Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Colm Tóibín on Medjugorje (with Questions about the Politics of Marian Shrines)

I mentioned a few days back that I've been reading Colm Tóibín's book The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (London: Macmillan, 1994).  One section of this travelogue-cum-meditation recounts what Tóibín saw when he visited the Marian shrine at Medjugorje in the early 1990s, in the midst of war.  He happened to be there on Good Friday.

Tóibín notes in his commentary on both Medjugorje and the Catholic church in Poland, a country in which he traveled extensively in this period, the strong links between nationalism and religion in both Croatia and Poland.  In Poland, he found it was not at all uncommon to find the Polish flag and various national symbols right at the altar and on shrines, whereas in his native Ireland such political symbols are strictly separated from the altar area and church shrines.

And here's his account of what he experienced when he attended the Good Friday liturgy at the Medjugorje shrine:

"The cross," he [Fr. Philip Pavich] said, "will always be the central sign in our worship.  And he held it up again in silence.  The congregation began to sing, "Were you there when they crucified the Lord?"  The second verse began, "Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?" and the third, "Were you there when they pierced him in the side?"

We had not prayed for peace.  Instead, the images presented were of sacrifice and blood and violence.  Just over the hill, maybe twenty miles away, there was a war going on, and the war would come closer in the months that followed.  The Croatians would lay siege to the Muslims at Mostar, the nearest town, and the people of Medjugorje would block the convoys of aid and food on its way there, they would sit down and block the road.  The ceremony that I attended on Good Friday seemed more like a part of the war itself than something to heal the hatred that had caused the war (p. 161).

I'm struck by this passage for a number of reasons.  First, I find Lisa Bitel's recent article at Religion Dispatches about how the Catholic church chooses to anoint this particular Marian shrine and reject that one fascinating.  As she notes, there are all kinds of Marian apparitions reported by Catholics around the world all the time, including reports of Mary sightings in closet doors and grilled cheese sandwiches.  And these seem to be proliferating at this point in history, a period of self-induced religious "re-enchantment" as Pentecostal-inspired religious movements sweep through Christian communities around the world, and as religion becomes a rallying point for nationalist, ethnic, and religious movements of resistance and hostility to one's neighbors.  

So how does the Catholic church pick and choose among the many claims of Marian apparitions, and why--for example--did it just choose to endorse the shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin?  Bitel notes (and she's right) that the process of choosing which apparitions to accept is highly political, as is the canonization process.  Having clout of some kind, and/or money, is certainly no hindrance to receiving church approbation.  As is making money by pilgrimage, something that began to happen almost immediately with Medjugorje, as that shrine caught on among American Catholics of a charismatic bent.

The message of a particular Marian apparition also counts, Bitel implies--particularly with her title about Our Lady of Good Hope and Excellent Behavior.  The church would be extremely loath to endorse a Marian apparition that told women to get out of line, to be assertive and to defy community norms--as Mary herself did by choosing to give birth to a child when she had no husband.  But one that reinforces traditional gender roles and announces that the salvation of the world depends on women being women (read: submissive) and men being men (read: dominant): that kind of apparition is likely to be blessed by Rome.

As several recent discussions on threads here about the Corapi story and Dorothy Day note, many Christian churches--the Catholic church included--have a blatant double standard when it comes to judging the sanctity of men and of women.  Bad boys with a past of sowing wild oats--people like John Corapi or George Bush--are very apt to receive a free pass when their past is examined by church folks.  Particularly when they claim to have been snatched from the jaws of the devil, while retaining just enough fire and brimstone about them to remind us that they're manly men and not the effeminate model that the religious right blames for messing up the churches.

But bad girls?  They're an entirely different matter.  Their past sticks.  It remains with them throughout their lives.  As one commenter here pointed out, it's not likely Dorothy Day will be canonized anytime soon solely because she had a child out of wedlock before her conversion to Catholicism.  No matter how saintly her post-conversion life was, her reputation will always be tainted by that fact.  

As Corapi's has not been by his past of drug abuse, financial wheeling and dealing, and promiscuous sex.  Those only add cachet to the story of the bad boy made good by Christ.  When Newt Gingrich tells Bryan Fischer that he's not being a hypocrite as he promotes family values and slams the gays though he has had three wives and various affairs--he's not a hypocrite because he's been made a new man in Christ--no one thinks twice about the astonishing disconnect between doing and saying in his life.  And about the hypocrisy.

Women are rarely given the same latitude or same benefit of the doubt.

I also find Tóibín's report from Medjugorje fascinating, as I work my way through Betty Clermont's recent magisterial summary of the political and economic issues connected to this shrine.  Betty's articles on this topic are at the Open Tabernacle site, with the first in the series here.   What Betty has to say about the background to the Medjugorje apparitions--and, most significantly, the background to the debate about their authenticity and to questions about their official approval by Catholic leaders--coincides to a great extent with what Tóibín saw at Medjugorje.  

He saw a collusion, a mix, a melding of religion and nationalism, such that it's impossible to extract the religious message from the ethnic-political one.  And as one commentator Tóibín interviewed pointed out to him, this may not be surprising when one looks at the history of Catholicism in the areas in which he found this mixing of religion and politics so pronounced.  As this commentator notes, neither Croatia nor Poland had much influence at all from the Reformation--or, for that matter, from the Enlightenment.

The hegemony of a pre-modern, fiercely nationalistic Catholicism in these regions has been largely unchallenged by the most significant movements that created the modern world in the West.  And this accounts, I'd also note, for the model of church that the Polish pope, John Paul II, staunchly defended and tried to impose on the whole church, regardless of the cultural situation of each individual national church.

It is a model of a church adamantly resistant to influence by culture, supremely confident that the church and the church alone has the truth.  And the world, which is mired in sin and untruth, is the enemy.

In this model of church, priests become savior figures, mediators between heaven and earth.  They become indispensable for salvation.  And it's just one short step from that ecclesiology and its hieratic, exalted notion of an untouchable priesthood, to the abuse crisis and its cover-up.

It's no accident at all that John Paul II not only ignored the abuse crisis but obviously colluded in its cover-up in a very spectacular way, with Marcial Maciel.  And, once again: this historically undeniable fact deserves serious consideration as his beatification approaches.  And as we keep dealing with the fallout of Philadelphia.  And Corapi.  And Euteneuer.  And the Jesuits of the Pacific Northwest.  And Donald McGuire.

And you name it, fill in the blank.  Because more is almost certainly coming down the pike.

The graphic is a Medjgorje billboard from the archdiocese of Denver, 2010.  The billboard links to a website of a group called Caritas in Birmingham, Alabama.

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