Padre Pio in Rome, Spotlight and the Lemon Sellers of Buenos Aires
What do Padre Pio, the Hollywood film, Spotlight (recipient of this year's Oscar for best picture) and the lemon sellers of Buenos Aires have in common? Very little, I would think, except that they represent certain connections I've been making over the past several weeks from events that have made distinct impressions on me. These are my disjointed ruminations, apologies if they are not coherent.
It was something of a shock to me to hear the news several weeks ago that Pope Francis, as part of the ceremonies inaugurating his Holy Year of Mercy, had arranged for the remains of Padre Pio, the renowned 20th century stigmatist, to be transported to Rome and laid in state in the heart of St. Peter's - together with the remains of another holy Capuchin friar, St. Leopold Mandic of Croatia, both of them renowned as confessors who spent many tireless hours in the confessional box. Both of these figures - white, male, celibate ordained priests - may be holy men (I happen to think they are and have no trouble accepting the testimonies of Padre Pio's paranormal gifts), but they represent an extreme wing of the Roman Catholic tradition, the pious, "supernatural", "redemptive suffering", wonder-working wing so dear to traditionalists. In other words, Pope Francis' gesture, bizarre as it may be (and it seems bizarre to me) is also heavily weighted on one side of the Church, to the detriment of that part of the church (not well represented by the hierarchy) that has moved on into another post Vatican II age. Is Francis giving us a sign here of his priorities or simply indulging his own personal piety (he is profoundly devoted to Pio).
In this I am reminded of a remark made by the scripture scholar, Edward Malatesta, S.J., at the University of San Francisco, long, long ago in 1966, to whit, "The Pope must be put in his place." This was considered 'radical' talk in those days, the opinion that one man, the Pope, wields too much power and attracts too much attention and has too much influence over the shape of popular Catholic culture, when he should merely be a figurehead and symbol of unity and little more. I mention Father Malatesta, because he was a deeply holy man and a profound mystic, who - when he heard the news of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, forbidding Catholics the use of artificial birth control - went for a walk along the skyline of San Francisco and rejoiced in his heart. We all looked at one another when he said that to us, and said, "Huh?" What could there possibly be to rejoice about? And Fr. Malatesta said, "I rejoiced because I knew the Church is born in suffering." It was a profound remark that only a great mystic could make, and it helps to ground his more 'liberal' critiques of the whole system of the papacy,.Well, here we have a perfect example. One man, Pope Francis, however well intentioned, has imposed a particular, very traditional figurehead of Roman Catholicism at the start of the Holy Year of Mercy, without fairly representing other aspects of the contemporary church. And it isn't just the figurehead, it's the whole idea of venerating relics in such a spectacular fashion.
However, despite my 'progressive' grumblings and dismay over the spectacle of transporting dead saints into St. Peter's, I have to admit being quite moved by the video depicting Francis at prayer before Padre Pio's remains, deep in contemplation and clutching a holy card of the saint. Francis' devotion seems genuine and profound. These two holy Capuchin confessors dispensed mercy from the confessional box and Francis is beginning his Holy Year of Mercy, so they seem fit representatives to him, it seems. Except that the whole weight of the 'spectacle' is profoundly out of balance, in my view, not simply on the side of male, celibate, ordained ministers of the Church (does anyone else count?) but also on the side of that very traditional, pious supernatural element of the tradition, which as of the start of Vatican II, was itself profoundly out of balance and in dire need of deep purification. Weeping statues, and bleeding corpses and levitating, bilocating saints. Too big a subject for me to go into here. But someone needs to take direct issue with Francis and say, "Well and good, you are devoted to Padre Pio, but what about the rest of us? Where are our more fitting representatives? And of course, it also needs to be stated, in the words of a parishioner of San Giovanni Rotondo, "Padre Pio should have been left in his place. Saints don't go on pilgrimages, ordinary people do."
But if you are the Pope, are you the only one to decide if this ceremony of dead saints is fitting - and if it is (???) - do you alone decide who gets to be transported up the grand boulevard leading into St. Peter's? Where is the rest of the Church represented as symbols of God's mercy? And so I tried to think of alternatives, other saints whose bodies we could exhume, transport (even on airplanes), encase in glass coffins and parade into St. Peter's. The first figure that came to mind, of course, was Oscar Romero, not yet canonized, but so what. (God forbid, however, that we should subject his remains to such a public display in St. Peters. He would turn over in his grave. But - if you know anything about the man - so would Padre Pio!). But no, that would be just yet another male, celibate ordained figure. Then I thought of Mother Teresa, a woman from the Third World. But no, too much a part of the old spirituality of redemptive suffering (which, if properly balanced, has its place in the panoply of Catholic spirituality). Too much old school. Then I felt myself getting closer. The five martyred Maryknoll nuns of El Salvador, let's bring them up and place them next to Padre Pio as another example of God's mercy - extended to the very poorest of the poor. These heroic nuns both ministered to them as well as witnessed against the very systems of injustice that have oppressed the poor in the first place. In other words, mercy is not just extended to the private sinner in the confessional box, but to all those suffering oppression at the hands of unjust systems we ourselves perpetuate. We have moved so far beyond this mentality - that sin is private and mercy is extended to the poor only as charity, we - meaning most sensible people of faith. The hierarchy as a whole has refused to get off the old bus and join the rest of us on the march to Selma. Francis by privileging Padre Pio (a great saint in my opinion, no disagreement there) has tilted the see saw of history back about fifty years, to the private sin in the confessional and the miracle working, levitating, bilocating saint who does not challenge history! But Padre Pio next to the five martyred nuns of El Salvador, well, that would certainly send out a far more balanced message. And while we're at it, let's bring out Dorothy Day, cover her 'face' with a silicone mask (since she would certainly - out of mere stubbornness - refuse to remain incorrupt!), and place her in St. Peters (God forbid). She hasn't even been declared venerable, yet alone blessed, but so what. Now we're talking.
(To be continued shortly, then back to Spotlight and the lemon sellers of Buenos Aires who wear no underwear and who outrage the patriarchal guardians of the police force.)