Friday, April 27, 2012

The saint

A wonderful bit of anti-clericalism from the latest New Left Review:
 
Marco D'Eramo
 
The spiritual career of Padre Pio poses a challenge for those who, following Max Weber, expected that the world should become more and more disenchanted in the face of modern capitalist civilization. [1] It also helps to dismantle the notion that modernity is a univocal concept; rather, we must speak of plural modernities, simultaneous and mutually irreducible. From the former perspective, it is difficult to explain the fact that Francesco Forgione—as Pio was named on his birth in 1887—would become the most famous Italian of the last century. Neither Antonio Gramsci nor Benito Mussolini can match the hordes of pilgrims, several million each year, who visit San Giovanni Rotondo to worship at Forgione's grave. How could this sickly, ill-educated southerner achieve such global renown? The details of his life have been rehearsed endlessly in media of every kind. Yet this translation of Sergio Luzzatto's outstanding biography gives Anglophone readers the first opportunity to consult a serious account of the Padre Pio phenomenon, a study of the man and of his socio-political environment, based on comprehensive research by a skilled and subtle academic historian.
 
Most of the books and articles devoted to Forgione—Luzzatto rightly speaks of a 'logorrhoea' inspired by the saint—have set out to confirm or deny his holiness, his capacity to bestow miraculous cures upon the sick, his legendary stigmata. Luzzatto, a professor of modern history at the University of Turin, declares his intention to avoid such matters in the book's preface: 'All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were "real" had better close this book right now. Padre Pio's stigmata and his miracles interest us less for what they tell us about him than for what they tell us about the world around him.' And that world showed—and shows—a desperate hunger for belief in the sacred and the supernatural. Heine and Nietzsche first spoke of the 'death of God', and some philosophers went even further in the 1960s, formulating a 'theology of the death of God'. This report of divine mortality proved to be as mistaken as Weber's theory of disenchantment: not only has God not died, but all of the various gods continue to prosper, as witnessed by the rapid diffusion of Pentecostalism around the world, the strength of Christian fundamentalism in the hyper-technological and capitalist usa, the popularity of Islamist movements and of India's Bharatiya Janata Party. Superstitions, do-it-yourself beliefs, all sorts of magic are thriving. Who in the early twentieth century would have expected that in a hundred years' time, several Christian denominations would each have more followers than all the parties of the global workers' movement put together?
 
Francesco Forgione was born in the village of Pietrelcina in southern Italy, about sixty miles east of Naples. In all the years preceding his death in 1968, Forgione never travelled more than eighty miles from his birthplace. He became a novice at the age of fifteen and joined the Capuchin Order two years later. Having managed to perform his military service well away from the front line during the First World War, Forgione secured a discharge on grounds of physical disability and entered the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916, never to leave this corner of the Gargano Peninsula again. In the summer of 1918, as the war approached its conclusion, wounds appeared on the hands and feet of the man who would become Padre Pio: they were soon interpreted as stigmata by the believers, who compared them to the wounds of Christ's crucified body.
 
Luzzatto is greatly interested in those elements of mass psychology which create and disseminate popular beliefs about the extraordinary powers of a certain person's body—a king, a duce, a saint. His early research on the French Revolution was influenced by Marc Bloch's seminal work on the healing power of French kings, and Luzzatto's study of Padre Pio follows his previous book The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy (2005). The historian evokes the trauma of the First World War to explain why, as soldiers returned from the front—many carrying their own wounds—belief spread that a humble Capuchin in a southern convent had received the sanguinary marks of Christ. The immediate context for this belief was of course the traditional superstitions and the almost folkloric cult of saints among southern Italians, as evoked by the Fascist writer Curzio Malaparte: 'St Martin on horseback, St George with his spear, St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, St Rocco with his unguents for the plague, St Anthony among the pigs, St Christopher at the ford, St Joseph with his carpenter's plane, St Agnes of the seven swords.' Yet already by the 1920s, the Padre Pio cult had become a national phenomenon, transcending its southern origins. 'The majority [of pilgrims] came from Tuscany', notes Luzzatto, 'followed by Liguria, Lazio and Lombardy, with a few from southern regions of Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia.' Nor was belief in Padre Pio's miraculous gift confined to Italy: the guestbook at San Giovanni Rotondo for 1924 already contains signatures from Spain and France, Brazil and Argentina, Ireland and Chile.
 
The birth pangs of the cult coincided with another event that brought San Giovanni Rotondo to national attention: the shooting of eleven Socialist demonstrators by government troops in the autumn of 1920. Padre Pio did not hesitate to bestow his spiritual authority upon the 'party of order'—fascio d'ordine—preparing to engage in temporal battles against the rising Left. Shortly before the massacre, the saint had emerged from his cloister to bless the banners of right-wing army veterans in the town. He would go on to receive Giuseppe Caradonna, a prominent southern Fascist whose squadristi transformed Puglia's political conflicts into a one-sided civil war, also playing their part in the March on Rome. As Luzzatto recalls, Caradonna's great enemy in the region was the trade unionist Giuseppe Di Vittorio; born a short distance from San Giovanni Rotondo, Di Vittorio would himself become a 'secular saint' of the Italian labour movement, his photo circulating among working-class militants much as images of Padre Pio did among the faithful. (After Di Vittorio's death in 1957, Pio's hagiographers made baseless claims that he had planned to visit the monk: not even a Communist could escape the divine embrace.)
 
However committed he may have been to the defence of the established order, Forgione's immense popularity was by no means a source of delight for the Vatican. One of the main themes of Luzzatto's book is the conflict between the popular religiosity inspired by Padre Pio and the distrust of the institutional Church. The monk endured several years as a 'prisoner of the Vatican', compelled to isolate himself from the laity on strict orders from the church hierarchy. During this period some of Forgione's more enthusiastic partisans suggested that he might play the role of a modern-day Savonarola, purging a 'decadent' Church of its worldly leaders, while Vatican loyalists compared him to Rasputin. Pius xii—whose dubious relationship with the Axis powers remains a source of occasional awkwardness for the Church—was the first pope to embrace Padre Pio and grant free rein to his cult. This coincided with the emergence of Pio as a global celebrity in the period following the Second World War. Before the war he had received 9,000 letters annually; by 1945 there were 40,000 arriving at San Giovanni Rotondo every year, and the numbers continued to rise.
 
The story of the hospital built under Pio's supervision, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, illustrates his passage from outlaw status within the Church to respectability. The project began with a huge donation of 3.5 million francs bestowed upon the Capuchin by his most devoted supporter of the inter-war period, a certain Emanuele Brunatto, who had worked as an informer for Mussolini's secret police and made his fortune on the black market in occupied France supplying luxury goods to the German officer class. One hagiographer quoted by Luzzatto prefers to overlook such unseemly matters: 'It has never been clear from where such a sum in francs, so large for those times, could have come'. Yet work was completed on the hospital after the war with the help of a new sponsor: Barbara Ward, foreign editor of the Economist. A devout Catholic who had visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1947 and found herself 'enchanted' by Padre Pio, Ward was also the fiancée of Robert Jackson, deputy chief of the un Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Her lobbying efforts, in tandem with those of the Vatican and the Christian Democrats, ensured that the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza would receive 250 million lira from unrra; by contrast, the entire Red Cross organization in Italy was given just 130 million lira. As the crucial election of 1948 approached, us officials could see the propaganda value of a large grant to Padre Pio, who thus found himself in charge of the best-equipped hospital in southern Italy.
 
Luzzatto describes the ten years after 1948 as the 'golden age' of Padre Pio's cult. San Giovanni Rotondo and its environs witnessed a tourist boom as pilgrims travelled from every corner of the world to pay homage to the Capuchin miracle-worker. He was the first Catholic saint to be embedded in the celebrity system, to ascend simultaneously to heaven and to stardom. Pio became a favourite of the rotocalchi—weekly magazines that have the same role in Italy as the Anglophone tabloids, full of celebrity pictures and gossip—where his image could be seen alongside that of Claudia Cardinale on their front pages. He was asked for blessings by sportsmen such as the cyclist Gino Bartali and the race-car driver Tazio Nuvolari. In the Italian edition of the book, Luzzatto draws parallels between Pio's iconic status and that of Che Guevara or Marilyn Monroe; the comparison would doubtless strike the Anglo-Saxon reader as so outlandish that the translator preferred to drop it from the English text.
 
Another affinity which comes to mind is that between Pio and Diana Spencer, between a saint who was also a star and a star who was also a saint. In both cases the body—and its underlying sexuality—played a crucial role. Each was seen, in defiance of any logic, as a foe of the establishment. The popular emotion which surrounded them developed against the traditional institutions, be it the monarchy or the Church. Diana was hailed as an adversary of Britain's royal family, while Padre Pio was considered a 'popular saint' in opposition to the Vatican hierarchy. Although his public character expressed what is known in Italy as 'clerico-fascism', believers still credit Pio with a left-leaning heart. Despite the fact that he gave his blessing to the squadristi who perpetrated the massacre at San Giovanni Rotondo, I have myself seen his image in many southern branches of Rifondazione Comunista. While Padre Pio appears at first glance to have been a deeply traditional figure, there is nothing archaic about the Pio phenomenon, which is unmistakably a product of the modern age. The state-of-the-art Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, and Pio's own incorporation into the star system, are perfect examples of the plural character of modernity noted earlier—and of what the late German scholar Reinhard Koselleck called 'the simultaneity of the non-contemporaneous'.
 
The trajectory and significance of Pio's life are described with remarkable skill by Luzzatto. It is perhaps to be regretted that the book concentrates so heavily on the 1919–39 period, which accounts for two-thirds of its extent. Even though the author recognizes that Padre Pio's celebrity is largely a post-war phenomenon, the remaining 28 years of the saint's existence, and the four decades of his afterlife, are given too concise a treatment. This imbalance has both subjective and objective roots: Luzzatto specializes in the history of the Fascist era, and the Vatican archives beyond 1939 are still not open for study. Taste and disposition perhaps also played a role: it appears that Luzzatto feels more at ease with archival documents, correspondence, police reports and chancellery files, than with tabloid culture, holy trinkets and souvenirs; more comfortable with history than with anthropology.
 
The accession of John xxiii to the papacy brought fresh attempts to circumscribe the Pio cult. The new pope ordered an investigation into rumours of personal impropriety and sought to curtail the undignified scenes at San Giovanni Rotondo, where pilgrims anxious to win a place in the queue for confession sometimes came to blows inside the church itself. His private view of Pio was contemptuous, describing the monk as a 'straw idol'—idolo di stoppa. As Luzzatto remarks, 'stoppa (oakum, made of jute fibres) has served the Church for centuries as a symbol of the transitory nature of human life, being burned symbolically during the papal investiture to the chant of sic transit gloria mundi.' The metaphor was, he notes, 'a pitiless one'. Yet Pio would outlive John xxiii by five years, and his posthumous glory was secured when Karol Wojtyła became pope in 1979. The Polish cleric had first visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1948 and was unshakeably devoted to the Pio cult. Forgione's beatification in 1999 marked the final victory of his supporters inside the Church, after eight decades of struggle. A million-strong crowd in St Peter's Square heard Wojtyła refer to Padre Pio as the 'living image of a suffering, risen Christ'. Today, as Luzzatto remarks, the tiny chapel where Pio began his monastic career has been replaced by a 'twenty-first-century temple of glass and concrete', designed by Renzo Piano, 'big enough to hold eight thousand of the faithful and with room for many thousands more in the plaza outside'.
 
[1] Sergio Luzzatto, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, Picador: New York 2011, $22, paperback 371 pp, 978 0 312 61166 8

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