By Jennifer O’Connell
Call me an infidel, but it was hard to avoid feeling slightly cheated as self-proclaimed psychic-visionary/clairvoyant/spiritual healer and all-round earthly representative of the Blessed Virgin, Joe Coleman, unveiled his true colours on Liveline last week -- and trust me, they weren’t the glorious shades of rose and gold glimpsed in the skies around Knock last weekend.
Couldn’t Our Blessed Mother have chosen a more sympathetic vessel as her representative on earth? Or at least one with a more conventional attitude to his finances?
And if not - then what’s so wrong with Bertie Ahern? He’s got a bit of time on his hands now he’s out of the running for the big job in Europe. Or even the blonde X-Factor twins with the voices of angels, and the faces of Baby Jesus? If they can handle Simon Cowell, Satan’s not going to present much of a challenge.
There were loads of people she could have picked. But for reasons known only to Herself and her legions of her earthly visionaries, she alighted upon Ballyfermot’s answer to L Ron Hubbard.
Until last year, Joe Coleman was peddling his wares out of a room above Jackie’s florist’s shop, doing psychic readings. Then, as he put it with such devastating simplicity, “Our Lady came to me and I stopped all that work.”
Sorry, correction. He wasn’t peddling anything. He did all his spiritual healing and teaching for free, happy to live off cash donations of as little as €1 – except that one time he charged €40 each to the lady called Patricia and her two friends, who happened to ring up Liveline to dispute his claim that he never took money for readings. “I don’t make money to declare anything to Revenue,” he explained. “I don’t have an income. I did charge €40 one time last year.”
He doesn’t even have a bank account. In fact, he probably walks out of the post office and hands his invalidity pension directly over to the poor. (Actually, when you think about it, it’s amazing that he hasn’t found time to cure himself by now.)
But for a man who has uttered more Hail Marys in the past week than the Sisters of Mercy accumulated in their entire back catalogue, grace was in short supply when he found himself confronted by a number of dissenters on RTE radio.
“It’s terrible what’s going on in Knock with the likes of youse…Have you seen Our Lady, does Our Lady come to your house? I don’t think so, not with that attitude..Run away love,” he barked at a believer who works at Knock, and had the temerity to doubt his visions.
“I shook you on Saturday when I spoke to you. I bloody well did shake you and I’ll shake you again when I see you, because I’ll shake you with the energy I have inside me. You will never insult Our Blessed Mother ever again…” he snarled at the manager of the shrine at Knock, Pat Lavelle. And so on.
The whole sordid saga might even be funny if it wasn’t for two things.
First, the tide of troubled fools stampeding around the country in Coleman’s wake, spreading a trail of Tayto crumbs and sweet wrappers behind them. “There she is,” one can be heard to murmur on one of the You Tube videos of the apparitions. “Oh no, that’s just a plane.”
The second factor that makes it all seem somewhat less than a harmless jape is Coleman’s willingness to prey on the very vulnerable, putting his ‘healing hands’ on sick babies, and even claiming to have photographs of the missing woman, Fiona Sinnott.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church is eager to dissociate itself from Coleman. The Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, said that recent events at Knock “risk misleading God’s people and undermining faith.”
Trouble is, Coleman doesn’t have the copyright on unsubstantiated and unlikely claims. In fact, you could say that he is prowling the aisles of the €2 euro shop, while the Vatican is holding the equivalent of its own personal shopping event at Brown Thomas.
Let’s not forget, after all, who first dreamt up the notion of Marian apparitions. The Catholic Church even has its own Q-mark style system of verification in place for such visions – many of the more famous ones having got the nod from the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger himself.
Nor is the notion of healing the sick or helping the blind to see a product only of his fevered imagination. (He claims a little boy was cured of blindness in Knock last weekend – but he doesn’t know the boy’s name as he’s still waiting for the boy’s surprisingly ungrateful mother to ring him back.)
And Coleman doesn’t claim to have the power to turn bread and wine into flesh and blood with a mere prayer– well, not so far anyway.
Of course, Catholicism is not the only religion guilty of spinning a few fabulous tales.
The demise of another in France could open up broader horizons for Coleman than the azure expanses of Knock.
Scientology - the religious cult that boasts a hefty war chest, legions of celebrity followers including Tom Cruise, and a doctrine so daft that frankly, it sounds like it was dreamed up by an 8 year old Star Trek fan who had overdosed on fizzy colas - has been found guilty in a court of defrauding its French followers.
A judge effectively debunked the idea of the church's famous ‘e-meter’ - a crude polygraph whose readings are used in intense counselling sessions known as ‘auditing’, to encourage Scientologists to purchase everything from books to extreme sauna courses - and fined it€600,000.
The ruling in France opens up an interesting vista.
What if the courts there were to decide to challenge all conventional religions to come up with evidence for some of their more spectacular claims?
There is a technical problem with this: Scientology is deemed a sect rather than a religion in France, which is why it was required to produce evidence for its claims, when conventional religions are not. That’s probably fair enough - admittedly, it costs a lot more to be told fairy stories by Scientology.
But still, just imagine what an interesting few days in court that would make for.
Trouble is, since Joe Coleman seems to enjoy exclusive access to the Virgin Mary's engagements diary, they'd better check with him before scheduling any hearing dates.
First published in The Sunday Business Post on November 8, 2009