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Prologue: September 20, 1918
For a Capuchin friar hidden away in the half-empty San Giovanni Rotondo monastery on the remote Gargano Peninsula in southern Italy, September 20, 1918, was a fateful day. Around nine that morning, while Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was praying before a crucifix in the monastery chapel, "a mysterious personage" materialized before him, a figure bleeding from his hands, his feet, and his side. Alarmed, the thirty-one-year-old priest begged for God's assistance. The figure disappeared immediately, but Padre Pio's alarm only grew when he saw that Jesus's stigmata were now visible on his own body. "I look at my hands, feet and side and see they are wounded and blood is pouring out," he wrote to his spiritual adviser.1 "All my innards are bloody and my eye must resign itself to watch the blood gushing out," so much of it that "I fear I will bleed to death."2
Over the next ninety years, the minuscule Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo would become a leading place of pilgrimage in Europe, as crowded with worshippers as Santiago, Lourdes, Fatima, or Medjugorje. Padre Pio would become the most venerated saint in twenty-first-century Italy, more popular than St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis of Assisi, more popular even than the Virgin Mary or Jesus of Nazareth.3 And questions about the meaning—if there was one—that the Lord intended to transmit to mankind with the friar's five stigmata would trouble believers and nonbelievers alike.
Was the Capuchin friar from this remote corner of Puglia a holy man capable of inspiring other Catholics? Was he a throwback to an archaic version of faith untenable in the twentieth century? Was he merely a fraud? Authorities within the Church and outside it, high prelates and clever con men, leading intellectuals and committed Fascists would all take sides on the matter. The Holy Office—what was once called the Inquisition—would ponder the matter of Padre Pio's legitimacy at length. This book is one historian's attempt to disentangle the skeins of old and new, of sacred and profane, that made Padre Pio a twentieth-century legend.
Padre Pio's stigmata did not appear at just any moment. Although the friar had long been telling his superiors that Christ's Passion was renewing itself in his body,4 the timing of the event was powerfully cued to the public sphere. The autumn of 1918 was a special moment in collective awareness, a time heavily in need of the sacred. The immense trauma of the Great War—a war so unbearable that everywhere around Italy there abounded rumors of young maidens with mysterious powers to end the fighting5—had ripened into the conviction that the conflict was a never-ending crucifixion, in which the soldiers' unspeakable suffering would providentially save mankind.6 The equally unspeakable suffering of the soldiers' mothers was likewise represented by the figure of the Mater dolorosa, the Holy Mother holding the dead Christ in her arms in the supreme act of grief.7
The ultranationalist Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio captured this theme of the soldier as Christ, the war as his Passion, in his Songs of the Latin War, which was crammed with biblical citations.8 And it was not only poets who took to interpreting the war in Christian terms. Deep in the trenches, the rude material world of the soldiers teemed with crosses, nails, and crucifixes; between the boom of the cannons and the blast of the grenades, Jesus was ever-present in an immediate, ambiguous set of symbols.9 Was this an end or a rebirth, destruction or resurrection? Trench warfare had confounded the very notions of life and death.10 Soldiers at the front had an obsessive fear of being buried alive; they had recurrent fantasies of being the living dead. The Italian poet Clemente Rebora thought that the Great War had begotten a new existential dimension, vitamorte, "death-in-life."11 All across Europe, millions of disfigured and wounded veterans testified to that condition, men upon whose faces and bodies devastating military technology had impressed its indelible mark, the cruel stigmata of modernity.12 After the war, some of these men would brandish their injuries like patriotic slogans. In Italy, their ranks included wounded veterans like Giuseppe Caradonna and Carlo Delcroix, soon to be leading Fascists.
Padre Pio's wounds, meanwhile, had no patriotic significance. Although the Capuchin friar was enrolled as a soldier-priest, he managed to live out the entire conflict far from the front lines. Nevertheless, some of the words he wrote in autumn 1918 curiously echo the thoughts of the trench fighters. In November, just after the victory of Vittorio Veneto, Padre Pio wrote to his spiritual adviser that he considered himself among the "living dead."13 In a sense, he too counted himself a survivor of the greatest of wars. In the inferno of the Dolomites trenches and on the cruel heights of the Carso, Italian soldiers had won their battle against the Teutonic devil, but they had been scarred in body and in spirit. And in the inferno of a monastery cell in Puglia, the Capuchin friar had won his battle with Satan, but he too had been wounded, in spirit and in body.
Of course, the wounds of the veterans were different from those of Padre Pio. The first were metaphorical stigmata: they were the "tattoos" that the Great War had inscribed on an entire generation, as one war-wounded poet, Nicola Moscardelli, so memorably put it.14 The second were literal stigmata, the marks that the Lord had placed on one specific individual. From metaphorical stigmata, only profane happenings could come. Padre Pio's literal stigmata promised amazing, sacred developments.
The Great War was not the only affliction that set the stage for the dramatic events in the remote Capuchin monastery. As the summer of 1918 drew to a close, a new horror arose: the "Spanish" flu, which began its grim harvest in August and which in just seven months would kill more Italians than all of World War I.15 While the war had decimated the men, the spagnola attacked mostly women, particularly where hygiene and nutrition were poor. Among these places was Puglia, and especially the province of Foggia. There, in the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, home to fewer than ten thousand people, some two hundred died between September and October 1918.16
Padre Pio thus received his stigmata as death was knocking on the doors of San Giovanni Rotondo, of the Gargano Peninsula, of Puglia, of Italy, and of Europe. It was a moment when believers everywhere were saying heartfelt prayers for clemency and protection. Of course, a man of God could try the argument used by one priest in a ravaged Veneto town, who told his faithful that death had come because "the Carnival went on too long, so now perhaps we'll have a long Lent."17 Still, as the war drew to an end, Christian men and women could reasonably expect something more than the usual moralizing. As good Christians, they could hope that some exceptional individual—a saint—would come along to rescue them from all the evil in their midst: from disease, from destitution, from grief. They might even, as in other apocalyptic moments in the history of Christianity,18 convince themselves that the Lord had made himself flesh a second time, so that sinning humanity could once again be redeemed.
The unknown friar in his Gargano monastery who, praying one morning, receives the five wounds of Christ on his body must therefore be situated in the spiritual climate of Italy and Europe at the end of the war's slaughter and the epidemic's devastation. Many centuries earlier, the arrival of the Black Death had stirred a kind of faith that was more anxious than before, more impatient and imploring.19 Something like this, too, happened after the Great War when Padre Pio's fame as a holy man began to spread.20 From the point of view of the friar and his superiors, the stigmata were merely the last step in a mystical journey that he had embarked on years before. From the point of view of the war-weary faithful, however, the stigmata were of immediate import, and it would not be long before crowds appeared at the friar's door.
Saints exist mainly to perform miracles.21 The story of Padre Pio cannot escape being, among other things, a history of these miracles—the healings, the apparitions, the conversions. Telling it requires approaching these events as an anthropologist would, making no distinctions between reality and myth—or perhaps the way that medieval historians, those professional agnostics, would do it.22 Let me be clear right away that this study does not intend to establish once and for all whether Padre Pio's wounds were genuine stigmata, or whether the works he did were genuine miracles. All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were "real" had better close this book right now. 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: the many-colored world of priests and friars, of clerics and laymen, of believers and atheists, of the cultivated and the unlettered, of the good and the bad and the shrewd and the simple, of those who believed in the stigmata and the miracles and of those who refused to believe. Sainthood is a social custom made up of rites of interaction; saints matter as much for how they appear as for what they are.23
It is not easy to find the appropriate way to tell Padre Pio's story, and that helps to explain why there exists no proper historical study of the man that the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto once called, half seriously, "the most important Italian of the twentieth century."24 There are, of course, countless hagiographies of Padre Pio,25 all of them utterly lacking a critical perspective (though two French biographies and one by an American, written in a devout spirit, do provide some useful documentation).26 There are also several good works of cultural anthropology and religious sociology on the "Padre Pio phenomenon," the cult that exploded in the later years of his life and in the decades after his death.27 But no historian has ever written about the world of Padre Pio, almost as if there were something shameful about elevating the friar and his followers to the level of historic actors. Apparently what scholars of the Middle Ages take for granted—that studying beliefs is not the same as being a naive believer oneself—remains to be accepted by scholars who deal with the present.
At the close of the nineteenth century, secular intellectuals hurriedly proclaimed the end of religion and the disenchantment of the world. Yet today, a century later, a deep need to find some transcendent poetry in prosaic everyday life is still evident all around us. Were it not so, twentieth-century popular religiosity might simply be dismissed as the sad relic of an all-but-extinct sensibility. But secularism hasn't destroyed religion, because political, cultural, and scientific progress has not eliminated the dimension of evil from our lives, nor the need, for many, to see misfortune as part of a providential plan. The story of Padre Pio cannot be understood without keeping in mind the shrewd observation once made by writer and politician Ignazio Silone: having a labor union doesn't mean you can do without the saints, because "the poor are always afraid."28 Especially among the most humble, material progress does not destroy piety, that is, the spiritual need for reassurance and the wish to be protected.
But Padre Pio's story also cannot be seen simply as part of a long continuity, as if a man could be a saint in the twentieth century in the same way as in the Middle Ages. The stakes of sainthood have changed. As long as Christian faith was unquestioned, the portentous methods—mysterious healings, bodily marks, celestial apparitions—by which the divine appeared to man were seen as signs of the existence of God, and theologists, notaries, and doctors could debate their authenticity without shaking the whole house of the Christian supernatural.29 Even the detractors of St. Francis in the thirteenth century, for example, could doubt that his human wounds were the true stigmata of Christ's divinity without in any way bringing into question the message of the Savior.30 But in the contemporary era, once Christian faith became a choice, the same portentous events started to be seen as something more: they became proof of the existence of God.31 Those who questioned whether Padre Pio's stigmata were divine were often ready to reject Christianity altogether, while those who saw his stigmata as a fresh revelation of Christ were emboldened in their faith, ready to proclaim to all the world that the crucifixion was still very much alive.
A story of piety must necessarily also be a story of impiety—of execration, blasphemy, and just plain denial.32 To reconstruct Padre Pio's tale and that of his advocates we must also tell the story of his opponents, who didn't hesitate to speak up soon after the events of September 20, 1918. There were some secular adversaries, obviously: skeptics and anticlericals, liberals and socialists. But also, and above all, Padre Pio had his clerical adversaries. Men of religious orders and not, modest church officials and powerful Vatican insiders—they ranged across twentieth-century Italian Catholicism's many worlds and its many kinds of faith.33
For some fifty years, until his death in 1968, Padre Pio never moved from San Giovanni Rotondo. His material horizons coincided with those of the monastery where he took shelter during World War I and where he earned the terrible prize of the stigmata. But while Padre Pio did not move, all around him men of the church did. They acted from far and near, by choice or out of duty. Among those who came to concern themselves with the Capuchin friar were Cardinal Pietro Gasparri and Father Agostino Gemelli, Pope Pius XI and Pius XII, Don Luigi Orione and Don Ernesto Buonaiuti, Pope John XXIII and John Paul II. In a twentieth-century Church still brooding over the humiliating fall of the Papal States in 1870 and vowing a Catholic reconquista of Italian society, both Padre Pio's opponents, like Father Gemelli, and his advocates, like Pius XII, were mindful of the humble friar's role in that fateful historical battle. Measuring themselves against Padre Pio, leading men of the Church also had to face tough questions about the material nature of faith, about the proper limits of pastoral duty, about the direct or indirect routes to sainthood.
And behind these was a question even more serious and troubling: could a good Christian ever accept the existence of an alter Christus, a living Christ figure? Didn't even contemplating such a possibility suggest that Jesus's Incarnation and his Passion had only partially redeemed mankind, that there might be more chapters still to come in the story of salvation? 34 Though St. Francis's contemporaries had also faced this problem, it became more complicated in Padre Pio's case.35 St. Francis had received the stigmata near the end of his life, and he had kept them hidden; Padre Pio, on the other hand, was young when the wounds appeared, and he would display them for half a century. What's more, while Francis of Assisi was never ordained, Padre Pio was a priest who performed all the public functions of that office. When he said mass, the stigmata that marked him as a bleeding alter Christus were so boldly evident they could only be judged as either sublime or sacrilegious.
Such concerns help to explain the caution, reticence, and suspicion with which the Church of Rome treated Padre Pio. Between 1923 and 1933, the Holy Office imposed sharp limits on his pastoral role. And for decades, while the friar's reputation rose and fell (not because he changed his personal or priestly behavior, but because a variety of figures came and went at the top of the Capuchin hierarchy and on the papal throne), the Holy Office kept Padre Pio firmly in its sights. The Holy Office archives—used here for the first time in reference to the period 1919-39—document the prolonged and often dramatic confrontation between the Church as an institution and its other central and peripheral forces, the friar with the stigmata and the community of the faithful. Indeed, for more than half a century the cult of Padre Pio represented the pressure of a "low" Church that mobilized the faithful not only for the Capuchin friar of San Giovanni Rotondo but against the representatives of the Church of Rome, whether they were ordinary priests of the diocese, emissaries of the Holy Office, or cardinals from the Apostolic Palace. At the same time, the movement behind Padre Pio would never have overcome institutional resistance had there not also been high-ranking Vatican officials who were enthusiasts about the Capuchin with the stigmata. Ultimately, it was only the ascendancy of one of these admirers—Karol Wojtyla, who was elected Pope John Paul II ten years after Padre Pio's death—that ended the decades of internal Vatican wrangling over the friar and assured his canonization.
Saints are always at the center of a kind of stage where they interact with other figures in society: with assorted suppliers of religion of varying degrees of orthodoxy; with consumers of religion from the skeptical to the credulous; and, in recent times, with enemies of religion who may be more or less pugnacious.36 Padre Pio was not exempt from this rule, and his personal story must thus be read alongside many other stories. To understand why the Capuchin friar merited the title of "the most important Italian of the twentieth century," even if only ironically, we must step back from the geographic particulars of San Giovanni Rotondo and from the specifics of one mystic's biography. A study of Padre Pio's life will only tell us something about twentieth-century Italian history if it tells us about collective experiences and practices, if it is able to illuminate landscapes larger than a place of pilgrimage and circumstances broader than a case of sainthood.
Arguably the most important phase of Padre Pio's life came in the 1920s and '30s, when haughty prelates and distinguished doctors, converted Freemasons and enterprising fixers, leading writers and blackshirted Fascists all took sides in the matter of the Capuchin friar with the stigmata. It was then that the small story of Padre Pio met the larger stream of Italian history—from the abstract ideals of "Soviet-style" socialism to the concrete brawling of the Blackshirts, from the Giolitti government's stolid inertia to Mussolini's crafty maneuvering. The 1920s, in particular, saw the emergence of what must be called clerico-fascism, a term that has sometimes been abused but remains the right one to mark the cultural and political "change of climate" that took place after the war.37 Although the interests of the regime and the Church did not always coincide, the ancient alliance between throne and altar found new expression in the fasces and the cross, the nightstick and the holy water.38 (Even before Benito Mussolini and Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the clergy had found common ground with the Fascists on a number of matters, such as the need to restore social order after the Great War, the all-out battle to defeat the "reds," and a plan to encourage Italian women to have more children.)39 In the 1930s, meanwhile, in intrigues worthy of a spy novel that have lain hidden under the dust of the archives, Padre Pio's destiny became intertwined with international politics: the Italian war in Ethiopia, the League of Nations, France's Popular Front, and Hitler's New Order.
It was only in the years after World War II, however—the era of media-savvy Catholicism promoted by Pius XII—that most Italians learned of Padre Pio's existence. By the 1950s and '60s, the little Capuchin monk had become a tabloid saint, a bona fide star with stigmata. In 1957 Padre Pio asked for and was granted a special dispensation from his vow of poverty, so that he could personally manage the wealth connected with the hospital he had founded in San Giovanni Rotondo. Against the order's pauperistic rhetoric, the aging Capuchin friar thus revived a concrete and economically realistic concept of charity toward the sick that had been part of the early Franciscan creed—charity that was all the more effective because it was market-minded and unashamed of itself.40 And after the Second Vatican Council reformed the liturgy in 1963 by introducing the vernacular mass, Padre Pio asked for and got another dispensation, permitting him to continue to celebrate mass in Latin. To the end of his life, the Capuchin monk continued to treat the mass as an arcane rite, whose mystery was guaranteed by the use of an incomprehensible language.41 The fascination of this strange man of faith, who combined mystical religiosity and capitalist entrepreneurship, was no small part of his attraction to the crowds of believers.
All these connections—the way that adventures of the Capuchin friar and his followers were closely interwoven with political matters and diplomatic affairs, police work and espionage, celebrity and atavism—must be kept in mind if we want to make sense of Padre Pio's story. Otherwise, it risks being no more than a petty tale of friars' quarrels, suspicious stigmata, and feats of illusionism.
A historian who wants to enter the world of Padre Pio and his followers—particularly his female followers—must get to know "Donna Bisodia," as the Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci called her. "Donna Bisodia" represents a world of superpious country women who, reciting the Paternoster in Latin without understanding the words, heard da nobis hodie ("give us today") as "Donna Bisodia," a lady they imagined was a model of Christian piety.42 At the same time, a historian investigating Padre Pio must not just descend into the depths of peasant society and popular religion—he must also climb.43 He must head up the Italian peninsula, as the cult of Padre Pio spread rapidly from the Gargano mountains of Puglia to the rest of Italy; up the social ranks, as Padre Pio's following began to include all social classes; and up the ladder of education and cultivation, for the Capuchin friar impressed not only the uncouth and the unlettered but Christian souls of distinguished learning and enviable wisdom.
Secular culture has not done much more than lampoon what nonbelievers see as "the imbecility of the poor in spirit" and the "doltishness of the perfect admirers of Padre Pio."44 The Livorno satirical rag Il Vernacoliere regularly announced the Capuchin friar's latest miracles.
Miracle n° 31: There's this nun who breaks her leg and it's another miracle of Padre Pio because she could've broken both of them. A-men.
Miracle n° X: There's a guy who's going to the barber and he's about to step in some shit and Padre Pio appears in front of him and he dodges to miss him and he doesn't step in the shit.45
Such ridicule can be a way to affirm the scientific view of the universe, to insist that science is not simply a mythology like any other.46 But to see the cult of Padre Pio only through the peephole of satire risks blinding us to the social and political significance of the collective experience that blossomed around him. Nor has Catholic culture done much better, leaving the story of their alter Christus to the hagiographers, who in their hundreds of volumes piled one upon another have given us a narrative that is spiritually prodigious but intellectually impoverished.
This book aims to restore Padre Pio of Pietrelcina to the place he deserves in twentieth-century history. It means to measure, in the friar's success story, the surprising vitality of the saint figure that the Middle Ages and the ancien régime have bequeathed to the modern world—a creature with many lives, a personage able to move from the lower registers to the high, from the here and now to the hereafter.47 Above all, it intends to show how Padre Pio's life speaks of us as much as of him. At nearly every moment between 1918 and 1968, the adventures and disasters, the epiphanies and eclipses, the triumphs and the defeats of the humble friar point to a broader, deeper story, a particular path toward modernity. It is a path of holy oil and charismatic power, a path on which the premodern and the postmodern, the reasonable and the improbable, the institutional and the homegrown, the religious and the political tend to merge as often as they stand as opposites. And it is not by chance that we meet along it, in addition to Padre Pio, so many other charismatic figures of the twentieth century, and other crowds ready to worship that quality—whatever it is—that makes certain ordinary people into extraordinary figures.
Excerpted from Padre Pio by Sergio Luzzatto
Copyright 2010 by Sergio Luzzatto
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.