Something About Mary

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
A Special Media Moment

Who wouldn't raise an eyebrow over an organization featuring victim newsgroups like alt.food.waffle-house, and whose members' home pages feature passages such as "We see the bride-to-be tonight wearing a wide-brim sombrero and sunglasses, a shredded shirt with the words on it WHO FARTED?, and a pair of Dingo cowboy boots."
Five years ago today in Suck.


On 100 lovely acres(1.1 MB) in a remote, wooded area of western New Jersey sits the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Along with indoor and outdoor chapels, replicas of Jesus' house and the original chapel at Fatima, a convent, snack bar, and votive candles beyond count, the shrine grounds house the headquarters of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima.

Considering the direness of Our Lady's message, and the morbid disquiet of more radical Fatima enthusiasts, the Blue Army's outlook is fairly sunny. Shrine activities tend toward upbeat efforts: organizing pilgrimages to the Basilica at Fatima, arranging traveling exhibits of the national Pilgrim Virgin Statue, accomodating the crowds who show up for red-letter dates — close to 10,000 pilgrims can be expected on May 13, the anniversary of the first apparition.

Soul, the group's magazine, combines optimistic organizational reports ("Cadet Program Alive and Well"), domestic advice columns ("Helping Kids Stay Catholic"), and articles geared toward reining in extremist notions (an essay entitled "Our Lady Is Not a Sensationalist," a personal catechism featuring questions like "Do I find myself preoccupied with various apocalyptic scenarios?"). The devotions recommended in Blue Army literature — reciting the rosary on a daily basis, observing the Five First Saturdays, wearing the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — may be on the far side of quaintness, but they're all within the range of socially accepted religious practice, no more alarming than, say, joining the Sacred Heart Auto League.

That acceptability isn't easy to come by. Even after it has approved a miracle, the Catholic Church insists on maintaining its primacy in interpreting what that miracle means. To do otherwise would be to leave the direction of the faith in the hands of children, or worse, women. Thus all Blue Army literature must be certified by a censor from the Diocese of Metuchen, and the group yields to the Church on hot-button issues like the question of whether a scapular medal confers the same benefits as the original cloth scapular.

In his office at the group's headquarters, Blue Army national director Michael Six appears comfortable with the army's generally submissive posture. Mild but imposing, lucid but soothing, a kindly home-schooler, Six has a personal style reminiscent of the late Father Ellwood E. "Bud" Kieser, and he speaks with the cheerful, measured inoffensiveness of the modern church. "Many people don't understand what the church teaches, but look at the externals and assume from those something that isn't valid," he says, in a typical conversation about Mariology. "We don't worship Mary as God. We honor her as the mother of God, and it's appropriate to honor her and look for her intercession. The same way Protestants might have photos of their family members on a piano at home, we keep images not as idols or graven images, but as reminders of people we love and want to bring to mind."


This kind of rational pedagogy makes for a pretty bland diet, and it's hard not to sense the Blue Army or Father Robert Fox of South Dakota's Fatima Family Apostolate straining against their closely circumscribed jobs. Would they rather be making converts? The Blue Army's modest efforts toward that goal include a campaign to build Fatima shrines around the world, along with a blitz of rosaries and Mary-inflected literature. In a nod to the group's fading anti-communist profile, special attention is paid to Russia, and more intriguingly, Israel, where an influx of Russian immigrants with no practical experience of Judaism makes for an attractive batch of potential Catholics (maybe even potential saints).

But life can only be so exciting when your mission is more wrapped up in avoiding error than engaging in cosmic struggle. "There are certainly authentic apparitions," says Six, "as well as things that are either the work of the devil or of people's own fancy or attempts to get notoriety or power. That's why we rely on the church to make those judgments."


For a group that takes a much more dynamic role in the battle of faith, we must turn to the Fort Erie, Ontario-based Fatima Center of Father Nicholas Gruner. In stark contrast to the Blue Army, the Grunerites give off a powerful sense of embattlement, of gravest urgency. Some characteristic headlines from the group's magazine The Fatima Crusader: "Update on the Plot to Silence Our Lady," "China: A Threat to World Peace," "The Perestroika Deception," "Satanism Is Practiced in Vatican!" (These headlines give only part of the story; even an innocuous-sounding memoir of a trip to the Fatima Basilica quickly turns to condemnations of the Godless United Nations, the dangers of Rock music, and conspiracies to deny Our Lady's Queenship.)

Although the Fatima Center's main concerns (the most important being that the Pope's 1984 "Consecration of the World" did not fulfill Our Lady's request for the specific consecration of Russia) can seem esoteric, the most dreadful parts of Father Gruner's cosmology are easily scanned. The fall of the Soviet Union was a deception; the Vatican is not only infested with Freemasons but still working under a secret agreement between Nikita Kruschev and Pope John XXIII (a favorite villain of Fatima extremists); Soviet and Chinese agents are behind the global drug scourge; a vast conspiracy to silence Sister Lucy and deny the mandate of Heaven has left us all in doom's way.

Fordham University professor Michael W. Cuneo has written an excellent survey of the Gruner crusade and some of its more oddball counterparts. But Gruner's effort to position the Fatima Crusaders as a stern alternative to soft-sell Fatimans like the Blue Army or the Barnabite Shrine Basilica — located on the other side of Niagara Falls from the Fatima Center — is a classic example of a hardcore/softcore pissing competition. If you're looking for Fatima zeal, there's really no choice. Gruner has attacked the Blue Army for its sheepish acceptance of Vatican party line. He has viciously mocked Father Robert Fox for Fox's own magazine's crappy circulation — a low blow in any community.

Inevitably, Gruner's mix of catty infighting and last-gasp urgency proved to be a crowd-pleaser. The Fatima Center is now the most prominent and energetic Fatima group on the continent; the Crusader claims a circulation of over a million; the group broadcasts weekly television and daily programs; according to Cuneo, the apostolate's budget came in at $5 million per year during the 1990s.

Gruner has paid the price for this success. The Toronto Archdiocese regularly issues warnings to the faithful not to send money to his "fringe group." The Vatican has threatened him with excommunication (a threat, Gruner's lawyer notes, that is never applied to "any of the priests around the world who molest young boys, preach heresy or steal money from the faithful"). He is forbidden by an opaque jurisdictional bylaw to work as a priest in the Great White North, and the Fatima Crusader now devotes almost as much ink to saving Gruner as it does to saving Russia. In a crowning indignity, Gruner was beaten up during a 1992 visit to Portugal's Shrine of Our Lady, requiring "medical attention for the numerous bruises and contusions sustained in the assault."

After repeated efforts to get an answer out of the Papal Nuncio of Canada, the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, the Toronto Archdiocese and the Bishop of St. Catharine's, Ontario, this reporter is unable to determine what the case against Gruner actually is. But Gruner argues his own case along two tracks — one Marian, one vaguely libertarian, and both somehow connected.

On the one hand, Gruner posits his own predicament as an issue of local versus international authority. "They've reduced the parish priest to being a bureaucrat," says Father Paul Kramer, Gruner's spokesman (now that the excommunication threat has induced the self-dubbed "Fatima priest" to lower his own profile), "a salaried official they can just move around at will. He has to answer to a bishop, and not follow his conscience. But the priesthood is a divine institution. God is the boss; the bishop is just an employer."

More to the point, if the Virgin Mary herself comes down from Heaven to deliver a message, shouldn't that take precedence over the word of any pope or cardinal?

Not according to the "worthy of belief" category the church has worked out for Mary revelations; under this system, Mary messages are classed as optional beliefs that have no effect on one's faith. But for Gruner and the legions of old ladies who follow him (the people who actually account for the "popularity" Garry Wills laments), this is a lawyerly loophole, the kind of thing a Freemason might come up with, and the Fatima Crusaders speak contemptuously of fellow Catholics — some of them even high Vatican officials! — who "make no secret" of the fact that they doubt the story of Fatima. If there is a heavenly message in all of this, it may be the reminder that Mary, like nuclear power, is a weapon that's easier to unleash than to control.

Making matters worse is the fact that the only bearer of Mary's message is a 93-year-old woman living in a Portuguese convent. The situation is complex enough to encourage Our Lady to step back into the fray personally. But when Mary did just that, in the borough of Queens, she found there was no room at the inn.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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