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Padre Pio's Awfully Big Adventure
Padre Pio is to be declared blessed this Sunday. What fun.
Eamonn McCann, 12 May 1999
Padre Pio is to be declared blessed this Sunday. What fun. As a music-hall turn, Pio could have been one of the all-time greats. But he was part con-man, part deluded obsessive, and as a priest he was shite. Not that I d worry about that. But priests should.
The Pope himself has described the stigmatist as a model of the priesthood for our times. He didn t mean that priests should pretend or psyche themselves into believing they have the stigmata or develop the wide range of magical accomplishments which made Pio a cult figure. He meant that priests, as personifiers of the Church, should be figures of mystery and impenetrable authority, such as plain people might be in awe of. He has some chance.
Still, it promises to be a big day out. Three quarters of a million pilgrims are expected to throng the centre of Rome to express their devotion to the mystery man from San Giovanni. He will be the 820th person declared blessed by John Paul more than a third of all beatifications since the procedure was initiated in 1588. John Paul has also canonised 280 saints compared with 303 by all his predecessors since 1588 combined. This unprecedented rate of production isn t down to personal obsession. The pope has organised the gush of saints for mainly political reasons.
Thus, seven priests and a lay brother beatified in March had been put before firing squads by the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. Franco had god on his side was the message to Spaniards. The Croatian Cardinal Stepinac, canonised last year, had been fairly convicted under Tito of collaboration with the war-time Nazi regime of Ante Pavelic. The Nazis weren t pure evil and the anti-Nazis were no saints, the Vatican is saying to Croatians today. A strong lobby has formed for the beatification of Cardinal Cooke of New York, who died in 1983. His lifetime s achievement was to hugely enlarge the political role of the Catholic Church in the US, particularly in relation to abortion and Church rights in State schools. Then there was the founder of the Christian Brothers. To say nothing of the Albanian wretch, Teresa.
Pio didn t have the sharp-edged political profile of this crew. But he s been a controversial figure in the Catholic Church for decades. This has not been on account of the stigmata although relatively rational Catholics find the whole business embarrassing nor because of the plausible but as yet unproven allegations of sexual misconduct with penitents in the confession box, but because of the acrid arrogance of his attitudes and contempt for the great majority of his fellow priests.
In a polemic regularly quoted in Pio cult publications, he claimed that Jesus periodically visited him in person to complain about priests who conducted sacrilegious communions, showed indifference towards the Blessed Sacrament and treated churches as amusement centres . Pio confirmed that Jesus, on the other hand, regarded him, Pio, as the right kind of priest. And others agree.
An Irish Catholic article extolling Pio last year concluded that: The basic reason for the confusion in the ministry of Christ in the last few decades has been the identification of the priesthood with liturgy and ceremony instead of with holiness, and the identification of victimhood with social action rather than with human guilt.
It s original sin, not the evils of society, which it is the business of the Church to oppose, and it s time priests got that straight. Priests out there who want to root the Church in the world rather than retreat into a netherworld have reason to be fearful of the raising-up of the Capuchin hoaxter. Their problem, of course. The rest of us need note only that while the political message of Pio s beatification is more subtle than was carried in the elevation of the pro-Nazi Stepinac, it s none the less real and substantial.
At the other and more attractive level, it s all wholly ridiculous. Pio s admirers say he was on close personal terms with his guardian angel, with whom he discussed all manner of topics, including the weather. He was regularly visitied by folk on day-release from purgatory, many of whom wanted to thank all who remembered the Holy Souls in their prayers. On a number of occasions he was physically assaulted flung across the room once by Satan himself. But Satan never got the better of him. He had the power to cure illnesses, could be in two places at the one time and exuded a delicate perfume.
Plus there was the stigmata. The stigmata has been his main claim to fame. Few ever set eyes on the actual wounds, since he wore mitts at all times. There are scores of Pio s old mitts currrently in circulation, some in Ireland, stained not so much with blood as with germ-rich mucus from the countless diseased (at least they were afterwards) bodies on which the putrid fabric was piously rubbed. During his life, Pio never permitted medical examination of the wounds which he claimed bled continuously, particularly profusely on Fridays, for 50 years. When the mitts and bandages were removed following his death 30 years ago, no trace of wounds was found. As his followers immediately noted, this was a miracle.
Last year, 6,500,000 people visited the village of San Giovanni Retondo, scenically perched on a mountainside near Foggia in Southern Italy. A new church with a seating capacity of 10,000 is nearing construction. The village boasts the largest and most modern hospital south of Rome (although why they should need a hospital when they have the spirit of man with the miracle mitts in their midst is a mystery). A 2,500-bed pilgrim facility built by the local Capuchins is also nearing completion. The friar denies that the competition will hit local hotels.
The big rise in pilgrims which we can expect after the beatification will mean that no-one loses out. Dear Padre Pio has been a benefactor of the area in so many ways. We are not interested in money. Religion. One way and another, I m going to miss it when it s gone. n