Nervous times for non-believers are here, as the press and media in Italy go into a mystical overdrive inspired by the death of Sr. Lucia of Fatima fame; the death of Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of Comunione & Liberazione*; and the continuing illness of Pope John Paul II (6 pages devoted to him in today’s edition of La Repubblica, which is generally regarded as left leaning).
And, with all this focus on religious leaders, visionaries, and men of faith, little wonder that the holy happenings in the small town of Civitavecchia should come up for discussion.
In 1995, on the 2nd of February, a small souvenir statue of the Madonna, purchased in Medjugore, in the home of the Gregori family in Civitavecchia, started weeping what appeared to be tears of blood. Since then the town, in the province of Lazio, has become an unofficial point of pilgrimage for devout catholics – the town’s website includes the ‘Madonnina‘ or little Madonna under its attractions category.
On the 23rd of January of this year, the Corriere della Sera published an article, written by Catholic journalist Vittorio Messori** called Civitavecchia – here’s the proof, outlining a report commissioned by the Bishop of Civitavecchia on the happenings in his diocese. Ever the sceptic, this monkey was intrigued to read about the authoratitive sources that, after much investigation, had decided “there is no other logical and sustainable argument but the acceptance of divine intervention”.
The first proof was the conversion of the ‘sceptic’, Monsignor Grillo, the Bishop of the Diocese (who, on the grounds of religious freedom objected to DNA testing of the blood found on the statue). A man, we were informed by the Corriere, who from his ordination as Bishop onwards had never encouraged popular forms of devotion or archaic traditions.
The second proof was that the eminent Padre Stefano De Fiores, a world expert in Mariology, had been convinced that events in Civitavecchia were a divine intervention.
The third ‘proof’ (the monkey’s scepticism had grown to epic proportions by this point in the article), was scientific and revolved around the DNA testing. Shortly after the news spread about the Madonnina of Civitavecchia, a consumer association pressed the local magistrature to investigate what they assumed was a fraud. The local police seized the statue and sent samples of the blood for analysis. DNA testing revealed the blood to be … that of a human male. Without the batting of a ceramic eyelid, the theological ‘sceptics’ admitted that this if anything proved the case, as Catholics revere the blood of Jesus rather than that of his mother. Hmmm … not quite as scientific as we had hoped, but it does open up the interesting prospect that scientists now have a blood sample, if you’re a believer, of Jesus.
What believers and sceptics (the real ones) alike don’t have is a DNA analysis of blood samples from the Gregori family. According to Messori’s article, which has been widely quoted in Marian circles on the net (Marian circles on the net – who would’ve thought), it’s important to dispell the suggestions that the Gregori family have refused to give blood samples for analysis – in fact they’ve “always declared themselves ready to undergo exams to compare the blood”.
Strange then that the family went all the way to the Constitutional Court to prevent any exam. According to Enrico Veneruso, a lawyer representing CODACONS (the consumer association), the family had originally been ordered by the authorities investigating the matter to present themselves for comparitive blood samples to be taken. They refused, and took their case to the Constitutional Court, where they won their right to be “prepared to undergo” exams without undergoing any. It seems that, in actual fact, the family are prepared to undergo any tests as long as they’re not called for by the State but by the Church (incidentally, according to Veneruso, the verdict of the Constitutional Court, unmentioned in the Corriere article, sets a precedent for citizens – including presumed killers – to refuse giving blood samples).
It’s all a bit of harmless fun, at the end of the day, though, isn’t it? To this monkey’s mind, if pilgrims want to take a day out in Civitavecchia, or Ballinaspittle, or Medjugore, to see bleeding, moving, or weeping apparitions of the Madonna, that’s their perogative.
The problem arises when television and newspaper reports give some pseudo-scientific verification to these events, suggesting that they have undergone rigorous tests and checks for veracity. In reality, the body that checks these ‘miraculous’ events is the one body that stands to gain from their verification – the Church.
Marian visions have a political dimension as suggested in the work of historians like Ruth Harris, Paul Christopher Manuel, and David Blackbourn, who have examined Marian apparitions in the context of the wider society. Whether it be Lourdes, Fatima or Marpingen, these apparitions don’t exist in a vacuum, solely reinforcing Catholic faith. Rather, they have been used in the past to rally the faithful to the defence of the holy mother Church and her social message. Lourdes, officially recognised by the Church (and hence ‘proven’), occured at a time when the Church was still coming to terms with the French Revolution; Fatima occured when the Portuguese Revolution of 1910 had decreed a separation of Church and State; statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary started girating in west Cork during the 1980s, when Ireland was legislatively discussing divorce and abortion; the Medjugorje visions occured in 1981, after the death of Tito, as Yugoslavia started to reassert its ethnic divisions.
Italy has plenty of legislation enacted and proposed that remains controversial for Catholics and non-Catholics, whether it be current laws governing assisted procreation, abortion, or divorce, or possible pressure in the future for things like gay marriage.
People are entitled to their faith, to believe in whatever miracles they choose, but do they have the right to have these ‘miracles’ masqueraded, on national TV and in the national press, as somehow objectively verified? Would UFO enthusiasts get similar column inches? Do messages conveyed through a souvenir statue, about ‘protecting the family’, deserve blanket news coverage?
Perhaps they do. After all, the same media led us to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq…
* “an ecclesial movement whose purpose
is the education to Christian maturity of its adherents and collaboration
in the mission of the Church in all the spheres of contemporary life” – that’s a polite way to put it.
** Messori’s interviews with John Paul II formed the basis for the Pope’s bestselling Crossing the threshold of hope in 1994. When describing Messori as a “Catholic writer” we are using the term employed by the journalist himself as a description on his official website.
Civitavecchia – Ecco le prove. Corriere Della Sera 23/01/2005