Journeys to the Bizarre: the Basilica of Palmar de Troya

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You first see it as you come down a long slope, rising up ahead of you out of the sunflower fields of Andalusia like a CGI-created palace in some post-Tolkien fantasy movie. Closer up, its gleaming maroon-and-white domes and eight strange towers have a look that’s more a mix of local Andaluz baroque, Buddhist stupas, and Disneyland. Architecturally it is genuinely – an over-used label, but this time justified – unique. This is the Basilica of El Palmar de Troya, just outside the village of the same name, about 45 kilometres south of Seville, home of the Iglesia Cristiana Palmariana de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz (Palmarian Christian Church of the Carmelites of the Holy Face), which for over 35 years has claimed to be the one true Catholic Church in the world, with its own Popes, and denounced the official Rome-based organization as criminals and apostates.

It is certainly not a tourist attraction, at least, not unless you like to imagine monuments rather than just see them. Try to get a closer look and you find that the Basilica and its large (apparently leafy) grounds are ringed by a massive grey concrete wall over five metres high, its height so graded that at no point around the very extensive perimeter can you see anything over it, even from the hillocks in nearby fields. The only entrance is an equally massive iron gate in a gap in the wall.

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There is no sign anywhere indicating what this huge complex is, nor how to contact those inside, nor any doorbell, nor intercom. This is one of the largest religious buildings erected in Spain in the last 50 years, but it isn’t signposted, nor does it feature on many maps (scarcely even on Google!), as if everyone was somehow pretending it’s not there. The Church does not appear to have any functioning listed phone number, nor email address, and must be one of the world’s few remaining organizations that does not have a website (although you can find one, http://laiglesiapalmariana.blogspot.com.ar/, set up by a group that broke away a few years ago, amid dark accusations that the Palmar Popes had strayed into heresy themselves).

The village of El Palmar de Troya, population c. 2,500, about half a kilometre back down the road, is the kind of place that can without any malice be called a backwater. I knew the name from years ago, when I was living in Spain, and was curious to see what was there, but hadn’t realised just how strange and mysterious the Palmarians’ lair would be. Is it ever possible to visit the Basilica, or get some information about it, I asked in the village. ‘I think so’, said a girl behind a bar, though without much interest, ‘you just go up there’. But there’s no bell, I pointed out. ‘You have to bang on the gate’, she maintained. This is not true, I tried it, and was met only by echoing silence, while a CCTV camera high up on the rampart obviously clocked that I was not a suitable visitor.

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Another bar owner seemed better informed. ‘At seven every evening they let people in for Mass, but not like that’, he said, looking at me and making me feel like a real slob – though I should say that it was 38ºC/100ºF in El Palmar that day, so no one was exactly formally dressed. ‘You have to be buttoned up to here’ – holding his neck – ‘no jeans, everything covered up’. ‘A suit and tie, then, even in this heat?’ There was no consensus on whether a tie was absolutely necessary, but the need to button up was emphatic. Some old men agreed that the gates opened for Mass at seven – although none of them had ever been – and added that women ‘have to wear skirts down to here and be covered down to here’, with slicing gestures at ankles and wrists, ‘and have something on their heads’.

Do the people from the Basilica – ellos, ‘them’, as they’re simply referred to in El Palmar – not have any contact with the village then, I asked my third, most communicative bar owner. No, she said, ‘they’re not allowed, lo tienen prohibido.’ At one time they used to give work to village people, she went on, but now ‘they do everything themselves’. Since I was so interested, she gave me directions to find an elderly retired veterinarian, who she said had worked for them years ago. ‘Perdone la molestia’, I said when I found him, ‘but people have told me you know a lot about the Basilica…’, ‘No, no, I’m sorry, they’re mistaken, I don’t know anything,’ he said quietly but firmly, moving immediately to close the door (and I can testify, should any Palmarians be monitoring the web for anything said about them, that he gave absolutely nothing away).

I only had some pretty simple, non-confrontational initial questions – such as where the Basilica’s architectural inspiration had come from – but there seemed no way to find answers nearby. I tried the official route, beginning with El Palmar’s little public library. Given that the Basilica is far the largest thing in the vicinity, it must have some information on it, or even on how to get in touch with it? The librarian was very friendly but no, nothing at all. The same at the Ayuntamiento, the town hall. Surely, I put to the receptionist, matters must come up – refuse collection, the state of the roads – for which you have to communicate someway or other with whoever’s inside that giant wall? After some time asking around among her colleagues she came up with a phone number. But it didn’t work. Neither do any of the others that appear in some local listings on the Net. Perhaps they drop them after they’ve used them more than once.

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The impenetrable isolation of the Palmarians’ compound – like an ultra-Catholic version of a Bond villain’s lair – is one thing, but beyond that, the more you discover about it, the weirder, more bizarre, more entangled the story gets. It begins in 1968, when four young girls claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary while out picking flowers in the field of La Alcaparrosa, where the Basilica now stands. In the ever-fervid religious atmosphere of Andalusia the spot soon began to attract pilgrims and devotees, including some from the official Catholic clergy, and there were reports of miraculous cures and other phenomena. Among the crowds flocking to the spot were Clemente Domínguez, a Seville insurance agent, and his best friend Manuel Alonso Corral, a lawyer. Several things are said about the early life of Clemente: that as a little boy his ultra-devout mother always dressed him as a priest, that his only game was playing at saying Mass, but also that in his teens he was a flamboyant member of Seville’s then deep-underground gay scene. At El Palmar Clemente not only claimed to have had his own visions, a much bigger deal than those of the girls, but also to bear the stigmata or wounds of Christ, dramatically exhibiting his bleeding flesh. The official Church began to feel the phenomenon was getting out of hand and the Archbishop of Seville disauthorized the visions at El Palmar, especially those of Clemente, but he was unfazed. On one day in 1970 he supposedly entered into a mystical trance in front of 30,000 people. A key point came in 1972 when Corral, who always seems to have been the brains of the operation, used the first of many unexplained ‘donations’ to buy the Alcaparrosa estate. From then on he and Clemente  effectively ‘owned’ the visions, and the original four girls were forgotten.

Clemente claimed the Virgin had commanded him to free the Catholic Church from ‘heresy and communism’ and all forms of Progresismo, ‘progressivism’. In the last years of the Franco regime, and in the wake of the ’60s and the Second Vatican Council, it seems it was not too hard to find others – not just in Spain, but also abroad – who felt similarly that civilization was going to the dogs. It has also long been said that both before and for years after the death of General Franco, in November 1975, Clemente and his followers were ‘indulged’ by ultra-rightists encrusted in the local authorities, as an aggravation for liberal Catholics. In 1975 Clemente and Corral formed their band into a new religious order, the Orden de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz (‘Order of Carmelites of the Holy Face’). They still claimed to be loyal to the regular Church, and in fact revered Pope Paul VI, who Clemente claimed was being held prisoner in Rome by liberal Cardinals and stuffed with hallucinogenic drugs.

The Church refused to recognize their order, however, and nor were either of them actually priests. They got over this through Corral’s astute cultivation of the shadowy network of ultra-right, traditionalist Catholics that had buzzed into life after Vatican II. Through the famous French traditionalist Archbishop Lefebvre he contacted Maurice Revaz, a very wealthy Swiss ultra-Catholic and supporter of anti-progressive causes, who in turn put him in touch with the Vietnamese Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. This was none other than the brother of President Diem of South Vietnam, who had been deposed and assassinated in a military coup in 1963 with the complicity of the USA, who feared Diem’s far-right regime was destabilizing their Vietnamese project. Theological issues aside, Thuc was disaffected from the Vatican because of what he saw as its inadequate support for his family and right-wing Vietnamese Catholics, and from his French exile made a nuisance of himself by ordaining traditionalist priests – as he could, as an Archbishop – in defiance of Rome’s authority. In January 1976 Thuc made the journey to Palmar de Troya, and ordained Clemente, Corral and several associates as priests, who very quickly elevated themselves to Bishops (both Thuc and Revaz were subsequently reconciled with the Vatican, and disavowed these ordinations, but this hasn’t mattered in El Palmar). A few months later Clemente was blinded in a car accident while on a missionary tour of Spain, but this only added to his image as a supernatural ‘seer’.

Things really got going in 1978, with the death of Pope Paul VI, followed in quick succession by the elections of John Paul I and II. Clemente announced that Christ had appeared to him in one more vision and directed him to transfer the Holy See from Rome, in the hands of heretics, to Palmar de Troya, and had directly appointed him, Clemente, the new pope, as Gregory XVII. The Order thus turned into the full-size, global Palmarian Church. Getting into their stride, Clemente and Corral immediately appointed their own Cardinals – 24 in one day – and filled out the church’s creed and style: Tridentine Latin Mass, rejection of everything associated with Vatican II, much ritual, rules, puritanism and penances, hell-fire and damnation Catholicism, ever-more apocalyptic preaching. They also proclaimed several new saints – such as Franco, Christopher Columbus, and several far-right Spanish politicians – and excommunicated and consigned to damnation a long list that included Pope John Paul II and all those loyal to him, the Spanish Royal Family, all socialists and communists, anyone who ever saw Jesus Christ Superstar, and anyone who expresses public opposition to the Church of the Holy Face. Equally condemned were all ‘false religions’, not just mainstream Catholicism but ‘Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism…’ and a long etcetera. In the next few years the Church, incomprehensibly wealthy, also began the great project that has marked them out from all competitor-sects, the extraordinary temple that rose up out of their field outside El Palmar.

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This rapidly made them a news item across Spain, beginning with articles that tried to work out just how the thing was being paid for. Clemente, his crew and their baroque apocalypse pronouncements became a bizarre/comic feature of modern Andaluz folklore, part of the national freakshow. Their greatest notoriety came in 1982, on the eve of an official visit to Spain by  John Paul II, when Clemente and several of his bishops drove north to Alba de Tormes, resting place of one of Spain’s greatest saints, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and due to figure on the papal itinerary. Bursting into church during Mass, they denounced John Paul as an imposter, abused the congregation and attempted to seize the saint’s body and carry it off back to Palmar de Troya. The locals didn’t take this lying down but beat them off, and a mob chased after them and bombarded them with rotten fruit until they were rescued by the Guardia Civil, while their car was pushed into a river. A while later the Clemente-ines and the village they had ‘adopted’ were also immortalized by the great Spanish punk band Siniestro Total in their ditty (I left my heart in) Palmar de Troya, in which a lad bemoans the fact that his girl has become a Clemente devotee and taken to admiring her all-black ‘Tridentine look’ in the mirror and mutilating herself with old sherry bottles.

In the following years they kept a lower profile, but their activities were still expanding. In the ’80s and early ’90s, while the Basilica and its compound were being built, Clemente and his main followers all still lived in Seville and drove out to El Palmar regularly in a fleet of vans, and their priests and nuns, in strict traditional habits, were easy to see in the city and the village. In their early building projects they also gave plenty of work to men from El Palmar, who were generally happy in return to cooperate with the demand for total secrecy, and above all to say nothing to the media, imposed on anyone dealing with the Palmarians.

In the 1980s John Paul II devoted a peculiar amount of effort to ‘retrieving’ leading ultra-traditionalists and convincing them to return to the Roman fold, which led to the Palmarians losing some of their influential supporters (even though they had previously accepted Clemente’s declaration that John Paul was a ‘usurper, apostate, traitor anti-Pope and precursor of the Antichrist’). Several rejoined the regular clergy, presumably still carrying their political opinions with them. Nevertheless, the Palmarians still seemed to have ample resources to draw on. During the ’90s, there were reports of Clemente, Corral and their Cardinals having been spotted in giant eating and drinking binges in Seville restaurants, and accusations of sexual abuse, of men and women (as well as reports, as usual unconfirmed, of Church members needing emergency medical attention after injuring themselves in grotesque mortification exercises). Clemente/Gregory XVII actually admitted some of the abuse allegations in 1997; this and other shenanigans did lead to exits from the Church, but for the true faithful it seems to have been just one more aspect of their leader’s struggle with the devil.

Clemente died in 2005, and was succeeded by Corral, as Pope Peter II. He it was who tightened up even more on the Palmarians’ already draconian rules of behaviour, and banned all contact with the villagers of El Palmar and their easygoing ways. Vague stories were heard from within the walls of bitter arguments inside the Church – given their obsessions with sin and heresy, disputes among Palmarians must move instantly to the apocalyptic – but as usual without much becoming clear, since even Palmarian dissidents generally maintain a remarkable degree of public silence. One exception was the group that now proclaims itself from its website (see above) to be the authentic Palmarian Church, which broke away around this time. In El Palmar, ‘Peter II’ died in 2011 and was succeeded by his secretary Sergio María, a former Spanish army officer, alias Gregory XVIII, who – it is said – ‘is the most radical of all’, and has turned the screws of severity a little further again.

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Any sect claiming to be the one true church, though, needs to proselytize, to get converts, and at first sight it’s hard to see how any group as hermetic and self-isolated as the Palmarians could do this. In contrast to the Moonies, Scientologists or other similar cults, it’s likely that unless you’re involved in the world of fringe-Catholicism you’ve never heard of the Palmarians, and even in Spain they’ve largely been forgotten. The explanation seems to be that Clemente and Corral followed a very specific but productive strategy: instead of wasting time giving out leaflets on street corners, they directly targeted circles already involved in ultra-traditionalist Catholicism, already at odds with modernity and its works, and so open to their blood-and-melodrama message. In their heyday they travelled a great deal, across Europe and the world; when Jesus appeared to Clemente to appoint him Pope, he was in Bogotá, Colombia. They particularly found converts, and established Palmarian houses, in Germany, Austria, the USA, Canada and Ireland.

On the Net it’s actually easier to find information on life within the Church in English than in Spanish, from ex-Palmarians who have fled the closed circle, and there’s even an Irish website run by a ‘Palmar de Troya Support Group’. The picture they paint of life within the Palmarians is the familiar one of all such all-embracing cults: obsessive obedience and rule-observance, a sealed-in, hyper-intense atmosphere, being forced to hand over all money to the church, paranoia and bile towards the rest of the world, turning people against their families on the outside (one of Clemente’s declarations was that ‘the non-Palmarian family you are linked to by blood is often the worst enemy’). In among these comments there are a few replies from still-active Palmarians, throwing out all the pustulent hatred that a certain sort of religious mentality can generate. Aside from abuse and YOU’RE GOING TO HELL!!! rhetoric they tend to focus not on spiritual arguments but picky points of ritual and dress, with a special fixation on women wearing trousers, an obsession of Clemente’s that has stayed among the Palmarians’ ultimate sins, most of all if they’re made of denim, the material of Satan.

Most mysterious of all about the Palmarians is their money. At times they’ve got through loads of it. It’s estimated the Basilica has cost over 16 million euros, and it’s clear that in their day Clemente, Corral and their associates, as well as travelling, lived pretty high on the hog. Not all of this, naturally, came from exploiting the ordinary faithful, however much they were required to live in poverty. A number of Spanish journalists have struggled admirably to clarify where all these funds came from: the Palmarians’ success in preventing anything coming definitively to light is extraordinary, but a few points have partly emerged through the murk. It appears Corral was adept at cultivating the world of upper-class traditionalist Catholicism not just for political influence but also cash – were the full details ever to emerge, his travels could make for a bizarrely lugubrious adventure yarn, played out in fading mansions, schlossen and grand hotels across Europe. It’s believed that their first big donation, which allowed them to buy the land and begin building in 1972, came from an ‘elderly pious baroness’, name and nationality still unknown. It is also generally thought that Corral sought out hefty donations from foreign companies, religiously inclined or not, as they would serve as tax dodges in their home countries.

Income received was carefully invested by Corral in property, and for years the Church owned several large buildings in Seville. There have been repeated crises and ups and downs in the Palmarians’ wealth, reflected in the ebbs and flows of the long-drawn-out building at El Palmar, and repeated run-ins with the Spanish tax authorities whenever they’ve taken on the task of trying to unravel the impenetrable state of Palmarian finances. Having put so much in property they were hard hit by the Spanish economic crisis after 2009, and most of their city buildings have been sold. Local journalists have suggested that, due to these losses and a steady drip-away of members and donors, the Church has been on the verge of a terminal crisis. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years there’s also been an impression that new money has been coming in; the Basilica and its towers have been newly painted, and scaffolding is visible, indicating there’s work going on. The only conclusion is that there is still a significant number of people out there with very weird ultra-right wing, neo-17th-century, Catholic-traditionalist views and a great deal of money, ready to donate to causes like the Palmarian Church. With the special feature that, in contrast to what happens when celebrity believers like John Travolta or Tom Cruise bankroll the Scientologists, giving money to the Palmarians is more like the spiritual equivalent of depositing it in a Swiss bank, absolute discretion guaranteed.

Curiosity still not satisfied, I made my way back to the big gravel patch in front of the Palmarians’ gate one evening before seven, having made myself as respectable as possible, shirt buttoned and jacket on despite the heat, in the hope of getting at least a glimpse inside the wall, and a look at whoever might turn up to form the congregation. So I waited, and seven went by, but the gate did not open, and nor did anyone else arrive. Around 7.15 just one car drove up, quite fast, with as far as I could see a single man inside, sounding his horn loudly as an open-sesame. The gate opened and closed quickly around him, before I could see a thing, and silence was resumed.

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Essential Update, April 2016 – 

The Palmarian Church, one has to admit, has always been full of surprises. And none bigger than last week, when, on 22 April, Pope Gregory XVIII, aka Sergio María Ginés, left Palmar de Troya without saying goodbye to his followers and leaving only a ‘letter of resignation’ stating that he had ‘lost his faith’. It was also reported that he had gone to start a new life in Monachil, a small town near Granada, where he had moved in with a woman called Nieves Triviño, who is separated from her former husband, has two children and is very popular in the locality since she organises the annual fiestas, and with whom the ex-Pope has a ‘sentimental relationship’.

And yesterday, 27 April, the newspaper ABC de Sevilla published an interview with Gregory/Sergio María which has to count among the most extraordinary declarations ever made by any claimant to the Throne of St Peter, complete with a photo captioned ‘Nieves, the ex-Pope’s girlfriend’. He had left the Palmarians freely and voluntarily, he said, after 32 years in the Church, because ‘ya no creo en aquello en absoluto’ – ‘I no longer believe in that at all’. He didn’t wish to discuss his relationship with Nieves, but made it clear that he had declared his loss of faith and his reasons for leaving the Church openly ‘before a notary’.

Re the controversial issue of his management of the Church and its finances, around which rumours have been circulating at rocket speed, he declared emphatically that he had left everything in order, even with a ‘financial surplus, and accounts… I have extracts from the accounts to show how they were left – no one can accuse me of anything’, while as for himself, ‘I have no wish to throw any shit about anyone or anything’.

On one special matter about which he has been particularly questioned, the fate of a top of the line BMW X7, approximate value €70,000, known to local wags as ‘the Popemobile’, and in which he drove away from El Palmar last week, he said equally pugnaciously, ‘that car is mine… it came from a donation in my name’. He’s not interested in arguing with people who had previously been expelled from Palmar de Troya, and just wanted to ‘stir up rubbish’.

The ex-pontiff only wanted to ‘turn a page, and begin a new life’. He felt calm, he told ABC, ‘having breakfast and sunbathing… I have nothing to fear, because I’m just another ordinary citizen.’

Not for the first time the Palmarians give the impression that for all their ferocious austerity they were mainly set up to provide an off the wall, otherwise much too far-fetched movie script. There had apparently been vague reports in the last few months that Gregory XVIII had gone a little softer, but otherwise, before this bombshell, he had been known as one of the most intense devotees of Palmarian hair-shirt severity, not quiet sunbathing on a leafy terrace. Some say that this could be a final crisis for the Church, but meanwhile they have chosen a new Pope – curiously, one proposed by Gregory before he left – another long-term resident of El Palmar called Joseph Odermatt, originally Swiss, as Peter III.

Further Update, May 2016 – 

After all its years in the shadows, the Palmarian Church has continued its slide into becoming one long script for a modern Spanish knockabout comedy, an adventure in the bizarre, if one didn’t remember all the people on whom it has inflicted real pain over the years. For, after his own years of silent eminence, the former Pope Gregory XVIII won’t shut up. On 1 May a more extensive interview appeared on the digital newspaper El Español with the ex-pontiff, appearing not as Gregory XVIII or his previous Palmarian name of Sergio María but under his apparent real name of Ginés Jesús Hernández, together with his future bride Nieves Triviño. The full interview with photos is here, http://www.elespanol.com/reportajes/20160430/121238054_0.html, but for anyone who doesn’t read Spanish here is a summary.

They were interviewed in Nieves’ home town of Monachil, in the Sierra Nevada 250km from Palmar de Troya, where they intend to set up home, both of them holding hands and cooing at the camera like playful teenagers. Asked whether he had renounced his pontificate ‘for love’, the ex-Pope replied simply, ‘I lost my faith. After months of investigations I discovered that all that had been a sham for financial purposes (un montaje económico)… There were apparitions in El Palmar, yes, but it all developed into opulence for the bosses of the place…’

Not a word about how he had failed to be aware of this during all the 32 years he lived in the hothouse compound of El Palmar, including the five years he was head of the church.

Asked then about what part Nieves had played in his loss of faith, he said, ‘I’d been without a woman for 32 years and I could have been for the same time again’, but that it had been Nieves who ‘had begun to reveal to me what was happening there’, and warned him that there was a ‘hidden group’ who had been expelled in 2000 but who were going to come back and beat him up (darme una paliza). It was because of this that he ‘began to look into things, which I later confirmed from other sources. And there are some aberrations. In every sense, financial and sexual’ – though at this point he denied accusations of paedophilia among the Church.

This, again, he claims to have only discovered recently, after 32 years.

Drinking a beer and chain-smoking, according to the interviewer, Ginés Hernández refused to answer a question on who these aberrations involved, but said ‘The investigations refer to part of the order. Peter III (the new Pope) knows about them. Although they’ll deny it’s a sham’.

Asked about stories that when he left El Palmar he took millions of euros with him, he says, with the ordinary-feller style that’s now become familiar, ‘But there was never that sort of money around there, kid!’ He said he himself had donated a moderate inheritance left him by his parents to the Palmarians but wasn’t going to ask for it back. He did say he had taken the famous BMW, an X6 not an X7, because he needed it to get around, and ‘I worked for that car, and it’s mine – the same way he (Peter III) has another one’. Both top-range cars were bought three years ago. ‘There used to be more cars, but we cut down on the fleet because maintenance was difficult and we didn’t use them’.

Asked in what state he thinks he has left the Palmarian Church, he says ‘cleaned up fiscally and in its accounts, without the least debt’, even though it has less income than it once had. He often asks himself, he says, what happened to all the money that used to flow in, and with a shrug and a ‘more or less’ he agrees with the suggestion that these funds have been ‘bled off’ by the Church hierarchy (though not, presumably, by himself).

As to the sources of the Palmarians’ wealth, he claimed it all came from ‘the donations of the faithful, as always. We had no other source of income’, and denied that the Church was being used for tax evasion. The property it had once owned in Seville had all had to be sold around 2000, when ‘there was a group that exploited the Church… and that began a terrible decline’.

As to his own life, he says he’s looking for a job, and that before joining the Church he had worked as an electrician (also, contrary to reports that had always portrayed Sergio María as a Spanish army officer before becoming a Palmarian, it seems he had just done his military service as an ordinary soldier, a paratrooper). It’s clear, though, that the upcoming wedding is the centre of attention (Nieves says he’s El Papa Enamorado, the Pope in Love, and calls him Mi Lovito). It will have to be a civil wedding, since she is divorced, though this is something the ex-Pope is still not happy with.

He does explain a little how he managed to develop his relationship with Nieves while supposedly being the Pope of an ultra-traditionalist Church. Her mother was a Palmarian believer, and she herself lived at El Palmar between the ages of 7 and 23 and became a novice nun. Somehow or other they kept in touch after she left, 20 or so years ago – they don’t explain how, although he does say his phone at El Palmar was bugged by his enemies in the order.

On his own role in the order, and the impression held by most Palmar-observers that he had ruled the Church ‘with an iron hand’, the ex-Pope claims that ‘That’s got nothing to do with reality. I’ve always been a very open-minded person and never let my office go to my head. I do have a strong character and I don’t like it when I’m obliged to do things I don’t want to do. In these situations I lose control due to a problem I have with adrenaline, which in me is generally about 70 times above normal. If I get nervous, I explode. I try to ensure this doesn’t happen.’

The people who opposed him (and spied on his relations with Nieves) were the same mysterious group of Palmarian dissidents. ‘Just before my appointment (as Pope in 2011), I discovered that there were people who were working for us who had been embezzling on a tremendous scale. It was terrible. I had little support and that taught me to tread very carefully. In 2000, I’d discovered that a group of friars and monks were trying to launch a coup d’état [his phrase], and they were expelled’. It was this same group who were planning to return and beat the Pope up, until Nieves got wind of it, in ways unexplained.

Even so, the former Pope still says ‘there’s nothing bad’ hidden inside El Palmar, and makes a joke of the idea that they are financed by the mafia or have a stash of weapons. He denies that they ever wished to make a saint of Hitler but defends their continuing reverence for Franco, declaring that he himself is still a Francoist. He declares himself ‘in favour of individual liberty’ but opposed to homosexuality, although when asked about the stories that Clemente himself, founder of the Palmarians, had been a prominent face in gay life in Seville in the 1960s, Hernández flatly acknowledges, ‘That’s true. Well, it was something that emerged in our investigations. A whole lot is known about that…’ (with an obvious wink to the interviewer).

He denies that the Palmarians force people to leave their families, and states that ‘No one is retained there against their will. If anyone wants to leave, they’re given money to pay for their travel home and no one places any obstructions. We’ve even paid air tickets to Australia costing over 3,000 euros. I myself softened the rules a lot regarding contact with families.’

He concluded the interview with a few contemptuous words for Pope Francis, as an untrustworthy Argentinian (a crude Spanish prejudice). And though he repeats, regarding El Palmar, that ‘I feel deceived, because everything turned out to be a sham (montaje),  he also says, regarding the Church’s prospects, that ‘I hope the new Pope does things well, and that there’s a future for them. But, looking at the men who have joined the hierarchy, it seems to me that things will end badly’.

And one other thing, in this interview and his other appearances since he left El Palmar, it’s very visible that ex-Gregory XVIII is wearing denim jeans.

Beyond all the ramblings and inconsistencies in Hernández’ account, what is most extraordinary is the sheer contrast between the casual, flippant, often coarse way he presents himself and the fierce intensity of customary Palmarian behaviour and language. He seems to want us all to believe that he floated through everything as just an ordinary joe (or José), not doing anything to bother anyone…

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Plus – the sudden apparent disintegration of the Palmarians’  hermetic isolation, and the utter weirdness of Ginés Hernández and his emergence into the world, has attracted attention from media outside the local area – who had largely ignored the sect since the 1990s – and on Monday (23 May) Spain’s leading newspaper El País carried yet another interview with the ex-Pope, with more goofy photos with Nieves, who clearly cannot keep her hands off the former pontiff (http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2016/05/21/actualidad/1463867670_909220.html). This time Hernández is even more emphatic on the failings of the Palmarians, asserting clearly that ‘It was all a sham from the beginning’ (Desde el principio fue todo un montaje).

Nice to hear for anyone who has been terrorized by Palmarian teachings.

Beyond this, the article also quotes other ex-Palmarians – some of whom did not wish to be identified, but have perhaps decided to come forward following the ex-Pope’s revelations – one of whom categorically contradicts Hernández claims on the financially above-board nature of the Church and its non-involvement in tax evasion or money laundering, saying that ‘Only a year and a half ago a missionary brought back 500,000 euros in notes stuck to his body from Augsburg, from the sale of a house that had belonged to the Church. I drove the car from Germany, I was a direct witness.’ Sales of properties abroad without paying tax have served to make up for a recent decline in individual donations. Another, José Carrasco (formerly ‘Father Dámaso), who now lives in Ireland, says that there was ‘a mafia for laundering money’ at El Palmar, which held secret meetings with consultants in Seville carrying suitcases of cash.

Ginés Hernández, meanwhile, has made it clear that when he left El Palmar he took away not just his BMW – which he once again wishes to make clear is entirely his – but also compromising documents that he threatens to reveal if the Palmarians ever pursue him in the courts. ‘So long as they don’t get up my nose, I’m not bothered about El Palmar’, the ex-Pope is quoted as saying, with his customary papal gravitas. And on the same day, Monday 23rd, he even gave a TV interview on the national Spanish network Telecinco (http://www.telecinco.es/informativos/sociedad/Palmar_de_Troya-Papa_Gregorio_VXIII-timo_Palmar_2_2184030210.html), headlined ‘The Great Swindle of Palmar de Troya that has lasted 40 Years’, in which among other things he acknowledges that many members of the Church have been seriously harmed by sexual abuse, something he himself had not admitted previously (as far as one can tell from the way he talks, often passing off problems with jokes).

Pope Peter III and his colleagues inside El Palmar de Troya, meanwhile, still refuse all requests for interviews. However, a minor media storm is building up around the Palmarians in Spain, which, with the new revelations, will almost certainly lead to new official investigations into its finances, so it seems possible that, finally, the Palmarian Church could be on its last legs… Although, they’ve shown amazing resilience so far…

 

5 comments on Journeys to the Bizarre: the Basilica of Palmar de Troya

  1. Yes, the rules were tough and I kept getting excommunicated as it was extremely hard to follow all the new rules that kept coming out. My mail was deliberately withheld by the Postal Service, something I did not find out about for several years. My children rebelled and left the Church, and I ultimately left the Church because I, and one of my children, was experiencing electronic harassment which included satanic elements. I had been investigating fema c;amps and other matters, and I began to be harassed, as thousands of other people have been around the world. It was extremely difficult to try to defend myself against these attacks, which included harassment at my job and phone calls at my home, and obey the rules. I was extremely frightened at what was happening, and received no help or understanding from the Church. I understand the why the rules are so strict. It is to prevent contamination of worldly things, it is also a penance to save sinners and oneself from hell. I left in 2007, although i did not want to. I simply could not manage the rules and the harassment. It also seemed that people would talk to me even more, and I could not bring myself to say I couldn’t talk to them due to their dress all the time, especially at work. I feared losing my job if I did so, not trusting that God would take care of me.

    I was able to go to Palmar for Easter Week in 2006. The Church is beautiful inside, and the people are truly reverent at Mass. You could feel the presence of God, something that is totally lacking in the churches I have been in since 2007. They feel totally empty. When going to confession, I did not feel absolved, except when I was a Palmarian. I had felt this as well before I joined the Church in the 1980’s, although I didn’t know why. I found out that Pope Gregory XVII had used his papal authority to remove the graces of the sacrament of confession and other sacraments in approximately 1982, and then I understood why i did not feel absolved.

    I still dress as the Palmarians do and wear the Holy Face scapular. I tried going to the roman churches, but they are dead inside, with the ridiculous “religious” ceremonies, women wearing pants and uncovered heads. I stopped going after a while. I want to return to Palmar, but would have to live on the grounds so as not to break the rules, not so hard as the graces received from obedience can help save souls. Oddly enough, although at first I resisted giving up television, wearing jean skirts and jackets, and not having a Christmas tree (which was really hard), once I got rid of them, I no longer desired to have them. Christmas especially changed, and I concentrated on making nativity scenes as beautiful as possible, without a tree. I researched the origins of the tree, and it seems it came about originally as a way for the jews to hang the intestines of their Christian victims, which totally grossed me out. I had no problem with a tree after that.

    As far as talking to non-Palmarians, most talk is idle, and I don’t have much to say anyway. I don’t let anyone in my home except my family, and I don’t mind the solitude after a busy day at work. I just wish it weren’t so restrictive. The thing I miss the most is the Mass and confession. I long for it.

    Also, even though some of the prophecies have not come to pass yet, did it ever occur to you that the mercy of God has delayed the punishments which are going to come a little longer so as to permit more people to return to Him? Many people are turning to God and coming out of satanism and atheistic lifestyles, although many of them are not Catholics, they are striving towards God, which can only be a good thing.

    I believe firmly that the Palmarian Church is the one, true holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, despite the failings of some of its members, its restrictive rules, and the criticisms levelled at it. I could have stayed there forever.

  2. I would like to add that on Good Friday of Holy Week of 2006, a small rainbow appeared on the hill beside the Church from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m. You could see it end to end, and it had also appeared on that day in previous years. The rainbow is God’s sign to humanity which first appeared in Noah’s time after the great flood which decimated the earth. The rainbow was also God’s sign that Palmar is the true Church. It was not raining that day, by the way. The rainbow simply appeared on the hill.

    Money was in short supply at that time, and I find the claims that the Church had millions of dollars ridiculous. Many people left with the introduction of the restrictive rules, and it was well known that the Church was in difficult financial straits, and had to sell some of its properties to support itself. It costs money to feed, clothe and house people, pay taxes, buy food, etc. I saw no excessive extravagance there except for the church itself and the vestments of the priests. God is always to have the very best which is due Him as our Creator, in case you have forgotten that. Also, we are obliged to support the Church. Remember the tithes of 10% of your income and the rewards of blessings from Heaven promised in the Bible? Read the Old Testament and the descriptions of the riches used to adorn the temples of the Israelites. The very best of everything was used, no expense spared by the Patriarchs of old.

    It is too bad you were not able to go inside the Church. It was not complete at that time, but very beautiful and peaceful, with Masses being said 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The solemnity of the Mass, the processions, the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament after Mass, the many hours of prayers being said by the faithful was well worth it. It was much, much more than I was used to as a Catholic where I live. You are probably too young to understand what it means to be a Catholic, if you are one. I grew up in the 60’s, at a time when the Mass was being destroyed by modernism. I hated it then, and it is far worse now. Palmar is a safe haven where tradition is kept alive and then some.

    If Palmar is God’s work, it can never be destroyed. If it is not, then it will disappear. But it is still there, isn’t it?

  3. Dear Kate,

    I don’t know if you will still see this blog, but first of all apologies that your comments have not appeared on my website earlier. When you first wrote they were held by a filter while I was travelling and had only very poor internet connections, and couldn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t trying to block you myself.
    But, to answer what you have said, briefly as I can. You are obviously still a Palmarian believer, at least in good part. And equally you are also a person attracted to the idea of a separation between a ‘pure’ world of set rules and rituals that is somehow acceptable in itself and another ‘ordinary’ world outside these rules that is somehow impure and so to be reviled. That is a particular mindset that some people share and others don’t. And, regarding the Palmarians in particular, if you haven’t been discouraged by all the evidence of questionable behaviour in the church that has emerged already – confirmed cases of sexual and other abuse, psychological cruelty towards believers and their families, financial mismanagement – then it is hard for anyone to argue with you. Believers always find excuses for their cause.

    However, I’d ask you please at least to consider things that have come from within the Palmarians themselves, from the man who was the church’s Pope as Gregory XVIII and before that a leading figure within it for over 30 years. In some of the several interviews he has given since his sudden departure in April he has said – exact quote, which I’ve translated as closely as I can –
    ‘Tras meses de investigaciones descubrí que todo había sido un montaje económico’ – ‘After months of investigations I discovered that the whole thing had been a financial scam’.
    And in a TV interview –
    ‘Había gente allí que perdía la cabeza por abusos sexuales’. – ‘There were people there who lost their minds due to sexual abuse’.
    This is from the man who Palmarians were instructed to revere as the anointed of God until this April. Please, think about it.

    Best regards,
    Nick Rider

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