The Strange Victory of Padre Pio

Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age
by Sergio Luzzatto, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
Picador, 371 pp., $22.00 (paper)


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, 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.

Not surprisingly, Gemelli was one of the experts who assisted the Vatican in dealing with the case of Padre Pio. Gemelli saw Padre Pio from the perspective of his experience during World War I studying wounded soldiers who had escaped combat either through simulated or self-inflicted wounds. After meeting Padre Pio, Gemelli, in his report to the Vatican, declared him to be “a man with a restricted field of knowledge, low psychic energy, monotonous ideas, little volition.” Gemelli did not consider Padre Pio an imposter but insisted that he was a weak-minded soul who had responded to “suggestion” and manipulation by his spiritual director in the Capuchin order, who was determined to make a saint out of the humble friar.

Another medical doctor brought in to inspect the stigmata of Padre Pio was quite certain that they were of divine nature. “The etiology of Padre Pio’s lesions cannot possibly be of natural origins,” wrote Dr. Luigi Romanelli, a surgeon brought in from the Pugliese town of Barletta. “The agent that produced them must assuredly be sought in the realm of the supernatural.”

A third expert, acting at the request of the Capuchin order, suggested a third possibility, that the wounds had appeared as a psychosomatic response to Padre Pio’s intense faith but had been kept alive by artificial means:

We can in fact hypothesize that the lesions we have described began as a pathology…and then were, either unconsciously or by means of suggestion, filled out in their symmetry and artificially maintained by chemical means, for example with tincture of iodine.

A pharmacist in the nearby city of Foggia wrote to the Vatican that he had been asked in great secret by a relative who was a devotee of Padre Pio to supply the friar with significant amounts of both carbolic acid and another caustic substance, veratrine. “When I heard this request, it occurred to me that carbolic acid in that form could be used by Padre Pio to procure or irritate those wounds on his hands.” Padre Pio said that he used the acids to sterilize needles to administer shots to the other friars and the veratrine to play a trick on his brother friars by making them sneeze.

The Holy Office in 1921 sent the first of its apostolic visitors to investigate both Padre Pio and the cult at San Giovanni Rotondo. Monsignor Raffaele Carlo Rossi returned with a positive view of the friar but a scathing view of the phenomenon that had grown up around him. “To tell the truth, Padre Pio made a rather favorable impression on me, even though I had gone there fairly convinced of the opposite,” Rossi wrote. “There are stigmata. We have before us a fact, impossible to deny.” Padre Pio “was anything but a commercial miracle-worker, anything but a wild agitator of the people.” Among the people around him, however,

Padre Pio was a saint who performed miracles, and there was no possible discussion about that. There were those who, with pitiful ignorance, declared he was Jesus Christ himself.

The Catholic Church in contending with Padre Pio faced some of its own deep contradictions. It had very shrewdly managed to adapt the polytheistic practices of the pagan world by allowing the cult of the virgin and various local saints, but kept them all safely under the umbrella of a central Church and a monotheistic religion. The Church continued to recognize saints in the twentieth century, all of which must have miracles to their credit, but they needed to be carefully scrutinized and recognized by Rome. The Church remained suspicious of popular religious enthusiasms bubbling up from below, which might well conflict with Church teaching and represent a threat to central authority. Popular cults dedicated to a living saint ran the risk of idolatry: that the believers would pray to and worship the saint rather than as an intermediary interceding with the one true God.

The Church in the 1920s and 1930s was determined to snuff out the Padre Pio cult. At various points, it tried to transfer him to a remote mountain monastery where no one would ever see him again. One Vatican official wrote:

I believe it would be best if P. Pio could be transferred to another friary where he could live far from public notice. He would be purified, he would become more saintly, if he is already a saint; and if not, a pernicious fraud to which the faithful are prey would be eliminated.

One plan involved “transferring him in secret, using an automobile, by night.” But in various attempts to move Pio, the Church proved impotent. When a transfer order was issued in 1921, “eight Fascists appeared at the friary with clubs in hand and let it be known that any attempt to remove Padre Pio would be met with violence,” Luzzatto writes.

A decade later, the Church and Pio were at a similar impasse. The Church appealed to government authorities for police backup in transferring him. “I will go, but I decline all responsibility,” Padre Pio said, clearly alluding to the area’s history of violence.

Finally, in 1931, the Church decided on an alternate plan: restrict Padre Pio’s activities to a bare minimum, limit him to saying mass in a chapel off-limits to the lay public, forbid him from taking confession, and forbid the circulation of images or leaflets about him. Priests were forbidden to recommend pilgrimages to San Giovanni Rotondo. Letters to Padre Pio should not be answered. “Let there be silence around the figure of Padre Pio,” one Church official counseled.

This policy almost worked. “A dozen years after the stigmata first appeared on the Capuchin friar’s body his cult looked ready to burn out,” Luzzatto writes. “But there was something that Padre Pio’s enemies had not taken into account.” That something or someone was Emanuele Brunatto, whom Luzzatto describes as “a con man of great talent, infinite imagination, and world-class enterprise…a chronic liar, a ruthless extortionist, and an incorrigible double-dealer.”

Brunatto, who had been convicted of fraud, had found his way to San Giovanni Rotondo in the early 1920s and attached himself to Padre Pio—perhaps to escape from the law, perhaps out of genuine religious devotion, perhaps because of his remarkable instinct for opportunity, and perhaps through some combination of the three. Brunatto wrote one of the first biographies of the future saint (which the Church promptly banned) and skimmed money from the flow of cash arriving from around the world to Padre Pio, according to one Church report. When Padre Pio found himself reduced almost to a condition of house arrest, Brunatto fought back with the methods he had acquired in his earlier life. He assembled a dossier of the alleged misdeeds and sexual misconduct of the Puglese clergy and, at a high-level meeting at the Vatican, threatened to publish it as a book. Not long after, the Church decided to lighten most of the restrictions on Padre Pio’s ministry.

In the early 1930s, this imaginative man cooked up an investment scheme for the followers of Padre Pio, putting himself at the head of a company that would sell locomotive patents. With Padre Pio’s backing, Brunatto raised millions of dollars, set himself up in Paris, and traveled the continent living grandly and supposedly selling patents to the governments of Europe. The one attempt to build a locomotive based on one of the patents proved a fiasco, but Brunatto succeeded in keeping the scheme going for several years while insisting that the company was inches away from a major bonanza.

Padre Pio does not appear to have profited from the scheme. The investors, of course, lost all their money and Brunatto moved on to other dangerous games, among them spying for the Fascist police. During World War II, Brunatto made a fortune as a black marketer and collaborationist, selling rationed foodstuffs and keeping the German army supplied with French wines and champagne. With extraordinary foresight, he placed a portion of his stratospheric profits into a charitable fund to help Padre Pio build a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. Certainly, this charitable act proved helpful when Brunatto sought (and managed) to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for collaboration with the Nazis.

Whatever his motivation, Brunatto’s contribution, 3.5 million francs, was sufficient to get the project underway. The tragedy of World War II weakened traditional forms of authority in Italy—the Fascist regime and the Italian monarchy—and greatly increased the standing of the Catholic Church. And the suffering generated by the war increased the hunger for miraculous deliverance. Sightings of the Virgin Mary proliferated and Padre Pio was said to be frequently seen in the skies above Puglia diverting enemy airplanes from bombing the area. Letters addressed to him went from about 9,000 a year in 1939 to more than 20,000 a year in 1945.

The hospital that Padre Pio had starting building with Brunatto’s help was a project that the Vatican, the new arbiter of postwar life, could back with enthusiasm. When Marshall Plan money was made available, the Italian government—represented by Lodovico Montini, brother of the future Pope Paul VI—made completing Padre Pio’s hospital its highest priority. It received twice as much money as the Red Cross relief for the entire Italian peninsula. The hospital is often cited as a Padre Pio’s greatest miracle, but it was a miracle full of human actors. Padre Pio insisted on a state-of-the-art medical facility, not reliance on faith healing. After years of persecution, the Catholic Church appeared to have decided it would be best to bring him decisively into the mainstream of Catholic belief. Images of and stories about Padre Pio became staples of a host of new, widely circulated illustrated magazines alongside movie stars like Claudia Cardinale, part of the new globalized commercial culture of the economic boom of the 1950s.

Padre Pio still had his critics within the Church, as evidenced by the apostolic visit of Monsignor Maccari in 1960 during the pontificate of John XXIII, but he found his ultimate benefactor in John Paul II. Both out of genuine belief and a sense that increasingly secular Europe was in need of saints offering a more robust, unabashedly mystical faith, John Paul II, in Luzzatto’s account, did much to turn Pio into Saint Pio. As an accepted saint of the Church, Padre Pio now is represented in statues and at the center of prayer groups from Brooklyn to Brisbane, Australia.

In its current incarnation, the Padre Pio story has been stripped of some of its more controversial elements: one hears little or nothing of Emanuele Brunatto, carbolic acid, or the support of local Fascists. In 2004, the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano built an impressive new church in San Giovanni Rotondo with room for several thousand worshipers at mass and a magnificent crypt for the body of Padre Pio, who died in 1968. The walls leading to the crypt contain a series of mosaics that show first the stigmata of Christ, then the life of Saint Francis, and last that of Padre Pio, culminating in a remarkable image of him embracing the image of the bleeding Christ, his own stigmata almost superimposed on those of Jesus. Thus, this most controversial of saints has been made part of the Catholic tradition and placed in a clear and illustrious sequence, the three legitimate bearers of the stigmata.

Interestingly, however, pilgrims to the shrine are not unaware of the history of conflict between Padre Pio and Church authorities—it is part of his appeal. “Padre Pio wouldn’t have approved of all this extravagance,” one woman said to me disapprovingly, pointing to the gold ornamentation around the crypt, when I visited the shrine earlier this year. “He was simple and humble. He suffered so much, often from the Church itself.”

In the current moment, in which many people express intense personal faith but uneasiness about the Church hierarchy, Padre Pio suggests a model of fervent, even subversive faith that is deeply devout but maintains its own independence of the institutional Church. Local residents, when asked whether they believe in Padre Pio’s miracles, point to the town of San Giovanni Rotondo itself, transformed from a poor rural village into a thriving pilgrimage site and medical center in a lifetime.

– October 25, 2012


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