According to the children’s account at the time the Blessed Mother, in tears, warned them that unless France repented, and especially repented of the sins of working on Sunday and not honoring the Holy Name of God, great calamities of famine would fall upon France. Melanie said that in particular Paris and then Marseilles would suffer terribly in the upcoming calamities. The fact that the vision and its prophecies occurred immediately before much of Europe, and most especially Ireland, were hit with a potato blight that did in fact cause mass starvation won the vision broad attention. The authenticity of the vision was further strengthened by the fact that several miracles were attributed to “Our Lady of La Salette.”
The local bishop, the Bishop of Grenoble, one Philibert de Bruillard, did a careful investigation of the children and their story and in 1851, after submitting the details of the vision to a commission of distinguished theologians, announced that the children’s stories were most likely true and permitted a cult to Our Lady of La Salette to begin. He also had the children write the pope, Pius IX. Meanwhile the Virgin’s call to repentance struck a chord with many of the clergy, most notably the old Saint John Vianney and the young Saint John Bosco.
When the children wrote the Pope, Melanie embroidered her account with several new details. This would become a pattern as time went on, but initially the additions to her account were simple. The Pope would be persecuted—he would even be shot at. There would be a persecution of the Church. But then, a king would be restored to the Throne of France and Catholicism restored as the State Religion. Europe would thrive but the prosperity would cause many, including among the priests and religious, to lose the faith. Finally in this collapse of the faith, a nun would give birth to a child who would be the anti-Christ and while many would believe in him, hell would reign on earth. All this would happen within the span of a century.
Ok, Melanie’s story is getting to be a little more of a stretch here. Pius IX could relate to the persecution thing and hatred for the Pope. It was the time of Garibaldi and his anti-clerical red-shirts. Pius had been driven from Rome by the mobs clamoring for a republic and sought refuge in Gaeta until French troops arrived to restore him to power. The stories from LaSalette seemed to vindicate his plight. But in fact the French Throne has never again been filled. Yes, the famines were to come about, or rather, by this time famines had come about, and Paris has suffered the commune of 1871, Marseilles, however stood unscathed. There had been no general apostasy of clergy or religious--indeed there was a surplus of vocations. And as to the anti-Christ, he had yet to appear. It is a mixed bag. Of nuts, as I think we shall see.
Pope Pius IX never gave approval to the vision or its message. Instead, Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, approved a declaration of the Bishop of Grenoble saying:
We judge that the apparition of the Holy Virgin to the two shepherds, September 19, 1846 ... in the parish of La Salette ... carries within it all the characteristics of truth, and that the faithful have reason to believe it indubitable and certain.
The Bishop made it clear, however, that approbation was being given only to the original message the children claimed to have received in 1846 and no subsequent message; this would prove a crucial distinction as Melanie Calvet over the years would issue a stream of messages that she purported to be from the Virgin Mary. It is important to note that the above statement by the Bishop of Grenoble was limited to the original message and is the only approbation the Church has ever given to the revelations of Melanie Calvet.
After the 1846 vision, Melanie was packed off to live with the Sisters of Providence and as soon as she was of legal age, she was received as a postulant in the community. But Melanie spent all her convent time enthralling people with her stories about the Blessed Virgin instead of learning nun-craft. She was not approved for profession of vows at the end of her novitiate for “lack of spiritual maturity.” It is not an easily done thing to turn down a visionary in her claim for a vocation but the Sisters of Providence took that step. So she went to the Sisters of Charity, a community known for hard work among the poorest of the poor. Melanie lasted three weeks. What to do next? Her Royalist views and prophecies made her a political “hot potato” and so the Bishop sent her to the cloistered Carmelites in Darlington, England to help her to move beyond her past and focus on the interior life of prayer. In Carmel Melanie was permitted to take temporary vows but after a few years was asked to leave because of her stories and “prophecies” which did not suit the contemplative spirituality of Carmel. That is the polite version of why she left. In fact, she was totally unsuited for a life of prayer and manual labor. She next entered the Sisters of Compassion at Marseilles. Then she transferred to the Carmel of Marseilles. When that didn’t work out, she came back to the Sisters of the Compassion on condition she kept her identity as a former visionary secret. She couldn’t. She returned to the lay state. What we are dealing with here is a very troubled soul. That is not to say that the original vision may not have been authentic, though I have my doubts. Were I presented with a similar case today, I would suspect that I was dealing with a hysteric. Melanie, at least as far as stories are told, does not display the qualities of mystic but of a person with some severe personality disorders.
And throughout the years her “revelations” expanded—and expanded and expanded. They foretell a great apostasy. And an anti-Christ who will be the son of a bishop and a nun of Jewish blood. Rome will lose faith and become the seat of the anti-Christ. Priests and nuns will lose the faith and fall into disreputable lives. There will be natural disasters of all sorts. Lucifer and his angels will be loosed from hell to wreak their evils on earth. It goes on and on in no particular order but an apocalyptic torrent of horrors. Her “messages” take on a tone of great anger towards the clergy and a Church who will not accord her the place due her as one who has seen the Mother of God and received revelations from her. She betrays the royalist an anti-Semitic biases of the French political right, the same extreme that will a generation later shape the thought and destiny of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Melanie is very different from Bernadette Soubirous or Lucia dos Santos, the visionaries of Lourdes and Fatima, both of whom sought anonymity.
Now the only message the Church every approved was the original message calling for repentance and keeping the Lord’s Day and honoring the Sacred Name, but for many who become excited by these things, the later revelations not only foretell some dire prophecies, but are in fact prophecies fulfilled in the Church after the Second Vatican Council, a Church which they see as an apostate Church. Melanie’s later writings are, even by 19th century standards, riddled with heresies regarding human nature, grace, soteriology, and ecclesiology, and were, in her own lifetime, put on the Index of Forbidden Books. They are obviously the products, not of a supernatural revelation, but of a disturbed mind. Melanie spent the last 37 years of her life living as a laywoman in the south of France and in various places in Italy. She never ceased talking about her “messages.”
Among those who pick up on Melanie’s “messages” is the author of the Blog “Pope Francis the Destroyer.” (http://popefrancisthedestroyer.blogspot.com/) Other than an occasional whine about having “to drive an hour to Latin Mass because of Pope Francis & the New Evangelization,” the author of this blog says very little, usually reprinting either Melanie’s later “revelations” about how Rome has become the seat of the anti-Christ or quoting William of Ockham on the punishment of heretics and especially a Pope who has become a heretic. This wing-nut is not a sedevacantist. He (I am presuming that this wing-nut is a man) doesn’t claim that Francis (or his predecessors) have lost the papacy due to their “heresies,” but he does allege that Pope Francis is a heretic. Like Melanie, the author seems to be somewhat obsessive/compulsive and to have lost any sense of historical or theological perspective.
What motivates people like this? I think the more basic question is what is the appeal of those who, like Melanie Calvet, develop a view of God as angry and anxious to visit his wrath on an unappreciative world? Apocalypticism is certainly a biblical theme. You find minor doses of it some of the Prophets—usually referring to the collapse of Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian threat and subsequent exile. It becomes a major theme in the Book of Daniel and, in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation. There are traces of it in the gospels and the letters of Saint Paul, though nothing like the extreme “prophecies” uttered by Melanie Calvet. In the Gospels, for example, there are warnings about the stars falling from the skies and a message of a new heaven and a new earth, implying of course that this earth and its heavens (skies) will in some way be refashioned. Jesus warns his disciples that they will suffer tribulation and persecution. Over all, however, the gospel message is a set of simple axioms and moral principles by which Jesus shows his disciples how to live faithfully in a world where the Kingdom is not yet a reality. There is a message of the forgiveness of sins more than of their punishment.
That for some the Gospel takes a back seat to the “messages” of seers like Melanie Calvet is probably more a matter of psychology than of faith. If you remember, some months back I did a posting on moral development and the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg. The initial stage of moral development is fear of punishment. There are those whose own psychological limitations do not permit them to mature morally and get stuck at this phase. They project the anger of parents and other key figures onto God. Perhaps, too, for some it is their own anger they project onto God—I think that was Melanie’s issue—but it necessitates a God who is primarily a punisher and will take out his anger on others whom they perceive as unfaithful.
This is an extreme form of a neurotic piety that projects God to be totally Other and needing to be pleased by rigid compliance and is easily displeased by our not measuring up to his complex rules and regulations. This is a deity whose divine mind has become a computer tracking our every thought, word, and deed and weighing it in a balance so as to be able to justly impose punishment in due measure. This is a God who demands ongoing atonement. This is the God for whom one cannot talk in Church—even before Mass—or forget one’s prayers or not wash one’s hands after using the bathroom. This is the God of walking on eggshells. It is not the God whom Jesus reveals in the Gospels.
At some point we really should look at the different ways in which people experience God—or create a god to meet their expectations. It is a fascinating matter how we use a word like “God” and at times mean some very different things. That is why a good spiritual director is important to help us clarify our experience in a way that is consistent with the faith of the Church. It is too bad that Melanie Calvet didn’t have a John of the Cross or Ignatius Loyola for her spiritual director—her bizarre “revelations” would have been identified for the products of a troubled soul and not for authentic manifestations of Divine Grace.