Dear Donagh,

....Do you believe in apparitions of Our Lady and messages and images of Mary appearing on walls and tree-stumps?  Something you said last month makes me think you don't.  But I would like to hear more from you about it.  There’s a book of messages from our Lady to a north-side Dublin woman, that a neighbour keeps telling me I should buy.  I notice she doesn't offer to make me a present of it!  The way to read it, she said, is to open it at random and there’s your message.  Is all this stuff ok or is it wacky?  What would John Charles say about it if he was alive...?  Ann

Dear Ann, I was hoping you wouldn't bring that up!  I have to begin with a profession of disbelief: I'm not tempted to believe in any of that.  But it is of great interest, all the same.  I think it is New Age for traditional Catholics.  It is a religion of the senses: it has the appeal of the tangible and the immediate, yet far from being incarnational it is other-worldly in the extreme; it bypasses reflection, and it bypasses community; it’s a thirst for entertainment and wonders. 

Thanks for the word ‘mojo’ in the part of your letter I omitted here.  I looked it up.  Yes, I agree that the Church has lost some of its magic touch, its mojo.  People have been bored just too often by homilies that have no content or interest, by slip-shod liturgies, and by being excluded from parish life or not invited into it.  And just for these reasons they look elsewhere.  But they would prefer that it wasn't ‘elsewhere’, so they create their own mojo, but within the familiar coordinates.  In the 1980s it was all about ‘moving statues’.  At one point this became so widespread that some people were watching statues to see if they would move!  In Cork a public statue of Our Lady had an ‘out of order’ sign on it, hung there by some wag.  Then suddenly all the statues stopped moving, but the search for mojo goes on. 

Messages from Our Lady are a kind of New Age channeling.  I'm not easily shocked, but I was shocked when I heard someone reading “messages from Our Lady” from the lectern where the Gospel is proclaimed at Mass.  The effect was to say that the Gospel was a thing of the past – because these ‘messages’ were from yesterday or just this morning.  If people had any historical awareness, or if they retained a vestige of good sense, they would see that all this happened many times before and it is situated near the lunatic end of the spectrum.  Useful background reading would be Ronald Knox’s 1950 book Enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm tends to sweep everything away, as these modern enthusiasts are willing to sweep the Church’s directives away.  “May God forgive him,” announced a recent enthusiast when a bishop cast doubt on his prediction that Mary was going to appear at Knock on a precise date, at 3 pm.  Thousands of people had turned up for the event; but strangely, only the enthusiast himself claimed that it took place – even though everybody was watching.  A priest in Medjugorge complained bitterly that people were talking in church; and sure enough, there was a ‘message from Our Lady’ next morning to say that “people should remain silent in my Son’s church.”  What can you do when people lose their good sense? 

Bishops’ leadership is set aside in a way that ought to be upsetting for traditional Catholics.  The ‘big house’, the Church, is no longer as guarded as it used to be, so the multitude is breaking in and making off with valuables, various bits and pieces, and setting them up at home, out of place and out of context, where they look perfectly ridiculous.  Does a break-up have to be so embarrassing? 

In 2003 there was a document on New Age from the Vatican, "Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life - a Christian reflection on the 'New Age'”.  (See ‘Between Ourselves’ on this website, 2003.)  In one paragraph it named 25 ‘New Age practices’, vaguely disapproving of them all (even though the list included AA and by implication all the 12-step programmes).  What goes around comes around; and now it is time to include some of these Catholic enthusiasms in the list – to replace the 12-step programmes perhaps.... 

Most people won't know who you refer to as ‘John Charles’.  He was archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, and is remembered (with very unfair selectiveness) for telling the people of Dublin on his return from the first session of the Vatican Council, “Nothing has occurred in Rome to disturb the tranquillity of your Christian lives.”  Let’s hope that what is happening now is not unduly disturbing his tranquillity in the beyond!


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to