Padre Pio’s priesthood was impugned by the agendas of others within the Church. His canonization at the peak of scandal in 2002 is a prophetic witness to justice.
All eyes are on Pope Francis as he visits America this week to cheers from the left and a sense of discomfort from the right. I still think this Pope is not so easy to categorize according to the things that divide the rest of us. It’s a point I have made in a dozen posts about him, most notably in “A Man for All Seasons” and “Pope Francis and the Scandal of Listening.”
It is said that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” but in the Church in the modern world, the pen is much more likely than the sword to get a priest silenced. Our friend, Father George David Byers has his voice back, an invitation from the Church’s highest Earthly authority. This positive news was recently reported on the popular “Father Z’s blog.”
Father George’s new site, “Arise! Let Us Be Going!” updates us on developments in the Synod on the Family and related matters. He covers them well, with depth, and makes us think. In a recent posting, “Tribunals and Terrorists,” Father George raised a very important question. Pope Francis has recently announced a pastoral simplification of the annulment process for the whole Church during the upcoming Year of Mercy. As now seems a typical response to this Pope’s priorities, some voices on the conservative or Traditionalist right – canon lawyers among them – quickly protested that his pastoral concern undermines the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the sacramental bond.
Their concern is well taken, and I am not without sympathy for conservative voices, especially those well versed in canon law and pastoral theology. But I must echo Father George’s bold question, and even expand it a bit. Where were your voices of concern for the integrity of the sacrament when hundreds of accused priests were “laicized” – dismissed from the clerical state – with no more due process than the mere administrative stroke of a pen? Where were your voices demanding sacramental integrity when elderly priests were cast out of the priesthood, sometimes alone and homeless, because of claims and demands for money from thirty, forty, fifty years ago?
Where was your defense of the sacramental bond when officials of the Holy See were grilled by an agenda-driven U.N. committee – an event I reported in “The United Nations High Commissioner of Hypocrisy” – then defended the Church by reporting that hundreds of priests have been summarily dismissed to quell the scapegoat scandal of this age? Where were your concerns for the integrity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for the sacramental bond, for the theology of priesthood, for the rule of law, all routinely abandoned for the sake of expediency?
THE SHAMING OF PADRE PIO
“Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests” has, above all other considerations, spawned a shameless utilitarian value for other agendas on both the left and the right in our Church. I have seen the subject of priestly scandal used, misused, exploited and abused most blatantly on the political and theological left. One day soon, I plan to write of that betrayal by those on the left, many of whom blindly believed every claim in the sex abuse scandal, not because there was evidence, but because they became predisposed to believe the worst of their priests.
For too many and for too long on the left, believing the worst of us was a convenient tool to further an agenda to which many became far more faithful and devoted than they were to their faith. When the time comes to write of this, I have too many examples to fit into a single TSW post.
But the conservative and Traditionalist right has also shown its ideological hand. On the day I ask the pointed questions above, I mark 21 years since I was first bound in chains and taken off to prison. It was 7,670 days and nights ago, the morning of September 23, 1994, and the chains at my feet are no lighter now than they were then. There’s a well known photo of the scene which last appeared in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article by Dorothy Rabinowitz, “The Trials of Father MacRae.”
On this same day, September 23, the Church honors Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, commonly known as Saint Padre Pio, as rare and mysterious in death as he was in life. Over time behind These Stone Walls, he inserted himself into my life as a priest and prisoner, and revealed bonds of connection with me, and with our friend Pornchai Moontri, that I have previously described in “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata.”
Without a doubt, both in this life and the next, Padre Pio was and is strange and wonderful. I treasure his witness in life, his spiritual support in death, and his heavenly advocacy for just this reason. The two events – my imprisonment and his Feast Day – are now linked together in my mind and spirit. I have written of this each year since TSW began, most notably and most hauntingly in my post, “I Am a Mystery to Myself! The Last Days of Padre Pio.”
But please do not misunderstand why I cite him today. I am not at all like him. I don’t have a fraction of Padre Pio’s heroic virtue and in this post I want to explore what his virtue was up against in the Church. Some of this you may have read here before, and some of it will surprise you just as it surprised me. I know today – as we all must come to know – that I am one of the sources of the wounds of Christ.
I was also one of the sources, though a relatively minor one, of the stigmatization of the priesthood of Francesco Forgione, Padre Pio, who came to be known in life as a living saint. In modern times only Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived her life under such a popularly acclaimed title. Padre Pio was credited by fellow friars in the Capuchin order in Italy with over 1,000 miracles by the time of his death on September 23, 1968.
For many Capuchins and others in the United States, however, it was a different picture. At the time of Padre Pio’s death, the Second Vatican Council had just happened. A sweeping change in the popular mindset of Catholicism was underway, embraced at times with hubris and insensitivity by many of its leaders. For younger readers who do not recall this catastrophic time in and around the Church, see my post, “Vatican II Turns Fifty: Catholic in an Age of Discontent.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the stories of Padre Pio, “The Living Saint of San Giovanni Rotondo,” in the Old World were seen very differently by some in the New. I know this because I was one of them. As a young member of the Capuchin order studying for the priesthood in the 1970s, I joined those – both in and outside the order – who scoffed at the stories of Padre Pio. Using the shallow pop psychology of the day-that for too many of us replaced faith, we explained away his stigmata, the myths of bilocation, the stories of healings and deliverance, as the result of hysteria in the minds and hearts of believers.
For many at the time – including me – it was believed that the winds of the Holy Spirit were stifled rather than strengthened by such-stories. I bought into all the new age pop psychology attributing to “Old World” piety the accounts of Padre Pio’s gifts. Like many, I did not see these gifts as being in the service of Christ or the Church. For my part, it wasn’t just that I was misinformed. I chose what I allowed to inform me, and at times I chose poorly.
Some of the wisest fools in the world are those who today look upon their own folly, and see the clear and plain truth of it. I want that sentence engraved on my tombstone.
THANK GOD THE SIXTIES ARE OVER
But I was certainly not alone in this denouncement of Padre Pio. In 1960, just before the Second Vatican Council was convened under the authority of Pope (now Saint) John XXIII, the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suspended Padre Pio’s ministry as a priest. This is described in a passage from Making Saints (Simon & Schuster 1990) by Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth Woodward. Part of this passage might shock you, as it did me:
“The Holy Office severely limited [Padre Pio’s] contact with the public in order to reduce what the Congregation’s Prefect, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani perceived as ‘acts that have the character of a cult directed toward the person of the padre.’ Nor was Ottaviani, the conservative defender of Catholic orthodoxy, alone in that assessment. That same year Bishop Albino Luciani…who later became Pope John Paul I, dismissed the ministry of Padre Pio.” (Making Saints, p. 186)
Thus, the man who was to be elected pope for just 33 days in 1978 had, eighteen years earlier, dismissed the ministry of Padre Pio suggesting that it caters to a misplaced “craving for the supernatural and the unusual.” According to Kenneth Woodward, the future Pope John Paul I spoke for many bishops and priests of the time who believed that the faithful were misled by the cult of Padre Pio, and sought to sideline his priesthood.
The Holy Spirit will not be undone by any Earthly means. In 1947, a newly ordained young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyła made his way to San Giovanni Rotondo monastery to confess to Padre Pio. After the absolution, Padre Pio casually added, “Someday you will be pope.”
As Archbishop of Crakow in 1962, Karol Wojtyła wrote a letter to the silenced and sidelined Padre Pio. The letter asked him to pray for a woman, a Polish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who was dying of cancer. Padre Pio promised to do as asked. Weeks later, Archbishop Wojtyła wrote again to inform the Padre that the woman had been miraculously cured. But Padre Pio already knew that. Six years later, in 1968, Padre Pio died, an event I described in “I Am a Mystery to Myself!”
In 1972, Archbishop Wojtyła joined other Polish bishops in writing a postulatory letter in support of Padre Pio’s cause. The Holy Spirit had the last word on Padre Pio. In October, 1978, Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope in the second Conclave in a month, becoming Pope John Paul II after one of Padre Pio’s earlier detractors, the man who became Pope John Paul I, died after just 33 days on the Chair of Peter.
At the time Kenneth Woodward published Making Saints in 1990, he lamented “a general reluctance on the part of virtually everyone in Rome to speak about the cause of Padre Pio.” And, at the time of Padre Pio’s death on September 23, 1968, there was a coverup – literally. Father Paolo Rossi, who served as Postulator General for the Capuchins in Italy in the 1980s described it:
“Not many people realize that a few months before he died, Padre Pio’s stigmata disappeared. The friars, you see, covered his hands and feet for the funeral because otherwise people would have asked why the wounds were no longer on his body. There weren’t even any scars on the body.” (Making Saints, p. 187)
I wrote of this same phenomenon in “I Am a Mystery to Myself! The Last Days of Padre Pio.” The wounds that he bore for exactly fifty years began to disappear before he died, and three days before he died, they were gone completely.
The problem for the Church at the time was that the process of beatification first required demonstrating a candidate’s heroic virtue. Only then can mystical phenonena surrounding the saint be examined. In the case of Padre Pio, the mystical was so overwhelming that it overshadowed everything else about him, and establishing that he lived a heroically virtuous life became difficult, if not impossible. No one could easily separate the man from the legends about him, and in the course of his own lifetime, Padre Pio had detractors – mostly among members of his own order, and among some bishops and priests. In my post, “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata,” I wrote about the protests and motives of these detractors.
Padre Pio’s priesthood was maligned, mostly by those jealous of, or threatened by, his immense popularity. As is the case today, accusations of sexual misconduct were the most effective means by which to sideline a priest. And just as today, there were those in the Church always predisposed to believe such claims, not because of truth or evidence, but because they served a purpose, another agenda. It is the worst form of calumny when the lie serves but one purpose: to justify those self-righteously predisposed against someone. When that someone is a priest, sexual rumors are like ebola, highly contagious, spreading like wildfire. I know this first hand.
So Padre Pio was accused, and like today each false claim was used as a precedent for the next. Then the wounds he bore for fifty years were maligned as fake, self-induced, or, at best, psychologically induced. Padre Pio became a suspect within his own order, and within the priesthood, and he suffered greatly.
His suspension from offering Mass in public, and from hearing confessions, was the harshest penalty he could face, but he committed no crime that should have or could have brought that about. It was all fake. It was nothing but unfounded rumor and innuendo, and it continued right up to the time of his Canonization by the second Pope John Paul at the height of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal of 2002.
It was a tribute to two saints: Padre Pio himself, and the courage of the one who canonized him, Saint John Paul II. Today, Padre Pio’s tomb is the most visited Catholic shrine in all the world.
“But I can say this: people would better understand the virtue of the man if they knew the degree of hostility he experienced from the church [and] from his own family of friars… The hostility went all the way up to the Holy Office and the Vatican. Faulty information was being given to the church authorities and they acted on that information. (Vice-Postulator Father Paolo Rossi in Making Saints, p. 188)
Update for the Week