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on 20 February 2014
Padre Pio, a Capuchin monk, was born in 1887 and died in 1968. It is claimed that he carried the wounds of Christ - the stigmata. He was venerated by many while he was alive, believed responsible for miraculous cures. He was made a saint in 2002. People round the world pray to him, every year millions visit his grave. Numerous books and articles have been written about him. What does one more add?
This may not be a book for those who "believe in" Padre Pio, as other reviews on Amazon make clear. Many imply it is not admissible to write anything other than an account of his saintliness. But this ignores the rather obvious - that saints, if they exist, exist in the real world. If they did not they would be purely appearances or visions, and so not saints. The problem for the believer is that any investigation of the real life may, indeed probably will, explain away the miracles and the sanctity. This is a particular problem with Padre Pio, because living in the 20th century in a media glare so much of his life was open to see.
This account follows Padre Pio from his early life before the First World War. After 1918 he stayed within the confines a small monastery in southern Italy. His reputation was initially promulgated through a few fellow monks. Thereafter a cult grew, which was avidly promoted throughout the country. The Vatican was by no means always enthusiastic, putting restrictions on both Pio and his supporters at various times throughout his life. Pope John XXIII was deeply suspicious of him - a "straw idol" - and Pius XI was no fan either. He was championed by Paul VI and canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Even his critics - most within the Catholic Church - recognized a certain charisma. They acknowledged that many seemed to have come to the Church through him. He lent his name to a project that built a state of the art hospital in Puglia. But they suspected he had considerable vanity and were not convinced that the stigmata were divine. The miracles, they held, were either contrived, untrue or otherwise explicable. His fame, they accused, was due to assiduous promotion by people who were not completely honest. He was, many considered, regrettably happy to go along with the manufactured adulation. He seemed to set himself against Rome and above the Pope.
His image is everywhere in Italy. Giulio Andreotti claimed he was the most important figure of the 20th century. He cannot be understood without understanding Italy. Sergio Luzzato follows his subject through the traumas and triumphs of the 20th century. He knows his stuff. This is well-researched history.
Ruth Harris has covered similar issues in her book Lourdes: Body And Spirit in the Secular Age. Luzzato is slightly less kind to believers than Harris. This may account for the hostility of readers who have found Padre Pio a support in their own lives.
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