What fascinates me right now, however, is the jaw-dropping reversal
of fortune that Padre Pio’s reputation has enjoyed — in ecclesiastical
terms, in the merest blink of an eye.
|Christmas came early this year in the
southern Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo.
That’s the shrine and headquarters of the cult
of Padre Pio, the Capuchin stigmatic famous worldwide as a healer and wonder-worker,
now set to be officially recognized as a saint. So strong is his following
that San Giovanni, a town of less than 30,000 residents, has some 8,000
hotel rooms to accommodate the annual flow of six million to seven million
pilgrims — more than Lourdes, more than Assisi — most of whom make day
Though reliable figures are hard to come by,
the sale of goods associated with the Padre Pio cult — keychains, light-up
clocks, statues, etc. — is estimated at $2 million, with local bars and
restaurants pulling in around $60 million and hotels $50 million. His hospital
collects between $50 million and $100 million in annual donations. There
are also an estimated 3,000 Internet sites devoted to Padre Pio.
On Dec. 20, John Paul II recognized a miracle
involving the healing in January 2000 of an 8-year-old boy from a coma
caused by severe meningitis, and the move clears the way for Padre Pio’s
canonization. No date has been set, but many people expect it to be May
26, the Sunday after his May 25 birthday.
Most readers have probably heard stories of
Padre Pio’s alleged thaumaturgy: of his stigmata (the five wounds of Christ
said to appear on his body), of his ability to levitate, to read minds.
He supposedly could bilocate; for most of his life he never left his friary,
but he was reported in far-away places such as Genoa, Uruguay and Milwaukee,
healing and comforting. Then there was the strange scent of roses said
to emanate from his body, the so-called “odor of sanctity.”
I suppose such claims can seem medieval, but
as journalist Vittorio Messori wrote on the front page of Italy’s leading
newspaper, Corriere della Sera,on Dec. 21, if we decide to send
Padre Pio back to the Middle Ages, truckloads of people will have to go
with him. A recent poll asked Italians what person or institution they
would turn to in a moment of desperate need. The number one response, offered
by a robust 53 percent, was Padre Pio.
Catholic novelist and skeptic Graham Greene,
by the way, kept two photos of Padre Pio in his wallet after attending
one of his Masses. He said the friar had “introduced a doubt in my disbelief.”
I don’t know how to evaluate the devotion to
Padre Pio, but I want to keep an open mind. I intend to explore the subject
in a future report for NCR.
What fascinates me right now, however, is the
jaw-dropping reversal of fortune that Padre Pio’s reputation has enjoyed
— in ecclesiastical terms, in the merest blink of an eye. This is a man
who was investigated by the Holy Office, the forerunner of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, somewhere between 12 and 25 times, depending
on how you count. He was forbidden from saying Mass in public, from publishing,
from receiving visitors, even from talking to women alone (more on that
later). The whispered consensus on Padre Pio in the halls of the Vatican
was that he was at best a naïve hysteric, at worst a con man.
We are not talking about Matteo Ricci, or Savonarola,
who had to wait centuries for a reconsideration. Padre Pio died in 1968.
For those who don’t know the story, here’s
a brief summary.
The future Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione
on May 25, 1887, in Pietrelcina, a country town 40 miles northeast of Naples.
At age 11 he decided he wanted to join the Capuchins, and in those days
families were expected to foot the bill for studies, so his father Grazio
left for the United States to make some money. (He ended up in Jamaica,
New York, home to St. John’s University).
Francesco was ordained in 1910, and soon acquired
a reputation for special spiritual gifts. Sometimes when celebrating Mass
he would go into a trance-like state for long blocks of time, which he
called moments of “ecstasy,” of deep communion with God. Some began calling
him a living saint. (Some of his parishioners, however, were miffed at
how long it took him to finish Mass, leading to the first of many rebukes
from his superiors — he was ordered to wind up in the 30-40 minutes then
In 1918, Padre Pio, then 31, reported lesions
in his side, palms and feet that seemed to mimic the wounds of Christ.
A blind man who said he had been healed by Padre Pio spread word of the
stigmata, and soon thousands of pilgrims began to flock to San Giovanni
Rotondo. Padre Pio would spend up to 18 hours a day in the confessional,
where he acquired a reputation for being able to discern a person’s deepest
secrets, even to predict their future.
The local bishop, P. Gagliardi, was skeptical,
suggesting the Capuchins were making a spectacle out of Padre Pio to make
money. In March 1920 Pope Benedict XV sent his physician and two archbishops
to investigate. When Pius XI became pope in 1922, another inquest followed,
and Padre Pio was ordered not to say Mass publicly. He was to be moved
to another friary, perhaps in northern Italy, maybe in Spain or America.
Some 5,000 locals, however, threatened to riot, and Rome backed down.
In 1922 a well-known Italian theologian and
physician, Franciscan Fr. Agostino Gemelli, a specialist on the subject
of stigmata cases, concluded that Padre Pio was a “hysteric” and the stigmata
was self-induced. (Gemelli, by the way, was the founder of Rome’s Gemelli
hospital, where John Paul II receives much of his health care).
Gemelli speculated that Padre Pio kept his
wounds open with carbolic acid. As a result of the Gemelli assessment,
the wounds were wrapped in cloth, and, according to devotees, the bleeding
continued for some 50 years until they closed within hours of his death.
More investigations followed. In 1923, the
Holy Office published a decree saying that Padre Pio’s gifts were not to
be regarded as “of a supernatural character,” and warning the faithful
against devotion to him. In 1930 it was again rumored that Padre Pio was
to be sent packing. The local people, led by the mayor, immediately put
an armed guard on the friary and set up barricades. At one point a mob
broke into the friary to “rescue” Padre Pio.
Once again, transfer plans were scrubbed and
other penalties imposed. The Vatican forbade Pio to receive visitors, to
hear confessions, or to celebrate Mass for other people. (These bans were
lifted in 1933).
On the basis of these experiences, Padre Pio
wrote one of his few published works, called The Agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Discipleship, he wrote, involves sharing Christ’s grief and pain. He always
accepted whatever edicts came his way; one of his best-known sayings was,
“The habit of asking why has ruined the world.”
A period of calm followed. In the 1940s, however,
American soldiers stationed in Italy came into contact with the cult of
Padre Pio, and began to carry enthusiastic stories back home. By 1947 some
200 letters a day from all over the world were pouring in. At this point
what had been a local case went global, and a new round of investigations
In the 1950s, several inquests concerned a
hospital Padre Pio had created, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, paid
for with funds donated by wealthy devotees. (Italian leftists branded Padre
Pio the “richest monk in the world”). Cynics perceived a connection between
the investigations and the now forgotten “Giuffrè affair,” the Vatican
Bank scandal of its day. Giuffrè, a shady Italian financier, had
promised naïve investors returns of almost 100 percent, invoking the
blessings of the Capuchins. When the scheme collapsed, or so defenders
of Padre Pio argue, the red-faced Capuchins and curial figures wanted to
save themselves by getting their hands on Padre Pio’s money. (Pius XII
had released Padre Pio from his vow of poverty so he could put up the hospital).
On July 29, 1960, an Italian monsignore,
Carlo Maccari, later to become the archbishop of Ancona, began yet another
investigation on behalf of Pope John XXIII and the Holy Office. The 200-page
report he compiled, though never published in full, is said to be devastatingly
critical. Vatican gossip long had it that the “Maccari dossier” was an
insuperable obstacle to Padre Pio’s sainthood.
The most spectacular element concerned rumors
that Padre Pio was involved sexually with female devotees. According to
accounts in the Italian press, Maccari included a charge that Padre Pio
had sex with female penitents twice a week. (The Latin is preserved: bis
in hebdomada copulabat cum muliere). In an attempt to get the goods,
a fellow Capuchin even bugged Padro Pio’s room, though apparently without
ever gathering evidence to substantiate the charge.
According to official Capuchin literature,
however, Maccari later recanted and prayed to Padre Pio on his deathbed.
By the mid-1960s, most observers felt Padre
Pio was headed for the dustbin of church history. Paul VI, however, looked
kindly on the Capuchin and called off the dogs. In return, one of Padre
Pio’s last acts, just days before he died in September 1968, was to write
a public letter praising Paul VI’s birth control encyclical Humanae
Padre Pio has also had a powerful supporter
in John Paul II, who met him for the first time as a young Polish priest
in 1947. Oral tradition has it that Karol Wojtyla asked Padre Pio to pray
for a friend dying of terminal cancer in 1963, who recovered.
It may well be that the charges against Padre
Pio were built on nothing but gossip and envy. But after all the calumny,
and given how slowly the judicial wheels at the Vatican normally grind,
the fact that Padre Pio could be beatified a mere 30 years after his death,
and that he could become a saint after just three years more, is itself
a kind of miracle.
For all those today who are subject to ecclesiastical
scrutiny, to those seen from on high as frauds or naïfs or trouble-makers,
I propose a new patron: St. Padre Pio of the Holy Rehabilitation.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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