The case of Padre Pio, by Leonardo Rossi
On 8 December 2015 began the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, a period of prayer – decreed by pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus – that will last until 20 November 2016, Feast of Christ the King. St. Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, was among the ‘special guests’ of the opening ceremony. Padre Pio could not be missed at the event because he seems to be the real super star of Mercy. His presence was not reduced to a mere honorary acknowledgement. The Pope wanted to exhibit the mortal remains of the friar and they were triumphantly transferred to Rome from the monastery and immensely popular pilgrimage site of San Giovanni Rotondo. The decision to exhibit Padre Pio’s remains was prompted by the desire to vindicate a particular and ‘human’ example of divine mercy. In fact, Padre Pio was a real ‘champion of mercy’. Allegedly hearing confession day and night and no less than 1.200.000 people during his lifetime, he rightly said: ‘I don’t have a free minute. All my time is spent in tearing my brothers away from the clutches of Satan’ (Epistolario, I, 1145-46).
Today, the Catholic world venerates St. Pio; but his relationship with the clergy was not always easy. His life history is rather controversial, made of suspicion and popular devotion, stigmata and apostolic investigations, slanders and miracles, everything emphasized by the mass media. Who was Padre Pio?
Francesco Forgione – his secular name – was born on 25 March 1887 in Pietrelcina – a small town near Benevento – in a poor, numerous and very religious family. In 1903 he entered the monastery, under the religious name of Pio, and in 1916 he was consecrated priest. His internal life was enriched by extraordinary phenomena of which the stigmata were the most famous and discussed. It is said that he carried the ‘invisible’ wounds since 1911. On August 5th 1918, after he had moved to San Giovanni Rotondo, he felt the ‘transverberation’ and on September 20 a ‘heavenly character’ engraved the marks of the crucifixion on his flesh: hands, feet and side were pierced by deep wounds that bled for fifty years, until his death. In short time, the news of his stigmatisation attracted the media attention: the number of believers and the media coverage grew exponentially. The Roman Inquisition set up an investigation, creating an irreconcilable dichotomy: ‘living saint’ or ‘holy impostor’? The ecclesiastical authorities were divided. Unable to agree, they imposed prudential directives to Padre Pio, aiming to restore the order and restrain the fanaticism that surrounded the Capuchin. In 1922, the clergy tried to remove him from his community; however, a fierce crowd did not allow its saint to be touched. People had already made their choice. Decrees and limiting orders from the Holy See only served to fuel Padre Pio’s popularity as a ‘persecuted martyr’. The inquisitorial faction vanished under the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II. Padre Pio died in the odour of sanctity on 23 September 1968. His obsequies were a true State funeral, a showbiz event loaded with emotions and hope.
An official recognition of his cult was the devotees’ greatest desire. One year after Padre Pio’s death, the cause of beatification began. After Wojtyla’s election to papacy and the canonization process reforms, the Catholic world celebrated Padre Pio’s beatification (2 May 1999) and canonization (16 June 2002): millions of followers arrived in Rome, proving not only the affection for the stigmatic, but also the renewed Church’s popularity and ability to obtain public support. John Paul II wrote the friar’s beatification homily on the theme of the crucifixion, calling Padre Pio a modern alter Christus. By doing so, he silenced all the rumours, restoring a figure who was controversial and problematic for the clergy, yet loved and praised by the crowd. The Pope’s actions fit a canonization policy that brought genuine popular expressions into the Church’s sphere, attributing a clear political and social message to the ‘faith champions’. Padre Pio sanctity profile was constructed by shaping the devotees’ devotion towards ‘the last medieval saint’ (Luciano Lotti, 2016, 7), a saint with supernatural powers. His canonization brought an opportunity for the clergy to transmit teachings and guidelines to the post-secular society through a famous model like St. Pio. In the collective unconscious, the figure of the Apulian stigmatized immediately invokes the pain of the crucifixion and the benevolence in the miracles’ donation; but also the severe disapproval of the ‘modern sins’: from divorce to abortion, from the secularization of the State to the Marxist threat.
The Church leaders have tried to promote the Capuchin as various personae: Padre Pio the stigmatized, Padre Pio the healer, Padre Pio the saint protector, Padre Pio the patron of Catholic families, and more recently thus, Padre Pio the ‘Mercy’s champion’. As for the latter, the news of his ‘presence’ in Rome during the Jubilee celebrations raised also severe opposition. On the one side, secular intellectuals and ecclesiastical reformers have accused this procession to be full of superstition and medieval fanaticism – a rough anachronistic residual that does not meet modern needs. In contrast, 80.000 supporters have welcomed the saint’s corpus incorruptus – or better, partially uncorrupted – in St. Peter’s square, celebrating him as an enlightening guide for a society that allegedly has lost its Roman Catholic values. In fact, whilst Padre Pio’s remains were exhibited, an important decision about civil rights was taken in Italy: the regularization of common-law marriage. Pio’s reactionary and traditionalist positions are well known, he is indeed considered as the ‘guarantor’ of the Christian family. Hence, the following question arises: have his presence in Rome influenced the political debate and/or directed the public opinion?
Padre Pio’s parable is surprising – it goes from the ostracism of the 1920s and 1930s to the fast canonization only 34 years after his death – and has evident implications in the contemporary reality. The actuality of his figure is a sign of an accurate and continuous re-shaping of his profile of holiness, adapting it to different contexts, making it omnipotent and omnipresent. His icon is all over the place in Italy: from the altars of the churches to the sideboards of private dwellings, from the cars’ dashboards to the devotional cards in the wallets, from the little sculptures in public parks to the ladies’ medals around the neck, from the posters of truck drivers to the applications for mobile phones, from the funeral epitaphs to a glamourous t-shirt saying: ‘Padre Pio: pray, hope and don’t worry’. An extraordinary variety of people, that form the great anthropological circus of the society, is drinking from this source. Everyone has their own purposes and interests. Devotees, sufferers and ordinary people pray to him to get – large and small – miracles. The Vatican exhumed him to collect public support and transmit pious teachings to the Catholic people. The friars of San Giovanni Rotondo – the custodians of Padre Pio’s remains and of the financial benefits coming from the millions of pilgrims – control this sacred market: a monopoly of innumerable gadgets depicting the saint. They also control the information market through their own publishing house, radio station and television channel. The hoteliers and tour operators of the Apulian tourist sector are of course extremely satisfied with St. Pio. They benefit from an inflow and a popularity that would be otherwise unreachable for the region of Gargano. The Italian politicians do not miss the opportunity to make a ‘private’ visit to the sanctuary dedicated to Padre Pio, especially during electoral campaigns; and the old movie and music stars can enjoy again a moment under the spotlight speaking of their personal devotion.
Padre Pio, while remaining a ‘mystery to himself’, is a saint for everybody.
References: Alessandro da Ripabottoni, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina. Un cireneo per tutti, Foggia, Centro culturale francescano, 1974; Melchiorre da Pobladura – Alessandro da Ripabottoni, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina. Epistolario, San Giovanni Rotondo, Ed. Padre Pio, 4. Vol, 1975-84; Gerardo di Flumeri, Le stigmate di Padre Pio da Pietrelcina. Testimonianze, relazioni, San Giovanni Rotondo, Ed. Padre Pio, 1985; Id., Padre Pio da Pietrelcina. Lavori scolastici, San Giovanni Rotondo, Ed. Padre Pio, 1993; Giuseppe Scarvaglieri, Pellegrinaggio ed esperienza religiosa. Ricerca socio-religiosa sul santuario Santa Maria delle Grazie, San Giovanni Rotondo, Ed. Padre Pio, 1987; Felice D’Onofrio – Pietro Zarrella, Pio da Pietrelcina, Dolcissimo Iddio. 41 lettere inedite alla diletta figlia spirituale Giuseppina Morgera, Casale Monferrato, Piemme, 1994; Luigi Peroni, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, Rome, Borla 2002; Jan Margry, Merchandising and sanctity: the invasive cult of Padre Pio, in «Journal of Modern Italian Studies», 7.1 (2002), pp. 88-115; Id., Il “marketing” di Padre Pio. Stategie cappuccine e vaticane e la coscienza collettiva religiosa, in «Sanctorum», 5(2008), pp. 141-167; Mario Guarino, Santo impostore: controstoria di Padre Pio, Milano, Kaos, 2003; Sergio Luzzatto, Padre Pio. Miracoli e politica nell’Italia del Novecento, Turin, Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2007 (it is available also an English translation: Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, New York, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2010); Dossier Padre Pio: cronologia e documenti di un grande inganno, Milano, Kaos, 2009; Stefano Campanella, La Misericordia in Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Ed. Padre Pio-San Paolo, 2016.