Stage Mentalism and the Catholic Church: A response by world expert Angelo Stagnaro

Editorial note: Angelo Stagnaro is the award-winning chief New York correspondent for the Catholic News Service, Holy See liaison, and editorialist for the National Catholic Register. He is also a Third-Order Franciscan and the author of several books on various aspects of Catholic spirituality and theology, all of which carry Nihil Obstats and Imprimaturs from various Catholic dioceses in the US. His most recent book The Pro-Life Apologetics Manual (with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York) has just been released by Hope and Life Press. Stagnaro is a recognized world expert on stage mentalism and cold reading.

The Truth About Stage Mentalism and the Catholic Church by Angelo Stagnaro

I enjoy telling people, both magicians and lay people alike, of how I passed the entrance exam for the Society of American Magicians (SAM)―a prestigious organization of stage and close-up magicians―many years ago. The New York City chapter of the SAM required two performances; one close-up and the other on-stage. As I am a mentalist, a stage performer who specializes in stage tricks emulating what non-magicians would call telekinesis, telepathy, ESP and precognition, I concentrated only on those tricks.

Mentalism is a trick, or should I say a set of 40 tricks designed to fool an audience into thinking the performer has mental powers in the same way stage magic is designed to make people think the performer has great magical powers. As the mentalist Mark Salem put it: “Ventriloquism fools the ear. Magic fools the eye and mentalism fools the mind.”

But my greatest trick is a stage art called cold reading. It is exceptionally difficult and practiced only by mentalists, charlatans and police interrogators. This is the art of accessing an individual by considering his appearance, gait, handshake, bearing, vocabulary usage and so on, determining his past experiences, hopes and desires, personal interests and state of mind. There is no magic to it and even less devilry. If the under-educated can accuse me of wielding ‘dark forces,’ then the same can be said of every police officer, bartender and, indeed, best friend, because all of us are equally guilty.

For my finale, I handed each of the five judges on the panel a sealed envelope. The men nodded and thanked me, then looked up quizzically as to what the envelopes were for.

“These are sealed predictions,” I explained. “Go home. Put the envelope in a safe place. Go to sleep. Wake up. Go out to your favorite café with the envelope. Buy a copy of The New York Times, order coffee and sit down.”

The five men looked at me suspiciously.

“And then what?” asked one of the men cautiously.

“Then you can welcome me into SAM,” I smiled.

They all laughed at my cheeky presumptuousness.

“And why would we do that?” asked one of the oldest and wisest magicians in our club, who later become my mentor in the Society.

“Because,” I said, “You hold in your hand the headline of tomorrow’s New York Times. Have a good night, gentlemen.”

I bowed to rapturous applause and bewildered looks, and exited stage right.

Why was this stately and prestigious bunch of magicians shocked at me not performing a trick? Because as a stage magician, who does a predictive trick like I have just explained, it is imperative to never let the envelope out of your grasp. Otherwise, the trick is doomed to failure and opens the performer to ridicule.

The magicians were shocked at either my audacity or my stupidity. No one can predict a newspaper headline if he willingly gives up the envelope containing the prediction. Every magician knows that. I gave five copies of the prediction to five men, who lived in five different places scattered around New York City and its environs. Impossible!

The next morning, I got five calls from five astonished stage performers who did not even bother to greet me properly with a “Good morning.” Instead, all of them said, “Wow! You’re in!”

I had managed to do the seemingly impossible. Like all impossible tricks, however, the secret to my success was ridiculously simple. Even painfully simple. Shockingly simple. But it was a dirty, rotten, low-down trick nonetheless. One of which I am proud and hold dear to my heart. And to be frank, it was not even my greatest trick. But, be assured, it was only a trick. That is to say, an illusion.

I wish I could say to my detractors―those Catholics and other Christians who wring their hands and fret over whether or not I am sinning or leading others into sin — that I am constantly assailed by questions from concerned audience members as to the apparent ‘sinful’ nature of my performances. But, frankly, only those who believe in curses and luck, and other such related nonsense, believe balderdash like that. Once and for all time, I affirm to those too ignorant to reason it out themselves: I am a stage magician. I am — in the words of the great 19th century French magician, Robert Houdini — a “stage actor playing the part of a magician.” And I do it quite well.

As a Catholic and as a person, I am, indeed, one of the greatest of sinners, but none of my sins have anything to do with mentalism or stage magic. There is no sin involved because I do not cavort with dark forces to make cards appear at my fingertips, or find a selected card in a well-shuffled deck of cards, or when I ‘levitate,’ or when I ‘decapitate’ myself. I cannot disclose to you the secrets to my tricks because, Virginia, it is more fun not knowing and I have also sworn great oaths to never intentionally reveal a secret (I have also sworn to never harm an animal as part of a magic performance, among other things).

Although I cannot break my vows, I am allowed to say that I do not have any special abilities―mental, magic, or otherwise―except for an irrepressible sense of humor, a deep-rooted desire to make people laugh, and an overwhelming wish to stun, shock, and surprise my audience members when I do the impossible. I only pretend to have ‘magic powers.’ In fact, I start off all my shows by explaining that I do not have any special powers, other than to stun and amaze. I remind my audiences of the same when I end my shows.

The patron saints of stage magicians are Saint Don Bosco and Saint Nicholas Owen. Why? Because Don Bosco would use magic to teach the Catechism to the kids under his care. Saint Nicholas Owen was a Jesuit cabinet maker charged with building ‘priest holes’ throughout England, to hide clerics escaping Protestant authorities set on killing them. It was to these two holy men, these two saints in Heaven, that I dedicated my book The Catechist’s Magic Kit (Crossroad). It was the first book on close-up magic to receive an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the Catholic Church.

Both saints used illusions in furtherance of the Catholic Faith. Both used deception for holy purposes. If anyone cares to tilt at the Church’s windmills on that regard, I say Bon chance! because that is not a battle they will ever win. My bishops and their diocesan censors did not err in determining the difference between the kind of magic I do — which is, frankly, delightful — and the dark, sinister kind that one sees on scary movies. Those who think they have come up with a ‘better answer’ than my bishops are in over their heads and in danger of putting themselves above the Law, in order to attempt at judging it.

I am Catholic. I believe that true prophets have a precognitive sense, but only in order to fulfill God’s plan. I believe Saint Padre Pio could ascertain spirits (read the hearts of penitents as to whether or not they were being thoroughly honest during the Sacrament of Reconciliation). I believe Saint Anthony of Padua bilocated. I believe Saint Richard of Chichester once stopped the Blessed Sacrament from spilling onto the altar and I believe Saint Francis of Assisi could communicate with animals. Saint Claire of Assisi was blessed to see a vision of Christmas Mass as she lay on her sickbed as if projected on the wall of her cell (that is why she is considered to be the patron saint of television . . . because she enjoyed the world’s first flat screen TV!). I believe Saint Joseph of Cupertino levitated and I believe Saint Dominic de Guzman emanated a bright light that whisked away demons.

But all these saintly men and women now in Heaven were given their abilities as a sign of their spiritual intimacy with God. I, on the other hand, know how to make an Ace rise from a bowered deck because a magician taught me the trick―and excellent lighting. Neither my closeness with God nor my sins have anything to do with it and, to unnecessarily belabor this unnecessary point, it is called a trick for a very good reason. I am intentionally tricking those who are eager to part with their cash for the opportunity of allowing me to trick them.

Dark wizards have covens. Stage magicians have audiences. Dark wizards say, “I call upon the spirits of…” to preface their wizardry. Stage magicians say, “Take a card…any card.” Dark wizards have delusions of grandeur. Stage magicians have grand illusions. Illusions are my medium and subterfuge is my palette. That is why people pay me to show up at parties. If I really had such preternatural powers as some detractors have attempted to claim, I would be working for the US Department of Defense as ‘America’s Last Line of Defense,’ or on Wall Street as ‘the Capitalistic World’s Greatest Investor.’

The reality is that the secret to the tricks of my trade are, indeed, secrets. I have sworn oaths to never intentionally reveal the secret to a trick. If close-minded, shortsighted, and under-educated people choose to mistake me for being some ‘dark sorcerer,’ I will not be held responsible for what Martin Luther King, jr., called their “intentional ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

All that having been said, there are confused, unscrupulous pagans that have no qualms about pretending to be ‘psychics,’ ‘witches,’ or ‘wizards’ who have convinced themselves they have such powers and are eager to convince the world they possess them. Alas, no such power exists on earth. I do not doubt these poor, deluded people think the devil or nature, or some worthless pagan god, has bestowed that power upon them. But, no. Nay. Never. Lucifer has no creative powers. He is a liar. Indeed, he is the father of lies (Jn 8:44).

The first way you know that you are dealing with a charlatan is that the ‘psychic’ never says anything directly, but rather waits for you to reveal the truth about yourself, to which he or she will then say, “Ah! Yes. I knew that was why you came here.” The second way you know that you are dealing with a charlatan is because they are charging you exorbitant sums of money. My performance fees and tickets are moderately priced. To pagans who claim great powers, I say, “Show me one of your tricks and I’ll show you a better one.”

I worship only Christ―the true Lord of the universe. Not the lord of this world. If any accuse me of being ‘in league with the devil,’ I urge them to alight to their bishop or his exorcist, or perhaps to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, to work it out. All 10 of my Catholic theology books have Imprimaturs and Nihil Obstats from the theologically most orthodox dioceses and censors in the world, and all these books can be found on Vatican library shelves, including those at the Gregoriana, the Angelorum, and the Pontifical North American College. What is the real possibility that all these learned men of the Church, with whom I have dealt at length, have not figured out that I ‘really’ possess great, dark secrets? What is the chance that some lonely know-nothing on the internet, who is afraid of every black cat that crosses his path, is actually a witch’s familiar, having figured out that I am ‘more than what I appear?’ Quite frankly, the chance is somewhere between zero and none.

But for those too afraid to whistle in a graveyard, the truth is by far worse than you might think. The truth is that you have bamboozled yourself and like-minded others better than I could have, even had you booked me for clean entertainment at one of your parties.