September 11, 2011
Padre Pio: Scandals of a Saint
From Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 35.2, March/April 2011
Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age
By Sergio Luzzatto. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8905-9. 384 pp. Hardcover, $30.
From humble beginnings in the town of Pietrelcina, Italy, Francesco Forgione (1887–1968) went on to become Italy’s most venerated saint of the twenty-first century, known popularly as Padre (“Father”) Pio (“Pious”). His tomb draws more pilgrims than Lourdes or any other Catholic shrine. Yet the full, true story of this purported miracle worker’s rise to sainthood has long needed to be told, and Sergio Luzzatto tells it in his Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age. (First published in 2007, this is a new English translation.) As the book’s subtitle suggests, Luzzatto details Pio’s fascist (he was reportedly an admirer of Mussolini) and other connections, although in this review I concentrate on the allegedly paranormal aspects of Pio’s life.
Pio is best known for his stigmata—the supposedly supernaturally received wounds resembling the wounds of Jesus—which he first exhibited in the autumn of 1918 when the trauma of World War I caused many to hope for supernatural intervention. Suddenly, at a Capuchin monastery in southern Italy, an alter Christus (living figure of Christ) was manifest. While praying before the chapel’s crucifix, the newly ordained priest was suddenly, he claimed, inflicted with the stigmata—bleeding so profusely, he alleged, that he feared he would bleed to death.
In fact, notwithstanding the claims in uncritical biographies, Pio’s stigmata devolved—from bleeding wounds that could easily have been self-inflicted (like those of many fake stigmatists before and after, as I described in my 2001 book Real-Life X-Files) to merely discolored skin that appeared to have been irritated by the application of a caustic substance. Indeed, a bottle of carbolic acid was once discovered in the friar’s cell, and Luzzatto cites letters from Padre Pio in which Pio requests that carbolic acid, and at another time a caustic alkaloid, be secretly delivered to him. Eventually Pio began wearing fingerless gloves, supposedly to cover his stigmata out of pious humility; however, to me, the practice seems instead a shrewd move to eliminate the need to continually self-inflict wounds.
Nor were the fake stigmata the friar’s only deception. Years before, Pio had written numerous letters to his spiritual directors describing his mystical experiences; however, it is now known that he copied these words verbatim from the writings of stigmatic Gemma Galgani (1878–1903) without acknowledging they were hers. And that is not all: Pio attempted to divert suspicion from his plagiarism by asking for help in procuring copies of Galgani’s books—saying he would very much like to read them!
As to miracles attributed to Pio, the report of a Vatican emissary in 1919 cited the wildest claims then circulating among an uneducated populace. The emissary characterized as fantasy the story of a church bell that fragmented when Pio’s confreres were wronged by a superior. Likewise, it was not true that Pio instantly cured a man of a limp; nor had he caused a deaf-mute girl to regain her speech. He also did not heal a hunchback so the man could walk away “at least partly made straight.” Not a single one of Padre Pio’s miracles was genuine, the investigator determined.
Nevertheless, Padre Pio’s reputation grew unabated, and ultimately “miracles” would be found to serve as the basis for his canonization. A once-hostile Vatican had eventually become conciliatory toward him and responsive to popular demand—this despite evidence that suggested sexual misconduct on behalf of the adored padre and the private opinion of Pope John XXIII (recorded in his daybook) that “P.P. has shown himself to be a straw idol.”
By the time of his death in 1968, Pio’s stigmata had disappeared, but that was effectively remedied in death. Although there was no need to cover his hands and feet—and indeed Capuchin rule forbids the wearing of socks—Pio’s “father guardian,” Father Carmelo of San Giovanni in Galdo, worried that the absence of stigmata might cause a faulty rush to judgment. Carmelo therefore had Padre Pio’s hands and feet covered, as if the covering still concealed his allegedly holy gift. And so the deception continued.
In 2002, the late friar was canonized Saint Pio of Pietrelcina—not for the stigmata he was so famous for but for his healings that were, with due illogic, assumed miraculous because they were said to be inexplicable. And when his remains were exhumed for display forty years after his death, those hoping his body would be found incorrupt (a supposed sign of sanctity; see my Relics of the Christ, University Press of Kentucky, 2007), or that it would still exhibit the stigmata, were disappointed. The embalmed corpse had deteriorated sufficiently that it required a silicon mask—complete with bushy eyebrows and beard—fashioned by a London wax museum. Of the supposedly supernatural wounds there was not a trace.
Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.