Everyone reading this can picture the pope, even if your only core religious beliefs center around the ranking of Marvel movies. But did you know that there's a second pope? A not Jude law second Pope?
Check him out:
That's Joseph Odermatt, aka Peter III, and he's the current Pope of the Palmarian Catholic Church. Those of you who will admit to reading the Da Vinci Code series will recognize them as the villains of Origin. They only have about 1,500 members. And now that you notice that Peter looks a little bit off, doesn't he? He's like a half Toad / half Elvis cosplayer who spent a lot of time and money on his costume, but can't quite get it right.
There are countless fringe religious groups, but the Palmarians are interesting because they tell us a lot about how important context is in making old men in robes and fancy hats look serious. And also because everything we know about them makes them sound like the villains in a Fallout side quest.
Their roots go back to 1968, when four schoolgirls from the small Spanish town of El Palmar de Troya claimed they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The local bishop countered with, "Nah, you probably didn't," but believers emerged anyway -- chief among them an initially skeptical Clemente Dominguez y Gomez, a failed priest turned office clerk. Dominguez, among others, claimed that he also received visions when he visited the site of the "miracle." But then Dominguez added that Mary had instructed him to rid the Catholic Church of "heresy and progressivism," even as those schoolgirls who kicked this all off retorted with, "Uh, you're weird, please don't speak for us."
By this point, tens of thousands of pilgrims had visited the site, and even though the Church had declared the whole affair to be superstitious nonsense, some visitors supported Dominguez. Never mind how absurd context was; these were people who were missing something in their lives, and Dominguez gave it to them.
While the girls returned to their regular lives, Dominguez officially launched his own religious order and hit the road to preach. Now, countless people across America are doing precisely that as you read this, but in 1975, Dominguez (now dubbed Father Fernando) actually found an archbishop who was willing to make him and his flock official. And because this story wasn't already ridiculous enough, that archbishop was Ngo Dinh Thuc, brother of the guy who ran South Vietnam as an election-rigging, Buddhist-oppressing dictator before he got a bullet in the head for his trouble.
Thuc was later excommunicated for being a trouble-making weirdo, and his ordinations were considered about as valid as when a football team signs a Make-A-Wish kid to a one-day contract. But remember, Dominguez's whole shtick was that the Church was a misguided den of Freemasons and communists who committed unspeakable evils like, gasp, slightly modernizing Mass. He claimed that Pope Paul VI was being manipulated by malicious Vatican cardinals.
Then in 1976, after he lost both his eyes in what must have been one hell of a car accident, Dominguez claimed that Jesus came to him in a vision and declared that he would be the next pope. A great pope. This is a man who, in less than a decade, went from "Eh, I guess I'll go see what this supposed miracle thing is all about" to "I am destined to be the most important religious figure on the planet." And so, when Paul VI died in 1978, Dominguez declared himself Pope Gregory XVII.
Greg ran his church much like you'd expect of an organization that's been dubbed not quiiite a cult, but definitely in the cult ballpark. They accumulated millions of dollars from wealthy believers, and evaded the subsequent taxes. He established an ultraconservative doctrine which declared them a chosen few destined to be saved as the rest of the world blasphemed their way straight to Hell, excommunicated that dastardly John Paul II, canonized murderous dictator Francisco Franco, and predicted that the Antichrist, born in the year 2000, would begin his public life in 2030. (Mark your calendars!) He was so intent on mimicking the Catholic Church that he even had his own sexual abuse scandal. (Not to be confused with the sexual abuse scandal of the French-Canadian man who dubbed himself Gregory XVII, who was a totally different fake pope.)
They eventually built their church on the farmland where those original visions of Mary occurred:
Looks like a normal enough Church, right? Here's another angle:
"... slowly. With their hands up. No sudden movements."
Yeah, that's a compound you'd have to infiltrate late in an Assassin's Creed game. Gregory XVII died in 2005, a mere 11 days before the death of his bitter rival John Paul II, but the story somehow only got weirder. His chosen successor, Peter II, ran the joint until 2011 with only your usual amount of defections and complaints. But then the initially severe reign of the third pope, Gregory XVIII, came to an abrupt end when he declared, "Wait, this is dumb. I'm going to leave so I can hang out with my girlfriend. Don't sue me or I'll publicize the financial documents I took!" He later got in a knife fight while trying to sneak back in to rob the place -- a plot we can only hope Benedict XVI emulates one day. So now Peter III is in charge of the faithful, which consists mostly of the aging original members and their families.
Greg "Knives" XVIII and other former members -- several of whom have been treated for psychological symptoms of abuse -- have exposed a lot of the sect's shadier dealings, including the isolation of its followers and the quiet retraction of bold prophecies that failed to come true. But the Palmarians are still chugging along, with many of their current activities and beliefs shrouded in obscurity and rumors.
Peter III, the new guy, denounced Greg XVIII as a corrupt heathen, and announced plans to build a chapel in Dublin for the Church's Irish followers, which are a thing. You can visit their website if you want to learn more about how they're the One True Faith, or you can check out the site of a splinter group who say they're the legit Palmarian Church because the original went astray. It's an Inception of fake popes all the way down.
We told you this story not just because an evil eyeless Anti-Pope who preaches the imminent apocalypse is a boss fight waiting to happen and we demand that game developers act on this. It's because the Palmarians also raise a lot of weird questions. How much did Dominguez really believe, and how much did he simply seize an opportunity because being a pope looks fun? What attracted his followers to him? Here's a woman who said she had to quit the Church because of its strict rules and abusive behavior, but who still thinks it was the most beautiful expression of faith she had ever been involved in. Where do you even draw the line between faith and exploitation in a situation like this?
Contrary to popular belief, worldwide religious belief is growing, not declining. And an increasing number of Americans who believe in God (or some other form of higher power) don't feel that they need an established Church to have a relationship with whoever or whatever is running the show. The Palmarians may be fringe weirdos, but there's going to be an increasingly thin line between the old man whose weird clothes carry a sense of grandeur that inspire the serious devotion of billions, and an old man whose weird clothes just make him look like a creepy LARPer. We're just saying, don't be surprised if your neighbor declares himself to be Pope Bradius the Bestius one day, that's all.
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