Hands up, all who’ve heard of Veronica Lueken. Maybe one of you in the back? I have to confess to having been in the “Veronica who?” crowd until reading Joseph P. Laycock’s The Seer of Bayside. The subtitle would have made the difference: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism. It’s a fascinating story. Lueken, a Catholic laywoman in Bayside, Queens, began to have visions of the Virgin Mary. This was in the days of Vatican II. Lueken was a traditionalist who felt the reforms were misguided, and found Mary to be on her side. She grew a large following during her outdoor vigils, eventually becoming so popular that people bussed down from Canada and in from other states to join her. The neighborhood association complained, and, some say, planned to assassinate the seer. The movement, known as Baysiders, eventually moved their vigils to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where it—or they—continue to meet.
Critics of religion tend to claim believers credulous. The Catholic Church, however, has been notably reluctant to approve of Marian apparitions. Lueken’s visions and her movement were condemned by the authorities, but now, even two decades after her death, two groups of her followers continue to meet. I’ve read quite a bit about Marian apparitions over the past couple of years. As Laycock points out, Marian apparitions are frequently classed with the paranormal since anomalous events often accompany them. It is no different with Baysiders. They claim healings and other unexplained events associated with their devotions, including mysterious lights on Polaroid photographs taken during services.
How are rational people, especially non-Catholics to make sense of this? Obviously one can say that the thousands who’ve claimed to witness such miracles throughout history were simply mistaken. Or deceived. Or one could suggest that there may be more to this old world than we’re generally willing to admit. Laycock takes his book in a different direction by asking the salient question of who gets to decide who Catholicism is. Protestants have no single center like the Holy See, and fractions do what fractions do. They divide. Hierarchy hath its privileges, of course. Rome declares the Baysiders in error. Each side, as is to be expected with religions, claims that it is correct. It seems that only Mary knows the real answer.