In a historical moment in which the different positions of the traditionalists and progressives animate the debate inside the Church, it is interesting to observe what are the movements produced over time by a certain way of understanding Catholic fundamentalism. A little known, yet blatant case is that of the so-called “family of the Seraphic Cenacles”. There we find a nun – and one of her fellow-sisters – who leaves the order, but continues to be called “sister”, and her alleged visions, first of Jesus, then of Virgin Mary, accompanied by catastrophic predictions and critical messages towards the Church. In short, it is a tangle of events set against a millenarian background and always travelling on the verge between adherence to Catholic principles and conflict with the doctrine in force, whose protagonists are close to or inside the ecclesiastic community even if it is in deep contrast with it. This confusion is “useful” to convey apocalyptic messages.
The story begins in 1969, when Floriana De Marchi, a former sister of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (known to the secular world as Antonia De Marchi), founds the movement of the Seraphic Cenacles, with the aid of a Franciscan friar, father Egidio Loi. A few years earlier, in 1963, Floriana and one of her fellow-sisters, had moved to Borgo Grappa, a town in central Italy, close to Latina, after she had personally announced the revelations she received from Jesus on the Cross who – still according to the woman – asked her to found the Cenacles in order to gather simple and elected people so as to save the world from imminent chastisement.
From this point onwards, begin a series of inconsistencies (which have not stopped the cult anyway). The first and most prominent one, is the alleged “great test” which should have happened in 1999, a year that passed unscathed. Another attitude considered to be a “distortion” of the official Church is the transition from “refused” to “elected” for the members of the Cenacles alone, regardless of their belonging to the parishes. Moreover, priests and bishops are criticized for their mild positions on faith and who are accused of not having respected the dignity of the mission they had been entrusted with.
The members of the Cenacle themselves are pushed to be more and more fervent: chastity even in marriage after procreation; austerity in dressing, no succinct clothes nor trousers for women; women’s attendance to Mass with their head covered by a white veil, standing or, possibly, kneeling; no Eucharist in the hand. The openness of the protesting Vatican II and the modernist turns of the present Church were frowned upon. The desired style of life was humiliated and hidden. Great attention, instead, was paid to the Sacraments of Confession and communion.
Contrasting elements, as said before, which could make the experience of the Cenacles seem positive. It is a pity that after Floriana, the followers of the Cenacles do not seek approval from the official Church. On the contrary, the latter must be excluded from participation in the Cenacles themselves.
But Floriana does not leave, she doubles. After her visions of Christ, arrive also those of the Virgin Mary, on May 24, 1968. The Virgin Mary, according to Floriana, has reiterated Jesus’ invitation to open those Cenacles, later created in Bassiano, in a settlement called Eremo. The investigations of the Curia on the declared apparitions have always had a negative result, as well as gossip on the presumed placet of the bishop of Treviso, Negrín, has never been verified. Even the bishop of Latina, Compagnone, mentioned the “non-truthfulness” of this cult, to the point of suspending “divinis ipso facto” the priests who had organized pilgrimages to Eremo; similar positions have been taken also by the bishop of Trento, Bressan.
Long story short, the Church does not recognize those alleged apparitions which, in the end, have not revealed anything. But what the clergy did not, was done by the State instead: in 1993 the Cenacles were recognized by the Minister of the Interior as a Moral Institution, and was enabled to receive donations; currently they can be found on the Lazio Region list under the heading “Institutions enrolled in local autonomies”.
A true Babel, one ought to say, with sisters who are no longer sisters, closeness to the sacraments while disputing those who administer them, catastrophic predictions which turned out to be false, and secular recognition of a structure that is grounded in religion, but does not have the recognition of the Vatican. Every first Sunday of the month several thousands of followers of the group congregate near Borgo Grappa (where the alleged visionary took refuge in 1970) and pray. Floriana’s words, in their essence, seem to become more important than the Word of God himself, represented in the Sacred Scriptures. In these cases, therefore – as it was said by the bishop of Trento – the risk is that of “perverting the Christian message”.