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Revue belge de philologie et

d'histoire

Mystics of a Modern Time? Public Mystical Experiences in


Belgium in the 1930s
Tine Van Osselaer

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Van Osselaer Tine. Mystics of a Modern Time? Public Mystical Experiences in Belgium in the 1930s. In: Revue belge de
philologie et d'histoire, tome 88, fasc. 4, 2010. Histoire médiévale, moderne et contemporaine. pp. 1171-1189;

doi : 10.3406/rbph.2010.7974

http://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2010_num_88_4_7974

Document généré le 26/05/2016


Abstract
This paper focuses on the journalistic fieldwork on a Belgian wave of “ popular mysticism” in the
nineteen thirties. As it turned individual mystical experiences into public happenings, the series did
not fail to incite discussions, also among the Belgian Catholics. Delving into these debates, this
article examines the reports and correspondence of three catholic journalists on one particular site,
Lokeren-Naastveld. While documenting the lived devotional culture and the attendant
discrepancies in religious agency, the accounts of these reporters illuminate their personal
interference at the site and their collisions with the ecclesiastical and public authorities. In addition,
their texts indicate how these journalists tried to substantiate or refute claims of authenticity and
attempted to situate the phenomena both within catholic tradition and their own time.

Résumé
Tine Van Osselaer, Mystiques des temps modernes ? Expériences mystiques publiques en
Belgique pendant les années trente.
Cet article est centré sur les journalistes et leurs recherches sur le terrain concernant une vague
de «mystique populaire » pendant les années trente. Transformant des expériences mystiques
individuelles en happenings publics, cette vague incita à la discussion, aussi parmi les catholiques
belges. En analysant ces débats, l’article examine les rapports et la correspondance de trois
journalistes catholiques sur un site en particulier, Lokeren-Naastveld. Documentant la culture
dévotionnelle vécue et les décalages en “ religious agency”, les témoignages de ces reporters
mettent en lumière leur interférence personnelle et leurs confrontations avec les autorités
ecclésiastiques et publiques. Leurs textes soulignent également comment ils essayaient d’étayer
ou de récuser des assertions d’authenticité et tentaient de situer les phénomènes dans la tradition
catholique et dans leur propre époque.

Dit artikel bestudeert het journalistieke veldwerk dat werd verricht naar aanleiding van een
Belgische golf van “ populair mysticisme” in de jaren dertig in België. Aangezien in deze reeks
individuele mystieke ervaringen tot publieke happenings uitgroeiden, was er stof tot heel wat
discussie, ook onder de Belgische katholieken. In dit artikel wordt nader ingegaan op deze
debatten en meer in het bijzonder op de rapporten en de correspondentie van drie katholieke
journalisten over een specifieke site, Lokeren-Naastveld. Hun teksten documenteren zowel de
geleefde devotionele cultuur als de bijhorende discrepanties in ‘ religious agency’ en brengen de
persoonlijke betrokkenheid van de journalisten en hun aanvaringen met de geestelijke en publieke
autoriteiten in kaart. Daarenboven geven ze aan hoe de reporters probeerden om opvattingen
over de authenticiteit van de gebeurtenissen kracht bij te zetten of te verwerpen en hoe ze
poogden de fenomenen te situeren binnen de katholieke traditie en hun eigen tijd.
Mystics of a Modern Time?
Public Mystical Experiences in Belgium in the 1930s

Tine Van Osselaer


K.U. Leuven, FWO-Flanders

Fieldwork on popular mysticism


On 22 August 1934, the chief of police of Lokeren, a town in Dutch
speaking Flanders, registered a warrant. The defendant was not the average
small-time criminal, but a journalist and editor in chief of one of the major
Belgian Catholic newspapers, De Standaard  (1). Had Jan Filip Boon – charged
with riotous assembly – chosen the criminal path? On the contrary, Boon’s
‘crime’ looks rather harmless, as it consisted of him witnessing ‘mystical’
phenomena in the Naastveld district. However, in attending these events he
acted against the directives of the Lokeren city council that, displeased by
the trouble these gatherings caused, had declared their ‘stage’ public territory
and prohibited all “riotous assemblies” of more than five people (2). Boon’s
charge therefore was the outcome of a heightened sensitivity towards an
affair that had had a hold on the town since October 1933 and brought about
the continuous presence of policemen and press at the site.
The mystical events – Marian apparitions, re-embodiment of Christ’s
Passion, bleeding crucifixes – Jan Boon witnessed in Lokeren were no new
phenomena to the Belgian public in 1934. Ever since the first attestation
of Marian apparitions in Beauraing in November 1932, similar incidents
had been signalled all over Belgium by hundreds of people in dozens of

* The research of this paper was supported by BOF (University of Leuven) and Research
Foundation Flanders (FWO). I would like to thank Evert Peeters and Rajesh Heynickx for
their suggestions and James Chappel for his proofreading.
AL= Lokeren, Archives of Lokeren; AAM= Mechelen, Archives of the archdiocese of
Mechelen; ADG= Ghent, Archives of the diocese of Ghent; Processus= Processus circa
assertas apparitiones et revelationes; XL.1031. Apparitions= XL. Relations with recognised
cults. 1031. Apparitions in the district Naastveld.
 (1) Although De Standaard had been created already in 1914, the first edition appeared
– due to the war – on December 4th 1918. The paper had a Catholic orientation, was linked
to the struggle for Flemish rights and had (together with Het Nieuwsblad) a circulation
of 50.000 (ca. 1935). Jan Boon was editor in chief since September 1929. Els De Bens
and Karin Raeymaeckers, De pers in België. Het verhaal van de Belgische dagbladpers.
Gisteren, vandaag en morgen, Leuven, Lannoo Campus, 2007, p. 39, p. 288; Theo Luykx,
Evolutie van de communicatiemedia, Brussel, Elsevier, 1978, p. 509-510.
 (2) AL, XX. Police, 413/21, police-warrants, 1934, 158. Jean Philip Boon.

Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Filologie en Geschiedenis, 88, 2010, p. 1171–1189
1172 T. Van Osselaer

places (3). In this wave of “popular mysticism” (4), individual experiences were


turned into public happenings. The series consequently differed widely from
an (older) tradition in which mystical encounters were attested by religious
secluded from the world outside. This 1930s wave was a case of bodily and
visionary Catholic mysticism of ‘common’ people (children, women and
men) witnessed by a crowd of spectators who also tried to get a glimpse of
the supernatural by carefully watching the bodily reactions of the mystics
(kneeling, trance) while imbuing signs and incidents with religious meaning (5).
The public character and the singularity of these encounters with the divine
presence – Robert Orsi calls them “abundant events” – incited the creation of
various reports. Although these accounts offer us an exceptional insight into
the lived devotional culture, they have, like the Belgian series, never been
studied thoroughly. This article will therefore focus on the reports produced
by the Belgian media and, in particular, by Catholic journalists. Their texts
illuminate not only the religious world from which the phenomena derived
their meaning, but also the authority claims and the attendant discrepancies in
(religious) agency (6). Explicitly presenting themselves as Catholic reporters,
these men and women aimed to be the eyes and ears of their public. Their
involvement evolved, however, far beyond the mere front-row (detailed)
reporting on the events as they got caught up in the at times difficult
power relations that characterise lived devotional culture. In order to sketch
the ‘fieldwork’ of these reporters, this article therefore not only examines
their published journalistic accounts but also delves into their personal
correspondence with the clergy, ecclesiastical hierarchy and other lay people.
While adopting Ann Taves’ “attributional approach” and examining how
experiences were deemed religious in certain contexts (7), this analysis will
thus include an examination of the journalists’ personal interferences at the
site(s) as well. Since the phenomena of the 1930s series and their evaluation
differed widely, the focus will be primarily on the coverage of one particular
series of events – Lokeren-Naastveld – depicted by one contemporary as
“the most wonderful mystical spectacle that Belgium ever experienced” (8).

 (3) AAM, Van Roey, Apparitions in Onkerzele and Etikhove, 10. List by Louis Wilmet
(27 May 1935) and the list by H. Didion. Although there were new attestations of apparitions
in 1937-38 (in Ham-sur-Sambre), the zenith of the series of Belgian events seems to have
been in the first half until the midst of the nineteen thirties. On the various sites of Marian
apparitions, see: René Laurentin and Patrick Sbalchiero, Dictionnaire des “apparitions”
de la Vierge Marie, Paris, Fayard, 2007.
 (4) “L’affaire de Lokeren”, in La Libre Belgique, 10 August 1934, p. 3.
 (5) Marlène Albert-Llorca, “Les apparitions et leur histoire”, in Archives des sciences
sociales des religions, vol. 116, 2001, p.  53-66, esp.  p.  64; Sandra Zimdars-Swartz,
Encountering Mary. From La Salette to Medjugorge, Princeton, Princeton University Press,
1991, p. 5.
 (6) Robert Orsi, “Abundant history: Marian apparitions as alternative modernity”, in
Historically Speaking, vol. 9, 2008, p. 12-16, esp. p. 14; Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and
Earth. The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars who Study Them, Princeton,
Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 2-4, p. 12 and p. 51.
 (7) Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered. A Building-Block Approach to the
Study of Religion and Other Special Things, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009,
p. 5 and p. 14.
 (8) “ (…) wellicht het wonderlijkste mystieke schouwspel (…) dat België ooit beleefde”.
AAM, Processus, BIVb: letter of Alfons Opdecum to the bishop of Ghent, 5 August 1934.
Mystics of a modern time? 1173

Still, in order to frame the fieldwork of these Catholic reporters, this article
will first elaborate on the newspaper coverage on the 1930s series in general.

Reporting on the ‘mystical’ phenomena


The events in Lokeren started about one year after the onset of the Belgian
series, by which point the Belgian journalists had already grown rather alert
for any assertions of this kind. Their thorough media coverage of the series
confirms William Christian’s statement that “once a major episode” – in the
Belgian case the Beauraing and Banneux events – “makes visions topical,
other minor cases become newsworthy or at least mentionable” (9). Moreover,
the rise in the number of reports on Belgian apparitions also fits the pattern of
an increased awareness for divine intervention in unstable times that has been
pointed out by scholars such as William Christian and David Blackbourn (10).
Against the background of a politically and economically unstable climate,
Belgian journalists reported enthusiastically on the phenomena and – as the
number of articles in the popular newspapers and the amount of booklets
and periodicals on the subject illustrate – found an interested public. A
heated debate developed as journalists commented on articles, caricatures
and parodies published on the series in rival papers (often of a different
political colour), or pointed out the lack of them (11). The Belgian series was
evidently not an isolated case and the accounts of these Belgian events were
embedded in press coverage of similar phenomena – and potential material
for comparison – in other countries (e.g. Ezquioga in 1931, the bleeding
crucifixes in Italy and Spain or the stigmatised Theresia Neumann) (12).
Eventually, the Belgian sites, commented upon also by Spanish, German and
Dutch journalists, turned into a point of reference as well (13).

 (9) William Christian, “Afterword: Islands in the Sea: The Public and Private
Distribution of Knowledge of Religious Visions”, in Visual Resources, vol. 25, 2009, 1-2,
p. 156.
 (10) David Blackbourn, Marpingen. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Bismarckian
Germany, Oxford, Clarendon, 1993, p. 20 and p. 360-362; Christian, “Afterword: Islands”,
art. cit.
 (11) E.g. Pardaf II, “Celle dont la presse cléricale ne parle pas  : la Vierge de
Rochefort”, in Le Peuple, 31 August 1933, p. 2 ; “De socialistische pers drijft den spot met
de godsdienstige overtuiging der geloovigen”, in De Standaard, 18 January 1933, p.  1-2.
On the Belgian press in the interwar period, see De Bens and Raeymaeckers, De pers in
België, op. cit., p. 37-43.
 (12) William Christian, Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain, Princeton, Princeton
University Press, 1992; Anna Maria Zumholz, “Die Resistenz des katholischen Milieus:
Seherinnen und Stigmatisierte in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts”, in Irmtraud Götz
Von Olenhusen, eds., Wunderbare Erscheinungen: Frauen und katholische Frömmigkeit
im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Paderborn, Schöningh, 1995, p. 221-251.
 (13) E.g. in the discussion on the apparitions in Heede (1937-40). Anna Maria
Zumholz, Volksfrömmigkeit und katholisches Milieu. Marienerscheinungen in Heede,
1937-40, Cloppenburg, Runge, 2004, p.  458. On the reaction of the Spanish and German
press, see: William Christian, Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ,
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p.  152; Michael O’Sullivan, “West
German Miracles. Catholic Mystics, Church Hierarchy, and Postwar Popular Culture”, in
Zeithistorische Forschungen, vol. 6, 2009, 1, p. 1-16 and p. 4.
1174 T. Van Osselaer

Reporting almost from the onset of the events, the influence the Belgian
press accounts had on the public opinion was deemed so considerable that the
bishops and Roman nuncio felt obliged to interfere. On October 30th 1933
the bishops circulated a statement for the clergy concerning the “marvellous
interventions” that the “public rumour” attributed to the Virgin Mary such as
apparitions, visions and predictions. All texts, including articles in periodicals
and newspapers, treating these events ex professo had to be subjected
to the censorship of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as they were regarded as
pertaining to “religion” and “morals”. Those printed without the imprimatur
(a guarantee of their orthodoxy and morality, not their scientific truth) had to
be considered forbidden (14). Rome’s confirmation of the bishops’ guidelines
followed in 1935 as the Roman nuncio C. Micara addressed a letter to
the archbishop (25  March) listing the decisions the Holy Office (Sanctum
Officium) had taken on January 9th 1935. He stated that the publications on
these events (books, booklets, articles) were forbidden and added that the
Belgian bishops had to do their best to makes sure that the directives they
had published in 1933 were strictly observed (15). Nonetheless, articles on the
series continued well beyond October 1933 as new apparitional sites (e.g.
Onkerzele, Etikhove) and phenomena (e.g. bleeding crucifixes) caught the
journalist’s attention. Catholic reporters such as Jan Boon, however, took care
to limit their print accounts to the “journalistic side of the events (all that can
be seen and heard by the common onlooker), as has been prescribed (…)” (16).
A closer look at these articles on the wave published in (Catholic,
socialist and liberal) Belgian newspapers indicates that even though there
were reports on a wide variety of events, much of the media response focused
on what all these phenomena had in common: their devotional and public
character. In commenting on the commercial exploitation of the series, the
articles published in Het Laatste Nieuws (17), a liberal newspaper, stirred
the same theme as those of the socialist press (De Vooruit, Le Peuple) (18).

 (14) According to a commentary on this declaration by the Jesuit father J. Creusen


newspaper articles were omitted from this last statement about the inclusion of imprimatur
as it is never printed on news items even if it has been demanded and granted. J. Creusen,
“Les “faits merveilleux” de Belgique. Instructions de l’épiscopat belge (30.10.1933)”, in La
Documentation Catholique, vol. 16, 1934, 31, p. 267-276, esp. 275.
 (15) ADG, Mgr. Coppieters, 9.5. Apparitions, Sub Secreto St. Officii. Letterae S.Off.
Rel. ad. Apparitione. Beauraing-Banneux et alias.
 (16) “den journalistieken kant der voorkomende feiten (het voor den gewonen
toeschouwer zichtbare en hoorbare), zooals ons is voorgeschreven”: “Te Onkerzele”, in De
Standaard, 10 December 1933, p. 3.
 (17) Het Laatste Nieuws (created in 1888, just before the parliamentary elections)
had a Flemish-liberal undercurrent and a circulation of 261.975 (ca. 1935). De Bens and
Raeymaeckers, De pers in België, op.  cit., p.  343; Luykx, Evolutie van de communica-
tiemedia, op. cit., p. 507, p. 509.
 (18) “De klucht van Beauraing. Leidt ze tot een reuzen bedotterij?”, in Vooruit, 8 August
1933, p. 1; Louis Bertrand, “Pèlerinages et exploitation de gogos”, in Le Peuple, 7 August
1933, p. 1; M. De Ceulener, “Etichove, nieuws verschijningsoord”, in Het Laatste Nieuws,
22 October 1933, p. 7. Both De Vooruit and Le Peuple were linked to the Belgian Workers’
Party (BWP, Belgische Werkliedenpartij / Parti Ouvrier Belge). The Flemish paper had been
created by a socialist cooperation in 1884 (in the context of the elections). In 1885, after
the formation of the BWP, the paper became the party’s voice; Le Peuple (created in 1885)
was its Walloon counterpart. De Vooruit had a circulation of 40.000 (ca. 1935), while Le
Mystics of a modern time? 1175

Their criticism – albeit mild in the liberal press – of the “superstitious fair”
consisting of little booths selling postcards with the pictures of the visionaries
on them was nothing new (19). The disapproval echoed that of the critics of
Lourdes who had also questioned the sincerity of commercialised religion
and considered it as a sign of corruption (20). The allusions to the hysteria and
neurosis of those involved were not new topics either. These afflictions had
become associated with mysticism, especially since the end of the nineteenth
century thanks to the work of Charcot in La Salpêtrière (21).
In addition, the socialist and liberal journalists of the Belgian press adopted
a “linear narrative” of (secularised) modernity (22) and regarded the kind of
piety on display at the various sites as out of date and “befitting the Middle
Ages” (23). They did not understand how the pilgrims that were visiting these
sites “in this time of radio and electricity, of plane building and other scientific
achievements” could “live in an atmosphere as if there are miracles brewing
every day and the apparitions might occur every moment” (24). Referring to
“apparitional fever”, “epidemic of apparitions”, “religious fanaticism”, and
“collective religious psychosis”, the liberal and socialist newspapers left no
doubt about what kind of piety they believed to be on display there (25). The
terms mysticism and mystic – primarily used in the francophone newspaper
Le Peuple – always seemed to have a ring of exaggeration and irrationality to
them and were used in pairs such as “troubled mysticism”; “mystic ardour”;
“mystic fever” and “collective/overstrained mysticism” (26).

Peuple’s circulation reached 65.000. De Bens and Raeymaeckers, De pers in België,


op. cit., p. 358-359; Luykx, Evolutie van de communicatiemedia, op. cit., p. 509.
 (19) “La supercherie de Beauraing. Les catholiques de plus en plus circonspects”, in
Le Peuple, 15-16 August 1933, p. 5; M.D.R., “De verschijning der Maagd te Onkerzele”, in
Vooruit, 22 September 1933, p. 3.
 (20) Suzanne Kaufman, Consuming Visions. Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine,
Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2005, p. 9-11, p. 14.
 (21) E.g. Louis Pierard, “Un Lourdes belge? Les visions de Beauraing”, in Le Peuple,
2-3 January 1933, p. 1 and p. 3. On the entanglement of hysterism and mysticism, see e.g.
Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention de l’hystérie. Charcot et l’iconographie photographique
de la Salpêtrière, Paris, Macula, 1982.
 (22) For the term “linear narrative of modernity”, see Orsi, “Abundant history”,
art. cit., p. 14.
 (23) Louis Pierard, “Un Lourdes belge naît à Beauraing dans un mysticisme trouble”,
in Le Peuple, 6 January 1933, p. 1, p. 4.
 (24) “(…) in dezen tijd van radio en electriciteit, van vliegtuigbouw en andere
wetenschappelijke verwezenlijkingen”: M. De Ceuleneer, “Een nieuw bedevaartsoord”,
in Het Laatste Nieuws, 11 September 1933, p.  2; “(…) leven in een atmosfeer alsof de
mirakels elken dag in de lucht hangen en de verschijningen elk oogenblik zich kunnen
voordoen”: M. De Ceuleneer, “De volkstoeloop te Onkerzele”, in Het Laatste Nieuws,
12 September 1933, p. 3.
 (25) M. De Ceuleneer, “Het uitzicht van Beauraing, het verschijningsoord”, in Het
Laatste Nieuws, 6 August 1934, p.  3; “Genezing te Beauraing”, in Vooruit, 14 september
1933, p.  3; René Jauniaux, “L’exploitation d’une psychose religieuse collective”, in Le
Peuple, 6 August 1933, p. 1 and p. 4.
 (26) Louis Pierard, “Un Lourdes belge naît à Beauraing dans un mysticisme trouble”,
in Le Peuple, 6 January 1933, p.  1 and p.  4; Louis Pierard, “Un Lourdes belge  ? Les
visions de Beauraing”, in Le Peuple, 2-3 January 1933, p. 1 and p. 3; Pardaf II, “Espérant
pour Rochefort”, in Le Peuple, 26 August 1933, p.  1 and p.  3; Pardaf II, “Une visite au
village de Beauraing où devaient se produire des miracles, mais où l’on ne vit que des
gogos”, in Le Peuple, 12 December 1932, p. 1 and p. 4.
1176 T. Van Osselaer

Catholic journalists hardly used the term mysticism when commenting


on the Belgian series. This might be due to the fact that adopting the word
already seemed to include a judgment of the phenomena and Catholic
journalists believed that it was up to the Catholic hierarchy to render a verdict;
their task was only to objectively inform their readers (27). What reporters
such as Jan Boon did comment upon, however, were the depictions of the
devotional practices as something ridiculous and out of time. In a mocking
tone, an article published in De Standaard on February 6th 1933 summarised
the ideas that the socialist newspapers seemed to want to pass on to their
readers: “Flanders is backward, it still lives in the Middle Ages because it
continues to believe. They, the socialists, are the light bearers of the new
age, the civilised people that have finally come to help backward Flanders
and push it forward on the way of new ideals” (28). The pilgrims were not
backward, credulous, simple people, out of time in the 1930s, and neither
were the visionaries. In his elaborate portrayal of the children of Beauraing,
Jan Boon explicitly called them “children of this time”. He thereby indicated
that the girls had a “bobbed” haircut and one of them, Fernande, liked to go
to the movies (29) and loved “the conquests of our time”. In his opinion, she
was “in everything the opposite of the sanctimonious hypocrites who ruin
the happy and true Catholic spirit in so many villages” (30). By explicitly
depicting the visionaries as people belonging to their own time, Boon not
only made visionary experiences into something befitting the modern age,
but also turned ‘modernity’ into an argument in favour of the credibility of
the visionaries.
This 1930s press dispute on the lived devotional culture can hardly be
called a new theme in the Belgian media discussions. Public pious acts such
as pilgrimages had always had the potential to create tension and concomitant
media enthusiasm, since in Belgian pillarised society these professions of
faith often counted also as declarations of political allegiance (31). What
was remarkable about the 1930s wave, however, was the high amount of
discussions the series triggered among the Catholic faithful and journalists.
Jan Boon, for instance, complained to the vicar-general of the archdiocese
of Mechelen that he did not understand how canon Paul Halflants, a

 (27) Jan Boon, “De kinderen van Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 9 January 1933, p. 1,
similarly: Paul Halflants, “À propos des faits de Beauraing”, in La Libre Belgique,
2 January 1933, p. 1.
 (28) “Vlaanderen is verachterd, het leeft nog in de middeleeuwen omdat het blijft
gelooven. Zij, de socialisten, zijn de lichtdragers van de nieuwen tijd, dat zijn nu eindelijk de
cultuurmenschen die ‘t verachterd Vlaanderen komen ophelpen en vooruitstooten op den weg
der nieuwe idealen”: J.H., “Lezers schrijven ons over Beauraing… Het Serpent tegenover
“de Vrouw”?”, in De Standaard, 6 February 1933, p.  3. Similarly on the compatibility
of the supernatural and the modern world: H.C., “Que se passe-t-il à Beauraing?”, in La
Métropole, 15 January 1933, p. 10.
 (29) Jan Boon, “De kinderen van Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 8 January 1933, p. 1;
Jan Boon, “Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 11 January 1933, p. 1-2.
 (30) “ (…) dat ook hield van de veroveringen van dezen tijd, en in alles het tegendeel
van de “kwezels” die den blijden en oprecht katholieken geest in zoovele dorpen en steden
verpesten”: Jan Boon, “Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 11 January 1933, p. 1-2.
 (31) E.g. events on the pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Oostakker: Henk De
Smaele, Rechts Vlaanderen. Religie en stemgedrag in negentiende-eeuws België, Leuven,
Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2009, p. 267.
Mystics of a modern time? 1177

correspondent for the Catholic newspaper La Libre Belgique at the time,


could be allowed to publish his critical comments on Tilman Côme, one of
the visionaries of Beauraing and on the events in Onkerzele (32). Similarly, the
observations published in the Catholic newspaper De Gazet van Antwerpen (33)
on the episcopacy’s condemnation of two visionaries from Onkerzele were
regarded as a personal attack on Jan Boon by the supporters of the site since
he had published elaborately on the pair. Even though neither his name, nor
his newspaper were mentioned in the article, the criticism that these texts
had helped the wider public on the wrong track to superstition, was regarded
as a revenge on “the apostle of our side,” revenge rooted in jealousy of De
Standaard and Morgenpost (34). The intra-Catholic tensions became apparent
especially in the discussion on the Lokeren-Naastveld events. It was the only
occasion on which the Belgian ecclesiastical hierarchy publicly announced
its disapproval of the phenomena and advised the faithful to stay away (35).

In the field: covering Lokeren-Naastveld


The Lokeren-Naastveld events started on October 25th 1933 at seven in
the evening as the nine-year old Gustaaf Van Driessche returned home and
allegedly had a visionary experience near the property of Mr. Mistler in the
Naastveld district. Feeling compelled to return to that site every night, the
rumour spread rather quickly that the little boy saw Mary and conversed
with her. Before long, people came to witness his experiences intending to
pray with him or make fun of him (36). Even though the series continued, the
interest in the events slacked and Lokeren would have completely lost the
public’s attention had it not been that in the summer of 1934, three girls –
Elisabeth Cornelis, Tiny Kool and Maria Van den Plas – from nearby towns
claimed to see the Virgin as well and attracted new (at times thousands of)
visitors to the site. The events took on a new turn in mid-July 1934 as the
three girls started to relive Christ’s passion during their ecstatic experiences
and claimed to see other saints – including the child Jesus – in addition to
Mary. Moreover, the crucifixes they used during their stations of the cross

 (32) AAM, Processus, BII b 1, letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Tessens, 4 August 1934. La
Libre Belgique was in fact the successor of Le Patriote (1884-1915); the paper had adopted
the title during WWI. The circulation of this Catholic newspaper reached 80.000 (ca. 1935).
De Bens and Raeymaeckers, De pers in België, op. cit., p. 455; Luykx, Evolutie van de
communicatiemedia, op. cit., p. 509.
 (33) De Gazet van Antwerpen (created in 1891) aimed to be a cheap Catholic
newspaper for the Antwerp region. Its circulation amounted to 100.900 ca. 1935. De
Bens and Raeymaeckers, De pers in België, op.  cit., p.  391; Luykx, Evolutie van de
communicatiemedia, op. cit., p. 509.
 (34) ADG, Onkerzele, letter of Cappelle to Mr. and Mrs. Vermeiren, 8 September 1934.
The article referred to: “Sprokkelingen”, in Gazet van Antwerpen, 30 August 1934. De
Morgenpost was initiated by De Standaardgroup in Antwerp in 1921; the newspaper lasted
until 1940. De Bens and Raeymaeckers, De pers in België, op.  cit., p.  288; Luykx,
Evolutie van de communicatiemedia, op. cit., p. 514.
 (35) “Ordonnances épiscopales”, in Les Annales de Beauraing et de Banneux, vol. 42,
15 September 1934, p. 3.
 (36) “De “verschijningen” in Lokeren”, in Het Laatste Nieuws, 16 November 1933,
p. 2.
1178 T. Van Osselaer

started to move and bleed and the rumour spread that the girls, joined from
time to time in Naastveld by visionaries from other sites, had stigmata (37).
Causing discussions even within Catholic families (38) and among the
Catholic clergy (39), the Lokeren series triggered various reactions. Advocates
of the events believed them to be the continuation of the teachings that had
been promoted at the site in Onkerzele. The re-embodiments of Christ’s
passion and the playful apparitions of the Jesus-child symbolised, in their
opinion, the necessity of suffering for a Christian life and the return to “a
simpler, more childlike life, along the principles of Saint Anthony and Saint
Theresa”. The opponents, on the other hand, deemed the visionaries’ joyful
scenes with the child Jesus “burlesque” and feared they might compromise
religion. Similarly, the visionaries’ falling down into the mud during their
Stations of the Cross was far from being appropriate and, in their opinion, it
ridiculed their faith) (40).
The rather sceptical local population reacted with scorn and occasional
violence to the pilgrims and the sick that turned up in Lokeren in the hope
of being cured. One anonymous note, for instance, urged the mayor and
aldermen to send all these people home, “if not I will order myself to shoot
them all on the spot” (41). Still, the adherents of the events persisted and did
not take the reproaches of the inhabitants to heart. Tensions rose and after
skirmishes between the pilgrims and their opponents on 31 July 1934, the
local government realised that even the increased police attention could not
stop the hostilities. They asked the owner of the site, Mr. Mistler, to close it
down for the public and decided that no gathering would be allowed of more
than five people (42). The phenomena continued, however, although no longer
on the avenue of Mr. Mistler, but in the backyard of a neighbouring house
where one had to pay an entrance fee to be able to attend and take a seat on
the specially-built tribunes.
The reaction of the bishops followed at the end of August 1934
as publicly announced miracle cures failed to materialise and tensions
increased. In a letter read in all the churches and chapels of the diocese
of Ghent on 2  September 1934 the bishop of Ghent declared that the
events in Lokeren-Naastveld did not have a supernatural character and he

 (37) ADG, Onkerzele, report on Jules De Vuyst; letter of De Beer to the bishop of
Ghent, September 1934; AAM, Processus, BIVa, letter of P.  C. Borromaeus Vandewalle,
29 May 1935.
 (38) See e.g. a letter of W. Sebruyle (?) in which he states that families are torn apart
on these matters and the ecclesiastical hierarchy has to take a firm stand. AAM, Processus,
BIVb, letter of W. Sebruyle (?), 14 July 1934.
 (39) See e.g. the positive response to the site in: AAM, Processus, BIVb, letter of Karel
Van de Vyvere, priest-missionary of Scheut to Mgr. Coppieters, 25 July 1934.
 (40) “(…) une vie plus simple, plus enfantine, aux principes de St Antoine et de Ste
Thérèse”. “Ordonnances épiscopales”, in Les Annales de Beauraing et de Banneux, vol. 42,
15 September 1934, p. 3.
 (41) “Zooniet gelast ik me ze ter plaatse neer te schieten”: AL, XL.1031. Apparitions,
anonymous note to the mayor and aldermen, s.d.
 (42) AAM, Processus, BIVb, copy of a letter of the mayor Raemdonck to Mr. Mistler,
1 August 1934. AL, III. Council meetings. 12. Reports (years IV-1976), 2 August 1934.
Mystics of a modern time? 1179

prohibited the faithful to visit the site (43). His letter, shocking as it was to
the adherents, was a relief to some of the priests. One of them even wrote
to the bishop declaring that he would be “happy to read it, it is completely
to my liking” (44). Obeying their bishops, the faithful stayed away and the
visionaries decided not to return to the site until the predicted miracle cures
had taken place (45). Nonetheless, abandoning the site was not the end of the
Lokeren episode: there were a series of bleeding crucifixes and miracle cures
in its aftermath and the supporters of the site remained actively engaged in
its promotion (46).

Reaction of the press

“Witnesses have confirmed to us that the only miracle


produced in ‘Naastveld’ is the well-being of the young girls and
their followers, exposed as they are to an angry mob” (47).

Published in the Catholic newspaper La Libre Belgique, this quotation


indicates that the response of the Catholic press on the Lokeren series was
not unanimously positive either. Examining the media coverage, one has to
keep in mind that most of the events took place after the announcement
by the Belgian ecclesiastical hierarchy that all publications on the Belgian
series had to gain the imprimatur. These directives obviously had an effect
on the reporting on Lokeren-Naastveld: Jan Boon – whose article output is
most easy to trace – did not publish on the events even though he was an eye
witness. However, the media silence was only partial and many newspapers
did comment on the Lokeren site. A lot of the articles had the same tone
as the press reports that had been published on previous cases. While the
socialist and liberal press criticised anew “crazy quirks”, “exploitation”,
“spectacle” and “so-called apparitions” (48), the reports printed in some

 (43) “Bisschoppelijke uitspraak aangaande de gebeurtenissen te Lokeren-Naastveld”,


in De godsdienstige week van het bisdom Gent, vol. 35, 31 Augustus 1934, p.  149. The
archbishop wrote a similar letter (25 August 1934): AAM, Processus, BIVb, letter to the
faithful by cardinal Van Roey, 25 August 1934.
 (44) “Ik zal het gaarne lezen – ’t Is geheel naar mijn wensch”, AAM, Processus, BIVb,
letter of canon Beeckman, s.d.
 (45) ADG, Onkerzele, letter of Elisabeth Cornelis, 30 August 1934.
 (46) AAM, Processus, BIIIa, letter of P. C. Borromaeus Vandewalle (20 February 1935);
ADG, Onkerzele, letter of Mistler, 25 April 1938; Coppieters, 9.5. Apparitions, letter of
Remi De Wilde to the bishop of Ghent, 25 April 1937; letter of Mme. Van Landeghem to
the bishop of Ghent, 8 March 1940.
 (47) “Des témoins nous ont assuré que le seul miracle qui se soit encore produit au
“Naastveld” c’est le salut des jeunes filles et de leur suite exposées à une foule en colère”
“L’affaire de Lokeren”, in La Libre Belgique, 10 August 1934, p. 2.
 (48) Mar. De Rijcke, “Et maintenant, place au théâtre…” te Lokeren, in Vooruit,
23 August 1934, p. 1 and p. 6; L.S., “De verschijningen te Lokeren”, in Het Laatste Nieuws,
22 August 1934, p. 13; “Lokeren. Hoe lang gaat dat nog duren?”, in De Vrije Waaslander,
8 July 1934, p. 2; “Lokeren. Langs om zonderlinger”, in De Vrije Waaslander, 2 September
1934, p. 2; “De verschijningen van Onze Lieve Vrouw op ‘t Mastveld (sic) gaan hun gang!”,
in Voor Allen, 8 July 1934, p. 7.
1180 T. Van Osselaer

Catholic newspapers (La Libre Belgique, De Gazet van Antwerpen, Le Bien


Public) were just as disapproving and referred to the commercial exploitation
and the hypnotism and spiritism that was rumoured to be at work at the
site (49).
Since a large part of the articles were published anonymously, it is hard
to put a name to the various texts. In the Lokeren-Naastveld case however,
additional information can be found both in the ecclesiastical and city
archives informing us that three Catholic journalists frequented the site. All
three of them contributed to Catholic newspapers and reported on the series
of apparitions in Belgium. But while Jan Filip Boon and Germaine De
Smet became actively involved in the promotion of the Lokeren site – Boon
was even rumoured to have experienced a Marian apparition himself (50) –
Louis Wilmet was distrusted by its supporters. When he tried to get closer
to the centre of the action on 21 August, for instance, one of them called
out, “Mister Wilmet does not belong here!” (51). All three journalists actively
corresponded on the events and thereby explicitly presented themselves
as Catholic reporters (52). Their unpublished reports – although probably
more ‘frank’ than their published texts – give a good impression of which
elements these journalists selected in refuting or claiming the authenticity
of the events. In addition, in documenting the journalists’ interference at
the Lokeren site, their texts display the very thin line between media and
mystics. Since these journalists had different opinions on the Lokeren site,
their reports and letters to the ecclesiastical and civil authorities and to
other faithful enable us to look at the Lokeren events not only with what
Lisa Bitel has called “the eyes of the believers” but also with those of the
non-believers (53).

 (49) “À Lokeren un spirite anversois et son médium exploitaient la crédulité publique”,


in La Libre Belgique, 9 August 1934; A.L., “L’Ordre des médecins. À quand sa création ?”,
in Le Bien Public, 19 August 1934. On the Belgian fear for the influence of hypnotism on
public order and well-being and the related interdiction of public shows (1892): Femke
Paulussen, Hypnose: kwakzalverij of geneeskunde? De maatschappelijke toelaatbaarheid
van hypnose in België (1880-1914) (Unpublished master thesis), University of Leuven,
2001. On the Belgian response to spiritism, see Hans Vandevoorde, “Het gesprek met de
geesten. Schrijvers en spiritisten in België”, in Elke Brems and Tom Sintobin, eds., De
goudsmid en de klein-inquisiteur, Gent, Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en
Letterkunde, 2008, p. 121-138, esp. p. 123.
 (50) AAM, Processus, BII: report by Louis Wilmet, 24 August 1934.
 (51) “Mijnheer Wilmet heeft hier niets te doen!” AAM, Processus, BII: report on the
events of 21 August 1934.
 (52) These reporters either signed “editor in chief. De Standaard” (Boon), “member
of the association of Catholic journalists of Belgium” (Wilmet) or included their card with
their affiliation (De Smet). AAM, Processus, BII, Wilmet, 24 August 1934; BIVb, letter of
Jan Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 2 August 1934; AL, XL.1031. Apparitions, visiting cards of
Germaine De Smet.
 (53) Lisa Bitel, “Looking the Wrong Way: Authenticity and Proof of Religious Vision”,
in Visual Resources, vol. 25, 2009, p. 69-92.
Mystics of a modern time? 1181

Louis Wilmet (54)

Louis Wilmet had a rather unfavourable opinion of the case and believed
that the events in Lokeren were caused by either hallucination or deception.
He based his outlook not only on the persons who were involved but also on
the form and message of the incidents. Even though he complained about
the difficulties he had in obtaining a good observation spot – in his opinion
this was due to the fact that one of the supporters of the site, Van Son, was
preparing a book on the events himself and feared Wilmet’s competition – he
was able to interview some of the people involved (promoters and visionaries).
The reports he sent to the archbishop linger on the difficulty the promoters
of the Naastveld site seemed to have with discerning true (i.e. Marian) from
false (i.e. diabolic) apparitions. Interviewing a religious who had tried to
perform an exorcism on one of the visionaries, Wilmet remarked that natural,
supernatural and even diabolic causes were suggested and that in the opinion
of this capuchin it was hard to differentiate between them. Wilmet did not
understand why the promoters of the site did not make the diabolic deception
public and to him, their silence became one of his arguments against the
Lokeren case.
Another reason why he was not convinced of their truth was the close
interference of Joseph Mistler: a man who had left his lawful wife and now
cohabitated in Lokeren with another one and had a son with her. To make
matters worse, one of the “visionaries”– a term Wilmet always wrote in
quotation marks when referring to Lokeren – Elisabeth Cornelis, had been
staying at the house of Mr. Mistler: “a detestable habitation for a girl of
15!” Moreover, the girls had declared that both the archbishop Van Roey
and the bishop of Ghent, Mgr. Coppieters, were soon to be punished for
their mistrust and had announced miraculous cures that never took place.
After observing how the supporters of the Lokeren site commented favour-
ably on the apparitions in Ezquioga (Spain, 1931-34) and claimed that the
pope, who had condemned the Spanish site in December 1933, already
regretted his decision, Wilmet concluded: “In short, all chitchat of people
wrapped up in apparitions and mystical things they of course think to know
more about than the authorities in charge… Chitchat, in any case misplaced
in Catholic milieus and running the risk to create some ‘Action Française’”.
Wilmet could only pity the supporters of the site and encouraged the ec-
clesiastical hierarchy to put a stop to the events before they would turn
religion and all celestial apparitions to ridicule (55). Wilmet’s unfavourable
opinion on the Lokeren message and messengers thus refers to one of the
major tension points in the relationship between ecclesiastical authorities

 (54) Louis Wilmet was a painter, journalist, essayist and novelist (1881-1965) and
published – with the approval of the ecclesiastical hierarchy – a book entitled Beauraing,
Banneux, Onkerzele in 1933. He contributed i.a. to Revue générale, Le XXe siècle, La Libre
Belgique. Camille Hanlet, Les Écrivains belges contemporains de langue française, 1800-
1946, vol. 2, Liège, Dessain, 1946, p. 811-815.
 (55) AAM, Processus, BII, reports of Louis Wilmet on 15 July 1934 and 21 August
1934. The nationalistic monarchistic movement the Action Française had been condemned
by the pope in 1926. Jacques Prévotat, L’Action Française, Paris, Presses Universitaires
de France, 2004.
1182 T. Van Osselaer

and lay mystics: the “intrinsically subversive” character of visions for as


William Christian has indicated: “they go over the head of human to divine
superiors” (56). In his opinion, the Lokeren case incited the questioning of
one of the fundaments of Catholic tradition: the authority of the ecclesiasti-
cal hierarchy.

Germaine De Smet (57)

Although faced with the same ‘facts’, Jan Boon’s and Germaine De
Smet’s conclusions were very different from those of their fellow reporter.
Both considered the possibility of the devil’s interference at the site. Boon
saw the devil at work in the hatred of the local population, as it was in his
eyes no longer “natural” and drove them to sing songs such as “Vivan Satan”.
Something, he remarked, one “does not even hear in the rudest socialist
environments” (58). Germaine De Smet, who “by higher order” had to “follow
the events” in Lokeren, later referred to the smell of burned flesh at the
site and hinted that if Mary did not have an ulterior goal for denying their
healing, it might have been the devil’s doing that the announced miraculous
cures did not take place (59). Although she was not so happy about the Mistler
home situation either, she was convinced that Mary had her reasons for this
choice – most probably to bring them to a Christian life – and that it was not
their task to cast the first stone. Elisabeth, however, was laudable in every
aspect: the visionary girl was modest, pious (yet not sanctimonious), decently
dressed and employed by good Christian people (60).
De Smet’s argumentation on the Lokeren events is particularly illustrative
of the importance of sensory impressions in experiencing the divine presence.
Referring to the smell of burned flesh at the site and to the exceptional voice
of Elisabeth during her visionary experiences, De Smet’s comments indicate
how also somatic sensations could contribute for some to a feeling of
authenticity. As Monique Scheer has indicated, these sensory impressions are
always socially embedded: “Wenn wir unserem Körper und Körpern anderen
Aufmerksamkeit schenken, hängt unsere Wahrnehmung von historisch und
kulturell spezifischen Körperkonzeptionen ab, d.h., was wir über seine

 (56) Christian, Visionaries: The Spanish, op. cit., p. 8.


 (57) Germaine De Smet (1888-1969) was a writer (poetry, novel and plays), editor of
the Catholic (Antwerp) newspaper La Métropole and a correspondent for Herald Calcutta,
Les Annales de Beauraing et de Banneux, Banneux-Notre Dame. AL, XL.1031. Apparitions,
visiting cards of Germaine De Smet; Daniël Van Ryssel, 55 vergeten Gentse schrijvers,
vol. 4, Ghent, s.e., 2008, s.p. 
 (58) “Dat hoort men zelfs in de grofste socialistische milieux niet” AAM, Processus,
BIVb, letter of Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 2 August 1934; BIVb: report Boon on 31 July
1934; “werkelijk satanische razernij”: Processus, BIIb, Boon to Van Roey, 9 August 1934,
including a letter to Mgr. Heylen, 8 August 1934.
 (59) “(…) je dois par ordre supérieur, suivre les évènements”: AL, XL.1031. Apparitions,
letter of Germaine De Smet, post 8 August 1934.
 (60) ADG, Onkerzele, letters of Germaine De Smet, 22 August 1934; 27 October 1934;
s.d. and s.d., bearing a stamp with her name.
Mystics of a modern time? 1183

Funktionen gelernt haben, wie seine Zeichen gedeutet werden” (61). Germaine


De Smet was obviously aware of how the divine presence was supposed to
be experienced: she referred to her own corporal senses (e.g. smell), but was
also particularly alert for the bodily reactions of the Lokeren visionaries.
In one of her letters she elaborated on the fact that Maria Van den Plas had
ended her re-embodiment of Christ’s passion with her left foot on top of
the right, while the two other girls had their right foot above their left. This
different footwork – noticed by the brother of one of the other visionaries –
had turned into an argument against the truthfulness of Maria’s visions and
had resulted in her leaving the site. Although De Smet commented on the
tone adopted in this discussion, she did not question the kind of evidence
that triggered it (62).
The importance of the somatic experiences seems to tally with the
devotee’s attention to the pictures of the visionaries during their ecstasies (63).
One should remark however that, contrary to the pictures circulating among
the supporters of various sites, the picture postcards that were sold on spot did
not show the visionaries in trance, but posing in front of their homes or at the
apparitional site. Consequently, these postcards differed from, for example,
the Ezquioga cards that depicted the visionaries as they adopted poses similar
to saint’s portraits and – in the words of William Christian – “life started
to imitate art” (64). The photographic tradition (postcards, press photos and
pictures taken by pilgrims) also had its effect on the references to the Belgian
visionaries’ humility. While modesty was not a new topos in the depiction
of idealised Catholics, it came to be defined as exercising restraint towards
the modern media, the unwillingness to focus too much attention on oneself
by selling one’s photo, for example (65). It was an ideal that pervaded also
the socialist articles and the liberal press (66). Asking for too much (media)
attention could call one’s sincerity into question, especially when there was
financial profit involved. Accordingly, the supporters of the Lokeren site paid
much attention to the fact that Elisabeth’s mother had explicitly protested
against the selling of her daughter’s picture (67). The public eye, whether or

 (61) Monique Scheer, “Verspielte Frömmigkeit: Somatische Interaktionen beim


Marienerscheinungskult von Heroldsbach-Thurn 1949/50”, in Historische Anthropologie,
vol. 17, 2009, 3, p. 404.
 (62) ADG, Onkerzele, Letter of Germaine de Smet, 22 August 1934.
 (63) E. g. the photo album sent to the bishop of Ghent by pilgrims of Oudenaarde to
document the events in Etikhove. ADG, Coppieters, 9.5. Apparitions, photo album, 1933.
Germaine De Smet refers to pictures that were sent to her, but does not give any details.
ADG, Onkerzele, letter of De Smet, 27 October 1934.
 (64) William Christian, “L’œil de l’esprit. Les visionnaires basques en transe, 1931”,
in Terrain, vol. 30, 1998, p. 1-17, esp. p. 14.
 (65) “Leurs photographies”, in La Voix de Beauraing, 1 April 1935, p.  1-2. See also:
“Kroniek van Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 2 August 1933, p.  3; “Te Onkerzele”, in De
Standaard, 6 November 1933, p. 7.
 (66) E.g. M. De Ceulener’s remark on a visionary from Onkerzele: Leonie “has suddenly
become quite a personality. At least to some of the visitors. And she is also convinced of
it herself ” M. De Ceulener, “De volkstoeloop te Onkerzele”, in Het Laatste Nieuws, 15
October 1933, p. 9.
 (67) AAM, Processus, BIVb, letter to Emma Veldeman, 17 July 1934; AAM, Processus,
BIVb, letter of Karel Van de Vyvere to the bishop of Ghent, 25 July 1934.
1184 T. Van Osselaer

not materialised in newspaper articles, made those encountering the divine


vulnerable.

Jan Filip Boon (68)

Convinced of the authenticity of what was happening in Lokeren,


Germaine De Smet did not hesitate to contact the ecclesiastical and public
authorities and question their decisions (69). In this active promotion of the
site, she found a kindred spirit in the editor in chief of De Standaard. Jan
Filip Boon who, after sending a “serious editor” to the site in the previous
months, first came to Lokeren on 31 July 1934, the day of one of the most
vehement skirmishes between the pilgrims and the local inhabitants (70).
Boon later compared the uproar with the events in Lourdes, for he had been
mocked, hit and spit on while he accompanied the girls to the station that
day. He stated, “On my travels as a journalist I have seen popular uprisings
in various cities here and abroad. But never did I see or hear anything as
bursting from bestial rage that could be considered similar to this explosion
of hatred towards Mary” (71). As for what the girls experienced at the site:
“Anyone”, Boon remarked, “who has seen the ecstasies from nearby” cannot
help being moved and cannot “doubt that there are supernatural events taking
place in Naastveld that will soon find an echo over the whole world” (72).
Referring to them as “angelic” and “superhumanly tolerant”, his impression
of the girl-visionaries was as favourable as De Smet’s. In a letter to the
bishop of Ghent, he called them “completely natural”, “childlike”, “noble”,
“calm” and “dignified”. He thereby remarked how something struck him in
particular: “they are girls, so they have skirts” and as they relive Christ’s
passion, “they fall down, three times, under the cross”, but “never was there

 (68) Jan Filip Boon (1898-1960) was editor in chief of De Standaard, author of most
of the articles published in his Catholic newspaper on the “mystical” events in Belgium, of
a book on Beauraing and some occasional contributions to Les Annales de Beauraing et
de Banneux. Gaston Durnez, “De Vlaamse gentleman en de kinderen van Beauraing”, in
Gaston Durnez, De Standaard. Het levensverhaal van een Vlaamse krant 1914-48, Tielt,
Lannoo, 1985, p.  285-302; Paul Wouters, Jan Boon. Een biografische studie vanaf zijn
geboorte tot zijn benoeming bij het N.I.R. (1898-1939), (Unpublished master’s dissertation),
University of Leuven, 1981.
 (69) AAM, Processus, BIVb, letter of Germaine De Smet to the bishop, 3 August 1934.
AL, XL 1031. Apparitions, letter to the mayor Raemdonck signed i.a. by Germaine De Smet
and Jan Filip Boon.
 (70) AL, XL.1031. Apparitions, letter to Raemdonck, 18 August 1934, 20 August 1934;
AAM, Processus, BIIIb3, letter of Jan Boon to cardinal Van Roey, 20 August 1934.
 (71) “Ik heb tijdens reizen als journalist volksoproeren gezien in verscheidene steden
bij ons en in het buitenland. Nooit heb ik iets gezien of gehoord wat als losbarsting van
beestachtige razernij ook maar de minste vergelijking verdient met deze ontploffing van
haat voor Maria.” AAM, Processus, BIVb letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 2 August
1934 and his report on the events on July 31st 1934.
 (72) “Wie de extasen (…) van nabij heeft gezien (…) kan niet meer twijfelen dat
zich daar op Naastveld bovennatuurlijke gebeurtenissen voltrekken die spoedig een we-
reldweerklank zullen vinden” AL, XL.1031. Apparitions, letter of Jan Boon to the mayor
Raemdonck, 3 August 1934.
Mystics of a modern time? 1185

an indecent detail”. In his opinion these girls had a gift that even the greatest
actresses in the world did not necessarily master (73).
As for the religious ideas proclaimed at the site, Boon eagerly embraced
the new devotions referred to in the visions such as the cult of the Sacred
Head as seat of the Divine Wisdom. This devotion, promoted also at the
Onkerzele site, had not been approved by the ecclesiastical hierarchy (and
never would be) (74). Nonetheless, Jan Boon carried around an image of
the Sacred Head – which he conflated with the Sacred Face – attached to
his rosary (75). Encouraged by the girls’ visions to incite prayers to Mary
Mediator, Jan Boon and the supporters of the Lokeren site, also bolstered
a devotion – actively promoted by the late Belgian archbishop Mercier –
that had only recently (April 1921) been approved by the Holy See (76). In
this respect, the allegedly divine confirmation of new teachings during the
visionaries’ experience, the Lokeren site resembled what had happened in
Lourdes where the 1854 dogma had been confirmed by Mary’s appearance
as the ‘Immaculate Conception’ in 1858 (77).
While to Louis Wilmet the girls’ false announcement of miracle cures
became an argument contra their truthfulness, Jan Boon turned the prediction
into an argument pro: they had only shown the girls’ “childlike and innocent
good faith” (78). Boon had in fact been so convinced of the veracity of the
prophecies that he had contacted the bishops and warned them that they were
going to be punished for their scepticism (79). He had thereby sought the help
of the bishop of Namur and warned him against the media’s misguidance. “In
Lokeren-Naastveld the Divine Hand is writing the most wonderful pages ever
unrolled on our soil since 1932-Beauraing. Please do not believe anything
that has been written about it in the papers, the Infernal Liar is at work there
to slander the most sublime that Mary ever did for our country” (80). Boon’s
attempt to rally the support of the bishop is illustrative of the often ambivalent

 (73) “het zijn meisjes dus met rokken. Zij storten bij elken kruisweg neer, driemaal,
onder het kruis (….) en geen enkele maal was er ook maar het kleinste indécent détail.”
AAM, Processus, BIVb letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 2 August 1934 and his report
on the events on July 31st 1934.
 (74) See e.g. its explicit condemnation in 1938. “Nova devotio arcenda”, in Monita ad
clerum, vol. 7, 15 June 1938, p. 6.
 (75) AAM, Processus, BIVb, report of Jan Boon sent to the secretary of the diocese of
Ghent (9 August 1934).
 (76) Jan De Maeyer, “De wending van de kerk naar het volk (1884-1926)”, in Het
aartsbisdom Mechelen-Brussel. 450 jaar geschiedenis, vol. 2, Antwerpen, Halewijn, 2009,
p.  101-171 and p.  154-155. References to Mary Mediator, i.a. in AAM, Processus, BIVb,
letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 28 August 1934.
 (77) Monique Scheer, Rosenkranz und Kriegsvisionen. Marienerscheinungskulte im
20. Jahrhundert, Tübingen, Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde, 2006, p. 14.
 (78) “Bonne foi enfantine et innocente”: AAM, Processus, BIIb4, letter of Jan Boon to
canon Barette, 27 August 1934.
 (79) AAM, Processus, BIIb1, letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Tessens, 4 August 1934; BIVb,
letter of Jan Boon to Mgr. Coppieters, 5 August 1934; copy of a letter to Mgr. Heylen
included in a letter of Boon to Mgr. Van Roey, 9 August 1934.
 (80) “Te Lokeren-Naastveld worden op dit oogenblik door een Goddelijke Hand de
meest grandiose bladzijden geschreven die op onzen bodem sedert 1932-Beauraing zich
ontrolden. Geloof a.u.b. niets van wat daarover in de bladen verscheen, daar is de Helsche
Leugenaar aan het werk om het subliemste van wat Maria aan ons land heeft gedaan te
bekladden”: AAM, Processus, BIIb, 9 August 1934.
1186 T. Van Osselaer

attitude that the lay supporters adopted towards the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
In this respect his behaviour was similar to what Michael O’Sullivan noted of
the supporters of twentieth-century German sites: “Despite their confrontation
with institutional authority, it was the blessing of Church officials that
these Marian pilgrims deeply craved” (81). Shocked by the prediction of the
dooming future punishment of the Belgian bishops, Boon did not only want
their blessing, he also desired their salvation. Commenting on the harsh
letters he wrote to the archbishop and the bishop of Ghent, he later noted:
“loving and venerating these bishops, I wanted to help to save them” (82).
Notwithstanding the justification he afterwards gave for his actions, the tone
of his letters to the bishops was rather harsh as he held the bishop of Ghent
and the mayor of Lokeren responsible for the fact that some of the Biblical
stories were relived in this new setting as their directives had “driven Mary
and Jesus into the stable” (i.e. after the prohibition of gathering on the avenue
of Mr. Mistler). In addition, it was the mockery of the Lokeren site by their
priests that had incited the local people to take on the role of the Jerusalem
crowd on 31 July 1934 (83).
However, after the announced miracle cures did not take place and Jan
Boon had been warned by his pastor that the archbishop wanted him to refrain
from further commenting on the series, he willingly gave in and promised to
cease all publications on the Belgian series as long as the archbishop desired.
Moreover, as he stated later, after the bishop’s letter condemning the Lokeren-
Naastveld site had been made public, he also tried to repair the respect for the
bishops that in his opinion had been endangered by the diabolic intervention
at the site (84). In spite of these claims of obedience, however, not yet a full
year later, Boon was mentioned among the members of a lay brotherhood
focusing on the bleeding crucifixes and regarding that “perpetual miracle”
as the “celestial approbation of their independence towards the ecclesiastical
authority”. When reminded that it was up to the Church and not to simple
devotees to make assertions about religion, the group members responded
“that it is better to obey the Holy Virgin than the bishops” (85)!

Concluding
Boon’s collisions with the Belgian ecclesiastical hierarchy, his publication
ban and attempts to get back into the bishops’ favour indicate that the
Belgian series of “popular mysticism” formed a challenge for the harmony
among Belgian Catholics. The debates on the phenomena thereby underpin
Ann Taves’ statement that experiences could become a source of theological

 (81) O’Sullivan, “West German Miracles”, art. cit., p. 6.


 (82) “J’ai voulu aider, aimant et vénérant ces deux évêques, à les sauver”: AAM,
Processus, BIIb4, letter of Jan Boon to canon Barette, 27 August 1934.
 (83) “Maria en Jezus verdrongen naar den stal!”: AAM, Processus, BIVb, letter of Jan
Boon to Coppieters, 5 August 1934.
 (84) AAM, Processus, BIIb4, letter of Jan Boon to canon Barette, 27 August 1934;
ADG, Onkeerzele, letter of Jan Boon to Coppieters, 22 August 1935.
 (85) “Miracle perpétuel”; “l’approbation du ciel à leur indépendance vis à vis de
l’autorité ecclésiastique (…) ils répondent qu’il vaut mieux obéir à la Ste Vierge qu’aux
évêques”: AAM, Processus, BIXb1, letter of Van Hoeymisse, 12 September 1935.
Mystics of a modern time? 1187

authority, undercutting traditional sources (86). Comparing the series to similar


events in Ezquioga, the supporters of the Lokeren site did not question their
support of a site that had not been approved by the ecclesiastical hierarchy:
Mary’s authority was superior to that of the bishops and the truth would
become apparent eventually.
Whether or not they were at liberty to publish their opinion, (Catholic)
journalists played an important role in the debate on the evaluation of the
various sites. Refuting the accusations of archaism formulated in the liberal
and socialist press, they explicitly depicted the encounters with the divine
as something befitting their own modern age as well. Still, the 1930s series
was too diverse to trigger a unanimous response among Catholic reporters
and the various attestations were evaluated differently. Even though it was
generally agreed upon that it was not the task of a journalist to make any
judgemental claims, a wide variety of opinions was vented and stirred
discussions. Forming and substantiating their view through ‘fieldwork’ at the
site, the journalists’ reports and other correspondence offer us an insight into
the kind of reasoning they adopted and the religious world they referred to.
In their argumentation, the journalists fit the profile Lisa Bitel sketched
in her article on authenticity and proof of religious vision. She remarked that
individual visionaries “are virtually invisible until the presence of witnesses
gives them social and religious reality”. Both witnesses and visionaries
thereby “made sense of what had happened by referring to shared Christian
doctrine, well-known historical precedents, and familiar iconographies” (87).
The ‘fieldwork’ that was analysed for the Lokeren case fits her statement
perfectly (88). Referring to similarities with Lourdes, biblical stories and
the accuracy of the girls’ various stages in their Ways of the Cross, some
Catholic journalists and supporters of the site vouched for the authenticity
of the events. Still, it was a selective memory that was at work there and the
same ‘tradition’ could also be used as argument against their truthfulness
(e.g. the obedience the faithful owed to their bishops).
Selective memory processes, however, were not the only means the
journalists employed to stake their claims. In August 1934 Jan Boon sent the
spiritual leader of the Société belge médicale de Saint-Luc the medical files of
the children who were supposed to be miraculously healed on 21 August 1934.
Boon’s endeavours indicate how important the ‘testable’ divine intervention
in the human body had become in substantiating claims of authenticity (89).
Even though Boon’s efforts came to nothing, as the announced cures failed to
materialise, this does not mean that the human body did not hold a significant
place in the supporters’ argumentation. Apart from the sensory experiences
signalled by Germaine De Smet, it was primarily the visionaries’ corporal

 (86) Taves, Religious Experience, op. cit., p. 4.


 (87) Bitel, “Looking the Wrong Way, art. cit., p. 70.
 (88) This can also be noted in the comments on other sites: on December 30th 1932 for
instance, the visionaries of Beauraing were described as “new Bernadettes”. “De wonderbare
verschijningen te Beauraing”, in De Standaard, 30 December 1932, p.  1. The apparitions
of Lourdes were more often mentioned as a reference point than were e.g. the (more
recent) apparitions in Ezquioga. On Lourdes as a “model” in the 1930s, see: Christian,
Visionaries: The Spanish, op. cit. , p. 8.
 (89) AAM, Processus, BII b3: letter of Jan Boon to Van Roey, 20 August 1934 including
a letter to Pater S. Vermeulen, S.J.
1188 T. Van Osselaer

reactions on which the attention lingered: gazing at their bodies, the presence
of the supernatural could be assumed (90). No remarks were made by any of
the journalists on the fact that it was girls who were reliving Christ’s passion.
Apparently they fit rather easily into a tradition in which the presence of
the divine could be read from (female) bodies, open to the ‘gaze’ of others
(often medical and ecclesiastical authorities) (91). In addition, the girls’ public
announcements of their reasons for suffering (e.g. to save Lokeren or the
bishops) turned their Ways of the Cross into a part of the Catholic tradition of
vicarious (physical) suffering: by voluntarily bearing these pains, they were
atoning for the sins of others (92).
The case study of the Lokeren site therefore indicates that the Belgian
1930s series was a public mysticism set on a stage on which the spectators,
journalists, local inhabitants and promoters played a far from passive role.
The extensive media coverage thereby demonstrated that the series was a
combination of elder traditions (apparitions, ecstasy) and new elements
(covered by mass media, attended by large crowds, commercialisation).
Similarly, the journalists evaluated the events by referring to the two
temporalities they were considered part of: their own ‘modern’ age and the
allegedly ‘timeless’ Catholic tradition. Even though the ‘modernity’ of the
visionaries and ‘modern’ verification methods could underpin authenticity
claims, the credibility of the events still build extensively on their similarities
with previous phenomena. Likewise Catholic journalists, the modern opinion
makers, still looked for the support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the
authority of old. Consequently, the public mysticism of the 1930s had to fit
both: tradition and its own time.

 (90) As one spectator commented on his witnessing the ecstasies of Elisabeth Cornelis:
“Even though I personally do not see the Holy Virgin, I very clearly sense Her presence in
that creature that can be read as an open book”. “Al zie ik persoonlyk de Heilige Maagd
niet, ik bespeur allerduidelykst hare werkelyke tegenwoordigheid in dat wezen dat voor my
open ligt als een boek”. AAM, Processus, BIVb: letter of Karel Van de Vyvere to Mgr.
Coppieters, the bishop of Ghent, 25 July 1934
 (91) Sofie Lachapelle, “Between Miracle and Sickness: Louise Lateau and the
Experience of Stigmata and Ecstasy”, in Configurations, vol. 12, 2004, p.  77-105; Marie
Pagliarini, ““And the Word Was Made Flesh”: Divining the Female Body in Nineteenth-
Century American and Catholic Culture”, in Religion and American Culture: A Journal of
Interpretation, vol. 17, 2007, p. 213-245; Paula Kane, ““She offered herself up”: the victim
soul and victim spirituality in Catholicism”, in Church History, vol. 71, 2002, p. 80-119.
 (92) AAM, Processus, BIVb letter of Boon to Coppieters, 5 August 1934.
Mystics of a modern time? 1189

Abstracts

Tine Van Osselaer, Mystics of a Modern Time?


Public Mystical Experiences in Belgium in the Nineteen Thirties

This paper focuses on the journalistic fieldwork on a Belgian wave of “popular


mysticism” in the nineteen thirties. As it turned individual mystical experiences
into public happenings, the series did not fail to incite discussions, also among
the Belgian Catholics. Delving into these debates, this article examines the reports
and correspondence of three catholic journalists on one particular site, Lokeren-
Naastveld. While documenting the lived devotional culture and the attendant
discrepancies in religious agency, the accounts of these reporters illuminate their
personal interference at the site and their collisions with the ecclesiastical and public
authorities. In addition, their texts indicate how these journalists tried to substantiate
or refute claims of authenticity and attempted to situate the phenomena both within
catholic tradition and their own time.
Mysticism - devotion - Catholicism - Belgium - religious experience

Tine Van Osselaer, Mystiques des temps modernes ?


Expériences mystiques publiques en Belgique pendant les années trente.

Cet article est centré sur les journalistes et leurs recherches sur le terrain concernant
une vague de «  mystique populaire  » pendant les années trente. Transformant des
expériences mystiques individuelles en happenings publics, cette vague incita à la
discussion, aussi parmi les catholiques belges. En analysant ces débats, l’article
examine les rapports et la correspondance de trois journalistes catholiques sur un
site en particulier, Lokeren-Naastveld. Documentant la culture dévotionnelle vécue
et les décalages  en “religious agency”, les témoignages de ces reporters mettent
en lumière  leur interférence personnelle et leurs confrontations avec les autorités
ecclésiastiques et publiques. Leurs textes soulignent également  comment ils
essayaient d’étayer ou de récuser des assertions d’authenticité et tentaient de situer
les phénomènes dans la tradition catholique et dans leur propre époque.
Mystique - dévotion - catholicisme - Belgique - expérience religieuse

Tine Van Osselaer, Mystici van een moderne tijd?


Publieke mystieke ervaringen in België in de jaren dertig.

Dit artikel bestudeert het journalistieke veldwerk dat werd verricht naar aanleiding
van een Belgische golf van “populair mysticisme” in de jaren dertig in België.
Aangezien in deze reeks individuele mystieke ervaringen tot publieke happenings
uitgroeiden, was er stof tot heel wat discussie, ook onder de Belgische katholieken.
In dit artikel wordt nader ingegaan op deze debatten en meer in het bijzonder op de
rapporten en de correspondentie van drie katholieke journalisten over een specifieke
site, Lokeren-Naastveld. Hun teksten documenteren zowel de geleefde devotionele
cultuur als de bijhorende discrepanties in ‘religious agency’ en brengen de persoonlijke
betrokkenheid van de journalisten en hun aanvaringen met de geestelijke en publieke
autoriteiten in kaart. Daarenboven geven ze aan hoe de reporters probeerden om
opvattingen over de authenticiteit van de gebeurtenissen kracht bij te zetten of te
verwerpen en hoe ze poogden de fenomenen te situeren binnen de katholieke traditie
en hun eigen tijd.
Mystiek - devotie - katholicisme - België - religieuze ervaring