Long before “Top Gun” Tom Cruise, my boyhood hero was “Biggles”, Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth. He was a British World War 1 pilot, and later, in World War 2, one of those immortally praised by Winston Churchill for winning the Battle of Britain. Biggles was a fictional hero in over one hundred books which we devoured like the Harry Potter saga of more recent generations. We had another, flesh and blood Spitfire pilot-hero, Group Captain Douglas Bader, who though he had lost both his legs in a crash in 1931 (in his logbook he called it “a bad show” !), went on to be credited with twenty-two aerial victories, beginning with the Battle of France over Dunkirk. I myself had an Australian cousin, Lester Tims, who was a Spitfire pilot for the R.A.F. You’ve never heard of any of these guys, but now you know that Spitfire pilots were the Top Gun heroes of a Kid from Kogarah who, like Clive James, learned to drive a billy-cart but never an airplane (see my book, “From Illusions to Illumination”, p. 17).
I have just read the true story of another Spitfire pilot, one of the rare Frenchmen to join the R.A.F. That is extraordinary enough, but this man is famous in particular for his religious conversion – and for his promoting devotion to Our Lady of La Salette. You’ve probably never heard of her either, but the story of Captaine Darreberg is told in a little book first written in 1956 and now in its tenth edition (2011). He was always the life of the party, a “bout en train”, a jokester popular in whatever group he found himself, including his fellow prisoners in a German concentration camp from which he escaped – with the explicit purpose of checking out the story a priest in his Stalag had told him about the apparition of the Virgin Mary near a little town in the Alps not far from Grenoble, a hundred years before, in 1846.
The man must have been as credulous as he was courageous. Who ever heard of a POW risking his life to escape a Nazi prison-camp, and traveling hundreds of miles as a train-hopper, a stowaway on a freight-train to France, for the express purpose of verifying the claims of two peasant kids about their vision of Mary and her message for mankind ? It sounds like a bizarre remake of a movie about Bernadette at Lourdes, or an earlier version of the Marian apparitions at Fatima ! Though it is less well known outside France than the stories behind these more familiar pilgrimage centers, the legend of La Salette is every bit as preposterous as those on which their renown is built. The conversion of an irreligious Spitfire pilot and his total commitment to the “cause” of Our Lady of La Salette continue, however, to keep the legend alive. It may be of interest to learn the details of the story, which in some respects are even more incredible than the other Marian “apparitions”. How could a Top Gun, a … down-to-earth Spitfire pilot, swallow such a story ? How can rational people today believe that this stuff actually happened ? It is one more piece of evidence that faith can infantilize, lobotomize, the credulous. It is hard to excuse the Church for continuing to promote the myth of Mary, Our Lady of La Salette. Here are the “facts” :
On a Saturday afternoon, September 19, 1846, in a field above the French alpine village of La Salette, two shepherd children, a boy of 11 and a girl of 15, are tending their flock. Out of nowhere comes “a fiery globe of light which eclipses that of the Sun” (!). The kids see “a beautiful woman”, sobbing. She says to them : “Don’t be afraid; I am here to tell you some great news”. The girl notices that the Lady is wearing a gold chain bearing a crucifix (!). She speaks at some length, in French, telling them : “If my people will not submit (sic), I will be forced to stop withholding my Son’s arm; it is so strong and heavy that I can no longer restrain it.” She tells them why : they don’t go to Mass on Sundays and the peasants, as they drive their carts, inject the name of her Son into their curses. Because of this He made the potato crop fail. Then the Lady realizes that the children do not understand French, so she switches to the local dialect (how they were able to recount what she said in French is not recorded … ). After describing the details of the great famine to come, the Lady asks them whether they say their prayers (apparently she doesn’t know). When the children admit they don’t, she insists that they say their prayers (“one ‘Our Father’ and one ‘Hail Mary’ will do, if you don’t have time for more” (!) ). She adds that only old ladies go to Mass; some go only to mock religion, and moreover in Lent people even eat meat ! She ends by telling them to share her message with “all her people”.
There’s no point in telling the rest of the story. But surely this is enough for Believers on the Brink to realize, once again, how gullible Catholics have been and how guilty the Church is to continue to preach such nonsense. Even if Capitaine Darreberg allowed himself to be conned into believing it.