When asked whether the children from Ezkioga, a village north of Lisbon, really saw the Virgin Mary in 1931, William A Christian Jr. replied that “by upbringing and nationality I am an outsider ill-equipped to tell Basques, Spaniards, and Catholics what is sacred and what is profane.” This statement is interesting because the sacred is a very slippery idea in his book. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ (1996) is all about people tripping over one another to prove that they, and not their opponents, have the authority to determine what the sacred looks like. In the process, their politicking and bickering makes the sacred appear more profane than it ever has before. In Visionaries, the Church does not act as a single unit. He defines the Church as “a decentralized, collective, articulated process that serves the spiritual needs of Catholics and perpetuates itself, a community of memory with a particular purpose.” Christian’s Church is also negotiated, and his account explores what is at stake for religious people as they negotiate and articulate the sacred.
Christian’s Prologue explains why Ezkioga is so interesting a place: “On 29 June 1931 two young children in the Basque Country of northern Spain said they saw the Virgin Mary. That initial vision led to many others. Indeed, for many months visions took place on a nightly basis. In 1931 alone, about one million persons went to the apparitions on a hillside at Ezkioga and people began having visions in a score of other towns. The hundreds of seers at Ezkioga attracted the most observers for any visions in the Catholic world until the teenagers of Medjugorje in the 1980s. This book is about two kinds of visionaries and their interrelations: the seers (videntes in Spanish, ikusleak in Basque) who had visions of Mary, and the saints and the believers and promoters who had a vision for the future which they hoped Mary and the saints would confirm.” Christian argues that people were drawn to the visionaries because Spanish Catholicism didn’t meet many of their basic spiritual needs. They wanted to experience “personal grace” and miraculous healings or visions were the best way to get it.
Spanish Catholics were also worried about their country. The monarchy collapsed and a Republic was proclaimed nine days before the first vision, in which one of the children heard Mary say “Do not mistreat my Son.” The founding of the Second Republic was accompanied by anticlerical violence. Churches burned down and priests were maltreated. Nuns told schoolchildren to “pray for Spain, because it is in a bad way.” Religion was central to rural communities like Ezkioga, and the Republic’s modern, secular propaganda was a threat not just to their beliefs, but to their whole way of life. When the parish priest at nearby Zumarraga, Antonio Amundarain Garmendia, heard about the visions he began promoting them on a national scale. To one of his friends in Vitoria, he wrote, “The Ezquioga affair is something sublime, the most solemn act of atonement that Spain now offers to God. The Virgin cannot abandon us.” Amundarain was much more careful about supporting seers than other leaders like Carmen Medina y Garvey, who took a number of the children under her wing and cultivated them as celebrity visionaries. An Irish journalist named Walter Starkie said of Carmen Medina that “she longed for battle, and I saw her nostrils dilate like those of a war-horse when she described how civil war might come in a few weeks, with the Basques as the leaders of the revindication of the Church of Rome.” National politics was a major part of the visions for these early promoters and was certainly one reason why Ezkioga created such a stir at the time.
Some of the children also courted fame. A fifteen year old girl named Ramona Olazábal, for example, predicted that the Virgin was going to wound her. Sure enough, a few days later her hands began to bleed. Christian writes, “fifteen to twenty thousand persons, the largest crowd since July 18, had been attracted by the predictions she and Patxi goicoechea had made about a miracle. Ramona emerged [from an outhouse] at about 5:15pm with her close friend, a girl from Ataun who was also a seer. When Ramona neared the fenced area for visionaries, she lifted her hands. Blood spurted from the backs of both. “Odola! Oldola! [Blood! Blood!]” shouted the crowd. Men carried Ramona into the enclosure, and there a doctor found a rosary twisted around the belt of her dress. In an atmosphere of awe and anguish men carried her downhill seated in a chair, like an image in a procession. All the time people collected her blood on their hankerchiefs. Alerted by phone, pilgrims poured in from all over the Basque Country well into the night.” Spectacles like this meant that people were coming to see something exciting as much as they were there for religious edification. And Ramona’s success gave added incentives to visionaries and promoters to find ever more spectacular things to show or tell the crowds. Seers began seeing people who were in purgatory or heaven, and prayed that they might be relieved of their sufferings.
As time passed, the place where the visions took occurred became sacred too. It was often difficult to identify which trees or places were important, but promoters guessed and set up barbed-wire fences to ensure that no-one desecrated them. But what really sanctified the space was not objects or fences, but genuine religious devotion. One Franciscan priest visited Ezkioga remarked that “we had not gone to a shrine; but the place itself had been converted into a living shrine, with no walls but the surrounding mountains, and with no roof but the immaculate vault of heaven. The prayer, which issued from fervent hearts, dissipated in the underbrush and then was lost in space.” When pious prayer mingled with sensationalism and fetishes for relics it upset people and some started to doubt how much of it was “real.” But this priest’s comment reminds us that what was real at Ezkioga was the coming together of the Church as a body of believers, popular devotion to a living God, and a tangible excitement about the future of Catholicism in modern Spain. In comparison, the question of whether or not girls like Ramona faked their wounds pales into insignificance.