The association of the Virgin with anticommunism guaranteed that Marian worship would be at the center of the right-wing extremism dear to sedevacantists, along with the Virgin’s apocalyptic warnings at the La Salette apparitions of 1846. It is no wonder sedevacantists organize themselves under titles like the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen or the Order of the Magnificat of the Mother of God (after Mary’s canticle in Luke 1:46-55—“He has shown strength with His arm”). These believers see the refusal to consecrate Russia separately as a sign of papal apostasy. They find an even greater sign in the “Third Secret” of Fatima—written out for the Pope to reveal after 1960. Post-1960 popes, beginning (significantly for sedevacantists) with John XXIII, have not revealed this secret, though they were authorized to by the children. The sedevacantists are sure that Our Lady prophesied the very apostasy that has occurred in Rome.
The Fatima cult is not confined to sedevacantists. Cuneo writes that one of the most ardent and active promoters of the devotion, Father Nicholas Gruner, professes loyalty to the Pope, but nonetheless finds apostasy in the Pope’s advisors. Gruner is the editor of the Fatima Crusader, which had a circulation of 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1988, he began a radio program, Heaven’s Peace Plan (which airs in forty-three towns), and in 1989 he added a television talk show, Fatima: The Moment Has Come.
In 1992, Lucia dos Santos said that John Paul II’s consecration of the world to Mary fulfilled the Virgin’s command. This gave Mary credit for ending the cold war, though that is not enough for Gruner and others. The Blue Army had faded away after Vatican II. But the sedevacantists and their allies think the apostasy goes on in Rome. The “Third Secret” is now the focus of their suspicions.
Father Gruner finds rot everywhere in the Church and is good at capitalizing on resistance to change. His hatred of the new liturgy makes Buckley’s attack on its “fascism” look pusillanimous. Cuneo heard Gruner tell an audience of three hundred gathered before a Fatima statue that receiving Communion bread in the hand instead of on the tongue “is a sacrilege even worse than abortion.”
The Marian network keeps up the memory of other apparitions supplementing those at Fatima—to Mary Van Hoof in Necedah, Wisconsin, to Veronica Lueken in Bayside, Queens, to young Croatians in Medjugorje. Cuneo, admirably thorough in his investigation of this Marian netherworld, attends meetings devoted to the memory of Veronica Lueken, where photographs of her ecstasies are scrutinized for dim traces of the Virgin hovering above her. Ms. Lueken was given the same news of the real Paul VI’s imprisonment that Gomez/Gregory was. She also had the stigmata given to her in a vision by the Italian stigmatic Padre Pio.
There seems something particularly ungrateful in these Marianists’ use of their patron against the Pope. The modern papacy has been closely leagued with Marian piety. Pius IX and John Paul II grew up near Marian shrines, which were the focus of their early piety. Pius’s mother took him to the shrine of Loreto, which purports to have the very house Mary lived in. (How could that be, I asked a priest when I was in school, and he said, after scratching his head, “Is Loreto a college town?”) John Paul’s father took him to the shrine of the “Black Virgin” at Czestochowa (to whom Chesterton addressed the magical line of verse “To thy most merciful face of night I kneel”).
Later apparitions of the Virgin won both men’s later enthusiasm—Lourdes for Pius, Fatima for John Paul. Pius felt that the Immaculate Conception had saved his life by “the miracle of Sant’ Agnese” when a convent of that name collapsed around him.3 He later celebrated the date in honor of Mary. John Paul believes that Our Lady of Fatima saved him from death at a would-be assassin’s hand. The date of the attempt on his life was that of the Virgin’s first apparition at Fatima, and Eamon Duffy, in his shrewd and well-written history, reports that the bullet from Mehmet Ali Agca’s gun is now mounted in the crown on the Virgin’s statue at Fatima, where John Paul made a pilgrimage on the tenth anniversary of his rescue.
Pius XII, who had visions of the Virgin in his sequestered old age, was also devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, and addressed her as the Mediatrix of All Graces.4 A significant advance in papal authority took place in what Jaroslav Pelikan, in his learned study of Mary, calls “the great century of Marian apparitions—the hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s.”
Visions have become the Virgin’s domain. Statues of her weep. Rarely do crucifixes speak now, as one did to Thomas Aquinas. It was the cross of Christ that blazed in the air when Saint Francis received the stigmata. Mystics like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, and Saint Ignatius experienced union with God, not with the Virgin. Marian apparitions were known in the past, but she did not have the current quasi monopoly on the phenomenon. This raises interesting questions about shifting styles in devotional life.
Why has Mary become so prominent in modern Catholic mysticism? Does this fulfill the old Protestant prophecies that Mary would shove aside Jesus as a cult figure? Pelikan hints at a different explanation. In the past Jesus would often appear to learned ascetics, who set the fashion of piety from their elite station. In modern times, Mary has more often appeared to ordinary people, often unlearned, sometimes children. Does this show a “democratization” of piety in the modern world? (Pius IX, who hated democracy, would be shocked at the very notion.) Or does it signal a feminization of religion?
One thing that can be said with confidence on this still-murky subject is that Marian piety has been very useful to the popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and they have employed it as a tool for strengthening their office.
3. Marian Imperialism
I should preface what follows by making my own loyalties clear. I pray to the Blessed Virgin every day, often using the rosary. That is partly a mere accident of my upbringing. The rosary was one of the first ways I learned to pray, and I don’t have so many ways that I can afford to lose one. But the more important reason for my prayer is the fact that Mary is central to the Christian revelation and experience—in the Bible (“All generations shall call me blessed,” Luke 1:48), in the early creeds (“born of the Virgin Mary”), in the most authoritative councils (“She who bore God,” Theotokos). Jaroslav Pelikan’s book demonstrates that the cult of Mary had its real beginning in the fourth century, and was the result precisely of a concentration on the mystery of Jesus. The Council of Nicea, by defining the divine personhood of Christ in conjunction with his two natures—true God and true man—made it necessary, as an offshoot, to say that Mary was the human mother of the divine person, the God-Bearer (Theotokos). She glows in the blaze of light that surrounds the Incarnation, in which she was the most intimate non-divine participant. As such, she is the highest and most dignified human being in history (“the favored one,” Luke 1:28 and 1:42), the first and best Christian disciple, the model for all human cooperation with God’s grace. The statement in John 19:27, “Son, behold your mother,” was intended for all Christians, in whose souls her work is perfectly described by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death.
But all forms of religion, precisely because of their extreme importance, because of believers’ intensity and engaged passions, are liable to excess. In all of them, fervor can become fanaticism.
Saint Thomas Aquinas—despite his own teaching on Mary’s importance to the Incarnation (or rather because of it)—argued against the claim that Mary was conceived “immaculately” (i.e., without original sin). All human beings descended from Adam inherit the blight of original sin as an essential mark of their nature. To exempt Mary from this condition would mean that Jesus was not born a true man in his nature “from the seed of David.” It would also mean that Jesus was not Mary’s savior, since she did not have any fallen condition from which to be saved. Thus “if the soul of the Blessed Virgin was never stained by the effect of original sin, this would deny Christ the honor by which he is the savior of all people.”
The early doctrines of Marian glory clarified the character of the Incarnation. This one would muddy and confuse it. Exemption from our historical human condition would make Mary superhuman. It would also make it hard to explain why she suffered some effects of mortal sin on the body (pain, fatigue, death). Jesus could suffer in his human nature though he had only one person, which was divine. A parallel with Mary would give her a divine person, that of a goddess. Thomas was not the only great theologian to oppose the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception. Even the foremost preacher of Mary’s glories, the Franciscan Bernard of Clairvaux, had opposed the idea. Later scholars would point out that Saint Jerome’s mistranslation of “favored one” as “full of grace” misled people into thinking Mary had to have every grace, including exemption from original sin.
Thomas Aquinas admitted that certain Catholic churches celebrated “the conception” of Mary, but said that must be understood as meaning Jesus sanctified her immediately after conception, so that there was sin for her to be saved from. Since it is not known exactly when she was sanctified (released from original sin), it was an allowable “pious belief” to say it was while she was in the womb.
But a “pious belief” and sanctification after conception were not what Pius IX wanted. Modern Franciscans, despite the warning of Saint Bernard, had made devotion to the Immaculate Conception a staple of their theology. Besides, by the middle of the nineteenth century Marian piety was increasing, along with the age’s yearning for virginal and matronly purity (evident even in Henry Adams’s effusion to the Virgin of Chartres and Mark Twain’s embarrassing book on the virginal Joan of Arc). The high time of Marian apparitions was under way—that to Catherine Labouré in 1830, and to the children at La Salette in 1846. The Labouré apparition was of a Mary crowned with stars, which was taken to imply the Immaculate Conception. Catholics wore “the miraculous medal” showing her in that pose, and the great column raised beside the Spanish Steps to celebrate Pius’s definition of that dogma has the same crown.
Frank J. Coppa, Pope Pius IX: Crusader in a Secular Age (Twayne Publishing, 1979), p. 126.↩
Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint and Who Doesn't, and Why (Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 297.↩