This is my 120th post on These Stone Walls, not counting a few re-runs and special announcements. A newer reader told me recently that 120 past posts are just too many to try to catch up with, so he wanted me to list my five favorite posts for him to read. That’s not so easy given that I wrote them all and don’t consider any to be masterpieces of Western literature. I approached the task more with a view toward the five posts I am most glad to have written. In that light, my first and foremost recommendation is also the subject of this week’s post: “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata: Sanctity on Trial.”
If you’ve already read that post, it forms the basis for this one so you might want to visit it again – perhaps to commemorate Saint Padre Pio’s Feast Day, September 23rd. It’s an account that explores the depths of Padre Pio’s suffering, and the immensity of love that the Church now has for him for having endured it all with heroic virtue.
Lest you wonder what my other four “glad I wrote them” posts are, it strikes me that none of them are my multiple posts about the scandal we have all lived in for the last decade (and much longer for me). Those were painful to write, but necessary.
No, the other posts I am most glad to have written are more hopeful and uplifting. They are “A Corner of the Veil” (12/02/2009) about the death of my mother during my imprisonment; “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed” (9/29/2010) about the balance between justice and mercy symbolized in Saint Michael’s scales; “The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from Saint Maximilian Kolbe” (7/28/2010) about my and Pornchai Moontri’s decisions to offer our days in prison as a share in the suffering of Christ – the most important thing we have ever done. Finally, “A Day Without Yesterday: Father Georges LeMaitre and The Big Bang” (6/30/2010) rounds out the five. That post got a “Ho-hum” from some readers, but through it I came to deeply admire Father Georges LeMaitre as a personal hero of both faith and science. It was even republished on a few Catholic science sites.
Many readers know by now that I share an important date with Padre Pio. September 23, the date of his death in 1968, is also the date that I was convicted and sent to prison in 1994 – seventeen years ago. I didn’t realize at the time that it was Padre Pio’s feast day. He wasn’t exactly on my mind as I was led in chains passed the TV cameras and jeering crowd to a prison-bound van. September 23 was the date upon which I last saw freedom, and for Padre Pio it was the date he last saw life on this Earth.
I don’t want to just re-write “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata” for this post. You can read it for yourselves, and I hope it reflects the immense spiritual respect and devotion I have come to have for Padre Pio. When I first came to this prison, he did not even enter into the sphere of what influenced me. I gave not a second thought to Padre Pio. I cannot really pinpoint when or how it happened, but he reached into these stone walls and gave me hope. It’s as though we share the deepest of friendships, but I could not begin to describe how and when we met.
His reaching out to me came first, then I researched his life and discovered the extent to which he suffered in our Church from the crushing weight of false accusation. I now embrace him not just as a friend and brother, but as a mentor and an icon of hope.
PADRE PIO DEFAMED
It was at the very beginning of this inquiry into the life of Saint Padre Pio that he sent an emissary to me. After Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote “A Priest’s Story” for The Wall Street Journal in 2005, Pierre Matthews traveled from Belgium to visit me in prison. These Stone Walls – the blog – had not yet been conceived of. Pierre had no idea of my growing devotion to Padre Pio when he described having met him and being blessed by him as a teenager in the 1950s at San Giovanni Rotondo.
After Pierre’s visit, suddenly Padre Pio was everywhere inside these stone walls. People started sending me images of him. Then in 2005, Bill Donohue at The Catholic League asked if I would write an article about the sex abuse scandal for The Catholic League Journal, Catalyst. The result was “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud,” the lead article in the November 2005 issue of Catalyst. When I got a hard copy in the mail, I was surprised to see that I shared the cover with “Padre Pio Defamed,” a Catholic League editorial exposing shameless attacks on Padre Pio in The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. I wrote of these articles in “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata.” It was my first real awareness that I shared something else with Padre Pio: the millstone of false witness.
I want to confess something shocking to you. There was a time in my life when I doubted the legitimacy of Padre Pio’s Stigmata. I began religious life as a Capuchin, a member of Saint Padre Pio’s own order. As a friar in simple vows, I was studying psychology at Saint Anselm College, a Benedictine school in Manchester, New Hampshire from which I graduated with honors in 1978. I spent much of the 1970s immersed in the latest theories of pop psychology, and I enthusiastically embraced its attempts to replace religion and faith with psychology’s “spirituality of today.” I was more interested at the time in studying Maslow and Freud than Aquinas and the Patristics.
One of my friends and mentors in the Capuchins back then was a much younger Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel who still corresponds with me to this very day. He wrote one day to congratulate me for a post on These Stone Walls.
Father Groeschel steered me back then more toward the Jesuits, in which my uncle, the late Father George W. MacRae was rather famous at the time, but I ended up studying to be a diocesan priest.
Today, I see the movements of pop psychology of the 1970s for the great frauds that they were, and see the immense harm they have done to faith, including faith in ourselves.
An example of the fraud perpetuated by psychology was recently published by Ryan A. MacDonald in “How Psychotherapists Helped Send an Innocent Priest to Prison” at his blog A Ram in the Thicket.
In the sixties and seventies, reverence for heroic virtue gave way to the “me first” generation. I remember as a Capuchin novice arguing with my fellow friars that a spiritual conclusion about Padre Pio’s Stigmata was entirely unnecessary. Psychology could explain it away. At worst, he was a fraud, I said, an icon of the popular hysteria of people desperate for a sign. At best, he psychologically induced his own wounds. I was 20-something and knew everything, and became convinced that my own intellect reigned supreme. The sacred had little to say to me. My only defense today is a quote from St. Paul:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
In other words, I grew up, and stopped acting like a … well, you get the point! I look back at those times and thank the Lord for the crucible of lessons that cast out such idiocy from within me. I recognize intellectual arrogance today because the very first time I saw it, it was staring back at me from the mirror. Like King Saul said to David (1 Samuel 26:12) “I have played the fool and have erred exceedingly.” And as I wrote in my Pentecost post, “Inherit the Wind: Pentecost and the Breath of God“:
“He who troubles his household will inherit the wind, and the fool will be a servant to the wise.” (Proverbs 11:29)
I have been a servant to the wise ever since, and one of those whose cause I serve is Saint Padre Pio. Now if I could just be a little more like him in the face of false witness. I do not have his heroic virtue. I have only his example of it, and practicing any of it is costly to me.
WHY FATHER JOHN CORAPI DIDN’T MEASURE UP
After I wrote “Father John Corapi’s Kafkaesque Catch-22,” a lot of comments about his situation from other blogs were sent to me. Both admirers and detractors of Father Corapi seemed disappointed with his response to being accused. Some felt downright betrayed by his announcement that he was leaving ministry without a fight. A number of commenters, and some letters to the editors of Catholic newspapers and magazines, seemed unable to help comparing Father Corapi’s post-accusation demeanor with that of Padre Pio who suffered under similar and far more chronic accusations in his life and priesthood, and suffered them while also bearing the visible wounds of Christ.
The comparisons of the reactions of these two priests – a half-century and an ocean apart – have some built-in problems. I’d like to think that Padre Pio would respond today as he did back then – with heroic virtue. That’s going to be the bottom line. Padre Pio did everything with heroic virtue, and just how heroic it was is something I learned from a recently published book, Padre Pio Under Investigation by Francesco Castelli (Ignatius Press 2011).
This book is an exhaustive manual of how Padre Pio was physically, psychologically, and spiritually dissected by entities both inside and outside of the Church intent upon proving that his wounds were a sham – either intentionally inflicted or not.
Early on in the investigations, three conclusions took shape: first, the wounds were the result of “self-stigmatization” through external suggestion (a kind of hypnotic response); second, the wounds were unintentionally self-inflicted “through auto-suggestion” (the sort of idiocy I bought into in the 1970s); and third, the wounds were self-inflicted “through chemical and physical means.” (Padre Pio Under Investigation, p. 112). Like so many such investigations, the investigators drew the above conclusions and then set out to find evidence to support them and their own egos while ignoring evidence that did not. That sure feels familiar to me.
When the investigations failed to DISPROVE a spiritual basis for Padre Pio’s wounds, the real battle for his soul began. He became the subject of repeated, foul, and entirely false accusations of sex abuse and misconduct in the confessional and elsewhere. His most prolific accusers were Catholic priests and bishops who finally recanted, and ended up praying for Padre Pio’s intercession on their own deathbeds. The fact that Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul the Great on June 16, 2002 – at the very height of the American Catholic sex abuse scandal – is to me a great vindication that heroic virtue prevails over false witness.
But the time we are in now is different. On the cover of that November 2005 Catalyst, right next to the article exposing detractors of Saint Padre Pio, Catholic League President Bill Donohue was quoted from an episode of NBC’s “Today” Show (10/13/2005)in which he was talking about me:
“There’s no segment of the American population which has less civil liberties protection than the average American Catholic priest. And there are 42,000 of them. And most of them are good men.”
I AM NOT PADRE PIO
It’s not quite fair to contrast Father John Corapi’s response to similar events – or mine for that matter – with Padre Pio’s. I cannot speak for Father Corapi, but as I wrote above, I am not Padre Pio. I have none of his heroic virtue, little of his faith and courage, and only an inkling of the surrender he had to practice every day for fifty years trapped in the prison of San Giovanni Rotondo, bearing his wounds, while repeatedly being shut off from ministry during investigations in which he lived under a dark cloud. But live he did, and even under that cloud he continued to draw the reverence and spiritual pleas of millions across the globe.
In a sense, however, the time in which Father John Corapi and I faced accusations is also not so different from Padre Pio’s. Some of the same dynamics are at work by people with their minds made up and intent on finding evidence to support their bias while suppressing everything that refutes it. Common sense is finally telling the Church in America – lulled into a pop psychology of victimhood propelled by people who have pocketed an outrageous $2.6 billion in settlements – that some claims against Catholic priests are frauds that should not be acquiesced to. Some experts have said that up to fifty percent of them have been frauds.
Controlling this information has been a lot like the investigations into Padre Pio. In his report on “SNAP Exposed,” for example, Bill Donohue cited the leaders of BishopAccountability as contributing to SNAP’s distortions of today’s priesthood scandal while suppressing the rights of priests accused. I have a first hand example of this. BishopAccountability has published all the dirt they could find about me, but when writer Ryan A. MacDonald published two investigative reports challenging much of that dirt, the leaders of BishopAccountability refused to even acknowledge his efforts to have them publish his conclusions. They had their story and didn’t want anything else in print.
I wonder how Padre Pio would respond to the orchestrated attacks on priests by fellow Catholics in SNAP, VOTF and BishopAccountability. I suspect that he would content himself with the fact that God knows all truth, and he would offer Mass for them. I cannot tell you in words how bitterly distasteful that prospect is at this moment because I am rightfully angry with these people. But there really is no way around it. I’ll never have Padre Pio’s virtue or faith, but I do have his example. Saints do not exist just to intercede for us. They exist primarily to give us example.
So I am going to offer Mass for David Clohessy and Barbara Blaine of SNAP, and Anne Barrett Doyle and Terrence McKiernan of BishopAccountability. They may even be the first to bristle at the thought, but I invite you also, in the spirit of Saint Padre Pio, to pray for the opening of these closed minds and darkened souls. They have responded to their own wounds with a campaign of bitterness that never ends. It has become their religion.
After reading “The Truth About SNAP” by Bill Donohue in the September 2011 Catalyst, I believe that nothing will move them from such bitterness but prayer. I will offer Mass for them on the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, September 23rd, the completion of my seventeenth year in prison for crimes that never took place.
The September 2011 issue of Catalyst also has an endorsement of These Stone Walls by The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. I am very moved by it and I hope TSW readers are as well. Here is the comment by Catalyst staff:
“This issue is loaded with news about attacks on the Church stemming from the professional victims’ lobby. If you want to read about a priest who has persistently maintained his innocence, and is sitting in a New Hampshire prison, check out his Internet site, www.TheseStoneWalls.com and read about the plight of Fr. Gordon MacRae. You can decide for yourself whether he was treated fairly.”
It was an endorsement that was nice to see, but on the same day I saw it, I also came across an old, undated issue of Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s “Immaculata” magazine. It was published in the early 1980′s, some forty years after Saint Maximilian’s imprisonment and execution at Auschwitz that I described in “Saints and Sacrifices.” The entire, undated issue of “Immaculata” is dedicated to Padre Pio.
There is no evidence anywhere that Father Maximilian Kolbe ever knew of Padre Pio. But this issue contains evidence that Padre Pio was well aware of Father Maximilian Kolbe and the sacrifice of his life for a fellow prisoner. In the issue, a friar in Saint Maximilian’s community wrote to Padre Pio. The young friar had dreamed about a glorious ministry in some far off land, but his provincial assigned him instead to minister to a local chapter of Father Kolbe’s Militia of the Immaculata (MI). Padre Pio’s advice was to embrace it, and to do what the M.I. prescribed: to make an offering of each day to the Immaculate. Who am I to argue with such advice? I have long since put aside any doubt of Padre Pio.
From the Spiritual Counsels of Padre Pio:
“That which comes from Satan begins with calmness and ends in storm, indifference, and apathy.”
“The field of battle between God and Satan is the human soul. It is in the soul that the battle rages every moment of life. The soul must give free access to the Lord so that it be fortified by Him in every respect and with all kinds of weapons; that His light may enlighten it to combat the darkness of error; that it be clothed with Jesus Christ, with His justice, truth, the shield of faith, the Word of God, in order to conquer such spiritual enemies. To be clothed with Jesus Christ, it is necessary to die to oneself.”
(Excerpts from the booklet, “Padre Pio Counsels,” National Center of Padre Pio, Norristown, PA)