The vision thing at Knock

One of my general principles is that I will not ridicule a person’s religious beliefs, unless it involves violence, discrimination or deliberate fraud. So I shall be careful in what I am about to write. It concerns the recent predictions of apparitions of and pronouncements by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock shrine in County Mayo.

Just in case you are reading this and don’t already know the story, here it is. Two Dublin-based spiritual healers, Joe Coleman (also described as a clairvoyant) and Keith Henderson, have been gaining some publicity with their predictions of apparitions by the Virgin Mary on very precise dates and times at the Marian shrine of Knock. The last of these occasions was to have been last Saturday – which happens also to have been Halloween – and some 10,000 people apparently turned up to witness the event. Whether anything happened depends on what you believe; there was little evidence of anything tangible, but Coleman has since told the world that Mary did appear and gave him a message, which he has passed on to the media. Others present stared at the sun (which Coleman has suggested people should do) and then claimed they saw things in the light, but then again you can see anything by looking at the sun, and if you do it for too long you will in fact damage your eyesight. And now it seems there will be another day for an apparition soon.

Last week all this was dismissed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, who said that the faithful should not come to Knock to look for ‘extraordinary phenomena’. Some might query this stance, since the shrine itself is based on reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1879 – heavily disputed at the time, and in fact not recognised by the church until the 1930s. And indeed reports of apparitions at the shrine have been a feature of its history.

And of course all these apparitions are part of a history of piety that has from time to time focused on what the archbishop calls ‘extraordinary phenomena’. There were, for example, the ‘moving statues‘ of Ballinspittle and elsewhere of the 1980s.

Speaking as a Christian myself (increasingly a minority status), it can seem hard for the churches to differentiate satisfactorily between the miracle stories of the Bible and the reports of moving statues and dancing suns. And yet there is a difference, particularly for those who find value in scripture as spiritual insight, in which not every account is historical narrative. The ‘extraordinary phenomena’ are probably typical short-lived movements of piety that accompany periods of hardship or poverty; so the archbishop is right.

Personally I believe there is an important place for religion, and shrines have had an important historical role in providing a focus for faith. But a religion that incorporates what might almost appear to be vaudeville type phenomena , with séance-like apparitions, is not what we need right now. This is not the time to flee from reality into a world of strange occurrences and mystical magic.

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13 Comments on “The vision thing at Knock”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well, one would have to say, at least I would anyhooos. That of all the mindbending things this is the least intrusive on others. Here there is no murderous line from barren valleys that slice the Afghan plateau, no Indio or mixed race splashing diesel on Cocaine. No fools that mangle Celtic mythology to justify their intake of Fungi, and my ears along with it.
    A bit of traffic in the east of Mayo is bothering no one, except may be those who study satellite photos. Mostly, this is harmless, in our meaning of that word.


    • Vincent, in many ways I’d like to agree with that, but I don’t think I do. At the most simple level, these folks are being asked to look into the sun, which will damage the eyesight of some of them permanently. But on a more general level, there is a kind of spiritual exploitation in all of this. I cannot really say whether Coleman is genuine – perhaps he is, in the sense that he believes everything he says – but I don’t believe he is harmless. You never know how such mass movements develop once they start. Usually they mature by finding an enemy.

      • Vincent Says:

        Well yes but, how much Mass and how much Movement can you have from 10,000 perched in a freezing windswept field in the middle of nowhere -even for Mayo- at the start of November.
        The same 10,000 sitting in one of the ten-span-hay-barn sized pub in Mullingar, now there is something ta worry about.

  2. John H Says:

    A number of times recently there have been varying degrees of apparition. The Catholic Church has not recognised many of them. The logic is that any legitimate apparition by Mary will involve a message. Even this is not enough to have the Church recognise an apparition as genuine. Medjugorje is not recognised as official, and, in fact, some priests involved have been specifically instructed to step back from the whole thing.

    For me, I don’t buy into what’s happening in Knock at the moment. It seems too choreographed. Also, judging by reports in the Irish Times (link below) what happened in Knock was anything but holy. I feel that it’s a bit of a moment for “by your fruits you shall know them”

    Then again, who here has the authority to tell God (for those of us who believe in Him) what to do? (That’s my opt out for saying I just don’t know)

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2009/1103/1224257963765.html?via=mr

  3. Jilly Says:

    There’s a long and largely dishonourable tradition of ‘spiritual manifestations’ designed to appeal to the poor, the under-educated, the vulnerable and the desperate. Indeed, it may be the real ‘oldest profession’. It doesn’t take a detailed knowledge of economic and social history to see, in the Irish context alone, a clear pattern in their timing. From moving statues in the 1980s to apparitions in 2009, its striking how their timing coincides with periods of economic recession and the fears and anxieties this produces.

    I think you could file this topic in the same folder as your post of a few days ago about the Lottery…

  4. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I have found the at best patronizing tone and actual anger in media and new media commentary on the Knock believers quite upsetting. Who are we to question their beliefs?

    I had something of the same reaction to the lottery post with its patrician concern for the “poor”.


    • Ooh, Aoife! Patrician concern? Gee, I hope not! But I’ll stand by my views on that! On the Knock visions, I certainly acknowledge, I could be wrong in how I have commented on it. It’s hard to be sceptical without being disrespectful of people’s feelings, and yet we must try.

  5. k denny Says:

    The co-incidence of this phenomenon with a time of general anxiety is, as suggested by Jilly, significant i.e. it is not just a coincidence: some people are desperate, confused etc. But I think there is a responsibility on those who are not taken in by all this to say “Look, this is all bunkum”. The Catholic Church is being pretty sensible in this regard since it is clearly trying to distance itself from it. That said, the sneering tone, adopted by some journalists may not be helpful however much I tend to agree with them.
    There is a deeper issue, namely why do we tippy-toe around some forms of superstition and not others? I think it was Alain Sokal, author of the famous “Social Text” hoax article and subsequently “Intellectual Impostures” [a great read] who asked why, in Oxford, is there a Faculty of Theology and not Astrology?

  6. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I always felt the only thing Alan Sokal managed to demonstrate was his own lack of intellectual engagement.

  7. Vincent Says:

    Your reaction to this has been running in my mind since yesterday. And without all that much luck I have been unable to see where you are coming from.
    Is there more to it than the Nazi beginnings. Is there a Religious dimension to your reaction, surely the CoI are not worried about this thing and a resurgence of interdenominational hate.
    Something I’ve felt to be little more than the colour on a bowstring, not the string, bow or arrow, nor the arm that drew the string.
    Put it this way, if for some reason there were a group of CoI doing something
    similar, you have gone through some weird worship of Grains recently, not much Sola Scriptura there. Well, if 10,000 turned up at Clonfert for a group Harvest Festival should this be considered worrisome. I for one would find it very difficult to see them casting round for enemies. Ha, but having said that, I am of the anti-foxhunting group. So, I could well be wrong.


    • Vincent, I think that religion always needs to be conscious that some may level the charge (to quote Marx) that it is just ‘opium for the masses’. Religion that involves a flight from reality, or which places its followers in a state of psychological dependency, is in my view not a good thing. Religion that does not use reason as one of the tools of its development will make a negative contribution to human development. Thousands crowing in on Knock to stare at the sun and marvel at perceived images and claims of messages may seem harmless to some, but it casts all adherents in the role of being just batty, and that can’t be good. I think we need to respect people’s faith, but we shouldn’t entirely drop our critical faculties either.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    Hmmm. I though most religion did involve a ‘flight from reality’, or at least reality as most people understand it. Isn’t that the point of it? Furthermore, a religion that is not based on ‘marvel[ling] at perceived images and claims of messages’ would be pretty rare too, I would have thought? I think if you are going to go down the religious route, all bets are off really, and it is hard to claim that ‘my miraculous vision is more real (or indeed rational) than yours’! Fish in a barrel, innit?

  9. Big Bad John Says:

    I think it says somewhere in the gospel of Matthew (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign. By the way, I’m not for one moment saying that the 10,000 people who arrived in Knock last weekend were either of these. However, it does seem to me that the following passage from the Epistle of James – “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” – is really where we ought to strive to be. So my question to Messrs Coleman and Henderson would be – “How does a visitation from the Virgin help us as people to develop such an attitude and lifestyle?”


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