The Polemics of Padre Pio

Interview With Journalist Andrea Tornielli

By Antonio Gaspari

SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy, MAY 16, 2008 (Zenit.org).- When the remains of St. Pio da Pietralcina, known as Padre Pio, were displayed recently, something of a confrontation between believers and skeptics ensued.

Nearly 800,000 faithful made reservations to view the remains. Non-believers derided the show of popular piety.

A similar showdown is reflected in two books about the saint.

Historian Sergio Luzzatto wrote a book titled “Padre Pio. Miracoli e politica nell’Italia del Novecento” (Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in 20th-Century Italy), in which he accuses Padre Pio of being an impostor who inflicted the stigmata on himself.

Luzzatto’s accusations have been dismantled by Saverio Gaeta and Andrea Tornielli in a book titled “Padre Pio l’ultimo sospetto” (Padre Pio: The Last Suspect).

ZENIT interviewed Tornielli, Il Giornale’s Vatican reporter, about the confrontation between believers and skeptics in the case of Padre Pio.

Q: What do you think about the decision to exhume and display Padre Pio’s remains?

Tornielli: […] There are many bodies of saints that are on display. Blessed John XXIII is under a crystal case in St. Peter’s. I don’t recall there being such barbed criticisms when the Pope’s remains were displayed.

Q: Why are there so many criticisms? Is it a revolt against the saint or against the Church and people who venerate saints?

Tornielli: One must certainly avoid every kind of fanaticism: The point of the veneration of the saint and the saint’s relics is to reinforce our faith in that Jesus whom the saint followed, and to show how the grace of God passes through the fragility of those who are destined to become dust.

Having said this, however, I see a great deal of intellectual conceit on the part of those who feel themselves capable of judging — of certain “intelligentsias” who view the veneration of saints, popular piety, etc. as expressions of a childish, puerile, uncouth nature. In sum, something to look down upon. It is a shame because it was precisely this simple and powerful faith, through the shrines, that preserved itself even during the post-conciliar tempests. I believe that it is a matter of a critique of people who venerate saints.

Q: Could you explain the main points of your book responding to Luzzatto’s accusations?

Tornielli: 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.

The “historian of the 21st century,” as Luzzatto loves to call himself, never bothered to look at a 21st-century medical textbook: He would have discovered there that those acids cannot cause stigmata, nor keep them open and bloody for 50 years. Indeed, the contrary is true: They would have had a cauterizing effect.

In Luzzatto’s book, Padre Pio is presented as an icon of clerical fanaticism: an unproven and an indemonstrable thesis, based on nothing, indeed, based on a truly quite grave historical error, given that the “professor” does not know how to read documents and “forgets” to write that during the uprisings in San Giovanni Rotondo in the 1920s a police officer died, assassinated by socialist demonstrators and that this death was the cause of the severe repression. In sum, from the historical point of view, Luzzatto’s imaginative presentation completely falls apart.

Q: What is it in the sanctity of Padre Pio and in the proclamation of saints invoked by the people and verified by the Catholic Church that is displeasing to a certain modern culture?

Tornielli: They do not like the physicality, they do not like that one speaks of good and evil, of paradise and hell, they do not like it that there are people who can draw crowds, who can bring many souls to God, to conversion.

They do not like it that there are people who speak of the devil as a person who intervenes in our life and in history, they do not like a simple man of the people — who does not have degrees or writes for the cultural pages of some newspaper or has academic titles — clearly showing the beauty and the fascination of the Christian experience and the life of prayer. They do not like the reversal that we see in the Magnificat: “He cast down the mighty from their thrones and raised up the lowly.”

Q: After so much study of Padre Pio, what is the idea that you have of this friar who spent the greater part of his life hearing the confessions of people’s sins?

Tornielli: His greatest miracle was not the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza Hospital nor the countless graces that he obtained from God for the people who incessantly asked him for these. His greatest miracle was spending his life suffering and praying, and above all drawing souls to God.

The other aspect that really struck me has to do with his obedience: In a world in which any visionary — or one who presumes such [experiences] — feels free to do what they want and disobey the authority of the Church, Padre Pio teaches that the true mystic and ascetic always accepts that authority. In this too the friar from Pietralcina is an example and a model of true sanctity.

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