Always a Market for Hysteria

Malta Independent
April 26, 2009

There will always be a ready market for medieval-type religious hysteria. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale is as relevant today as it was in the 14th century. Look at what is happening with Medjugorje. Despite warnings from the Vatican about the quite obvious deceit and avaricious trickery, five million people a year make pilgrimages there from all over the world.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been studying, since 2006, the claims that the Madonna has been appearing to a group of six visionaries in Medjugorje, Bosnia, beginning in 1981. Writing in The Catholic Herald last June, the journalist Simon Caldwell – who is himself Catholic – quoted Bishop Andrea Gemma, the most senior exorcist in the Catholic Church until his retirement three years ago, as saying: "You'll see that soon the Vatican will intervene with something explosive to unmask once and for all who is behind this deceit."

Bishop Gemma described the Medjugorje stories as a scandal and a "diabolical deceit". The irony does not escape me that I am quoting somebody who believes in demonic possession. I think he is worth quoting because it illustrates the quandary of those faced with selective belief in the supernatural. It is hard to tell people that they should believe in possession by devils but not in apparitions of talking Madonnas or in bleeding statuettes.

Bishop Gemma said: "It is a phenomenon which is absolutely diabolical, around which revolve many underground interests. Holy Mother Church, the only one able to pronounce, through the mouth of the Bishop of Mostar, has already said publicly, and officially, that the Madonna has never appeared at Medjugorje and that this whole sham is the work of the demon. In Medjugorje everything happens in function of money: pilgrimages, lodging houses, sale of trinkets. So much so that abusing the good faith of those poor souls who go there thinking to encounter the Madonna, the false seers have organised themselves financially, have enriched themselves and live a rather comfortable life. Just think, one of them organises directly from America, with a direct economic interest, tens of thousands of pilgrimages every year. These do not seem to me to be disinterested persons. Thus, together with those who shore up this noisy deception, they patently have every interest in convincing people that they see and speak with the Virgin Mary."

It all began when six bored and suggestible children playing on a hillside convinced themselves they had seen the Madonna and that she had spoken to them. They didn't meet the response that a group of excitable little girls met with at our Sliema primary school back in the early 1970s, when they became entirely convinced that they had seen Our Lady walking on water down the road in Balluta Bay. Hysteria spread through the school, but the headmistress brandished her notorious long black ruler during morning assembly and that was the end of that. If something similar had been done with the Medjugorge children, there would not be so much excitement today.

When the Bishop of Mostar dismissed their claims as duplicitous, the young seers responded by calling him a wolf who would die unless he believed them. The Vatican banned pilgrimages to Medjugorje way back in 1985, but still people flock there in their millions. A review of the seers' claims was a long time coming. It had to wait until Pope Benedict took the throne, and began just three years ago.

Medjugorje has no interest in seeing the pilgrimages stop. What was once an insignificant backwater town that no one had heard of, and from which people departed in droves to find work, is now wealthy and thriving. This one town in the middle of nowhere gets more tourism business than Malta does. The Sunday Times (London) reported some time ago that the seers – now middle-aged, of course – have grown rich as a result of their 40,000 chats with the Virgin Mary. One of them has married an American beauty queen and makes a living by organising pilgrimages to Medjugorje from the United States.

There is worse. The Vatican has banished to a monastery the former spiritual leader of the Medjugorje seers amid accusations of sexual impropriety and a taste for séances. His affairs with women have been extensively documented, and he has had a child by one of them, a nun called Sister Rufina, who exposed him when he refused to leave the priesthood and marry her and instead tried to bully her into keeping his secret. Severe restrictions have been placed on this priest, and he has been warned that if he fails to stick to them, he will be excommunicated.

The man who is now the Pope has been convinced from the beginning that the Medjugorje seers are nothing more than con artists. The death-knell should have sounded for them when he was elected to the papacy, but the hysteria surrounding the pilgrimage site is now so deeply rooted that the message from the Vatican that Medjugorje is a fraud has not sunk in. Nor will it do so.

The fundamental problem that the Vatican has in situations like this is that its followers have been programmed from birth to believe in the supernatural and the irrational. You cannot teach them that a man wearing a frock and holding up a bit of rice-paper in a fancy building is about to eat the real, actual flesh of another man who was the son of God 2000 years ago, and then insist that they disbelieve other men who claim that the Madonna has chosen them for cosy chats on remote hillsides.


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