Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sergio Luzzatto's "Padre Pio": Book Review

This unsophisticated, testy friar bore the signs of Jesus' own wounds. Padre Pio's fame spread rapidly from Italy worldwide; his claims as a miracle worker and "living saint" aroused both support and suspicion in the Vatican. Whether or not his "literal stigmata" and his powers to not only heal but to bilocate were genuine or not remain, in this scholarly account, unresolved. Instead, this Turin historian places Padre Pio's career within his nation facing the Great War, fascism, communism, anarchism, WWII, postwar reconstruction, and modernization. Sergio Luzzatto writes with verve, insight, and diligence. Not a hagiography, this lively and thorough study surveys and scrutinizes this Franciscan priest's cultural and political impact during the publicly proclaimed duration of his stigmata, from September 1918 until just before his death in the fall of 1968.

The subtitle, "Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age," may seem at first glance at odds with the intensely Catholic folk traditions and mindsets of this friar's native and rural Italy. Born as Francesco Forgione to a poor family in the south in 1887, this Capuchin seminarian was often ill, and his theological preparation for the priesthood was left scanty. He was assigned to the remote monastery of this branch of the Franciscans on the bleak Gargano peninsula, at San Giovanni Rotondo. There, at thirty-one, as the Great War neared its end, the young priest announced he bled from the hands, feet, and side, after a "mysterious personage" bearing the five wounds of the Crucified Christ had appeared to him during prayer.

Within a society where "metaphorical" stigmata, the disfigurements endured by countless veterans imprinted themselves upon Italy, this appearance of a "literal" stigmata aroused passionate devotion. Luzzatto opens his book by placing this controversial and rare manifestation of Christ's sacrifice within a context that points back to St. Francis of Assisi, who bore for the first time in history these marks. What sparked curiosity, and spurred symbolic identification by many seeking a sign of Jesus amidst such woe, was that this everyday friar was a Padre. That is, he as a priest was the first man who bore the same signs on his hands--and hands for a priest represented the focus of holiness, in elevating the Host, in blessing, and bearing and bestowing the benefits of blessings brought by sanctified oil in the anointing of the sick and dying.

This is where "secular" enters Luzzatto's analysis. For Francis of Assisi, and others since who have claimed stigmata, the question posed by Rome was whether such signs were real. That they were from God, if true, was not the question. Still, in medieval as in subsequent centuries, the Church acted cautiously at a higher level when it came to approving such folk-based movements emanating from an often credulous populace.

The Vatican and many clerics resented competition by fakers and the deluded. Modernizing tendencies shifted Catholicism towards accommodations with science. Even before Vatican II, leaders sought to replace distracting customs and claimants with a more sensible, rational approach to faith. During Padre Pio's long career, the question was not only whether his stigmata were real, but also whether such signs proved God's existence to a desperate nation and a war-torn century increasingly doubtful of the presence of the divine.

Many Italian intellectuals challenged the clerics; then came the nascent Fascists. Italy had won independence by defeating the Papal States, and Padre Pio's grassroots appeal chafed at anarchists, Reds, and socialists. The friar's claims then became blended, by the foes of the left, into a clerico-fascist alliance which promoted the stigmata early in the fractious 1920s. The Vatican cracked down and for awhile, the friar was kept within an "iron circle" designed to ingeniously test the "living saint" for true sanctity. As Luzzatto phrases it, this ingeniously "repressive logic" ensured that if the claimant was genuine, his piety would enable him to endure whatever suppression the Church could demand. If false, his devout stance would falter under such burdens.

Here, the professor's "intellectual history" shifts away from the friar into extended discussions of this clerico-fascist climate, key players in power politics, and how this situation strengthened or weakened the tolerance by which Padre Pio's fame was sustained. Given Padre Pio was a "relic incarnate," I wanted to know how this peasant friar endured the duties of twelve-hour bouts of hearing confessions, saying Mass to throngs of pilgrims, and walking about as an object of perpetual adoration. Luzzatto's work for all its archival exactitude never lets us have more than a glimpse of a wounded self-proclaimed stigmatist beneath the brown habit. This may attest to the constant pressures the friar endured, as his devoted followers never stopped following him.

It may also attest to how much examination of what skeptics suspected as a forty-year career attracting donations thanks to a "stink of sulfur". Carbolic acid had been ordered by the friar, and investigations into this and his suspicious accompaniment by certain "lay sisters" who commandeered how he spent his time and who merited his attention among the waiting hordes remain open-ended. Luzzatto reports many interviews and reports sent by observers to the Capuchin Order and to the hierarchy and papacy. Some never got beyond their suspicions, some confirmed, others recanted, some converted. Padre Pio does not come across as particularly likable, understandably given his medical condition and the psychological complexity of his temperament, itself endlessly analyzed. For many of his devotees, this may increase the likelihood of divine intervention to choose such an unpromising figure as an "alter Christus," a second Christ. For others, it hardens their disbelief of his manipulations, as egregious as those conducted by any medieval charlatan.

One con man, Emanuele Brunatto, emerges midway as a character worthy of his own biography. This petty criminal has a checkered career even by mid-century European standards of dubious veracity. A forger, an employee of a clerico-fascist publisher, a bogus trader in locomotives, Mussolini's diplomat, and a Nazi collaborationist in occupied Paris, he became Padre Pio's "most gifted and implacable evangelist".

The elegantly dressed, patrician figure survived regime changes, and managed to elude the eye of the future Pope John XXIII who served in post-WWII France as apostolic nuncio. During his reign, this pope would refer in his diary to Padre Pio, after another round of careful Vatican watchfulness to test  the patience of a proverbial saint, as nothing but a "straw idol". Meanwhile, back in 1946 Paris, the then-Msgr. Roncalli recorded having hosted one "Emanuele De Pio" often--while denazification campaigns hunted out such malefactors and betrayers of the French nation as Brunatto. You can see where he borrowed his disguise.

Brunatto for all his ill-gotten gains managed to support at a significant cost of at least 1.3 million francs free meals given out for charity in two train stations in Paris for three years of the Occupation. He traded in jam and chocolate; his black market profits in great part funded Padre Pio's project, a large hospital next to San Giovanni Rotondo's monastery. A secondary source of income came from funds diverted by the Vatican and the Christian Democrat party from UN relief aid after WWII.

The later decades of Padre Pio's story, as often with such figures, look less colorful. With success came the freedom afforded him by his Order--who professed to emulate their humble and truly poor St. Francis--to control disbursement of hospital funds sent in by admirers worldwide. Despite its faraway location, this accelerated prosperity for the isolated and impoverished region, in need of such investment after the war.

The friary church was twice rebuilt; its dilapidated condition (where, one wonders and not only in the Vatican, did all those donations go earlier in the century?) and limewashed austerity were replaced by a massive concrete church holding eight thousand pilgrims, designed by a world-famous architect. Padre Pio's friary had remained four-and-a-half centuries in a tiny village. San Giovanni Rotondo is now a tourist-dependent city of thirty thousand. It rivals Lourdes as a place for wonders worked; RAF bombardiers attested that he appeared to them to spare the friary from death from above during WWII; Silvio Berlusconi inserted Padre Pio's picture into election propaganda. The friar's Italian-turned-international cult after his 2002 canonization by the late John Paul II has been memorialized-- the undeniable fact that near his death, his stigmata vanished after half a century attests to its own symbolism.

Padre Pio's relics are venerated, his petitioners vetted, and his tomb is visible on an eternal web-cam hookup. Yet, one closes this book more chastened than inspired. For all the labor of Luzzatto (ably translated by Frederika Randall), the mystery of how this bearded, frank friar achieved a status as the most famous figure of devotion in Italy (beating out not only St. Francis of Assisi but the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth) endures as a vexing moral in an complex exploration of a lowly man invoked as official saint.

(Shorter and simpler form to Amazon 12-22-11; featured as above at Pop Matters 1-13-12.

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