PADRE PIO Mir­a­cles and Pol­i­tics in a Sec­u­lar Age

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

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.

—Justin Moyer

moy­erj@wash­post.com

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