Mar 6, 2016

Padre Pio, the Lemon Sellers of Buenos Aires and Saints of a Sexually Embodied Spirituality: Part 2

Battling a touch of the flu, so it's taken me a while to finish the reflections I started in the last posting about the solemn 'transportation' of Padre Pio's relics into St. Peter's some weeks ago. Not sure how far I will get today. Not an earth shattering event, worthy of endless comment, but it touched me deeply for a variety reasons, so...just trying to sort my thoughts out in my own head.

At the end of the last post, I had assembled a panoply of distinguished Catholic women to balance out against the full weight of Padre Pio's formidable reputation: Dorothy Day and the five martyred Maryknoll nuns of El Salvador (and perhaps the housekeeper of the Jesuits, murdered by similar forces). But then the obvious occurred: five consecrated women to balance out one celibate, ordained male, however holy. That didn't seem fair. 

I was helped out of this dilemma by the  seminal work, Indecent Theology,  by the feminist, queer theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid. Thanks to Kittredge Cherry of Jesus in Love Blog, for recommending it. In Kit's posting on Marcella's death five years agp (written by scholar,  Hugo Córdova Quero, she is referred to  as: 

          Marcella Althaus-Reid : Saint of a sexually embodied spirituality

The post begins with this provocative paragraph:

It is difficult to speak of someone who has recently passed away as a “saint.” Commonly, the popular belief is that someone who is considered a “saint” lived many centuries in the past. There is a need to “normalize” and “sanitize” the saint’s life in order to make it almost “perfect.” The temporal distance achieves this effect. If this is the rule through which the life and work of Marcella Althaus-Reid should be measured, then we are faced with someone who can hardly be placed inside this closet. If there is anything that Marcella did in her life, it was to come out of the closets that both culture and society as well as religion and theology have imposed on us through centuries of Christian history.

Kit's posting and Quero's article, together with  the first opening chapters of Marcella's Indecent Theology finally gave me the candidate most suitable to place alongside the bier of Padre Pio, as a counterweight to the formidable tradition of Catholic piety he represents. A queer, radical, lesbian, feminist 'saint' who is anything but perfect and who embodies anything but denial of the sensual self. And a Christian lesbian woman who, through her groundbreaking writings, has extended God's mercy to those categories of human beings most marginalized and despised by the official institution of Roman Catholicism itself. This is exactly what was needed in St. Peter's during this pious show, a representative of the very people the official church refuses to extend mercy to. Now, clearly, the counterbalance feels 'just right'. Padre Pio and Marcella Althaus-Reid, the radical and despised example of holiness counterbalanced to the most traditional and revered. Alas, this reference has to be all too short. For those interested in learning more about this remarkable woman, please read the posting at Jesus in Love Blog. 

But here's the kicker to this comparison that makes it all the more perfect: Marcella Reid was born in Argentina, the locale of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, our present Pope Francis, for most of his life. What could be more appropriate than a radical lesbian saint from Argentina? Someone needs to say to Francis, fair is fair, 'Your Holiness." If you are going to impose a particular brand of spirituality on the face of the universal church - both the practice of revering relics and the particular choice of Padre Pio, then 'we the people' should be allowed our counter choice, someone who exemplifies a different kind of mercy, one more representative of the needs of the modern world. Of course, I'm being somewhat flippant here in suggesting that any of these women would be suitable candidates for this particular kind of ceremony. One gags to think of it.

I take no issue with singling out Padre Pio for veneration and I appreciate the ancient Catholic tradition of reverencing the relics of the saints - provided it is kept in balance. But transporting dead saints up the central avenue into St. Peter's square - with fanfare, pomp  and ceremony - , and dead saints carefully chosen for their 'suitability' (celibate, male, ordained) does not seem balanced at all. Quite the contrary. It is, in a word, unfair and unbalanced. 

I can also understand that Padre Pio is not a saint for everybody. Contemporary educated Catholics, a fair percentage of them, might be turned off by, not to say suspicious of,  the stories of his paranormal powers, from the stigmata to bilocation to the reading of souls. Here is one of the leading skeptical sites on the internet scrutinizing such claims, Center for Skeptical Inquiry, for any who are interested. They have their own agenda and are far from balanced and unbiased, in my opinion, but a little iconoclasm is always a healthy thing. Again, much too big a subject for me to go into in a 'brief' blog post. 

For myself, I have little doubt as to his towering sanctity or the authenticity of his gifts. I experienced a profound encounter with him in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1964 when I was but a lad of 21 and it changed my life forever. I've been devoted to him ever since (and read and studied everything I could about him). He was the last of the greats of the old time Catholic tradition and he deserves his place of respect in the panoply of great Catholic saints. But he is not a fit symbol for a forward moving Church, at least not alone and by himself (together with his gentle, unknown companion, Saint, Leopold {who?}). I'm sorry, Pope Francis, this is certainly not right. 

But there is something strangely 'providential' and 'mystical' about this choice, all the same, which makes it all the more strange. As Hugo Quero says in his article on Marcella Reid, There is a need to “normalize” and “sanitize” the saint’s life in order to make it almost “perfect. And this is exactly what has been done here. Padre Pio during his lifetime was renowned (or notorious, take your pick) for turning people away from the confessional whom he suspected (through the 'reading of souls' or an uncanny instinct) of approaching him with insincere motives of repentance and with no intention of making amends to those they might have harmed. The greater the sinner the more resounding the treatment from this prophet of true repentance. The confessional door might come clamming down in their faces, conjoined with the thunderous admonition, "Come back to me only when you are truly willing and able to repent and amend your ways." He was famous for this treatment and in this he is not unlike some of the great Zen Masters - in using shock treatment to awaken people to their own levels of denial. You could not approach the confessional of Padre Pio and expect to walk away with your middle class respectability and pious religiosity intact. He would shatter both. 

How ironic, then, to bring this great prophet of true repentance, metanoia and amendment into the very heart of the most dishonest system of denial in the Church today, Vatican City and Saint Peter's. I don't know. I strikes me as a kind of blind stupidity not to notice the supreme irony. Set up an abuse commission dealing with child abuse in the church - with little or no intention of effecting any real reform or making any real amends to victims, only empty protestations of regret and repentance, that ring hollow in the absence of any real change? This is exactly the kind of behavior that would arouse the ire of this great saint and bring the confessional door slamming down in one's face. One can just feel the pillars of St. Peter's tremble and shake. And the complete denial of any wrongdoing, any sinfulness, in the church's treatment of gay people?

And so, the remarkable Oscar win of the Hollywood film, Spotlight, (chronicling the efforts of the Boston Globe to expose the child abuse crisis in the Church of Boston) fell like a bomb into the midst of all these pious ceremonies inaugurating the "Holy Year of Mercy", even though the win came some days later. In light of Spotlight, all the pious gestures of officialdom are suddenly relativized and put in perspective, as little more than empty show. Mercy for whom, we must ask, at the start of this holy year? And this is without disparaging  the numerous graces that were undoubtedly bestowed (almost despite the contradictions) on the many people filing past the corpses of Pio and Leopold. Truly, Grace works in mysterious ways. I'm sure some of the pilgrims, at least, could hear the rumblings of the great prophet of the confessional, protesting the hypocrisy of using him in this way. To me, it seemed profoundly disrespectful.

Likewise, I respect Francis' personal piety, it seems deep and genuine. It would be too easy to take the cynical route and accuse him  of being a theatrical hypocrite, simply acting for show. He comes across as a genuine man of deep prayer. And therein lies the paradox, painful to comprehend, how such an evidently good man could have such blind spots. For it is difficult to accept the piety of someone who sits with the dignitaries and leaders of Uganda and says not one word about the draconian laws persecuting gay people, who intervenes in the legal processes of Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia regarding gay marriage and who is capable of giving someone of the ilk of Cardinal Pell his "100% support" - if Cardinal Pell is to be believed, and who then ignores the Australian abuse survivors who traveled to Rome to attend the commission. Praying with a holy card at the bier of Padre Pio?  But then, of course, he is 'only' the Pope, and in a more balanced church, other voices would receive equal attention and respect. 

Having come to the end of this long post, what has happened to the lemon sellers of Buenos Aires? Well, in the first chapter of Marcella Reid's Indecent Theology, she devotes a substantial part of her reflections to these poor, indigenous women of the streets, who sell their wares out in the open. Because public toilets are denied to these marginalized women, they must choose not to wear underwear under their long black skirts - so that they can modestly relieve themselves at the curbside without raising their skirts. This practice - of going without underwear for practical reasons - arouses the ire of the guardians of patriarchy in the police force, who harass these women, insult them, sometimes arrest them - for crimes 'against female modesty'. And Marcella tells us these women are a fit subject or model for doing a renewed liberation theology of the poor and marginalized - since that traditional Liberation Theology, focused on the countryside, had trouble 'seeing' them as fit subjects for theological reflections. Here are the real, most deserving recipients of God's mercy, poor indigenous women without underwear on the streets of Buenos Aires. 

And in searching around for suitable companions for Padre Pio in St. Peters, I thought of these women of Buenos Aires. Let's bring one (or more) of them up the central aisle, in a glass enclosed coffin, possibly a prostitute, maybe a lesbian, dressed in their long black skirts and without wearing underwear - as a sign of contradiction and a message to us all that God's mercy is extended to those we are most blind to recognizing in our midst. But also, God's mercy undoubtedly flows onto all of us from the wounded hearts of such marginalized, rejected figures. Padre Pio and Saint Marcella pray for us.