The event is one that beggars the belief of anyone of a rational disposition, though needless to say millions of Catholics believe it anyway. Half a million of the Faithful showed up in Portugal yesterday to hear the Pope tell them that they should rejoice in the addition of two more souls to the saintly paradise, wherever that may be.
The belief that requires beggaring is not that three children in the village of Fatima one hundred years ago claimed to have been visited several times by the Virgin Mary – most youngsters bring home tales of having seen or heard ghostly figures while playing in the woods, myself included – but that it should have caused such a stir.
What the Fatima children reported to their parents was that the heavenly apparition spoke to them and foretold – to use a suitably biblical word – the outbreak of the Second World War, the rise and fall of Communism and a threat to the Pope’s life. Their parents, crying “it’s a miracle”, in turn passed on the news to others. Word inevitably reached the Vatican, which wasted little time (a relative term) setting in motion the complex, prolonged and solemn administrative process Catholics know as beatification – the review of a candidacy for sainthood that precedes full canonisation.
Pope Francis paid a 24-hour visit to Fatima yesterday to canonise two of the children, Francisco Marto, nine years old at the time, and his sister Jacinta, seven. Both died two years later in the influenza epidemic that killed thousands in Portugal and tens of thousands around the world. Some reward, was my first thought. They are, apparently, the youngest saints who did not die as martyrs – although you might consider that surname a bit of a giveaway.
Their cousin Lucia, who was ten, died in 2005, and so in her case the process of beatification has been delayed. But she too will, in time, join them ‘up there’ in the embrace of the Saviour.
I found myself reading all this with my usual sense of despair mingled with anger – despair about the ineffable human proclivity for engaging in mass hysteria, anger that the Holy Roman church should feel that it has to whip up such outpourings in order to maintain its declining credibility and authority.
Some years ago, my daughter, a doctor in clinical psychology, wrote her first degree paper – one of many papers on various subjects, I might add – on a phenomenon called the imaginary friend. I remember few of the details, and probably understood fewer still, but as a parent I was aware of the subject. Many, if not most, children establish some kind of mystical bond with a figure of their mind’s creation. The experience, far from unusual, is perfectly normal and is quickly outgrown, with no lasting ill effects. (At this point, I should quit while I’m ahead by bowing to my daughter’s more profound knowledge of such matters, and await her contradicting thesis.)
I can no more explain what the children of Fatima saw, or thought they saw, than I can any of the apparently spiritual ghostly visitations claimed by human beings. We are all, even adults, susceptible to flights of fantasy, and children are especially impressionable. We used to laugh them off as ‘things that go bump in the night’.
My quarrel with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in particular – and all the other sinister bodies masquerading as guardians of the spiritual yearnings of the faithful – is that it should cynically seek to exploit the inexplicable for its own ends – turn things that go bump in the night as some kind of revelation.
Of course, none of this is new, so I can justifiably be accused of harping on about it. The Vatican has after all been up to these tricks for centuries. The Popes could get away with it when the mass of the church’s adherents were illiterate peasants only recently weaned away from worshipping the sun, or the moon, or trees, or whatever. But in this day and age I have to wonder how the papal authorities still manage to convince the Faithful that they really should believe in ghosts. But then it starts with the founder of the religion himself – that is, Himself – so who can be surprised?
If today’s news from Portugal has one redeeming quality it gives us a break from the endless stories of terrorist threats and corruption in high places and the corrosion of core values in a confused society.
But then again, does it?