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How did William Kamm lead so many astray?

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Australian contraversial figure William Kamm. Screenshot: YouTube
Australian contraversial figure William Kamm. Screenshot: YouTube

Since the late 1970s William Kamm has been a controversial figure on the fringes of Australian Catholicism, a self-styled doomsday prophet whose purported visions from the Virgin Mary have been the subject of both ridicule and reproach.

His arrest and arraignment last week is only the latest episode in an unfolding drama which has brought scandal upon the church.

Kamm’s previous criminal convictions are well known, and the current set of charges are now before the courts.

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Kamm and his group, the “Order of Saint Charbel,” incurred latae sententiae excommunication in 2003 and have absolutely no official standing within the church.

Rather than commenting or speculating on these well-documented matters, it is worth asking a broader question: how were so many sincere and devout Catholics led astray?

While Kamm’s group is often derided as the “Little Pebble Cult,” such labelling is unhelpful and uncharitable.

Those who followed Kamm were not gullible “brainwashed” drones of popular stereotypes, but rather pious and serious Catholics who found themselves adrift in a changing church and who, with subjectively sincere motives, encountered in Kamm’s purported private revelations a brand of spirituality they saw passing away amidst a period of rapid church reform.

It is very easy to dismiss or demean these people, but the more discerning response is to try and understand them.

Over the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Kamm’s so-called prophecies touched on a series of issues—from communion in the hand and other liturgical reforms to the decline in traditional devotional practices—which resonated with disenchanted Catholics.

Many of them saw both the post-conciliar reforms and wider societal change post-1960s in their worst light, and saw nostalgic comfort in earlier forms of spirituality.

Kamm’s purported “messages from heaven” begun as old-fashioned and unoriginal messages of a variety familiar to any student of Catholic prophecy since the French Revolution.

They were a combination of calls for repentance and reparation, messages of maternal comfort and consolation from Our Lady, promises of miracles and marvels, threats of divine chastisement and the imminent end of the world, all mixed together with a bit of conspiracy theory to explain the changes bought about by modernity.

Such material lends itself to sensationalism, and the media have had a field day with Kamm’s more bizarre and frightful prophecies, but that is only half the story.

The more salient fact was that these messages predominantly encouraged and fostered a series of devotional practices which were touchstones of the lived religion of many Catholics: praying the rosary, first Friday devotions, miraculous medals and wearing the brown scapular.

For those who pored over Kamm’s spurious private revelations, he explained why the church was changing so dramatically, and why so many of the devotions which had nurtured their faith suddenly seemed so out-of-fashion. He also exhorted them to greater devotion and prayer as a response.

Kamm’s followers were often devout Southern and Eastern European migrants and traditional Catholics from rural dioceses, reared in a devotional and affective piety largely abandoned or sidelined in the more enthusiastic embrace of conciliar reform.

They felt marginalised by the wider church and when they could not find a spiritual outlet they turned to more fringe figures—of whom Kamm was only one egregious example.

These people genuinely loved Our Lady and sought succour from a variety of private revelations, both approved and unapproved, ranging from La Salette through to Fatima and Medjugorje.

Some of these brough forth genuine spiritual fruits, whilst others sowed seeds of fear and confusion, a heady brew of conspiracy theory and apocalyptic prophecy.

Tragically, over time, Kamm’s prophecies took on a far more sinister aspect, and amongst a coterie within the Order of Saint Charbel more theologically problematic and gravely immoral teachings emerged which led many honest people into sin.

The court judgements speak for themselves here, and it is unhelpful to linger over the more salacious details.

Sadly, Kamm was neither unique nor original. The mystical life is fraught with temptations, both diabolical and mundane. Figures who begin with lofty notions often succumb to sin when they abandon the discipline imposed by the church.

The even greater tragedy is that they often lead others into error and this risk remains with us.

Devout and sincere people were victims and rather than demonising or shaming them, we need to be compassionate and to learn from their experience.

The insidious temptation offered by those who promote conspiracy-laden private revelations is still with us, ready to prey on misgivings and anxieties about the state of the church, and Kamm will not be the last self-proclaimed seer to mislead the faithful.

Kamm’s case reminds us that we need to remain on our guard and vigilant in our discernment of spirits, particularly for those who would seek to conceal their discordant desires under a veil of mysticism and counsel vice in place of virtue.

As this sordid saga enters its latest phase Catholics should continue to support victims, to pray for those still involved, and to seek their reconciliation with, and return to, the Church they clearly love.

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