The Madonna gold rush
Published: April 26, 2009 at 11:37am
Xarabank is not a documentary, but is designed for pure entertainment, so those who say that Angelik and Catherine Caruana should not have been given further exposure do not know what they are talking about.
The juxtaposition last Friday night of these two – with their devil encounters, their chats with angels, their hot-line to the Madonna, their stigmata and their miraculous Made in China statuette – and a forensic investigator, a pathologist and a psychiatrist made for the perfect show.
Sadly, I will have to include the other psychiatrist, the one with the hair, the necklace and the jumpy disposition, with the angels-and-demons crowd. He seems to me highly involved and in a way that does nothing to inspire confidence.
I’d never seen Catherine Caruana before, as I am not overly keen on visions, apparitions and the whole shebang. I knew that the far-from-ascetic visionary of Borg in-Nadur had a wife somewhere, and if I thought of her at all, it was as the poor wife, lumbered with this strange, attention-seeking man.
He appears to me to be of lower-than-average intelligence, and because women almost never marry men who have a lower IQ than they do, I somehow assumed she would be sort of simple.
But then I watched her on Xarabank and realised that this wasn’t right at all. The two are an extremely odd pairing: she thin, dyed, made up, fashionably dressed and sharp as a butcher’s arsenal; he grossly overweight like a man who can’t control himself, frumpy and with that unwashed slightly sticky appearance, with the blank expression of somebody you just know has to have the simplest things explained to him twice.
She was the one doing all the talking. When presented with Dr Abela Medici’s forensic evidence, she said in righteous tones that he is nobody to tell God what to do and how to communicate his message. Dr Abela Medici was too polite to remark that if his evidence is enough to incriminate men and have them sent down for 30 years then he is perfectly capable of explaining how a factory-made cheapo statuette came to be covered in salt, her husband’s blood and cooking-oil.
At one point, the camera homed in on the couple holding hands – only they weren’t holding hands, at all. She had her hand firmly over his, gripping it tightly. A casual observer might have said ‘How sweet, it’s a gesture of reassurance.’ But it wasn’t a gesture of reassurance at all. It was a restraining gesture, a controlling gesture, a staying gesture. It gave me the creeps.
Watching the whole performance, I couldn’t help but get the idea that this is not Angelik Caruana’s project at all, but his wife’s. She appears to be managing it. He appears incapable of doing so. He probably wants nothing more than a bit of peace and quiet, a couple of interesting video films and an unlimited supply of pies and cigarettes.
So why would she be doing it? The psychiatrists might have hazarded a guess, had the focus not been on her husband. Indeed, we have all made the same mistake in failing to see that Angelik is very probably truly a tool, only not the Holy Mother of God’s.
It could be a form of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy. This is a condition which drives attention-seeking women to instigate the symptoms of illness in their children, so as to generate a lot of fuss on which they thrive. If faking the symptoms of illness fails to convince doctors, then in the more extreme cases these women actually end up harming their children in ways that cannot be interpreted as overt child abuse.
The damage is done not to hurt the children as such, but to convince doctors that they are ill and in need of plenty of fuss and attention.
Catherine Caruana appears to me to be suffering from this attention-seeking condition, only instead of using her children, she is using a mass-produced statuette which has been endowed with personality, and her husband – who, because of his inferior intelligence and undeveloped psychology, has been cast in the role of child rather than mate.
It seemed quite obvious to me that both the statuette and the husband are tools used for the end-purpose of directing attention to the wife, who is now claiming that she has been singled out by God for the transmission of his message.
I won’t enter the debate as to whether these two people are nutters or frauds or a bit of both. Certainly, they cannot be supernatural visionaries and it did not need the explanations of Malta’s leading forensic investigator and of a much-experienced forensic pathologist and psychiatrist to explain why.
Rational explanations, as we saw, are wasted on religious zealots, because religious zealots are by definition people who are predisposed to belief in the supernatural and the miraculous.
I will just say that a man who lies down on his bed by appointment with his angels and demons every Friday evening, to receive his stigmata – why doesn’t he go to the pub, where they won’t find him? – is very much in need of help, not television cameras.
Always a market for hysteria
There will always be a ready market for medieval-type religious hysteria. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale is as relevant today as it was in the 14th century. Look at what is happening with Medjugorje. Despite warnings from the Vatican about the quite obvious deceit and avaricious trickery, five million people a year make pilgrimages there from all over the world.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been studying since 2006 the claims that the Madonna has been appearing to a group of six visionaries in Medjugorje, Bosnia, beginning in 1981. Writing in The Catholic Herald last June, the journalist Simon Caldwell – who is himself Catholic – quoted Bishop Andrea Gemma, the most senior exorcist in the Catholic Church until his retirement three years ago, as saying: “You’ll see that soon the Vatican will intervene with something explosive to unmask once and for all who is behind this deceit.”
Bishop Gemma described the Medjugorje stories as a scandal and a “diabolical deceit”. The irony does not escape me that I am quoting somebody who believes in demonic possession. I think he is worth quoting because it illustrates the quandary of those faced with selective belief in the supernatural. It is hard to tell people that they should believe in possession by devils but not in apparitions of talking Madonnas or in bleeding statuettes.
Bishop Gemma said: “It is a phenomenon which is absolutely diabolical, around which revolve many underground interests. Holy Mother Church, the only one able to pronounce, through the mouth of the Bishop of Mostar, has already said publicly, and officially, that the Madonna has never appeared at Medjugorje and that this whole sham is the work of the demon.”
“In Medjugorje everything happens in function of money: pilgrimages, lodging houses, sale of trinkets. So much so that abusing the good faith of those poor souls who go there thinking to encounter the Madonna, the false seers have organised themselves financially, have enriched themselves and live a rather comfortable life,” the bishop said. ”
Just think, one of them organises directly from America, with a direct economic interest, tens of thousands of pilgrimages every year. These don’t seem to me to be disinterested persons. Thus, together with those who shore up this noisy deception, they patently have every interest in convincing people that they see and speak with the Virgin Mary.”
It all began when six bored and suggestible children playing on a hillside convinced themselves they had seen the Madonna and that she had spoken to them. They didn’t meet with the response that a group of excitable little girls met with at our Sliema primary school back in the early 1970s, when they became entirely convinced that they had seen Our Lady walking on water down the road in Balluta Bay.
Hysteria spread through the school, but the headmistress brandished her notorious long black ruler during morning assembly and that was the end of that. If something similar had been done with the Medjugorge children, there would not be so much excitement today.
When the Bishop of Mostar dismissed their claims as duplicitous, the young seers responded by calling him a wolf who would die unless he believed them. The Vatican banned pilgrimages to Medjugorje way back in 1985, but still people flock there in their millions. A review of the seers’ claims was a long time coming. It had to wait until Pope Benedict took the throne, and began just three years ago.
Medjugorje has no interest in seeing the pilgrimages stop. What was once an insignificant backwater town that no one had heard of, and from which people departed in droves to find work, is now wealthy and thriving. This one town in the middle of nowhere gets more tourism business than Malta does. The Sunday Times (London) reported some time ago that the seers – now middle-aged, of course – have grown rich as a result of their 40,000 chats with the Virgin Mary. One of them has married an American beauty queen and makes a living by organising pilgrimages to Medjugorje from the United States.
There is worse. The Vatican has banished to a monastery the former spiritual leader of the Medjugorje seers amid accusations of sexual impropriety and a taste for séances.
His affairs with women have been extensively documented, and he has had a child by one of them, a nun called Sister Rufina, who exposed him when he refused to leave the priesthood and marry her and instead tried to bully her into keeping his secret. Severe restrictions have been placed on this priest, and he has been warned that if he fails to stick to them, he will be excommunicated.
The man who is now the pope has been convinced from the beginning that the Medjugorje seers are nothing more than con artists. The death-knell should have sounded for them when he was elected to the papacy, but the hysteria surrounding the pilgrimage site is now so deeply rooted that the message from the Vatican that Medjugorje is a fraud has not sunk in. Nor will it do so.
The fundamental problem that the Vatican has in situations like this is that its followers have been programmed from birth to believe in the supernatural and the irrational.
You cannot teach them that a man wearing a frock and holding up a bit of rice-paper in a fancy building is about to eat the real, actual flesh of another man who was the son of God 2000 years ago, and then insist that they disbelieve other men who claim that the Madonna has chosen them for cosy chats on remote hillsides.
This article is published in The Malta Independent on Sunday today.