A piece by Ethan Shorey on the Valley Breeze website this morning provided radio shock jock John DePetro a full three hours of material.
According to Shorey, “Brian Trambowicz was driving by the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary one day this summer when he says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, presented herself to him.”
DePetro, who is now apparently the arbiter of what constitutes a miracle, claims to completely believe that Mary has appeared in North Providence, and spent Friday morning directing people to the church. The weather worked against him, as the pouring rain kept people in their cars or under umbrellas as they strained their eyes trying to see the figure of Mary in what appears to be some sort of stain on the cross itself.
Of course, DePetro used this suspect apparition to go after some of his favorite targets, like Governor Lincoln Chafee, the liberal secular media and prominent local atheists who I won’t bother to name.
I arrived on site and took some pictures and talked to the very nice people who came out in the rain for a glimpse of something transcendent. Some people were very impressed, others seem to be trying to convince themselves that they should be impressed, and still others seemed mostly confused by the thing. To me this all had the feel of the familiar, because I was at another Marian apparition in 2003 at Milton Hospital in Milton, Massachusetts and this event felt similar in many ways.
Many people are unprepared for how slight and unimpressive apparitions are. In the Valley Breeze it was reported that “Trambowicz said the image of Mary “jumped out” at him as he was passing the church and praying, as is often his habit. The image looked like it was just inches from his face, he said.” Perhaps this was Trambowicz’s experience, but the actual cross bearing the image is distant, hard to see, and dark.
At gatherings like this people help each other to see the image, the way people might try to help each other see the shapes in one of those computer generated “Magic Eye” images or the full effect of an optical illusion. Related to this is a second process that happens at these events: people staring intently start seeing other images and other sights.
More than once I heard people say that it looked like Mary was holding the baby Jesus, or rosary beads, or that her head was slowly turning. One man on the DePetro show claimed to see three other images on the cross beam, these were the children of Fatima, said the caller, referring to a Church sanctioned miracle from 1917.
Of course, what we are truly seeing in this cross is the same thing that lets us see animals in clouds or faces in rock formations. This is pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.” When we add our natural inclination towards pareidolia with our need to see what we want to see, the effect can be quite compelling.
Knowing all this would not necessarily stop the faithful from seeing and believing, nor does it stop unscrupulous radio show trolls like DePetro from trying to turn this odd little story into a second Lourdes. All morning DePetro pathetically coached his listeners as to what they should be seeing, and outright doubted the religious faith of anyone who expressed the slightest doubt. He was encouraging mobs of people to stand outside a church on a rainy day and look up into the sky, and people did (including me, of course.)
Later in the show DePetro had to lay off a little, because of a funeral planned at the church for 11am. Traffic is always bad on Mineral Spring Avenue, and cars were slowing down as people craned their necks to see what they could see (which from a moving car isn’t much. How could Trambowicz have seen this if he was “driving by” as he claims?) The funeral was going to have a hard time navigating from the service to the gravesite if the crowd continued to swell.
One other thing that happens at such apparitions is that people wonder exactly why Mary might be appearing. In Milton observers were convinced that it was about abortion, because she appeared at a hospital. In Rhode Island, she appeared at a church that bears her name, on its 100th anniversary. Is she here for the birthday party? Or perhaps she appeared to chastise Mayor Charles Lombardi, or Governor Lincoln Chafee, because of their supposedly wicked, secular ways. Contrary to this, there are the conspiracy theories. Isn’t it a coincidence, said someone, that it happened on the church’s anniversary? Couldn’t this be faked somehow by church officials?
Meanwhile, even as DePetro pushed hard to validate this less than impressive and rapidly vanishing miracle, he still rails against immigrants and social justice and works for a station that gleefully accepts advertising from a high interest loan company preying on poverty. He still stands silent and accused in a pending sexual misconduct case and his ugly views on race, class, women and LGBTQ people continue to pollute the airwaves and the Internet.
What better defender of the faith could the public wish for?
Of course the truth is, as the picture that accompanies this piece shows, that the image on the cross doesn’t look that much like anything, never mind the mother of God. A close look reveals it to be some sort of stain which from far away, with vision blurred, might look like a veiled woman holding something, but up close the vision falls apart.
And so it is with all miracles. The closer you look, the less impressive they are.
As for the people who stand out in the rain staring into the sky seeking a hint of the divine, they unfortunately too often end up much like John DePetro: All wet.