and walks of life.
“It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers, so what’s wrong with that? There’s enough violence and intolerance going on in the world.” [source]
Naturally, the Catholic Church has a more conservative view. Representatives of the Limerick diocese spoke of scepticism and superstition, but this is not at all surprising. The Church is suffering a crisis never before felt in Ireland. Their power is receding. The revelations of institutional child abuse are fresh in the minds of the people, with another report due soon. Their numbers are dwindling. It may be that the Church begrudges every penny spent on the stump as a penny from their pockets.
Few representatives of the Church speak out but Father Willie Russell suffers no such reluctance.
“People should not worship a tree — “there’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree . . . you can’t worship a tree”.
Unfortunately Father Willie Russell needs to read his Bible again. There is a valid argument to be made in favour of nature worshipping. If one believes that God is creator of all and is omnipresent, then worshipping a tree is worshipping God just as much as believing in transubstantiation or indeed consubstantiation.
In spite of the attitude of the Church, people continue to travel from all over Ireland to pray at the stump. The local people have raised money for a permanent casing to house the stump.
Last week the stump was spray painted blue and silver in an act of vandalism. Blue and silver are not the colours of any county in Ireland nor hold any particular significance to my knowledge. I must conclude that the attack was senseless violence.
The newspapers are full of cuts, woe, strikes and hard times ahead. People are suffering greatly. However, it is refreshing to have a different kind of story, a story about faith, belief and spirituality. It is a joyful story whether that joy is spiritual or the joy of the brief upturning of lips upon hearing of such blatant superstition. Whether one believes is almost beside the point.