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Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ.

William A. Christian, Jr., Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, xxii + 544pp. $19.95 (cloth).

In an absorbing and engaging narration, William A. Christian, Jr. attempts to reconstitute the lives and the world of Spaniards who, starting in 1931, sought to convince skeptics that heavenly beings were appearing on the Iberian peninsula. His interest lies in how visions occur and who believes in them, as he describes two kinds of visionaries: the seers, who had visions of the Virgin Mary or saints, and the promoters, whose ideals for the future would be confirmed by the heavenly apparitions. The apparitions at Ezkioga, which summoned about one million people in 1931 alone, brought together individuals from every social class and profession: aristocrats and housemaids, farmers and manufacturers, military officers and writers, photographers and clergy, and mostly children.

The book is structured so that those seeking a narrative of events will find it in four chapters: "Mary, the Republic, and the Basques," "Suppression by Church and State," "The Proliferation of Visions," and "Aftermath." For those whose interest lies in the lives of the principals, promoters, and seers as they relate to the events at Ezkioga, there are three chapters devoted to them: "Promoters and Seers, I, II III." The eight remaining chapters detail the types of visions, trances, and miracles, a sociological perspective of the region, and the ways in which the seers and clergy connected. In the prehistory to the events of his chronicle, Christian astutely points out that miraculous events and images have occurred in particular in years of political crisis -- e.g., the Counter Reformation. Devotions to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Mount Carmel came to have standardized images and the Pope rewarded prayers to these devotions with indulgences that were universal.

With Catholicism on the defensive in the nineteenth century, the 1858 apparition of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes reaffirmed the authority of the Pope and confirmed the Church's dogma of the Immaculate Conception. At a time when liberal governments suppressed male religious orders and sold Church property, Spaniards saw that Lourdes was revitalizing Catholicism in France and hoped for a similar revival in their land. Christian observes that there is no facet of the Ezkioga visions that Lourdes did not influence; in fact, the Basque people considered Bernadette one of theirs, providing over thirty percent of Spain's pilgrims to Lourdes prior to the 1936 Spanish Civil War.

In Portugal, the Fatima visions (1917) reaffirmed Catholicism during an anticlerical republican regime. As a consequence of the anticommunist messages of the visionary Luisa Dos Santos, the Fatima visions gain popularity in Spain. During the summer of 1931, Basque seers had explicit visions of the Virgin Mary at Ezkioga in northern Spain. Christian shows how political tension finds its outlet in religion -- the visions as a repercussion of the fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Second Republic. Crucifixes were removed from schools and government offices and anticlerical violence reigned throughout Spain. The Basque Nationalists, preparing for a civil war, believed that the Virgin Mary supported them against the Republic. The appearances of the Virgin were a reward to those who kept the faith.

Over three chapters, Christian recounts the principal alliances of promoters and seers, whose access to literate culture can only be achieved through others. Using books, letters, diaries, and circulars written by literate believers, Christian shows how promoters like Antonio Amundarain, Carmen Medina, Manuel Irurita, Magdalena Aulina, Padre Burguera, Raymond de Rigne, and their seers create new religious meaning for society. At the age of fifteen, Ramona Olazabal had her first vision at Ezkioga on July 16. She predicted a miracle from the Virgin Mary and on July 18 her hands spurted blood. Christian chronicles the numerous visions and trances of the girls, which would ultimately terminate with heavy emphasis on blood: bloody handkerchiefs, blood through the backs of the hands, and bleeding swords. In addition, he interviews the relatives of promoters, who reveal the newly found ecclesiastical and political power of the promoters.

In Catholic Spain, it is women who are 'the chosen' to suffer in a traditional society where it was commonplace to believe that the indecency of modern female dress and behavior was the root cause of the nation's problems. It follows that if women were corrupting contemporary society (women in films, magazines, cabarets, athletes), then women should die. The holy mode that caught the imagination of the Basque seers by January of 1932 was that of passive sacrifice in mimic crucifixions. The author notes that the proxy suffering and redemption reaches a climax on Good Friday, 1932: dozens of children, men, and women feel the agony of imaginary nails piercing their hands and feet on the stage of Ezkioga.

The visions at Ezkioga reached a peak during the discussions leading to the separation of Church and State in October of 1931, and flared in the following spring when the government disbanded the Jesuits. The author perceives the Church's vulnerability as the reason why the visions were tolerated for so long but, ultimately, were suppressed. Jose Antonio Laburu, one of the Jesuits' most eloquent preachers, used his specialized talents in psychology, psychobiology, and characterology to lecture with great success at San Sebastian in April and June of 1932 against the mental contagion at Ezkioga. In his qualified opinion, the visions of Ezkioga did not measure up to the true visions of Teresa of Avila and Thomas Aquinas and he enumerated all the aspects that disqualified the visions. These criticisms were reiterated by major regional newspapers and, a week after the lectures, hardly anyone believed in the visions at Ezkioga. In September 1932, it was clear that the next offensive against the seers would come f rom the government. When the Republic did act, the visions were less of a threat. The Mayor of Ezkioga, on the behalf of the government, announced that all seers who had visions would be jailed. Burguera was imprisoned for a few days, which consecrated him as defender of the seers, many of whom had been sent to mental institutions. Beginning in 1933, there was an escalation, in the form of bleeding crucifixes in and around Ezkioga, to maintain the allegiance of believers and to convert doubters.

In his review of the patterns that recurred with the visions, Christian examines the clerical orders who were believers. He reveals that some religious orders found support for their devotional agendas in the visions. The Jesuits and the Benedictines kept their distance from the visions while the Discalced Carmelites, who embraced the mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, considered the visions as their particular expertise. In a sociological examination of the lands of the seers, Christian notes how the clergy and the press tend to promote some men, teenage girls, and child seers at the exclusion of adult women. From 1931 until the Civil War, poor children and women predominated and, as the visions lost respectability, the proportions of these groups that wielded little public power in society increased.

The visions occur in periods of political turmoil and social strife. Christian astutely states that without believers there would be no visions. To understand the visions, he studies the believers. If you are wondering about the veracity of visionary occurrences in Spain, this study will not provide you with answers. Christian openly declines to address whether the apparitions were true. As a self-defined outsider by upbringing and nationality, Christian, perhaps wisely, states that he is unwilling to tell Spaniards and Catholics what is sacred and what is profane. What Christian does explore is who helped to define the content of the visions by controlling the seers. Certain Church selectors and patrons determined which visions and seers prevailed and they channeled religious enthusiasm by organizing memory. The events of Ezkioga were dynamic enough to influence both believers and disbelievers.

Christian writes his story, begun in earnest in 1982, as memorial to their spiritual adventure. He notes that the Basque newspapers served as filters to publicize selected news items and to determine which visions make it into print and which remain in memory. Christian's compelling account is vivified by abundant photos from his personal collection and from the collections of seers, visionaries and townsfolk, in addition to maps that trace geographically the trajectory of the occurrences. His chronology of visions, from the seventeenth century through to 1981, calls our attention to the frequency of visions during this period and credits the historical, social, and political climate as the catalyst for the ebb and rise of interest in the visions. Forty-two pages of indexes, both subject and person, provide complete and exact references to the text. The excellent notes and bibliography reflect painstaking and detailed documentation and include signed newspaper articles and both signed and unsigned magazine a rticles. The black and white photographs, liberally interspersed throughout the text, are an integral part of this study and bring to life the participants, whether it is a seer with eyes upturned in divine trance or the public watching in astonishment. The photos attest to general patterns in content and behavior of the vision states showing each seer's idiosyncrasies: some were beautiful and relaxed, others frightened and rigid, eyes opened or closed, and some fell forward while others did not. The appendix includes the questionnaire administered to the seers in August 1931 about the manifestations of the Most Holy Virgin at Ezkioga, as well as letters from Padre Burguera and Maria Maddalena Marcucci. Christian's attention to detail in including a list of place-names that have changed since 1931 helps the present-day reader to relate to the identifiable locations of the events.

The mass response to visions in the twentieth century throughout the Catholic world confirms that essential issues are not just rural. The tens of millions of pilgrims who visit prominent vision sites in rural locations are largely urban residents who share a need for answers that their parishes do not provide. The selective memory that deleted Ezkioga from Church history, Spanish history, and Basque history removed the opportunity to learn from this phenomenon. Christian concludes that only through reflection on historical events in all their human detail can we avoid a similar tragic result.

JOAN F. CAMMARATA is Professor of Spanish at Manhattan College.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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