PADRE PIO Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age
By Sergio Luzzatto Translated by Frederika Randall Metropolitan. 371 pp. $35
Since 90 percent of Italians are Catholic, a writer might be wary of publishing a scrupulously researched takedown of a popular Italian saint. Yet with “Padre Pio” — the English translation of an exhaustive examination of the stigmatic priest Pio of Pietrelcina, who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002 — Sergio Luzzatto, a professor at the University of Turin, in effect does just that. “This study does not intend to establish once and for all whether Padre Pio’s wounds were genuine stigmata, or whether the works he did were genuine miracles,” he writes. Instead, Luzzato tackles the curious sociology of sainthood: the cult of personality that ignores what ostensibly holy men and women are and instead imagines what they could be.
With wry cynicism that’s already inspired a backlash in Italy, Luzzatto spends much of his book unearthing the darker side of the man born Francesco Forgione, including his malingering during World War I, his cozy connection to Italian fascists, his questionable relationships with female congregants and the possibility that his stigmata were self-inflicted. While posing worthwhile “questions about an icon’s phenomenology, about a living saint’s fame and the devout consumers of that celebrity,” Luzzato playfully stops short of calling Pio a charlatan. “It had been the friar’s job not only to perform miracles but to embody Christ,” he writes. “That had been Padre Pio’s brand image in the twentieth-century market of Christian faith.” That brand apparently is in no danger from “Padre Pio,” for the priest’s legend is deeply honored across the globe from Italy to New Jersey.