The holy war over a visionary in a cardigan

Christina Gallagher's stigmata and visions have drawn pilgrims to her House of Prayer since 1993. But now the Catholic church in Ireland is to investigate her apocalyptic threats - and her prodigious fund-raising.
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She looks ordinary enough, a housewife in her late thirties, which is all, she insists, she is. She wears a pale turquoise dress and a grey cardigan, no make-up, and looks pale and drawn. But as Christina Gallagher leaves the House of Prayer she has set up at Achill Sound, on an island off the west of Ireland, flocks of pilgrims crowd around her. They thrust out their hands and rosary beads to be touched. Middle-aged ladies in crimplene, clutching plastic carrier bags, trample the flower beds and one even climbs across a car bonnet. For Christina Gallagher receives, she claims, visits from the Virgin Mary and from time to time the marks of Christ's crucifixion - the stigmata - manifest themselves on her hands, feet and forehead.

"Get her to bless these," says a desperate woman at the back, passing her rosary to those in front. "She can't bless anything. She's not a priest," says another, mindful of the caveats which had been expressed earlier from the pulpit by the visionary's spiritual director, Fr Gerard McGinnitty. "Get away with you," said the first, thrusting the beads. "Herself is more powerful than any priest."

It is fears of exactly that kind of sentiment which have now led the Catholic Church to set up an ecclesiastical commission to look into Mrs Gallagher and the House of Prayer she has founded on the donations of her followers, which by any estimate comfortably exceed pounds 500,000. It will examine what happens to that cash - and the profits the House of Prayer makes selling garish but expensive holy water containers, statues, medals, videos, tapes, books and other religious artefacts. But it is the theological effects of this outbreak of piety that are concerning the church authorities.

There is a clue to the church's concerns inside the crowded chapel of the house. Statues of all sizes jostle for the eye together with huge arrangements of silk and plastic flowers in clashing colours and gaudy angels painted on the ceiling. There is a life- sized Madonna with a halo of pinprick bulbs round her head. Coquettish white cherubs, perch with their legs crossed on the window ledges or with their heads resting coyly on one hand on the altar. There is even an image of God the Father, an old man with a grey beard sitting on a cloud. On the altar is a grotesque wooden monstrance into which a large Eucharistic host has been placed and illuminated with a backlight so that it glows eerily like an alien from a horror movie.

But it is the language which is most revealing. The talk from the altar and in its prayer books is a curious mixture of antique theology - much talk of hell, purgatory, limbo and other notions which the Catholic Church set aside as unhelpful decades ago - and furious condemnations of modern life: artificial contraception, bad books, New Age ideas, Aids, heavy metal music and even television, which is described as "Satan's Tabernacle".

On the altar, Fr McGinnitty behaves most oddly as he says a Mass lasting twice as long as even the most solemn cathedral services elsewhere. One moment he looks to the rafters wearing a sweet beatific smile like some celestial TV game show host. The next he twitches and winces like a man with a nasty dose of indigestion. He does so at the moments of most devotional gravity - as he reads the Gospel, during the Offertory and, most pointedly, during the Consecration.

"We all think the devil is attacking him - scourging at the holiest points during the Mass - only he is too holy to say so," a pilgrim from Accrington tells me. She is a veteran of matters visionary. At the Marian shrine in Medjugorje in former Yugoslavia she saw the sun dance and the Virgin appear in the solar aura which turned her silver rosary gold. "People think you're mad - even some priests do - but it's true," she says. She shows me the rosary in proof.

The pilgrims kneel throughout the Mass, in the manner which went out of favour after the great reforming movement of modern Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council. Before distributing Communion, Fr McGinnitty launches into a long homily excoriating the Vatican II practice of receiving the Eucharistic bread in the hand. He fulminates about how sacred hosts are found left behind in the pews, stuck to the benches with chewing gum or sold to Satanists for blasphemous practices.

It is all a bit of a mystery to those who knew him when he was senior dean at Ireland's leading seminary, Maynooth, little more than a decade ago. "He was erudite, genial, an urbane man of cultured liberality, a man with a great sense of humour," said one of his contemporaries there. "He was marked out as bishop material. But something happened to change him."

"In 1985 he went to Medjugorje and had some massive conversion experience," said another. "It was massively destabilising." Fr McGinnitty's involvement with another group of visionaries, at Bessbrook, Co Armagh, placed question marks over him in official church files. "He has become a fundamentalist," said the same priest.

Fr McGinnitty knows how to pay lip service to Vatican II and make all the appropriate caveats, but he seems to have great disdain for the Council and what he has called "the so-called Catholic return to scripture in recent decades".

In Christina Gallagher he has found a convenient ally. Visions such as the one she had of the roof being stripped away from a church by demons are interpreted to mean that liberal priests "who are dead in the spirit of God" are throwing away the "treasures of the Church." And lest anyone point out that two popes were involved in the work of the Council, Christina is given a message from the Virgin that "this pope is guided spiritually in a greater way perhaps than other popes were".

The church authorities take a dim view of all this. So much so that Cardinal Daly, the Primate of All Ireland, issued a warning three weeks ago. "As we approach the Millennium, we find a proliferation of alleged visions, apparitions, messages purporting to be of Christ or Mary," he told pilgrims at the official shrine to Mary at Knock. "When there is not ecclesiastical approval, it is well to maintain a prudent reserve or scepticism in respect of such phenomena. Even when official approval is given there is never any obligation to believe them.

"One worrying feature is the emphasis on divine wrath and punishment, the preoccupation with the devil, the morbid warnings about the doom awaiting the world. The emphasis seems to be on fear rather than on love, on foreboding rather than on hope, on anxiety rather than on peace of the soul."

He would not have been pleased last Sunday to have seen Fr McGinnitty producing a relic of St Philomena and offer to bless pilgrims' "religious articles" with it. This saint is one of those, like St George, whom the Vatican removed from the official church calendar, pronouncing they were merely legendary with no proof that they ever existed. The Pope is clearly wrong on this one as Fr McGinnitty has a bit of her body.

Nor would the cardinal have been impressed by Fr McGinnitty's long advert - albeit one delivered from his knees - for the House of Prayer's shop and its various wholesome products. One of the most pointed of the cardinal's warnings in his Pentecost homily was: "If a prominent feature or the messages or the devotions is the collection of money ... as though those who did not contribute were disobeying a direct request of Christ or his Mother, this would be a negative sign and a warning of the danger of something possibly unwholesome and inauthentic".

The cardinal's displeasure might increase further were he to purchase one of the shop's tapes and hear Christina pronounce that when the Time of Chastisement arrives the house will be used by "the remnant of the Church, as a shelter. It will be a protection for those who are there and those who are in this house will experience heaven in its fullness". Moreover this privilege would be extended to all those who had made donations and whose names were "recorded in a book - the names, the amount, the date - kept in the House of Prayer. Our Blessed Mother said she'd be interceding not only for all those present but for all those names written in this book."

In Achill the locals have mixed feelings about all this. Shops, pubs and hotels which once closed down over the winter are now booming all year round. "We couldn't have dreamt up anything better than this if we'd tried," said one shopkeeper. And yet they are wary too. "Where does the money go? And what do they do there?" asked one businessman who has supplied the House and estimates, conservatively, that at least pounds 350,000 has been spent on the mysterious building. "Why has it got closed- circuit surveillance cameras outside? No other churches in Ireland have - yet those were the first thing they installed. And what is the keypad security on the sacristy door for?"

Certainly none of this was in the mind of the former Archbishop of Tuam who blessed the place at its opening in 1993. Then, "it was billed as a retreat house for a small number - the accommodation was only for six," said one priest who was shown round.

The local clerics know little. They were not invited to the opening and have not been since. Judiciously they are staying mum until the inquiry is finished. But their parishioners report that they are unhappy. They are plagued with phone calls from abroad about the place. They receive complaints from other priests. One rang to say the fishermen in his parish were afraid to go out to sea because "herself" had predicted a tidal wave. Another had a profoundly disturbed parishioner who heard from the altar the story of a terminally ill woman from Belfast whose friends prayed for her at the House; she was miraculously cured, but when she refused to acknowledge the power of prayer at the House she died of a second terminal illness which mysteriously appeared soon afterwards. "That kind of thing hits people at a time when they are most vulnerable," said one priest.

None of that doubt seems to touch Christina Gallagher as she makes her progress through the clutching pilgrims. Asked about the investigation she replies simply: "I know I'm telling the truth and regardless of what way the church decides, the truth will uphold itself. What I speak is the truth. So I have nothing to fear. I fear no man when I speak the truth of God." Such certainty always makes the church uneasy. No doubt there will be tears before the End Time.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO CHRISTINA GALLAGHER

The visions In 1985, Christina Gallagher, a housewife from Co Mayo, joined a huge crowd at Cairn's Grotto in Co Sligo where a statue of the Virgin Mary was said to turn to the figure of Christ. There she had a vision of the suffering Christ's head. Next came a 3am visit from Satan at home. Then in 1988 a wardrobe in a friend's house in Dublin turned into the Virgin. Later there were visits from various saints including Catherine of Sienna, St Patrick and the Italian stigmatic Padre Pio.

Other visions included trips to hell, purgatory and heaven, a preview of the horrors of Rwanda, an augury of "the Pope on his knees with blood coming from his stomach" and another of him being chased by pack of dogs against a background of a collapsing Colosseum.

The healing She claims miraculous cures - of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic asthma - and produces testimonies from the cured. But she insists, "I have no healing powers myself. I attribute all healing to Our Blessed Mother's intercession before her Divine Son. I am merely the instrument." She claims also to be able to see into the souls of priests, seeing them act out their sins before her.

The home life Paddy, her husband, "is just a bit afraid of it all," she says. "Paddy decorated the bathroom and my normal feeling would be of joy" - such are the small pleasures of life in Foxford, Co Mayo. "But Father," she wrote to her spiritual director, "to tell you the truth, I feel nothing for it ... It's not important ... I beg God to forgive me for I fear I should be happy for my poor husband's work."

The predictions Doom and gloom.

1988: she has a vision of Christ in the sky looking down on earth and saying "Woe", with "balls of fire in countless numbers falling from the sky and people on a road running in every direction". The Virgin tells her: "The Calamity has started".

1991: Jesus tells her: "The clock, its alarm is set. The hour is close. Pray, pray, pray." He also delivers a "severe message for priests and bishops" which she will not reveal. The world will end, she believes, in 1992.

1992: the world will end before the year 2000.

1996: Christ tells her "the Angel of the Passover has been released upon the Earth". In the Time of Chastisement to come those in the House of Prayer she has founded at Achill Sound, Co Mayo, will be safe. So will those who have made a contribution towards building it.

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