Doin’ the Fatima Pussy Riot Punk Prayer

Among the handful of books my parents kept in our house while I was growing up, the only tome whose cover I cracked with any fervor was Russia Will Be Converted, John Haffert’s extravagantly lurid account of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. I have that battered volume right here before me, its cover embossed with a human figure hanging from a cross fashioned of hammer and sickle. Mr. Haffert inscribed this copy to my father, and dated it March 10, 1954, at or near the peak of anti-communist, anti-Soviet mystical fervor in the U.S.

Though his putative subject was a pretty darn spectacular story in its own right—a visitation from the heavens by the Blessed Virgin Mary to a trio of shepherd children in a remote hillside village—Haffert gave top billing not to Mary herself but to one of three secret revelations the Blessed Mother entrusted at Fatima to Jacinta Marto, age seven, her eight year old brother Francisco, and their cousin Lucia Santos, age ten.

Fatima secret #2 packed a wallop felt eventually round the globe. With World War One raging and Bolshevism imminently ascendant, The Mother of God promised these kids that if Russia was consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, world peace would ensue and the country would in time be converted to Christianity, sparing humankind the spiritual and political cataclysm whose bloody trajectory was scarcely imaginable at the time of Mary’s visitation.

In fact, Lucia (Jacinta and Francisco had died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19) did not reveal the contents of this secret until 1941; Russia remained militantly unconverted—such ‘past-posting,’ to borrow some old-time horseplayer lingo, took the prophetic wind out of that sail! to say nothing of the 20 million Russian dead in the war against fascism–but Fatima and the Catholic century it shaped was always about miracles not evidence, beginning with October 1917’s Dance of the Sun, a phenomenon of widely varying description, witnessed by 70,000 who assembled at Fatima in response to Mary’s reported promise of a miracle to accompany her final appearance to the three children.

The Fatima apparitions were proclaimed “worthy of belief” by the church in 1930: by the time Pope Pius XII officially consecrated Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart in 1952, devotion to the miracles at Fatima powerfully wedded Catholic popular piety with the church’s all-out war against “the Mystical Body of Satan.” Our Lady of Fatima became in turn the de facto patroness of America’s Cold War crusade.

I was even younger than the Portuguese shepherd children when the coffee table revelation of my father’s copy of Russia Will Be Converted initiated a fateful devotion to literature meant for grown-ups. This was smack up against the backdrop of October 1962’s Cuba-bound Soviet missiles, and the frisson of Sr. Mary Isabella serenely informing her first grade charges—dozens of uniformed, impossibly well-kempt looking kids (and then there was me, Gracie’s heroic efforts notwithstanding), desks aligned to industrial precision—that while we would likely all perish in a matter of days, that news paled in importance against the only real concern: were we prepared to face God in his judgment?

As I knew already, courtesy of an early childhood’s Sunday upon Sunday of homilies, Russians venerated not the Blessed Virgin Mary but inter-continental ballistic missiles, blasphemously paraded through Moscow past sites once occupied by houses of worship, most notably the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Blown up by Stalin in the thirties, its cratered remains were later refashioned by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev into a swimming pool.

But it was Khrushchev who providentially “blinked” at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exchanging the doomsday scenario for hostile co-existence. Khrushchev’s action led indirectly to the gradual demystification of Our Lady of Fatima’s prophecies. Russia might not be converted, but Satan’s grip was slowly loosening. 58,000 American and more than two million dead Vietnamese, and one Second Vatican Council later (on the political and spiritual fronts, respectively) , Fatima and its secrets were largely relegated by many if not most American Catholics to a devotional relic of the pre-modern “immigrant church.”

Then in May 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot and very nearly killed, and the world was reminded that the third secret of Fatima had never been revealed. The Pope’s joyful tribute to his patroness, Our Lady of Fatima, and her loving, merciful role in his recovery offered a powerful hint as to its contents. Ronald Reagan then joined forces with the Holy See for the final crusade; the president’s virtually simultaneous near-death experience neatly woven into a boldly revived sacred narrative.

And so it came to pass that Russia was converted: disclosure of the highly cryptic contents of Fatima #3 in 2000 was anti-climactic in the extreme. Moscow’s cathedral was lavishly rebuilt as a kind of dual monument to faith and commerce. The Russian Orthodox Church, whose historic conflicts with Rome were wholly occluded by U.S. prelates and theologians of the Cold War era, now embraced albeit warily a spirit of unity with the Vatican.

All that remained was for somebody in Russia to ask the Virgin Mary to re-consecrate the nation to her care.

There are so many poignant and ironic features of this video representation of the February 12, 2012 performance of Pussy Riot Punk Prayer, consummated on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior: too many for this cultural and religious historian. Yet confounding efforts at systematic interpretation was precisely what made punk rock so much fun back in the late 70s and 80s; and perhaps more meaningful than ever now.

Take those gaily, multi-colored attention-grabbing balaclavas: Pussy Riot members doff their masks under pain of excommunication, in the same way the Ramones shared mutually assumed surname, identical leather jackets and ripped jeans, in defiance of rock star individualism (each member’s staunch conviction they were in fact the band’s bona fide front man only heightened their punky cred). Add the delicious coincidence that balaclavas became synonymous with Pussy Riot at the very moment newly fashion-conscious Chinese ladies adopted the same accessory item to avoid the darkening effects on skin by sun exposure. Mash the pieces together; now you’re talking punk rock…

This clash of images also breezily recalls Fatima Christianity’s long-forgotten, darkest fear: that conjoined billions of ascetical Soviet and Chinese communists might overrun the West with a maniacal fervor no promise of miracles could match. When Mao Zedong appeared sporting people’s revolutionary garb on a Time magazine cover circa 1966, I asked my mom why this funny-looking geezer merited the celebrity treatment. ‘You won’t be laughing when he comes knockin’ on that door with a machine gun,’ Gracie snapped back. She had a piece of the punk rock spirit too, just born too soon. In later years Gracie would occasionally ask:  ‘this boy I see in the magazines, Legs McNeil, didn’t you know him in Cheshire?’

Roderick Edwin later “Legs” McNeil ( but always “Swamp Rat” to the kids who grew up around Avon Blvd), was co-founder and “resident punk” of the legendary Punk Magazine (the graphic novels industry owes Punk an enormous debt for inspiration), and co-author of the magnificent oral history Please Kill Me—perfect format, as second-level reflection was the antithesis of punk. Eddie once offered the richest illustration of punk’s communal punk spirit, in explaining that he and Joey Ramone bonded for life with the discovery they had enjoyed an identical dream: as contestants on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ both were asked by Monty Hall: ‘Would you trade your life for what’s behind Door #3?’

I wholly endorse Eddie’s matter of fact claim that he coined punk rock… punk rock. It’s been heartening to witness his mobilization for the Free Pussy Riot cause; it would be nice to see him again. In autumn 1966 we both turned up for altar boy training at St. Bridget’s Church in Cheshire, Connecticut. Even as a ten-year-old Eddie enjoyed a rare gift for refracting the detritus of popular culture—already by then the one true religion for American suburban kids—into these memorably inspired impromptu performance artistries. Punk re-assembled the culture’s most mass-produce-able components into fleeting, can’t take ’em away from us moments of perfect joy.

Eddie McNeil was as un-alienated and confident of his instincts as any kid I ever met; maybe that’s why he was thrown out of altar boys or maybe he simply walked away with a better idea. He switched to public school that same year, we moved to North Jersey and by the time I paid Legs a visit at the legendary ‘punk dump’ somewhere around Lafayette Street in the late 70s, he was a downtown celebrity milking the absurdity like a banshee (Legs is Irish-American; naturally).

Eddie urged me to shave off my dopey-hippie lookin’ beard: Dunn.

So now all these decades later here’s Pussy Riot on their altar, half way around the world, right above the cathedral car wash, proceeds of that and plenty more rackets split by the ex-KGB agent partners who restored the cozy relationship between Russian church and state. How punk is that!

But at its best punk rock could disarm with its sudden lightning flashes of the deeply enduring. Pussy Riot not only beseeched Mary to “put Putin away” but to “become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist.” The brazenness of these petitions was matched by Pussy Riot’s certainty that Mary is ‘with us in protest.’ Unlike Lucia Santos, who was yanked permanently from circulation shortly after the 1917 Fatima apparitions and whose voice was never heard, Pussy Riot did not claim to have seen the Virgin Mary but instead speaks directly to her, modeling a relationship of mutual trust and support.

Pussy Riot’s punk theology comes down to this: they don’t beg Our Lady to redeem or legitimize them, nor do they mock or debunk the legacy of Fatima, such as they’ve understood it; it’s simply another piece of the collective cultural and spiritual inheritance they’re pleased to draw upon.

And as for the music, I have no idea if these Russian dames can play or sing a lick: musicianship never counted for a damn to punk rockers. Lyrics attitude visuals and holy sneakers—these plus three chords=truth–produced an art form spiritually adept as any, at its best. And so last evening, when Charlie was struggling during our bike ride and we needed our best, we saw the sadness through, together, before sharing a stanza of outer borough Zen wisdom:

It’s not hard not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.

It’s not hard not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.

And from that point til home I could HEAR Charlie’s bright smile.

What unseen good is of sufficient value to trade for your life? Or…Never Mind the Bollocks, God Bless Pussy Riot!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Doin’ the Fatima Pussy Riot Punk Prayer

  1. Una

    Oh, gosh, I was hoping somebody would do this. Thanks, Jim!

  2. john seitz

    Jim, this is so interesting. Thanks a lot for reframing this.

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