On the 13 May 1917, three shepherd children received a visitation from the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fields near the small village of Fátima in central Portugal. The story that is told is that the children were visited by the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, shining like the sun. ‘I am from heaven,’ the lady told them. ‘Are you willing to follow God and to ask for the conversion of those who offend Him?’ ‘You can count on us,’ Lucia, the youngest of the children answered. ‘Okay,’ Mary responds, ‘but it will not be easy. There are a lot of people who don’t believe. They will try and hurt you with lies and distain.’
On the 13th day of the month for the next six months, the Virgin appeared again to the children, who had begun to tell their story more widely, attracting visitors. Apparently, 70,000 people gathered for the sixth apparition. First it rained, heavily. Then the sun danced in the sky and, for ten minutes, fell upon them as if a ball of fire. People were running around, terrified, confessing their sins. This sixth apparition became known as “the miracle of the sun”.
Today, the village of Fátima is transformed into a vast Catholic Disneyland, a sort of stadium of religion to which more than five million people make pilgrimage every year. Some make the last part of the journey crawling on their knees, the path smeared with the blood of those who decide not to use knee-pads. I was blown away by the place. The intensity was highly infectious. One man pushes the buggy of his child down the hill, on his knees. One women crawls on all fours, clearly distressed. Many are assisted by family members, holding their hands.
At one end of the complex, the Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity is a twenty-first century modernist-style circular building, seating 8,633. In the huge open-air space between the basilica and the main chapel where the shepherds are buried, hundreds of thousands of people can gather for Mass. And everywhere on the site, people are praying, lighting candles, sitting quietly, and milling around. Mass is broadcast on the radio to all of Portugal every day – Fátima has its own newspaper and television studio.
This is the sort of religion that so-called ‘thinking people’ tend to dismiss scornfully as popular superstition – “the religion of feeble minds” – as Edmund Burke once called it. But I have something of a soft spot for this sort of superstition, and regret that I have been distanced from it by a ploddingly empirical, secular education that means I find it all but impossible to suspend my disbelief.
Why is it that we are able to understand dreams as forms of leakage from our unconscious inner life, revealing important truths about ourselves, but refuse to do something similar about places like Fátima – understanding them as if they were forms of cultural leakage from the collective unconscious, revealing important truths about our collective condition, truths that are not easily otherwise articulated? My dreams are no less mad than the apparitions at Fátima, often (like religion) a peculiar blend of sex and violence. But whereas Freud made it respectable for thinking people to take their dreams seriously, it is still far from intellectually respectable for people to take superstition seriously – the work of Carl Jung notwithstanding.
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The key to understanding the massive popular appeal of Fátima is surely to be found in the date, 1917: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and, a few months later – probably most impactful of all in rural Portugal – the Spanish flu epidemic that resulted in the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people, between 3% and 5% of the world’s population. Within two years of their vision of the Virgin, two of the children had themselves died from this flu. In such a world, where does all the fear and grief and anger go to get processed?
The First Portuguese Republic, which had overthrown the monarchy in 1910, was actively hostile to the Church. Church schools and monasteries were closed. Religious orders and the ringing of church bells were banned. The wearing of clerical clothes in public was banned. Fátima was religious populism springing up as a groundswell of resistance against the totalising ideology of state atheism. And there is something of a class aspect to all of this. The Fátima pilgrims were, and continue to be, generally working class. Their cultural despisers are generally middle class
Thinking people, as I am calling them disparagingly, tend to insist that the first question to ask of superstitious religion is whether it is true. This, they presume, is the ultimate question on which everything turns. But I suspect it is not such an important question after all – imagine thinking the first thing to ask about your dream is whether it was true or not. Surely the most significant thing to ask is what it means and where it comes from. Only when you have established this – and that’s not easy – will the question of its truth become askable at all.
Post-truth was chosen by the Oxford Dictionaries as their “word of the year” in 2016, following Brexit and Trump’s election win. Post-truth politics is when something important is carried for people in a form that is not necessarily literally true. Fiction is an obvious example. I can believe Dostoyevsky’s novels contain great and important truth without having to believe they are true. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the philosopher Kierkegaard makes a distinction between subjective truth and objective truth, believing the former to be far more important when it comes to Christianity. Indeed, for Kierkegaard, something can be subjectively true even when objectively false. Post-truth is the name recently given to the emergence of this sort of attitude within politics, and it has more than a passing resemblance to superstition.
Thinking people hate it, rail against it, spit blood to the wind and Twitter. But it has long been with us. And it won’t ever go away. “Superstition is a part of the very being of humanity” wrote Goethe, as the Enlightenment sought to do away with it, “and when we fancy that we are banishing it altogether, it takes refuge in the strangest nooks and crannies, and then comes forth again as soon as it believes itself to be safe.”
I loved Fátima. And was overwhelmed by the emotional power of the populism it channelled. Those pilgrims scraping their bloody knees on the concrete are the beating heart of the Church. Our Lady has inspired them to an act of great devotion. And they have inspired me. I won’t ever forget the place.