Linked to Politics
by Conrad Goeringer
June 10, 1996
Last week's wave of hysteria over the alleged appearance of the "Antichrist" is still reverberating through society in the Latin American nation of Columbia. On Thursday, speculation and anxiety throughout the country peaked following the appearance of leaflets warning that on June 6, 1996 -- the sixth day of the sixth month of the ninety-sixth year -- the Antichrist would lay claim to all unbaptized children, and perform other diabolical deeds. Roman Catholic Church authorities discounted the rumors, which they say were spread by unidentified Protestant groups. Nevertheless, churches were packed, and Columbian television was broadcasting re-runs of perennial horror movie classics like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen" series. "A Mia Farrow re-run -- Worse Than The Antichrist!", we mused in our dispatch of the same day.
But social anxieties and dislocation continues, even though June 6, 1996 is history. Catholic Church officials continue to blame the Antichrist hysteria on Columbia's political crisis, and now charge that President Ernesto Samper's administration is financed by drug lords. The Vatican has been using anti-drug sentiment in Columbia to position its own political and social fortunes. Carlos Mario Alzate of the Columbian Catholic Episcopate Conference charged that "It's because of the lack of leadership and means to solve the political crisis that people turn to this type of fantasy as a sort of lifesaver." In a dispatch from Reuter News Service, Alzate added that "It's all due to people's ignorance and the fact that the church itself hasn't managed to evangelize people as much as it would like."
Other statements from the Catholic Bishops continued to blame "alarmist preaching" by Protestants and "absurd speculation."
But the Church fanned the flames of satanic paranoia, though, when the Archbishop of Barranquilla, Columbia -- Felix Mardia Torres Parra -- branded President Samper a "virtual devil ... because of his alleged ties to drug lords." (Reuter). Parra added that Samper was the "hub" around which corruption and "venality" in Columbia swirls.
A Theo-Political Agenda?
In Columbia, Church officials are working hard at positioning themselves in the event of a massive political realignment which some suggest is inevitable. Charges of widespread corruption -- and the possibility that drug interests even financed Samper's 1994 election campaign -- are "coalescing the opposition" in the Columbian Congress according to the N.Y. Times, and could lead to the President's ouster. Still, a committee investigating charges against Samper is recommending that they be dropped for lack of evidence.
Another factor is the fate of Juan Carlos Gaviria, a hostage held by a shadowy group known as "Dignity for Columbia." He is the brother of former Columbian President Cesar Gaviria, who now serves as secretary-general of the Organization of American States. The "Dignity" guerillas say they will execute Gaviria is Samper is not impeached by the Columbian Congress. Speculation about who is behind the "Dignity for Columbia" movement is also rampant, and everyone from left-wing drug traffickers to rightist paramilitary groups have been suspected.
Church vigils for Gaviria took place throughout last week, and overlapped the mass-baptisms being conducted in the event of a cameo appearance by Anti-christ.
Virgin of Guadalupe
a Fraud, Says Abbot
by Conrad Goeringer
June 10, 1996
(Editor's Note: Developments last week in both Colombia and Mexico clearly demonstrate how religious consciousness can leads to social epidemics of fear, anxiety and nagging doubt. While Colombians were packing churches in fear of the possible arrival of the Anti-christ mass media in the country of Mexico was reflecting a virtual panic over the events described in the following article. Is this just another example of pre-Millennialist angst? Read on.)
Debate, accusations and anger erupted last week throughout Mexico amidst charges that "the Mother of all Mexicans" -- the Virgin of Guadalupe -- is a legend or hoax. Abbot Guillermo Schulemburg, who operates the enormous Mexico City basilica build in honor of the minor deity, was quoted in an Italian magazine as saying that the peasant Juan Diego (to whom the Virgin supposedly appeared) never existed. According to Reuters, that admission is having the effect of "casting the entire legend into doubt."
According to the legend, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Diego on a hilltop near Mexico City -- a site which, coincidentally, was sacred to Aztec Indians who populated the region. The dark-skinned apparition supposedly told Juan Diego to construct a temple in her honor; she was soon dubbed the Virgin of Guadalupe, referring to an Aztec term "Coatlallope" which means "the one who crushed the serpent."
All of which is interesting, especially to religious skeptics who see various social and political factors at work in constructing the legend -- not a metaphysical apparition. Present-day Mexico City sits on top of the old Aztec Island capitol once known as Tenochtitlan. After the founding of the city, the theocratic empire quickly absorbed neighboring tribal groups through a series of "flower wars", and eventually included a good portion of modern Mexico and ranged as far south as Guatamala. In 1521, the Spaniard Hernando Cortes forged an alliance with discontented tribes, and crushed the "Triple Alliance" which ruled the Aztec state.
While the Aztec empire was warlike and practiced religious rituals of blood sacrifice, Cortes and his Catholic missionaries began their own bloody campaign to dismantle the culture and enslave the population. Huge amounts of goal were appropriated and shipped to Spain (or ended up as sunken treasure which is still sought today.) Meanwhile, Christian missionaries began mass-conversion of the newly colonized Indians, and started to graft Catholic rituals and symbols onto the old religious metaphors. The giant Aztec Temple of the Sun was demolished, and rubble from it and other structures was used to fill in the surrounding swampland, including Lake Texcoco. On the site of the old Temple was erected an enormous Catholic cathedral.
With the political colonization complete, Catholic authorities moved to finish off the social, religious and mental colonization of the indigenous peoples. Was the "Virgin of Guadalupe" part of this process?
Today, the Virgin is a national symbol. Notes Reuters: "Known simply as 'La Virgen' throughout Mesoamerica, her image, which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego's cloak, is standard decoration in any Mexican home or car." The site of the alleged apparition was earlier a shrine devoted to the worship of the Indian goddess, Tonantzin, known as "Our Mother."
The Abbot Tells All
The recent flap began when the Mexican daily paper Reforma quoted Abbot Schulemburg as saying "(Juan Diego) is a symbol, not a reality." The abbot, who is now 81, then claimed he was misquoted, and Archbishop Sergio Obeso Rivera commented that "The statement of the abbot must have been misinterpreted because you just can't say that (Diego did not exist.)"
Schulemburg's quote was first thought to have been published in the Italian magazine "30 Giorno": but it then turned out that the Giroro article was based on an interview given "months earlier" (Reuters) with the local Catholic publication known as Ixtus. Reuters reported that "In that interview -- never denied by the abbot -- Schulemburg said Juan Diego symbolized the marriage between Catholicism and traditional Indian religions and said his beatification recognized a 'cult', not a real person."
Associated Press reported similar wording. Abbot Schulenburg (sic) is reported to have said that the 1990 beatification of Juan Diego by the Pope "is a recognition of a cult. It is not a recognition of the physical, real existence of a person."
AP also reports that "small protests" broke out once the statement was made public, and that "Demonstrators scrawled graffiti on church walls vilifying the abbot and demanding his ouster."
Even so, local religious fanatics are apparently unaware that Abbot Schulemburg is not alone in his opinions. "Some church leaders," noted AP last week, "argued the apparition of the brown-skinned Virgin was a fable created to allow the Indians to continue to worship their own goddess. Others said the Spanish made up the story to help convert Mexico's Indians to Catholicism."
The man who orchestrated the campaign for the beatification to sainthood of Juan Diego is now demanding that Abbot Schulemburg resign.
A final word about the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, she is depicted as
having fair skin; she stands on the horns of a bull, said to symbolize
fertility and potency, or on the outline of a crescent moon -- another
symbol of the earth goddess.
Abbot Who Said
Apparition is Fake
Retires from Post
by Conrad Goeringer
September 8, 1996
Discord continues to rock the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico over that nation's leading religious symbol and alleged apparition, the Virgin of Guadalupe. In a statement issued Friday by ecclesiastical authorities in Mexico City, it was announced that Abbot Guillermo Schulemberg, administrator of the Basilica de Guadalupe, was officially retiring. In June, a major controversy ignited when it was revealed that Schulemberg considered the apparition of the Virgin a "symbol" or metaphor, rather than an actual event. There was a public outcry over that statement, and the abbot submitted his resignation on July 8.
The controversy has ancient roots, but modern day theo-political implications. Mexico remains an important "asset" for the Vatican, boasting a heavy Roman Catholic population; but here, as elsewhere throughout Latin America, the church is being challenged in a "turf war" for religious allegiance by aggressive Protestant sects, including evangelicals and Mormons. The Church is also jockeying for political control, and in some areas has decided to back the insurgent PAN (National Action Party) to implement its conservative social agenda.
The legend of Juan Diego has been an important ideological tool in maintaining its grip on the Mexican culture, and in rationalizing its assault on the otherwise-secular political institutions of the country. According to a church-fostered legend, the Virgin appeared to a poor Indian named Juan Diego in 1531. Coincidentally, she was a darked-skinned version of Mary -- and she happened to appear on a hilltop outside of Mexico City that was considered holy and magical by the Aztec Indians; some maintain that there was even an Aztec shrine to a goddess at this same site. The Virgin then asked Juan Diego to erect a church in her honor at that location; the apparition was dubbed the Virgin of Guadalupe, a corruption of an Aztec (Nahuatl) Indian word meaning "the one who crushed the serpent." As a cosmic calling card, she also allegedly imprinted an image of herself on Juan Diego's coat.
Since then, the Virgin of Guadalupe has become an icon of Roman Catholic superstition throughout Mexico and the entire region.
In June, Schulemburg (also identified in some press reports as "Schulemburg") was quoted in Mexican newspapers for statements made in late 1995 in a Catholic magazine known as Ixtys, a publication of the Jesuit order. The elderly abbot -- age 79 -- said that the appearance of the virgin was "symbolic and not a historical reality." Anthropologists, social historians and even some church leaders knew as much, especially since the powerful "cult of the Virgin" represents a blending of Catholic and pagan-Indian traditions and symbols. The Virgin of Guadalupe, for instance, is often depicted standing on bull horns (a symbol of sexual potency and fertility), or the lunar-goddess symbol of the crescent moon.
But Pope John Paul had "beatified" Juan Diego for sainthood in 1990, an important "bone" in continuing to reward the allegiance of millions of credulous, Virgin-worshiping Mexican Catholics. Schulemburg said that such a process was "a recognition of a cult. It is not a recognition of the physical, real existence of the person." When the interview statements were made public, Schulemburg initially denied making them, then insisted that the "historical existence" of the apparition was not essential to belief in the Virgin.
Reuters and other news media reported that there was "outrage" throughout the country. There were threats of violence directed against the abbot, and calls for his immediate dismissal.
Friday's announcement gave no reason for Schulember's departure and retirement, although some had expected the abbot to retire due to his advanced age. Archbishop Norberto Rivera announced that he was taking over the task of administration of the basilica, a job held by Schulemberg since 1963.
"Peek-A-Boo" Religious Artifacts
As in other parts of the world, visits and miracles carried out by celestial gods and goddesses are commemorated in dubious relics and souvenirs left behind. In the case of Juan Diego, there is the image of Mary which was left on his cloak, and is now a featured attraction at the Basilica de Guadalupe. Millions of people are whisked by the cloak every year on a moving sidewalk. Research indicates that as with other religious artifacts, scientists have not been permitted to examine this questionable item. The cactus-threat garment joins a long list of other "miraculous" objects, including the Shroud of Turin, the Holy Coat of Trier, assorted bleeding statues, strands of hair and even slices of bone from saints. One only gets to "peek" at these dubious items which are, in the minds of the faithful, incontrovertible evidence of divine interest and intervention.
Though Abbot Schulemberg is now gone, the Virgin lives on in the form of decals, emblems, calendars and designs. She appears on everything from T-shirts to posters and remains what even Schulemberg described her to be -- "The Empress of the Americas, the Lady that is in all of our homes, that is not only in our wallets but also in our hearts."