In the Name of God

The Pope flies back to Rome this afternoon. The Holy Father is in Portugal for a four day visit, the highlight of which was a celebration in Fátima, a shrine to Our Lady. Fátima has been a place for the cult of Mary ever since in 1917 three shepherds witnessed six apparitions of the Mother of Christ in an isolated grove nearby called Cova da Iria.

The picture shows three kids, a typical image of southern Europe in the XIXth and early XXth centuries: poor children in traditional dress, far too young to be working. Not a smile in sight. Lucia, on the left, was the eldest, and later became a nun. At some stage in the 1930s, in the first decade of the dictator Salazar’s rule of Portugal, and at the height of European fascism, she revealed some of the secrets that had been imparted to the group by the radiant apparition. One of these had to do with the Leninist revolution and the rise of communism in the Soviet Union.

The three "pastorinhos" of Fátima who witnessed the apparitions

Not only was this unusual due to the nature of Mary’s audience of three small children, all untutored in geopolitics and illiterate, but also because it suggested a divine involvement with secular matters. Now the Christian God is not usually considered to play a role in such events, and those who believe often face the question of why a good person, an infant, or a god-fearing community was suddenly destroyed by a plane crash, illness, or natural disaster. The very term natural excludes divine intervention.

So here we have a god who is all-seeing, all-powerful, but, like one of the diplomatic schools of thought in Westminster in the late nineteenth century, follows a policy of masterly inactivity.

Back in the old days (and still today in a few parts of the world), gods were tailor-made to match inexplicable natural events or key areas of human endeavour and desire, such as thunder, hunting, and love. They reflected the organization of human society, gods and goddesses, with a boss god. Always a guy, the boss. But Thor, Artemis, and Venus are not today’s paradigm, where we have an all-encompassing god, rather than the model of the Egyptians, Romans, or Vikings. That model was more the corporate vice-presidential structure, which in Egypt included some stunning company divisions, requiring for instance a god of embalming and a god of cats. The aptly named site godchecker.com lists 206 Native American deities in its pantheon, including Inktomi, the “spider trickster god of war, treachery, and mischief”. Now that’s specialization!

Some downsizing has occurred since those days. In the Christian world patron saints like St. Christopher replace gods, since people still need to address the specialists in their own deep-rooted fears, and in years past religious people often kept an oratory with an array of saints. My grandmother had about ten or so, most prominent among which was Our Lady of Fátima. After supper my Avó used to head off quietly to her bedroom, and stand before the altar of sorts for a couple of hours, and proceed to say three entire rosaries. For all her family, dead and alive. Every night.

The supergods that have emerged from the god consolidation process are multifaceted, CEOs of multinationals that group huge sections of the human populace. Allah, Buddha, and er… God. That’s right, Christians just called god God. Although they did set up a troika, consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. One of the Achilles heels (presumably he only had two) is the fact that although these gods are gods of good, humans regularly make war on their behalf, and generally commit the most barbaric acts in their name. None of these good gods intervenes to put an end to this tragedy, neither do they appear to meet up from time to time, in a kind of G3 summit, to set some general guidelines for behaviour. And from a logical point of view they can’t all be good, not with all this stuff going on…

Still, we speak of acts of god when apparently supernatural events occur, and also see the hand of god in amazing events like the survival of a nine year old Dutch boy in the Libyan Airbus crash of two days ago. Here’s another one that amazes me: Cardinal Saraiva Martins, part of the Pope’s entourage on this visit, and also part of the conclave that elected him, was at Hong Kong airport in the 1990s waiting to board a flight to Rome. In those days it would have been Kai Tak, one of the most dangerous in the world. At the last minute, the good Cardinal decided not to fly. Some time after takeoff, the plane crashed killing all on board. To this day, Martins can offer no explanation for his decision, except to say “my time had not yet come.”

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