“Six Degrees of Separation,” a famous play by John Guare, became a 1993 film starring Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, and Stockard Channing. The plot revolved around a theory proposed in 1967 by sociologist Stanley Milgram and Frigyes Karinthy. Wikipedia describes “Six Degrees of Separation” as:
“The idea that everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of ‘a friend of a friend’ statements can be made to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.”
It’s an intriguing idea, and sometimes the connections are eerie. In June I wrote “A Day Without Yesterday” about my long-time hero, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, the priest-physicist who changed the mind of Albert Einstein on the creation of the Universe. A few weeks after my post, a letter arrived from my good friend, Pierre Matthews in Belgium. Pierre sent me a photo of himself as a young man posing with his family and a family friend, the famous Father Lemaitre, in Switzerland in 1956. In a second photo, Pierre had just served Mass with the famous priest who later autographed the photo.
When I wrote of Father Lemaitre in June, I had no idea there are but two degrees of separation between me and this Belgian priest-scientist I’ve so long admired. The common connection we share with Pierre Matthews – not to mention the autographed photo – left me awestruck. The mathematical odds against such a connection are staggering. Something very similar happened a year ago, also involving Pierre Matthews. It still jolts my senses when I think of it. The common bond this time was with (Saint) Padre Pio, and I wrote of it in “Stigmatized” last year for Padre Pio’s feast day on September 23.
When Pierre visited me in prison last year, I told him about These Stone Walls which had been launched just two weeks earlier. When I told Pierre that I chose Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Padre Pio as the patrons of TSW, Pierre quietly and modestly said, “I’ve met Padre Pio.”
Pierre’s casual remark dropped like a bomb on our conversation. Just a day earlier, I decided to write “Stigmatized,” my post for Saint Pio’s Feast Day last year. It was then that I added Padre Pio’s name to our “About” page making him one of the patrons of TSW. What were the odds that a day later I would be sitting at a table in the prison visiting room with a man who traveled from Europe to tell me of how he met Padre Pio. The saint imposed his wounded and bandaged hands in blessing upon Pierre’s head over a half century earlier. I wrote of their encounter in “Stigmatized“:
“The labyrinthine ways of grace are far beyond my understanding . . . Pierre told me that as a youth growing up in Europe, his father enrolled him in a boarding school. When he wrote to his father about a planned visit to central Italy, his father instructed him to visit San Giovanni Rotondo and ask for Padre Pio’s blessing. Pierre, a teenager at the time, went to San Giovanni and waited for hours. Padre Pio was nowhere to be seen.
Pierre then approached a friar and asked if he could see Padre Pio. ‘Impossible!’ he was told. Just then, he looked up and saw the famous Stigmatic walking down the stairs toward him. Padre Pio’s hands were bandaged and he wore gloves. The friar, following the young man’s gaze, whispered in Italian, ‘Do not touch his hands.’ Pierre trembled as he approached Padre Pio who placed his bandage hands upon Pierre’s head and whispered his blessing.
Fifty-five years later, in the visiting room of the New Hampshire State Prison, Pierre bowed his head and asked for my blessing. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I placed my hand upon Pierre knowing that the spiritual imprint of Padre Pio’s blessing was still in and upon this man, and I was overwhelmed to share in it.”
This wasn’t the first time I shared space with Padre Pio. A few years ago (November 2005) we shared the cover of Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. I also share a painful date with Padre Pio. September 23 was the date he died in 1968. On September 23, 1994 I was put into chains and taken to prison to begin a life sentence for a crime that never took place.
That’s why we shared that cover of Catalyst. Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote of his appearance on NBC’s “Today” show on October 13, 2005 during which he spoke of my trial and imprisonment declaring, “There is no segment of the American population with less civil liberties protection than the average American Catholic priest.” That issue of Catalyst also contained my first major article for The Catholic League, “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud” written from prison in 2005.
THE INDICTMENT OF HEROIC VIRTUE
Padre Pio was on that Catalyst cover because three years after he was canonized by Pope John Paul II, Atlantic Monthly magazine carried a brief article by Tyler Cabot entitled “The Rocky Road to Sainthood” (November 2005). Of one of the most revered priests in Church history, Cabot wrote:
“Despite questions raised by two papal emissaries – and despite reported evidence that he raised money for right wing religious groups and had sex with penitents – [Padre] Pio was canonized in 2002.”
I’m not sure whether the bigger scandal for Tyler Cabot and Atlantic Monthly was the sexual accusation or “raising money for right-wing religious groups.” Bill Donohue expressed surprise that such a “highly regarded magazine would publish such trash.” I was more dismayed than surprised by the irresponsibility. Yes, it’s irresponsible to tell half the story and present it as the truth.
It wasn’t the first time such attacks were launched against Padre Pio. Four years before his canonization, and thirty years after his death, The New York Times (September 24, 1998) carried an article charging that Padre Pio was the subject of no less than twelve Vatican investigations in his lifetime, and one of the investigations alleged that “Padre Pio had sex with female penitents twice a week.” It’s true that this was alleged, but it’s not the whole truth. The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly are simply following an agenda I’ve described before. That should come as no surprise to anyone. I’ll describe below why these wild claims fell apart under scrutiny.
But first, I must write the sordid story of why Padre Pio was so accused. That’s the real scandal. It’s the story of how Padre Pio responded with heroic virtue to the experience of being falsely accused repeatedly from within the Church. This heroic virtue in the face of accusation is a space we simply do not share. It far exceeds any grace ever given to me.
Early in the morning of September 20, 1918, at the age of 31, Francesco Forgione, known to the world as Padre Pio, received the Stigmata of Christ. He was horrified, and he begged the Lord to reconsider. Each morning in the month to follow, Padre Pio awoke with the hope that the wounds would be gone. He was terrified. After a month with the wounds, Padre Pio wrote a note to Padre Benedetto, his spiritual advisor, describing in simple, matter of fact terms what happened on that morning:
“On the morning of the 20th of last month, in the choir, after I had celebrated Mass . . . I saw before me a mysterious person similar to the one I had seen on the evening of 5 August. The only difference was that his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. The sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should die and really should have died if the Lord had not intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest.”
“The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands and feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday.
Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition.
Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs? I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away . . . these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation.” (Letters 1, No. 511).
And so it began. What Padre Pio faced that September morning set in motion five decades of suspicion, accusation, and denunciation not from the secular world, but from the Catholic one. From within his own Church, Padre Pio’s visible wounds brought about exactly what he feared in his pleading letter to his spiritual director. The wounds signified in Padre Pio exactly what they first signified in Christ: utter humiliation.
Within a year, as news of the Stigmata spread throughout the region, the people began to protest a rumor that Padre Pio might be moved from San Giovanni Rotondo. This brought increased scrutiny within the Church as the stories of Padre Pio’s special graces spread throughout Europe like a wildfire.
By June of 1922, just four years after the Stigmata, the Vatican’s Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) began to restrict the public’s access to Padre Pio who was accused of self-inflicting his own wounds and sexually abusing penitents. He was even accused of being a political agitator for a fascist group, and helping to incite a riot. His accusers included fellow friars, and neighboring priests, bishops, and archbishops increasingly threatened by Padre Pio’s growing fame and influence. A physician and founder of Rome’s Catholic university hospital labeled Padre Pio, sight unseen, “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited peoples’ credulity.”
Padre Pio and I have this one thing in common. You would not believe some of the things I’ve been called, sight unseen, by people presenting themselves as the voice of the faithful.
From 1924 to 1931, accusation after accusation was investigated by the Holy See which issued a series of official statements denying the supernatural origin of Pio’s wounds and the legitimacy of his gifts. At one point, the charge that his wounds were self-inflicted was withdrawn. Several legitimate examinations found no evidence for this. It was then charged that Padre Pio’s wounds were psychologically self-induced because of his “persistent concentration on the passion of Christ.”
Finally, in the one instance in which I can personally relate to Padre Pio, he responded with sheer exasperation at his accusers: “Go out to the fields,” he wrote, “and look very closely at a bull. Concentrate on him with all your might. Do this and see if horns grow on your head!”
By June of 1931, Padre Pio was receiving hundreds of letters daily from the faithful asking for prayers. Meanwhile, the Holy See ordered him to desist from public ministry. He was barred from offering Mass in public, barred from hearing confessions, and barred from any public appearance as sexual abuse charges against him were formally investigated – again.
Finally, in 1933, Pope Pius XI ordered the Holy Office to reverse its ban on Padre Pio’s public celebration of Mass. The Holy Father wrote, closing the investigation: “I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed.” Over the succeeding year his faculties to function as a priest were progressively restored. He was permitted to hear men’s confessions in March of 1934 and the confessions of women two months later.
ONE AMONG YOU WILL BETRAY ME
The accusations of sexual abuse, insanity, and fraud did not end there. They followed Padre Pio relentlessly for years. In 1960, Rome once again restricted his public ministry citing concerns that his popularity had grown out of control.
An area priest, Father Carlo Maccari, added to the furor by once again accusing the now 73-year-old Padre Pio of engaging in sex with female penitents “twice a week.” Father Maccari went on to become an archbishop, then admitted to his lie and asked for forgiveness in a public recantation on his deathbed.
When Padre Pio’s ministry was again restored, the daily lines at his confessional grew longer, and the clamoring of all of Europe seeking his blessing and his prayers grew louder. It was at this time that my friend, Pierre Matthews encountered the beleaguered and wounded saint on the stairs at San Giovanni.
The immense volume of daily letters from the faithful also continued. In 1962, Padre Pio received a pleading letter from Archbishop Karol Wotyla of Krakow in Poland. The Archbishop’s good friend, psychiatrist Wanda Poltawska, was stricken with terminal cancer and the future pope took a leap of faith to ask for Padre Pio’s prayers. When Dr. Poltawska appeared for surgery weeks later, the mass of cancer had disappeared. News of the miraculous healing reached Archbishop Wotyla on the eve of his leaving for Rome on October 5, 1962 for the convening of the Second Vatican Council.
Former Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth Woodward wrote a riveting book entitled Making Saints (Simon & Shuster, 1990). In a masterfully written segment on Padre pio twelve years before his canonization, Kenneth Woodward interviewed Father Paolo Rossi, the Postulator General of the Capuchin Order and the man charged with investigating Padre Pio’s cause for sainthood. Fr. Rossi was asked how he expects to demonstrate Padre Pio’s heroic virtue. The priest responded:
“People would better understand the virtue of the man if they knew the degree of hostility he experienced from the Church . . . The Order itself was told to act in a certain way toward Padre Pio. The hostility went all the way up to the Holy Office, and the Vatican Secretariat of State. Faulty information was given to the Church authorities and they acted on that information.” (Making Saints, p.188).
It is one of the Church’s great ironies that Saint Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002 just as the U.S. bishops were implementing a response to the newest media furor about accused U.S. priests. The irony is that if the charter the bishops adopted was imposed in Italy forty years earlier, Padre Pio may have been denied any legitimate chance of ever clearing his name. The investigations that eventually exposed those lies simply do not take place in the current milieu.
I’ll live with that irony, and I’m glad Padre Pio didn’t have to. Everything else he wrote to his spiritual director on that fateful morning of September 20, 1918 came to pass. He suffered more than the wounds of Christ. He suffered the betrayal of Christ, and the humiliation of Christ, and the scourging of Christ, and he suffered them relentlessly for fifty years. As Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote of him in First Things (June/July 2008):
“With Padre Pio, the anguish is not the absence of God, but the unsupportable weight of His presence.”
Fifty years after receiving the Stigmata, Padre Pio’s wounds disappeared. They left no scar – no trace that he ever even had them. Three days later, on September 23, 1968, Padre Pio died. I was fifteen years old – the age at which he began religious life.
Last April, the body of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was moved from its shrine at San Giovanni Rotondo to a new church named in his honor by Pope Benedict XVI. Padre Pio’s tomb is the third most visited Catholic shrine in the world after the Vatican itself and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The New York Times might still spread another story, but the people of God have spoken. Padre pio was canonized by the sensus fidelium – by the near universal acclaim of believers long before the Church ratified their belief. Padre Pio is a saint of the people.
Last year, a priest in Dallas – who hadn’t read “Stigmatized” and didn’t even know that I wrote it – sent me a relic of Saint pio encased in plastic. He later wrote that he doesn’t know why he sent it, and realized too late that it might not make it passed the prison censors. Indeed, the relic was refused by prison staff because they couldn’t figure out what it was. Instead of being returned to sender as it should have been, it made its way somehow to the prison chaplain who gave it to me.
The relic of Saint Pio is affixed on my typewriter, just inches from my fingers at this moment. It’s a reminder, when I’m writing, of his presence behind These Stone Walls, the ones that imprison me and the one I write for. The relic’s card bears a few lines in Italian by Padre Pio:
“Due cose al mondo non ti abbandonano mai, l’occhio di Dio che sempre ti vede e il cuore della mamma che sempre ti segue.”
“There are two things in the world that will never forsake you: the eye of God that always sees you, and the heart of His Mother that always follows you.” (Padre Pio)
Saints alive! May I never forget it!
For more information on Padre Pio’s life, Words of Light (Paraclete Press, 2008) is a wonderful selection of the thousands of letters written by Padre Pio to people who sought his counsel. The Padre Pio Foundation of America based in Cromwell, CT has a website at www.PadrePio.com.