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The Strange Victory of Padre Pio

1.

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.

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Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (center) with friars of the Capuchin order and several carabinieri, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, 1966

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, to ask his advice, or to make confession to him could detect in him the living image of a suffering, risen Christ.”

Much more drawn to an intense, mystical strain of Catholicism, Wojtyła had traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1948 as a young theology student and returned in 1974 when he was a cardinal. To Wojtyła, Padre Pio represented no less than “the intimate link between death and resurrection that composes the mystery of Christ’s return.” Padre Pio’s suffering body was, for Pope John Paul II, like bread that had been “broken for men hungry for God the Father’s pardon.”

The contrast is stark between the variety of reactions and meanings attributed to Padre Pio’s story and the consistency and even monotony of the life itself. For some fifty years, from 1918, the year he received the stigmata, until his death in 1968, Padre Pio never left the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo. His daily routine—when permitted by the Vatican—was unvarying: saying mass, listening to confession, and attending to the bleeding from the wounds in his hands.

His followers, however, credited him with a succession of miracles fifty years long: healing the lame and crippled, making the blind see, predicting the future, appearing in two places at the same time, flying in the air to stop enemy aircraft from bombing southern Italy. And yet, Padre Pio himself never claimed any of this for himself. As he told the Italian newspaper Il Mattino in 1919, “I am nothing but what the Lord wishes and they make of me something I am not.”

The Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto’s remarkable book Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age documents the shifting meanings of the Padre Pio phenomenon from its inception to the present. Shrewdly, Luzzatto deliberately refuses to enter the debate on the actual nature of Padre Pio’s stigmata: Were they the product of a divinely produced miracle? A psychosomatic reaction to his intense focus on Christ’s suffering? Or the product of charlatanism and chemical agents?

“All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were ‘real’ had better close this book right now,” Luzzatto writes in the prologue. “Padre Pio’s stigmata and his miracles interest us less for what they tell us about him than for what they tell us about the world around him.” In Luzzatto’s book, Padre Pio serves as a kind of Rorschach test: everyone sees what they want in the image of the humble country friar with the stigmata, depending on their ideas of the sacred and the miraculous, of popular faith and organized religion, of the nature of science and religious belief. The precise meanings that have been given to Padre Pio have been heavily inflected by a constantly mutating historical and political canvas: World War I, fascism, the creation of a global popular culture, World War II, the postwar boom, the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, the cold war, and the crisis of political parties in the post–cold war world. In each era many people had the Padre Pio they wanted or needed.

Francesco Forgione, Padre Pio’s given name, was born in the small southern Italian town of Pietrelcina, the son of poor, illiterate peasants, and showed an early vocation for the priesthood. He entered theological seminary as a teenager and had strong ascetic and mystical leanings, living a life of physical privation and reporting nightly battles with the devil. “My Father, my whole body is bruised from the beatings that I have received to the present time by our enemies,” he wrote in 1913 to his spiritual adviser, Father Agostino.

Already in 1912, he was drawn to ecstatic forms of spirituality that involved a great deal of suffering. “My heart, my hands and feet seem to have been pierced with a sword, the suffering is so great,” he wrote to one of his spiritual directors. As it happens, this and other passages in his letters during this period were copied word for word from the letters and diaries of Gemma Galgani, a young woman from Tuscany who received the stigmata in the late nineteenth century and died in 1903, and who would eventually be made a saint. Had his spiritual advisers at the time known that Padre Pio had copied several pages from eleven letters of Gemma Galgani (despite claiming not to have read her book), they would not necessarily have seen it as a common case of plagiarism or fraud: “They could,” Luzzatto writes, “have attributed that fact—as the Jesuits do today—to the intensity of his psychological identification with Gemma and her stigmata.”

Pio’s own stigmata would appear on September 20, 1918 after he had returned to the monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo, which, at the time, was a tiny remote rural village. “Padre Pio’s stigmata did not appear at just any moment,” Luzzatto writes.

World War I, in Luzzatto’s view, created a culture particularly receptive to a saint suffering the wounds of Christ. The apparently interminable war had seemed, Luzzatto writes, “a never-ending crucifixion,” and the millions of returning veterans, many of them missing limbs and nursing wounds, had endured their own private calvaries. (Even a secular writer such as Gabriele D’Annunzio had come to see the conflict in Christological terms, embracing the figure of Saint Francis, the only other fully recognized recipient of the stigmata.) The “useless slaughter” of the war, as Pope Benedict XVI had called it, seemed a complete indictment of contemporary secular society in which all the industrial might and scientific knowledge accumulated in recent decades had been used primarily for the aim of killing as many people as possible.

After the end of World War I, the friar with the stigmata became involved in the growing alliance between Catholic and Fascist groups in the San Giovanni Rotondo area. In August 1920, on the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, a group of war veterans—part of the emerging Fascio d’Ordine (the Fascio of Order)—led a procession up to the square outside the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and Padre Pio emerged from the monastery to make the sign of the cross over the group’s banners with his bloody right hand, covered in the half-gloves he wore most of his life.

In the highly charged political atmosphere of the time, this was a clear sign of support. In the local elections, the Catholic-Fascist alliance lost to the socialists by a vote of 1,070 to 874. But when the socialists mounted a victory parade that was supposed to end with the occupation of City Hall, they were set upon by a counterdemonstration of fascists who opened fire and killed eleven socialist marchers—the largest single massacre during what was known as the biennio rosso, the two years (1919–1920) of left-wing power that preceded the period of Fascist violence (1921–1922). This early connection with the nascent Fascist movement—and the ferocious show of force in 1920—became an important factor, as we shall see, in securing Padre Pio’s continuing presence in San Giovanni Rotondo.

Although Padre Pio is now Catholicism’s most popular recent saint, for most of his lifetime, the Catholic Church regarded him with ambivalence, skepticism, and, in some cases, downright hostility. In the early twentieth century, it was working hard to reduce the level of conflict between science and religious faith and between the Church and the unified Italian state. Agostino Gemelli, a Franciscan friar and medical doctor, was a representative figure of this effort and a kind of anti–Padre Pio within twentieth-century Catholicism.

Gemelli founded the Catholic University in Milan (the first Catholic university in Italy and one of the country’s finest), and was a trained psychologist who studied hysteria and psychological suggestion but used the methods of modern psychology to defend traditional religion: “The equation of saint and madman, neurosis and beatitude, insanity and mysticism no longer finds any serious defenders,” Gemelli wrote. In a long treatise, he attempted to prove scientifically that the stigmata of Saint Francis were unquestionably genuine. But in apparent contradiction, he asserted with equal confidence that any such modern claims were necessarily bogus.

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