I suppose the Virgin Mary is the Willie O Dea of demigods, always ready to slip in a good word for a constituent needing a favour, but at the same time always ready to stand beside the man of influence and claim the credit.
Cast your mind back to 1879, a time of oppression when the spirit of the Irish peasantry had been broken by the Famine and when landlords were free to evict their tenants wholesale, just as they were doing to Scottish smallholders.
It was Lord this and Colonel that, but the story doesn’t run entirely in accordance with the Catholic-nationalist narrative beaten into every Irish child since the foundation of the State. Take the example of Canon Ulick Burke, a Catholic clergyman from Knock in County Mayo who happened to be a substantial landowner. This kind, Christian gentleman raised his rents and threatened his tenants with eviction unless they somehow found the money to pay him.
It was the time of Davitt’s Land League, an organisation hated and denounced by the Catholic hierarchy, and it was the Land League that organised a rent strike among Father Burke’s tenants. John McHale, the Catholic bishop of Tuam, was not impressed and neither was Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh, who happened to be the parish priest of Knock. Cavanagh was having none of this opposition to the wealthy and the powerful, especially when the wealthy also happened to be members of his own clergy, and perhaps this is why his denunciation of the strike from the pulpit in Knock was so extreme. But Cavanagh miscalculated. Twenty thousand people gathered outside his church to protest, causing Burke to lose his nerve and to reduce his rents by a quarter instead of increasing them.
It mattered not a jot to Cavanagh, a man who clearly gave little thought to the question of what Jesus would do, and for very good reasons. Jesus wasn’t his deity of choice.
Three days after the mass protest outside the church, ghostly apparitions appeared on the walll of the church. Precise, identifiable, ghiostly figures, including that of St John the Baptist, even though nobody had the slightest idea what the man ought to look like. There was a little sheep and a woman, presumed to be the Virgin Mary for no particular reason.
A crowd gathered to see the projection on the wall, but even though one of the visionaries called to the priest’s house to tell him, Cavanagh wouldn’t come outside. Given that he was, in theory, a fervent believer in the occult and supernatural, it seems odd that a man of the cloth would not at the very least peep out his window and have a look, but not the sturdy Father Cavanagh. His behaviour seems doubly strange, since it was less than thirty years since Cardinal Paul Cullen had first established the cult of Mary in Ireland, unless Cavanagh already had his own information about what was really happening.
And as we know, the magic lantern stunt paid off in spades, with Knock becoming a huge international money earner. No viral internet marketing campaign there.
A hundred years later and a thousand miles away, the Virgin Mary was happy to step in again and look after a different bunch of crooks when the friars of the Franciscan monastery at Medjugorje came under investigation for corruption. The bishop of Mostar was on to their crooked little games and they were facing dissolution by Rome when suddenly, as if by a miracle, a half dozen local teenagers, incredibly telegenic and Hollywood-ready, began to see images of Mary and before you know it, Medjugorje was deluged by planeloads of BVM-believing Irish people who can’t get enough of the Mother of God.
It went to such extremes that even during the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995, Medjugorje was untouched, thanks to an agreement between the leaders of the factions in the three-cornered war. They were making so much money from the Irish pilgrims that nobody wanted to disturb the status quo.
Sometimes, though, the Virgin Mary pulls on a flak jacket and gets right down there with the special forces, as she did when Pope John Paul II was shot. Afterwards, he gave thanks for his miraculous survival because, of course, everyone else who was ever shot has died and therefore it had to be a miracle.
He thanked Our Lady of Fatima for saving him. Not Our Lady of Lourdes or Our Lady of Guadelupe, or Our Lady of Knock. They were off somewhere else, saving true believers from bad stuff, but not intervening in Turkish earthquakes or Bangladeshi floods, or curing AIDS or getting rid of cancer. No. Instead, they were busy doing the Willie O Dea thing by getting constituents special favours in return for the single transferable prayer. The religious PR system at full throttle.
Is it all harmless? That’s what I’d have to ask. Is it any different to the Lord of the Rings?
Well, yes. It is. Unless you happen to be a complete geek, you know that Tolkien made all of that up. And even if you dress like a Klingon, the chances are you know that Star Trek isn’t real. Besides, if you think it is real, you can get help.
And yet, millions of people not only believe that this particular space hero exists, but also that she talks to them.
By what standards is this not a mental disorder? Fixed, false ideas, impervious to reason. Isn’t that the definition of psychosis?
We never reached an age of enlightenment or logic, even though we have many logical people in the world today. Most people have no interest in thinking things through — they just want the sound-bite, the 10-second video clip on Sky News, and that’s what the media feed them, in exactly the same way as the major religions. We still believe in magic, which is simply another word for nonsense, and it’s possible to persuade people of anything.
That’s why so many people in the world believe that a biscuit can become a man. Marvel Comics wouldn’t get away with it, but the Vatican does.