The National Catholic Reporter published an open letter from renowned theologian, Hans Kung, to Pope Francis three days ago (read it here), and it's a lovely letter, full of wisdom, courtesy and restraint - besides restating Kung's long held views on infallibility, the terrible harm the 'dogma' has caused the church, clogging up the process of reform. and the need to completely rethink it. What struck me was the warm, sympathetic tone with which Kung addressed the Pope, whom he says has always responded to his letters as a brother. And that is the evidently good side of Francis that so impressed so many of us early on in his career as 'the Bishop of Rome.' Kung also reminded us of the enormous opposition Francis faces at almost every turn, no matter what decisions he might make. I found that comment helpful to me, as a timely reminder, in light of my own questions regarding some of his behavior and decisions, most recently the procession of Padre Pio's remains into St. Peters and his 'refusal' to meet the Australian abuse survivors. Two comments at NCR also were a help to me, and I paraphrase: "The poor man, if he makes any radical change the whole structure will come tumbling down like a house of cards" - and - "the curial forces have him right where they want him, to ensure he makes no decisions that disturb the peace of the family." And so, I felt it was good to be reminded of this reality, even though it does not completely excuse being silent in Uganda or vigorously interfering in the public, political marriage debates in various countries. But it did leave me wondering what mechanisms of control might be in place constraining this man.
Truth to tell, I'm not really a pope watcher or church watcher, nor do I feel called by vocation to be part of efforts 'to reform the Catholic Church'. I'm situated - by grace, by providence, by choice - too far outside the boundaries of the institution for such actions. Yet I still feel connected on a mystical level to Holy Mother Church, with a felt sense of vocation to make a contribution in the areas of spirituality and mystical theology. So...when some things strike a chord, I take notice. Such was the case with the relics of Padre Pio, which stirred something very deep within and the event is still reverberating.
I just started Italian Jewish scholar, Sergio Luzzatto's 2007 book, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, and its really fascinating reading, and seems so far to be fairly well balanced. I mention his Jewish heritage because it's just what is needed in Pio studies, a detached, critical, scholarly look from someone outside the circle of faith, both Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. Luzzatto takes a close look at social, cultural and political currents surrounding Southern Italy at the time which facilitated the Padre Pio culte. The book caused something of an uproar in Italy when first published - for revealing secret Vatican files from the Holy Office detailing allegations from two chemists that Padre Pio secretly requested small portions of carbolic acid. This turned out to be something of a tempest in a teapot. Be that as it may, the really fascinating side of the book is it's detailed accounting of the relationship between the Padre Pio cult and the local fascists of San Giovanni Rotondo. Sensational stuff there and I'm really enjoying it like a breath of fresh air - without in any way detracting from my own personal devotion to the holy friar.
But staunch Catholic traditionalists and Padre Pio supporters were up in arms over the book, publishing some rather nasty rants on the subject. I only glanced through a few of them and found them quite unfair - but then I haven't yet finished the book, so who knows. So far, Luzzatto doesn't seem to have an agenda and I take his word - stated at the beginning - that he was not intent on reaching a conclusion about the true origins of Padre Pio's wounds. However, it seems that just by mentioning certain suspicious 'facts' and examining them in a scholarly way puts one on the side of the opposition. Luzzatto has been accused of 'dropping scurrilous gossip' and then not following it up, as a way of tarnishing Padre Pio's reputation without actually engaging head on with the evidence. No, I don't think so. He's simply asking the hard questions.
One does grow wearied by all the controversy and wading into the pools of thought of the religiously fundamental (to coin a phrase) is depressing in the extreme. The most succinct rebuttal to Sergio Luzzatto, apparently, comes from Saverio Gaeta and Andrea Torniell's book, not yet published in English, Padre Pio l’ultimo sospetto (Padre Pio: The Last Suspect .
Here is an interview with Andrea Tornielli, in which he takes Luzzatto to task for his many 'errors, distortions and omissions.'
And the New Oxford Review's coverage of the book, which I found truly nasty and distorted in itself.
The New Oxford Review's review mentions a second, recently published book, which most critics of Luzzatto's book are also referencing: Padre Pio Under Investigation: The Secret Vatican Files, published by St. Ignatius Press.
Here is a selection from the introduction, written by Vittorio Messori, which features a very pointed critique of Luzzatto's work :
I suppose (sigh) there is much in Messori's position about the mystical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church that I might find myself in agreement with, it only it weren't accompanied by such unctuousness and tribal superiority, which mars the whole thing.
To tell the truth, I'd be much more comfortable sharing a glass of wine with Sergio Luzzatto and discussing the case of Padre Pio than I would with Vittorio Messori, whose brand of Catholicism gives me the creeps. And yet - and yet - I see no contradiction in this attitude and my own heartfelt devotion to the stigmatized friar of San Giovanni Rotondo. It's all a question of balance and detachment.
But it's precisely because phenomena like Padre Pio and Marian apparitions and bilocating saints attract such unctuous fundamentalists and weirdos and cranks that most well educated progressive thinking Catholics are turned off - and quickly flee the scene. I see their point.
Here, however, is a moving account of the scientific experiments conducted on Padre Pio's wounds to attempt to 'heal them'.
And just to prove this point in a chilling way, while researching all of this I came across the blog of a New Hampshire priest, serving a 33 year prison sentence for molesting seven boys, Gordon MacRae. HIs blog site claims he was falsely accused, even though he pleaded guilty to molesting three of the boys ( a plea deal of dubious character). Apparently he balked at admitting he had molested one particular boy, and he says - refused a plea bargain that would have gotten him out in several years. What is shocking about this is that Gordon MacRae is also a passionate devotee of Padre Pio and identifies with his victimhood. Chilling. I glanced through the blog posts and read some of the comments from 'devout' Catholics praying for Father and hoping for his eventual vindication and also comparing him to a Christ Victim figure like Padre Pio. Don't know what to make of all this, but the Padre Pio connection is disturbing. There were a number of Wall Street Journal articles by Dorothy Rabinowitz:
OK, I glanced through some of this stuff and it looks fascinating in a highly disturbing way, and there may be something of substance here, though I'm dubious? I'm just noting - with dismay - the Padre Pio connection, linked with a child abuse case = and a great deal of vitriol aimed at SNAP. No wonder 'rational' Catholics flee the scene when bilocating stigmatists are the subject of conversation.
And here is Thomas Doyle's statement about Father Gordon MacRae:
Fr. Gordon McRae exemplifies this continuing policy at Via Coeli of giving power to former sexual perpetrators. He held an administrative post at the center in 1990. I was a teacher in his seminary in 1978 when he demonstrated psychological problems. In spite of early indications of problems he was ordained in 1982; he may have abused a boy already in 1983, but no action was taken. But he pleaded guilty in 1988 to paying a boy for sex and received a deferred jail term and instead was sent Via Coeli for treatment. In 1993 he was charged with eleven counts of molestation of at least 4 boys. He is now in a New Hampshire prison for 33 ½ to 67 years convicted in 1994 on the assault of one boy. This tradition of Via Coeli to hide and support abusers was repeated when Father Rudy Kos was “secreted” at Via Coeli for a time in 1995 before his extradition from San Diego and trial, conviction and imprisonment in Texas.
Finally, by a weird twist of fate - or providence - I was contacted by a former gay priests asking if I would be interested in reviewing his memoir. Mark Tedesco and the book is entitled, That Undeniable Longing, which refers to both the longing for the transcendent, for an infinite source of meaning in one's life as well as the very human longing for love, affection and connection. What is uncanny about this request/connection is that Mark Tedesco began his seminary training at San Vittorino outside Rome (in the 1970's) which was the residence of the once renowned, but since disgraced, "stigmatist', Father Gino Buresi. Father Buresi was forcibly retired by Pope Benedict amidst accusations of religious/mystical fraud and the sexual molestation of seminarians. He was also touted in his day as a Padre Pio wannabe. I've since finished the book and it's a fine 'gay coming-out' memoir which I hope to review within the week.
So in a way, everything comes full circle - Papa Francis brings the relics of Padre Pio to Rome and St. Peters and all sorts of reverberations occur. There does seem to be something mysteriously fortuitous about this event, perhaps for reasons beyond the conscious understanding and control of Pope Francis or any of the handlers of the event. Who knows. God works through many means, some of which we may not approve of at first. Something, it seems, was 'intended' and something was set in motion by the mysterious, paradoxical, confounding ceremony of bringing the relics of Padre Pio into St. Peter's. Despite my many reservations, I suspect we are being given a message here, though probably not the one explicitly intended by the organizers of this event.
I'm reminded of a remark by the spiritual writer China Gallard (Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna), when she visited the great monastery of Jasna Gora in Poland, which houses the renowned icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (beloved of John Paul II).
The many priests running about in their glistening black cassocks think they are controlling Her, when in fact, she is controlling them and using them to work Her own subversive purposes.