What is it about the 20th century which is stirring the passions of traditionalist Catholics everywhere? In the second extract from his new book, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium, DAMIAN THOMPSON looks at the legend of the Diabolical Century and suggests that it casts new light on the figure of Pope John Paul II.
AS THE YEAR 2000 approaches, apparitions of the Virgin Mary are being reported to the Church authorities with bewildering frequency: in Syria, Iraq, India and Lebanon as well as all over Europe and Latin America. In the vast majority of cases, the visionaries are pious Catholics; but few secular observers believe that this is an entirely Catholic phenomenon. The world is experiencing a global increase in religious apparitions, in which Protestants have visions of Jesus and angels, Hindus have visions of their own gods, and so on.
Furthermore, many of the ideas expressed by the Virgin, such as the notion that the world faces a time of trial, after which it will be "purified", are common to many apocalyptic scenarios, including those associated with the New Age movement. In particular, those Catholics who believe the Virgin is prophesying unprecedented natural calamities before the dawn of the "Era of Peace" are outlining a sequence of events whose overall structure resembles that proposed by Californian prophets of "earth changes". The Marian author Dr Thomas Petrisko, in his book Call of the Ages, insists that since 1989 "floods, fires hurricanes, earthquakes, rainstorms, droughts and snowstorms have hammered nations around the earth on an unprecedented scale": there is a "world upheaval both in nature and among men". Yet Petrisko also believes that Mary is guiding the world towards an Era of Peace which will materialise around the year 2000. The end of the millennium serves as a focal point for his predictions, just as it does for New Age prophets who see natural catastrophes as a prelude to the establislunent of heaven on earth.
There is little doubt that the year 2000 is pulling some Catholics in roughly the same direction as other apocalyptic believers, including New Agers and evangelicals. In her book The Visions of the Children, the Medjugorje expert Janice Connell borrows a line from fundamentalist Christians when she notes the symmetry of 2,000 years between the first prophets and Jesus, and between Jesus and the end of the current century. This, she says, "is an interesting time sequence, which may be significant". But the excitement in Marian circles also contains elements which arise specifically out of Catholic tradition. For example: in December 1983, the Medjugorje seer Mirjana Dragicevic-Soldo received a vision of Satan. She commanded him to leave, and he did whereupon the Virgin appeared, with an uncharacteristically pointed message. "Excuse me for this," she said, "but you must know that Satan exists. One day, he presented himself before the throne of God and asked permission to try the Church for a period of time. God permitted him to try it during one century. This century is under the power of the Devil, but he has begun to lose his power, and he has become aggressive: he destroys marriages, stirs up division between priests, brings about obsessions and murders."
thinks of the authenticity of this message, it expresses an idea which has been present in Catholic thinking, often at a subliminal level, for decades. Put simply, it is that the twentieth century is under the power of the Devil, and that with its passing, his influence will be greatly reduced. There is a tradition that during the 1890s Pope Leo XIII, like Mirjana, experienced a diabolical vision. According to one source, "while concluding a liturgical celebration, Leo suddenly stopped and looked transfixed. He later reported that he had been allowed by the Lord to overhear a conversation between Satan and the Lord ... God gave permission to Satan to take the bulk of the twentieth century as a time in which he would he allowed specifically to test and tempt the Church, but after that his power would be limited again."
This vision of the diabolical twentieth century helps explain the current optimism of messages from Mary. In the years since Mirjana of Medjugorje predicted Satan's defeat, many other voices have taken up the theme. In 1984, the Italian priest Fr Stephano Gobbi, who claims to receive messages by "interior locution", was told by Mary that her struggle with the Devil "was to last throughout the whole century as a proud challenge to God". At Oliveto Citra in Italy, the Virgin has declared that Satan's final hour "started a century ago". Most explicit of all is the anonymous visionary of Cold Spring, Kentucky, who was told by the Virgin in 1993 that "the Great Tribulation has been present since the beginning of Satan's 100-year reign, and is escalating at the end of the century. Just as I came to you at Fatima, I continue today to come to you, and with the same messages."
Admittedly, the published Fatima prophecies do not single out the twentieth century. But they do forecast a period of unprecedented strife, at the end of which will come a long-awaited peace. All around the world, Catholics with a special devotion to Mary believe that this peace will arrive with the new millennium; and there are strong grounds for believing that the current Pope is thinking along the same lines. John Paul B's conviction that the prophecies of Fatima are being fulfilled, together with his vision of a "springtime" revealed by the Great Jubilee, fit so neatly into the scenario of a diabolical 20th century followed by an Era of Peace that the conclusion is hard to resist,
BUT IT IS NOT EASY tO guess the innermost thoughts of a Pope, especially when the subject is so sensitive: for even if a pontiff were granted a private revelation of the end of history he would almost certainly feel obliged to keep quiet about it. No one is suggesting that John Paul II believes in an imminent apocalypse; but his pronouncements often imply that he is
preoccupied by the overall shape of history. Indeed there is an element of inbuilt apocalypticism to St Peter's chair which has rubbed off on a good many of its occupants. Medieval Popes were often portrayed by their supporters as the "Angelic Pope" who would usher in a glorious new era at the End of Time. Moreover, Leo XIII was not the only modern Pope to experience a terrible vision of the future: Pius X had one, too. Perhaps the unique status of the papal office is such that its occupants are naturally susceptible to visions of the End. If a man believes he is God's chief representative on earth, then is it surprising that God should choose to entrust him with such information?
The apocalypticism of John Paul H cannot, however, be regarded as something peculiar to his personality or to his office. It reflects a millennial belief in a coming Golden Age which can increasingly Continued on Page 9