Vatican 'factory of saints' rushes into overdrive

The road to beatification seems to be getting shorter, reports Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online
One Of the most revered spiritual men of the 20th century has just taken his first big step on the road to sainthood. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina - Capuchin mystic, healer, general miracle-worker and founder of the largest private hospital in southern Italy - was officially promoted to "venerable" status by papal decree last Thursday. He stands every chance of reaching beatification in time for the 30th anniversary of his death next September, and could be proclaimed a saint by the turn of the Millennium.

Pope John Paul has, by all accounts, held him in special esteem ever since a Polish mother of four was miraculously cured of throat cancer through his intercession in the early Sixties. He is also reported to have prophesied Karol Wojtyla's ascension to the papacy as far back as 1947, and foreseen the blood and suffering that followed the attempt on his life in St Peter's Square in 1981. But the Pope is far from his only admirer. Padre Pio's popularity stretches well beyond Italy to prayer groups and Internet discussion forums around the world.

Then again, he is not exactly representative of what we Anglo-Saxons, with our rigorous notions of religion and piety, would think of as orthodox saintly attributes. Padre Pio's greatest claim to fame is that he carried the stigmata, the hand, foot and chest wounds that Christ bore on the cross, which were miraculously visited upon him in 1920 and remained until his death in 1968. He was said to have lost about a cup of blood each day.

Furthermore, he could emit strange odours that would scent the air around him and any object he touched for hours on end. He could peer into the souls of his followers and tell them what sins they had on their conscience before they had had a chance to confess them to him. He was blessed with the gift of bilocation - appearing in two places at once. And he was also into mystic flying. During the Second World War, it was claimed, he soared into the sky to rescue an Italian pilot whose plane had been struck by enemy fire.

The miracles attributed to him are legion. Like the story of the little girl from Reggio Calabria who lost a finger in the hinge mechanism of a beach chair and saw it grow back again after she wore one of Padre Pio's gloves.

Sainthood has become something of a vogue issue, what with the nearly simultaneous deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The newspapers have been filled with talk of the inspiring examples of these two very different women, and, while the debate may have lacked theological rigour, it seems to point to a genuine need for spiritual role models in our cynical age.

That sentiment has been taken up with near-crusading zeal by the Roman Catholic church, which is overtly campaigning to create as many new saints as possible. Pope John Paul has canonised or beatified 10 times more people than all of his 20th- century predecessors put together: well over 1,000, compared with 56 under Paul VI and just 69 in the 60 years before that. Granted, they are not generally flying monks or stigmatics; indeed, they have spanned the variety of human experience, from clerics to laity, scholars to peasants, artists, thinkers, battlers for freedom and justice, even the odd politician.

This so-called "factory of saints" has not escaped controversy in the Catholic community. Everyone seems happy with a greater variety of role models for believers, and indeed the more progressive wing of the Church has encouraged the informal veneration of both Catholics and non-Catholics such as Gandhi, Dag Hammerskjold and Martin Luther King. The problem is with the canonisation process. Under John Paul II, it has become more centralised than ever in Church history, vastly increasing the Pope's own powers to intervene and diminishing the independence of the judicial bodies working within the Congregation for the Cause of Saints.

Most strikingly, a new set of rules introduced in 1983 did away with the position of Devil's Advocate, the man previously charged with casting a sceptical eye over the evidence and asking hard questions about the weak points in a candidate's dossier. Now, the official who promotes a candidate in the first place also has the power to recommend him or her to the Pope for beatification. "It's like having a trial in which the prosecutor is also the judge, and the defence is barred from the courtroom," says Giancarlo Zizola, a highly experienced author and journalist on Vatican affairs. "This is what has opened the floodgates to all these new saints. One has to wonder whether proper controls have been exercised to stop favoured factions in the Vatican from simply pushing their people forward unhindered."

Padre Pio is a striking, not to say alarming, case in point. On the one hand, he is exactly the sort of saint this Pope approves of: someone imbued with charisma and author of enough remarkable feats to keep the faithful talking for decades, if not centuries. On the other, it is far from clear whether he was a genuine worker of modern-day wonders or just a charlatan peddling hocus-pocus.

Twice in his lifetime papal emissaries investigated him and branded him a fraud. Their reports are in a secret file in the Vatican, but enough of the contents have leaked out over the years to cast serious doubt on Padre Pio's reputation. The stigmata are denounced as a conjuring trick (and they disappeared on his death), and many of his so-called miracles are explained as the result of auto-suggestion.

All this might have been harmless enough had it not been for the role Padre Pio played in postwar Vatican, and Italian, politics. In 1958, a shady high-interest investment scheme which had ensnared several religious institutions collapsed, leaving many of Italy's Capuchin friaries in a state of financial ruin. Strangely, though, Padre Pio's community in the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo was found to be 600m lire in the black.

According to sources who have seen the second papal investigation, carried out by Monsignor Carlo Maccari for John XXIII in 1960, Padre Pio may have been used to raise funds for right-wing religious groups connected to the more zealous wing of the Christian Democrat party. The late Fifties were the height of the Cold War; interestingly, the virulently anti-Communist Pope Pius XII reacted to the financial scam by dispensing Padre Pio from his vow of poverty and instructing him to use his power to attract pilgrims from far and wide to generate cash. His hospital, the House for the Relief of Suffering, benefited greatly from this dispensation, as did San Giovanni Rotondo, which has since been described as a religious Las Vegas, with hotels, relics and kitsch galore.

The Maccari report, and its predecessor by Padre Agostino Gemelli, are denounced by Padre Pio devotees as "persecutions". So, too, is a curious episode in 1960 in which two Roman priests bugged Padre Pio's confessional box and claim to have heard him engaging in sexual congress with the "pious women" whose company he encouraged. Mgr Maccari later reported that such assignations were a regular twice-weekly occurrence.

Whatever the truth about Padre Pio (and it is wrapped in multiple layers of Vatican obfuscation and intrigue), he has undoubtedly been used down the years as political ammunition by different factions within the Curia. If the present Pope is championing him, it is partly at the behest of those Church bureaucrats who disapprove of Pope John XXIII, who is himself a candidate for sainthood along with Pius XII and a tangle of other figures in the whole tawdry affair. If the beatification process has gone into high gear after years of procrastination, it may be partly because Mgr Maccari died last year.

None of these power games would have been possible in the days of Devil's Advocates. Padre Pio's case would have been quietly shelved, and the thousands of pilgrims who visit San Giovanni Rotondo each day treated with gentle scepticism. But the Church has a record of playing on popular superstition at times of hardship or political struggle within the Vatican, particularly in the Italian south.

There are books filled with the lives of saints who flew, emitted odours, raised the dead, multiplied bread and wine and performed miracle cures. Sant'Egidio of Taranto once revived a hacked-up cow by arranging its severed limbs and ordering it to walk. Santa Orsola Benincasa's trick was to emit thick steam that burned through clothing. San Giangiuseppe della Croce did not wash or change his clothes for 64 years, a fact that did not stop one of his devotees from biting off one of his toes as a relic after he died; the blood from the wound was said to flow miraculously for days.

Modern Italians still have a weakness for such saints, not to mention weeping statues of the Madonna, crucifixes that sprout hair, and talking relics. Neapolitans still entrust their well-being to San Gennaro, whose blood liquefies three times a year in a ceremony performed at the cathedral and whose special task is to ward off eruptions of Vesuvius.

Unhappily married women make pilgrimages to Santa Rita of Cascia in Umbria, who not only had to put up with an unbearable husband but also developed a suppurating sore on her forehead that made her an outcast even when she ran away to a nunnery. As for St Anthony, he is regularly invoked by all Italians, since he is deemed to run heaven's lost property office - anything you have mislaid and need to find again, just ask him.

The debate in the Church about sainthood is thus just as much cultural as political. Pope John Paul appears to have considerable patience for what is known as "popular religion", while others think of it as superstition that can only bring disrepute upon the Church. Liberals tirelessly champion the cause of El Salvador's murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero (who, they say, was killed in part because he was abandoned by this Pope), but wince with embarrassment at reports that fresh blood has recently been seen flowing from his tomb.

The risk is that the saint factory will end up undermining its own purpose and besmirch both the Church and the profusion of candidates queueing up for sainthood. Mr Zizola is nostalgic for the early days of the Church, when saints were made either by popular acclamation or by local bishops, and the Roman hierarchy had nothing to do with it. "People know a saint when they see one. Mother Teresa is a good example," he said. "As soon as the process is subject to wrangling within the Curia, the point of sainthood is lost for ever."