In the summer of 1960, the Holy Office of the Vatican dispatched an apostolic visitor to investigate Padre Pio, a friar of the Capuchin order who had apparently borne the wounds of the stigmata for more than forty years. A genuine religious cult had grown up around Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, the small town in the southern Italian region of Puglia where his monastery was located. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visited the town annually.
A veritable black market had sprung up in relics of the living saint: strips of bloody shirts, bandages, and other objects he had touched. Believers from dozens of different countries sent tens of thousands of letters each year with prayers, wishes, and, often, cash. His immense popularity (and a sizable amount of Marshall Plan money) had permitted Padre Pio to build one of Italy’s largest and most advanced hospitals in Puglia’s remote, mountainous Gargano peninsula. And yet many in the Vatican, which had alternately tried to suppress and support the cult of Padre Pio, remained skeptical.
The latest bout of anxiety about Padre Pio stemmed from a set of audiotapes surreptitiously recorded in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni Rotondo that purported to document improper relations between Pio and a group of lay sisters, who formed a kind of protective guard around him. Keepers of the Padre Pio cult, they controlled access to the future saint, handled money coming in for the hospital, and appeared to have free run of the monastery at all hours.
The apostolic visitor, Monsignor Carlo Maccari, left San Giovanni unimpressed by the person of Padre Pio and horrified by the cult that surrounded him, which he thought, according to his report, smacked of “idolatry and perhaps even heresy…religious conceptions that oscillate between superstition and magic.” Nonetheless, he was forced to acknowledge Padre Pio’s extraordinary magnetic attraction, and he posed a question about what has become by almost any measure the most popular Catholic cult of the twentieth and, so far, the twenty-first century:
How is it that a man who has no exceptional natural qualities and who is anything but free of shadows and defects, has been able to build a popularity that has few equals in the religious history of our times? How does one explain the irresistible fascination exerted by this man of the faith with a weary air about him, with rough manners and a disagreeable voice?
Monsignor Maccari did not have a ready answer, nor did the pope who sent him to Puglia. By his own admission, Pope John XXIII had little feeling for ecstatic forms of religiosity. But a later pope, Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, who worked hard for Padre Pio’s beatification and then canonization, offered an answer: “Those who went to San Giovanni Rotondo to hear his mass …