Mar 26, 2016

Mar 23, 2016

Easter blessings in Litmanova

Tomorrow I leave for the little mountain village of Litmanova in Slovakia on the Polish border, site of the 1990-95 Marian apparitions to two village girls. A very peaceful, quiet place without tourists or fanfare - or souvenir stands or Italian style bistro's. In fact, there isn't a single restaurant in the entire village, though there are several small pensions and one small village store.

I've always loved this minor, little known apparition because the Blessed Lady in white came down from her heavenly cloud, walked across the small storeroom where she had appeared to the two shocked young girls of 12 and sat down on a little wooden bench and spoke with them. The bench is still there, covered in plastic, and pilgrims can kiss it. The utter simplicity of the place is so beautiful, and the peace is lasting and profound. There is even a sacred spring with crystal clear water. I've been here a number of times and became friends with the local Greek Orthodox priest who administers the site, a kindly, good man without complications or pretensions. I even contributed the English translation to the official site, which interested readers can access here: Litmanova-Zvir and here at The Byzantine Forum.  No fanaticism here at Litmanova, only simple faith in 'the Lady,' and pious devotion of the old school. Remarkable and inspiring.

In preparation for this triduum of Easter at Litmanova, I started reading Matthew Fox's most recent book, Letters to Pope Francis. It is a book imbued with hope and the promise of a new dawn, as Fox was responding - as we all were - to Pope Francis's warmly human, humble and accessible side in those early days of the springtime of his papacy. The book is well worth reading for its deep, prophetic insights into the possibility of a new Christianity and it offers healing for any of Fox's readers who also read his searing indictment of the Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, the powerful, brilliant, indispensable, The Pope's War. 

Sadly, we have all learned since the early days of Francis' tenure as Pope that hope does not reside in the figure of a Pope or in the institution itself. Matthew Fox's dissillusion with Pope Francis, which is profound,  has been most eloquently expressed in his articles on the canonization of Junipero Serra, which can be accessed here at his blog: Matthew Fox. 

It is sad that a reforming pope who has actively sought the perspectives of the faithful would be so blind to the history of indigenous peoples on two continents, and deaf to the protests of indigenous and non-indigenous Christians alike.  And it is sad that, as many nations and peoples await Pope Francis’ encyclical on Eco-theology and Climate Change, he would follow his predecessors’ example in favoring the perpetrators of colonization and genocide over the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere and their living legacy of respect for nature…a legacy that is vital to the survival of the life on Earth as we know it today.
This is a severe blow to the hopes of people looking to a reformed papacy. Granted, Pope Francis is only human like the rest of us and humans err—as he says, he himself is a sinner.  And this decision is a grave sin indeed.
Powerful words for this Easter as we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen One and as all of us connected to the Resurrected Savior await a new dawn. 
But to end these random thoughts on a note of rebirth, here is a beautiful image sent me by a student today, witnessing to the profound interconnectedness of life and all living things, bound by compassion:

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.

Mar 12, 2016

Hans Kung and Brother Francis, and other bits of this and that

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 EnglishPadre 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).  

I paraphrase:

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.

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.

Mar 4, 2016

Padre Pio, Spotlight and the Lemon Sellers of Buenos Aires

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.)