Saturday, July 29, 2023

The Obedience of St. Padre Pio

[July 29, 2023] I was recently privileged to publish a book entitled Wounds of Love: The Story of St. Padre Pio (TAN Books, 2022). Wounds of Love is a dramatized historical fiction novella about the life of the great St. Pio of Pietrelcina, written for teens but enjoyable for adults as well. I spent months immersed in the life and writings of Padre Pio and learned a ton about this amazing modern saint. Padre Pio has been in the news a lot lately with the release of Abel Ferrara's smutty and underwhelming film; for anyone looking for a more wholesome and spiritually edifying dramatization of Pio's life, I humbly recommend getting a copy of Wounds of Love (here is an excellent review of the book on Gloria Romanorum if you'd like to learn more). It does a good job of covering the major points of Pio's life while introducing readers to his deep spirituality in a narrative format.

Anyhow, I have done a lot of promotional spots on radio and podcasts for the book, and I have noticed that every interviewer asks me to comment on the obedience of Padre Pio. Pio had many virtues, but I am never asked to comment on any others; nobody asks about his chastity, nor his patience, only his obedience. The tenor of these questions seems to indicate they are seeking some kind of reassurance or a lesson—as if to say, "There is a lot of disobedience to the Church today; explain how Padre Pio gives us an example of true obedience." Of course, unless an interviewer makes their position on the "Liturgy Wars" explicit, I have no way of knowing where they stand on current events nor what their own conception of obedience is, but I have learned through studying Pio's life that there is more nuance to his obedience than people often realize. Thus, when I am asked to comment on the subject, after praising St. Pio for his exemplary virtue, I sometimes offer the following observations, which I think bring balance to the question:

I. There are Gradiations of Obedience

First, the obedience that sworn religious owe to their superiors is not a model for the kind of obedience that lay people owe ecclesiastical authority. There are gradiations of obedience within the Church. The vow of obedience sworn by a religious is a vow to observe a specific way of life within the context of a particular order; by extension, it applies to the prudential decisions made by superiors within said order. Because a religious rule is meant to guide its observants towards evangelical perfection through regulating their daily routine, this obedience can extend to very minute matters and it is expected that it be yielded to with docility. The obedience of a dicoesan priest to his bishop is different still; the priest makes no solemn vows, only promises to obey the bishop in his administration of the diocese. In this case, the promise is made to the bishop (not to God), and it is more restricted, applying to those things pertaining to diocesan jurisdiction, not to the minutiae of daily life, as would be the case of a religious vow. Lesser, still, is the obedience of lay people, who are expected to cultivate a disposition of docility and deference towards their shepherds but without any vows or promises.

Therefore, while it is certainly edifying to read about the examples of obedience from professed religious, we would be wrong to take these stories as actual templates for our own obedience as lay people. Padre Pio was a professed Capuchin with solemn vows of obedience; while his acts of obedience are spiritually edifying to contemplate, they are not meant to be normative for lay people, just like the radical poverty observed by St. Francis is not meant to be duplicated by lay people. There are gradiations of obedience proper to one's state in life. 

II. Pio was Shrewd and Knew How to Work the System

St. Padre Pio always obeyed every legitimate command of ecclesiastical authority and encouraged others to do the same. The story of how he grabbed the Mayor of San Giovanni Rotondo by the scruff of the neck and rebuked him when the former had published an accusatory editorial against the bishop in the local paper is well known (the 2000 movie Padre Pio: Miracle Man incorrectly depicts Pio slapping the Mayor).

But we should not assume that Padre Pio was a doormat who simply allowed himself to be trampled by ecclesiatical authority without protest. Pio was shrewd and had a keen sense of when someone was out to injure him. In these situations, he rendered obedience in what we might term a "legalistic" fashion: he interpreted directives narrowly, obeying the letter of the law and refusing to go beyond what was strictly necessary. This sometimes took the form of "foot-dragging," the kind of procedural obstinance practiced by those who know how to work a system to their advanatge.

Case in point, the 1920 visit of Agostino Gemelli, the famous Franciscan physician and founder of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ. Gemelli was a renowned Roman physician who would go on to be the first President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. His area of expertise was in neuropsychology and he enjoyed the patronage of Pope Benedict XV, during whose pontificate he became a kind of unofficial chief Doctor of the Vatican. It was to Agostino Gemelli that the Vatican authorities turned in 1920 when word of Pio's alleged stigmata had begun to stir up controversy throughout Italy. Gemelli was already skeptical of Pio and eager to examine the stigamata for himself in hopes of discrediting him. He was directed by none other than Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val himself to travel to San Giovanni Rotondo and make a complete medical and psychological analysis of Padre Pio. But when Gemelli arrived at San Giovanno Rotondo and explained the purpose of his visit to Pio and the Father Superior, Pio refused to allow Gemelli to look at him unless he produced an official letter of authorization from Merry del Val's office. Gemelli was indignant; he was the most respected physician in the Vatican there on business for the Holy See; the implication that he would lie about a directive from Merry del Val was personally insulting. But Pio held firm; without a letter of authorization, he refused any access to Gemelli, a position backed up by Pio's Father Superior. Gemelli returned to Rome in fury, procured the requested letter, made the trip a second time and was finally allowed to see Pio. But Pio's obstinacy turned Gemelli against the Capuchin saint; Gemelli's scathing report called Pio "an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath"; this document was instrumental in turning the new pope, Pius XI, against Pio.

Pio must have known it was highly unlikely that a man of Gemelli's status acting on orders of Merry del Val would have been lying about his directive. Could Pio have not given him the benefit of the doubt? Furthermore, given that Gemelli had traveled almost 250 miles by rail from Rome to San Giovanni Rotondo, could it not be argued that charity demanded that Pio be more amenable? Neither consideration changed Pio's resolve; he steadfastly refused to yield to Gemelli without a written letter and sent the man all the way back to Rome.

This is certainly not disobedience by any stretch, but it does demonstrate that Pio was not docile in the face of deliberate attempts to discredit him. He could and did utilize tactics of bureaucratic obstruction to stifle the efforts of his opponents.

III. Pio Protested When the Integrity of the Rule was Compromised

There is also an interesting occasion where we see Pio protesting against a directive of his superior when he believed the integrity of the Franciscan commitment to poverty was threatened:

When Padre Pio was old and famous throughout the Catholic world, one of the Capuchin's lay benefactors, seeing how badly the brothers sometimes suffered from the Italian heat in their oven-like cells, donated an air conditioning unit to the friary. Delighted with the device, the Father Superior soon ordered similar units to be installed in all the friars' quarters. Knowing Pio would protest, the Superior had the unit installed in Pio's room when he was away. Pio, however, returned while the work was in progress and interrogated the workers. When they told him about the directive, Pio groaned and said, "What would our Seraphic Father say?" and protested that he had not joined the Capuchins for a life of ease. These words were reported to the Superior, who removed the unit and gave Pio a dispensation from his order. 

In this case, believing the installation of an air conditioner compromised the manner of life proscribed by Rule of St. Francis, Pio objected to the project, despite the fact that it had been directly ordered by his Father Superior. He considered his Superior's order to be compromising the integrity of the Franciscan way of life and thus complained.


I do not wish to suggest that Pio's obedience was imperfect or that he was in any way lacking in this virtue. Neither of the examples discussed are instances of disobedience, and I do not cite them to argue otherwise. I cite them to clarify the nature of Pio's obedience. It was more nuanced than people assume. There is no example of Pio deliberately disobeying any order of his superiors, but he should not be viewed as a pious doormat who acquiesced docily in the face of attempts to discredit him or compromise the Capuchin way of life. His obedience was not unthinking, nor divorced from the pursuit of the good, as he understood it. 

There are other tales of this nature, but I think this suffices. The stories above are both found in Padre Pio: The Wonder Worker, an anthology published by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (New Bedford, MA, 1999). And please consider picking up a copy of Wounds of Love from TAN Books.


Anonymous said...

I did read a Tan book of padre pio written by an American Italian.

It detailed a lot of the conflicts at the time

And includes testimonies of people who met him etc.

Regarding religious obediance, I was shocked when the diocesan staff scheduled the diocesan priests to take the covid shot .

A local priest took it even when I cautioned him against it -it was like he had no choice.

He later had to have heart surgery, which he survived.

Another priest told me when I cautioned him against it - that well they not knocking down the doors yet (and he did not take it ).

That was one instance where I wondered if obediance was being forced under duress or whether they could have simply refused the scheduled appointment ( made by some millennium staffer, I imagine) .

Paul said...

Good points. But you know, the thing I struggle with is I often look to the saints as models for how to live, how to pray, how to achieve holiness. Yet what percentage of canonized saints would you say are professed religious? 90%? It doesn't always "translate" into my life as a layman, husband, father, etc. It's not my calling to give away everything like St. Francis, for example. So where does that leave us? Trying to cobble together a spiritual life from various sources and examples (which, again, owing much to the saints), trying to figure it out as we go, adjust when needed, etc. I don't know if it's that lay and married folk just have a harder time achieving that level of sanctity, or if it happens and it's just not formally/canonically recognized. Maybe St. Paul has a point.

Boniface said...

I think it's supposed to be evident that, for us, when we read St. Benedict rolling around in a pile of thorns, we are supposed to admire and imitate the virtue his demonstrated, not necessarily mimick his exact actions (unless we, too, were maybe in the same state as him). It should not be too challenging to for us to translate this into lessons applicable to our own life; we may not throw ourselves into brambles, but we understand that we are to mortify the flesh.

St. Paul definitely has a point; there is a reason he counsels followers to avoid marriage. He doesn't just say "Pray about whether you're called to religious life," but actually suggests by way of counsel that they avoid it. It doesn't mean you can't be holy, but it means you have to find ways to translate the lessons of the saints into your own context. That's really what the call of the laity is all about.

Anonymous said...

From what I have read about the saints, it seems those individuals who were married and made sacrifices leading usually to martyrdom because maybe they were catechists, etc. a lot seem to be Declared Blessed not so much Saints.

I don’t know where married deacons figure, have not read of one instance being declared blessed.

It’s true, few married are declared saints, unless they become widowed and start their own congregation.