Of the dozen or so sites where the Church accepts that Mary, the Mother of God, has appeared in visions, I have been to three – two as a tourist and one as a pilgrim. In 1988, on a road trip through Portugal with my older brother, we stopped off at Fatima. It was deserted: the huge space in front of the basilica like a stage awaiting a performance. Earlier, I had been to Lourdes, again as a tourist, on a day trip with a fellow Catholic. It poured with rain. The streets were empty. A few bedraggled shopkeepers stood by their stalls selling pious souvenirs. There was little sense of the sacred. My companion later became a Carmelite nun.
More recently, in 2008, I returned to Lourdes to pick up the same brother who had been with me at Fatima, by now semi-paralysed with an incurable disease. He was there with a contingent from Ampleforth, and enjoyed the attention of the young volunteer nurses from New Halland St Mary’s Ascot in their colourful uniforms. His visit raised his spirits, but there was no miraculous cure.
My only pilgrimage was to Medjugorje with my eldest daughter as part of a group, again from Ampleforth. One of the monks, a friend from my school days, believed in the apparitions, and in the miraculous phenomena such as swirling suns and rosaries whose links turned to gold. We stayed in a pension that served a hearty breakfast, even on Wednesdays and Fridays when Our Lady had told the visionaries we should fast. Coincidentally, a journalist friend was in Medjugorje writing a story about the apparitions. He witnessed one of the visionaries in a trance and was impressed, but was told by the vicar general in nearby Mostar that they were fake.
I reserved judgment about the apparitions at Medjugorje: so too, it would appear, does the Vatican, whose promised report has been repeatedly postponed. The apparitions and many miracles at Lourdes and Fatima have been declared worthy of belief, and I feel a vague sense of guilt that I am not overwhelmed by these miraculous interventions. A sceptical demon whispers that Our Lady’s call to repent, do penance, fast and venerate the Eucharist, is hardly startling; that the “secrets of Fatima” have turned out to be tame; and that, though successive popes have accorded great significance to the apparitions, little has been made of Our Lady’s warnings to those who die unrepentant that eternal torment awaits them. Quite the contrary: the distinction between the repentant and unrepentant has been blurred in the name of mercy, and the Church no longer seems to teach that anyone risks going to hell.
Having lived through a period in office of 14 British prime ministers and 14 US presidents, there has never been a time when I have felt less confident about the conduct of world affairs. My uneasiness stems from anxieties about what will follow Brexit, but more particularly from the erratic behaviour of President Trump. I had seen some sense in a few of his campaign promises – in particular, the idea of a rapprochement with Russia to end the Syrian civil war. But in this and other ways he has proved a disappointment. He appears to have no fixity of purpose; it is said that he acts on the advice of the last person he has spoken to. He does not seem to think things through, particularly when it comes to rattling his sabre at the even more erratic and unpredictable Kim Jong-un.
I have some sympathy with Trump’s ongoing battle with the liberal press, which sees everything through the prism of the secularist assumptions of the East Coast intelligentsia. It is the same here in Britain. I had my own experience of media bias when, at the time of the conclave following the death of St John Paul II, I wrote an article for the Spectator recommending Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the next pope. At the time, Ratzinger was the liberals’ bête noir because of his strict orthodoxy and reservations about Liberation Theology. The religious affairs correspondent of the Times scoffed that the only person in Britain to support his candidature was “male, white – even old”. Invited to defend Ratzinger on Channel 4 News, I was treated by Jon Snow as if I was an apologist for Batista, Pinochet or even Hitler.
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