Mar 17, 2016

Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age

Bedridden with a touch of the flu, at the moment, but thought I would post this brief book review of Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age.  This is actually a very short, incomplete review I posted at Amazon and Goodnreads. In fact, I have much more to say about this fascinating study and all of the controversy swirling about it - at least when it was first published.

Fascinating anthropological study of the development of the cult surrounding Padre Pio, with most of the focus not on the holy friar himself but on the many cultural currents swirling around him, including and especially the rise of Fascism in pre WWII Italy. At one point two ''miraculous' bodies" dominated Italy's cultural scene: Il Duce's and 'the Saint's'. This study is not for the faint of heart or the overly pious, since it includes the suggestion of many scandals involving the cult and even (possibly) some deviltry on the part of Padre Pio himself. (I've been a devotee of Padre Pio for over 50 years and this book did little to change my attitude to the man himself) At first reading, it seemed to me that Luzzatto was fairly balanced and professional and true to his word that his intent was not to pass judgement on the authenticity of the wounds of this famous 20th century Catholic stigmatist, but simply to take a more critical and objective look at the cult surrounding him, without rose colored glasses. And at first reading, I found the book to be a blast of very fresh air, with many invaluable pieces of information not found in the hagiographical studies. However, one of his fiercest Italian critics, Andrea Tornielli,had this to say about his methodology:

(Taken from Zenit: The World Seen From Rome - The Polemics of Padre Pio)

"Luzzatto raised suspicions without getting to the bottom of any of them. He cast the stone and then hid his hand. He read only parts of documents; he made huge mistakes and errors. He cited documents in which it is inferred that Padre Pio asked a pharmacist for carbolic acid and veratrine but he did not explain that on the basis of other documents, it is quite clear what Padre Pio used these things for."

Just for the record, Ms. Tornielli is  a little too traditional for my taste - or perspective. I would have more faith in her judgements if she wasn't referenced so often in neo fascist, Catholic websites like Tradition, Family, Property.

Since I don't wish to make this review too lengthy, suffice it to say this wasn't my take on Luzzatto, casting stones and hiding his hand (he does recount Padre Pio's own explanations for the use of the carbolic acid), but then I'm not a professional scholar and don't have access to the documentation. However, towards the very end of the book, the author devotes some pages to the most salacious accusations of all - the alleged evidence of secret microphones planted in various places, which 'seemed' to suggest some impropriety on Pio's part with his female followers. The content of these tapes apparently shocked Pope John XXIII (who didn't actually listen to them) and resulted in the final Vatican investigation, headed by Monsignor Carlo Maccari, who would later suggest that Pio may have been enjoying carnal relations with some of his female devotees as much as twice a week. Now the Maccari affair (grotesque and repellent, in my opinion- letting my own biases show) is something I know a little about, having researched it some years ago. And here is where I can certainly fault Luzzatto and my suspicious began to tilt in Tornelli's direction. Luzzatto does not clarify that the microphones were not planted in Padre Pio's bedroom or the women's confessional, but only in the men's confessional  and various visitors rooms where Padre Pio would converse with pilgrims. So in other words, we are not dealing with tapes that actually record intimate private moments between Padre Poi and women but only public conversations and bits of gossip from visitors in the rooms awaiting his arrival. Now that is a vital omission in a historical work purporting to be objective. It is the one detail that changes everything. Instead, Luzzatto drops the general insinuation of 'secret tapes' and leaves it hanging, dripping with innuendo.  Furthermore,  'news' (from official Capuchin sources) stated that Msgr Maccari had recanted his accusations on his deathbed and asked for Padre Pio's forgiveness and blessing. And that would be a major story, in itself a deathbed recantation from Padre Pio's most recent official examiner. Is this an apocryphal story or can it be objectively verified? At the very least, if Luzzatto was as 'objective' as he claimed to be, then this incident should have been reported and explored - at least as to its plausibility.  But not a word from Luzzatto (unless I missed it in the footnotes). Unfortunately, these key omissions cast doubts on the reliability of the rest of the book, much of which does seem to me to be of great value. This leads me to believe that Tornelli may be right as to Luzzatto's ultimate intentions. So while the book did little to affect my own estimation of the great sanctity of Padre Pio, it did help me to understand the complexities of the human context within which he lived and worked - and it left me with some serious doubts as to Luzzatto's ultimate fairness and objectivity as a scholar.

Unfortunately, Tornelli's main book in rebuttal to Luzzatto's "accusations",  Padre Pio l’ultimo sospetto (Padre Pio: The Last Suspect), has not yet been translated into English, which would be a necessary read in reaching a balanced view of Luzzatto's book.

Final judgement: Really enjoyed Luzzatto's historical/anthropological study, fascinating material, a good deal of which I think is indisputable. But a significant amount of it is open to question and doubt, as well as Luzzatto's own motives. So I'm agnostic on that for the moment.

In any case, this is not the first book to recommend to any who are interested in the life of this remarkable Catholic saint. Bernard Ruffin's hagiographical work:Padre Pio: The True Story would be a more suitable choice, though it does gloss over many of the pertinent topics of Luzzatto's more historical/anthropological study.

Coming up soon: A book review of a fascinating gay priestly coming out story:

That Undeniable Longing.


Patrick Hugh Gormley said...

Pio was a fraud.