My first sustained interfaith dialogue was with Mary Jane, when we were both in eighth grade in a public school in a town near Albany, New York. I had a mild crush on Mary Jane, a very smart Italian Catholic. Our romance—in so far as it was carried on outside of school activities—consisted of long bike rides interspersed by theological arguments about the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary Jane was a Fatima enthusiast, and she talked a lot about how the Blessed Virgin had appeared in 1917 to three shepherd children in the countryside on the outskirts of the Portuguese town where they lived, delivering to them some important prophecies that would soon come to pass.
My crush on Mary Jane last only a few months, but it was enough to produce a personal religious crisis while it lasted. Part of it was worrying as an evangelical about the state of Mary Jane’s soul, given the big differences we discussed. But I was also distressed by the thought that as an adult I would fall in love with Mary Jane, or someone with her kind of faith.
That never happened. Nor have the Blessed Virgin’s Fatima prophecies come to fruition yet. Looking back to my year in eighth grade, though, I now believe that Mary Jane’s Christian faith was certainly genuine. I hope her life has been sustained by a continuing faith in Mary’s Son. And I’m grateful for the way she prepared me for later dialogues with other Catholics.
I have had an active role in my adult life in two official dialogues with Catholics: one co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Fuller Seminary—I helped get it started in the late 1980s and it is still going strong—and the other was the North American Reformed-Catholic Dialogue, which I co-chaired for several years with a Catholic bishop. I also was an original signer of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document.
In none of those later dialogues did we ever get into questions about Fatima. In fact, when I have raised the topic with my Catholic friends they typically want quickly to get on to something else. For example, once when I mentioned to a priest-theologian friend that my wife and I were planning a two week vacation driving around Portugal, his eyes lit up. “I did a visiting lecture tour there a while back,” he said. “A great country!” After he had proceeded to tell me about some places we should not miss, I mentioned that I was hoping that we could visit Fatima. My friend responded by rolling his eyes. “I avoided that place like the plague,” he said, “and I suggest you do the same.”
The fact that I still pay some attention to Fatima-type phenomena in Catholicism makes me wonder sometimes whether I am guilty of a kind of spiritual voyeurism. I find myself trying not to stare, but I’m unable to resist casting long glances at the religious fervor that is on display. I certainly had that sense, for example, when I was reading David Guterson’s novel Our Lady of the Forest—a story about Ann, a sixteen-year-old runaway who claims to be experiencing encounters with the Virgin Mary, I felt a bit guilty for being so fascinated by the narrative. Guterson has made it clear to interviewers that he is not a believer, even though he treats his young visionary, Ann, with much respect. Several other characters in the novel—especially a Catholic priest—have serious doubts about the legitimacy of Ann’s reports of he encounters with the Blessed Mother. But their doubts are different than my own, since Guterson’s fictional doubters tend to be either unbelievers or liberal Catholics. In my reading of the novel, then, I had to struggle with my distance from their skepticism, even as I wrestled with my own questions.
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag focuses on photographic documents of extreme violence: Brady’s photos of the dead bodies on Civil War battlefields, Nazi death camp scenes, images of Vietnamese youngsters fleeing a napalm attack and of the execution of a Viet Cong captive. She probes the ways in which we are often fascinated, in spite of ourselves, with such images, likening those experience to the fairly ordinary ways in which “images of the repulsive can also allure.” After all, she observes, we all know “that what slows down highway traffic going past a horrendous car crash is not only curiosity. It is also, for many, the wish to see something gruesome.”
Well, Fatima was not for me exactly a gruesome site—but at times it came close. An old woman, all dressed in black, who could hardly walk, got down to crawl on her knees, her eyes closed and hands folded in prayer, for hundreds of yards as she approached one of the many statues of the Virgin. There were many booths selling wax replicas of body parts—arms and legs were most common. You could purchase the replica associated with the ailment for which you wanted healing, and throw it into a fire pit as a symbolic expression of your request for Mary's intervention.
And yet I was fascinated to watch—not unlike the fascination involved in slowing down on the highway to witness the scene of an accident. I like to think, however, that my fascination with popular Catholic spirituality is not all about voyeurism. We Christians have good theological motives for—using Sontag’s phrase—“regarding the pain of others.” Even when glancing at an accident scene while driving, it is good to take the opportunity to be reminded of the deep tragedies that visit us as humans. God cares deeply about those situations and so should we. Nor do I think that God wants us to avert our eyes from the woman crawling on her hands and knees at Fatima.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.