Friday, September 23, 2011

St. Padre Pio's response to persecution from within the Church

Today is the feast day of St. Pio of Pietrelcina.  Padre Pio often comes to the minds of people when they feel a priest is being persecuted from within the Catholic Church.  What they don't consider is how the saint responded. 

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First, it is important to point out that when I use the word "persecution", it could be real, or perceived.  Of course, the public always has a fraction of the facts in any case, so it is easy to see persecution where it may, or may not, exist.  Misunderstandings also happen, and are often quite painful.  Projecting past experiences into any case is never helpful, either.  Another point to consider is that even when Catholic authorities are wrong about something in the end, it is possible that any reasonable person could have come to a similar conclusion with the information that was available to them at a given time.   For example, in the case of St. Faustina, faulty translations caused Church authorities to consider her writings suspect, but it took from 1959 to the late 1970's for that to get cleared up (1).  Since those of us not directly involved with a case have nothing more than the tip of an information iceberg at our disposal, we must be careful not to fall into rash judgment, either way.

Looking back, we know that St. Pio suffered greatly at the hands of Church authorities.  These kinds of trials should not come as a surprise to any priest or religious; they should almost be expected in one's life time. Pearls are created by friction; gold is tested in fire.  Catholics who understand the concept of redemptive suffering  (Col 1:24) often think only to apply it to things like illness or physical pain.  When we feel we have been misunderstood, or believe we are experiencing an injustice, that interior pain can be offered up in a very God-pleasing way as a sacrifice. The list of things these to which these sufferings may be applied is broad: There are souls to be released from purgatory, sinners to be converted, reparations to be made for offenses committed by clerics, for sanctification of the priesthood and vocations,  to save lives - in and out of the womb, for people suffering famine and war, etc.  Therefore, the most important thing in the spiritual life isn't that one is suffering these things; rather, we ought to consider the response to them.

First, let us look at what happened to Padre Pio (2):

As his spiritual influence increased, so did the voices of his detractors. Accusations against Padre Pio poured in to the Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith). By June 1922, restrictions were placed on the public’s access to Padre Pio. His daily Mass time varied each day, without announcement to diminish the crowds, and he was ordered not to answer correspondence from people seeking spiritual direction. It was also rumored that plans were being developed to transfer Padre Pio. However, both local and Church authorities were afraid of public riots and decided that a more remote and isolated place than San Giovanni Rotondo could not be found.

Despite the restrictions and controversies, Padre Pio’s ministry continued. From 1924 – 1931 various statements were made by the Holy See that denied the supernaturality of Padre Pio’s phenomena. On June 9, 1931, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Padre Pio was ordered by the Holy See to desist from all activities except the celebration of the Mass, which was to be in private. By early 1933, Pope Pius XI ordered the Holy See to reverse its ban on Padre Pio’s public celebration of Mass, saying, "I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed."

In the book Padre Pio: The True Story by Bernard Ruffin (3), he recounts that after Vespers on June 11, 1931, Padre Raffaele summoned Pio to the friary parlor to read the decree received, without comment:

"Padre Pio is to be stripped of all faculties of his priestly ministry except the faculty to celebrate the Holy Mass, which he may continue to do provided it is done in private, within the walls of the friary, in the inner chapel, and not publicy in church".

Saint Pio's response:
"God's will be done,"...then he covered his eyes with his hands, lowered his head, and murmured, "The will of the authorities is the will of God."

While this caused immense suffering for Pio, which was confided privately to his friend and former teacher, Padre Agostino, he did not complain or make objections, especially in a public way. Padre Agostino asked him how he spent his time and Pio replied, "I pray and I study as much as I can, and then I annoy my Brothers." Pio went on to elaborate that he jokes with his brothers. With regards to study, he spent much time reading Sacred Scripture, and he especially studied the Fathers of the Church.  This positive attitude in the face of such a trial brings to mind the following passage, in another context:

"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6: 16-18)

God permitted these things to happen to him and he chose to deal with it, the way Scripture tells us to handle fasting.  Second only to giving up one's life for another, is to give up one's will, for the will of another.  Padre Pio did not allow his "fasting" to be "seen".

Two years later, on March 14, 1933, Pope Pius XI, sent personal representatives to see Padre Pio, who had been "imprisoned" (as he referred to it), without the ability to celebrate Mass publicly since June of 1931. Monsignor Luca Pasetto and Monisgnor Felice Bevilaqua. Bernard Ruffin continues in his book:

"They found no wild-eyed fanatic, no crazed neurotic, no embittered rebel, but a pleasant, humorous man. According to [Padre] Raffaele, Pasetto was very much impressed with Pio's humility, his docility, and the whole of his conduct. He recognized Pio as a man of prayer and entirely godly."

Docility is a word that comes into play here. The great master catechist, theologian, and Servant of God, John A. Hardon, SJ, speaking on docility in an article on "Childlikeness", wrote (4):

It means therefore to be willing to learn from God and here’s the hard one: the willingness to learn from God not of course as though God will, though of course He might, send us His own divine angelic messenger, normally not. Normally God teaches us through the circumstances of our daily lives. Especially those most painful circumstances called other people. That’s where we tend to be less than docile. Openness then to God’s teaching us especially through all whom He places into our lives. It is great, great wisdom to be so disposed as to be ready to learn from and I mean it, everyone from the youngest child to the oldest speaking to religious golden or diamond jubilarian .

St. Pio's postulator - Father Florio Tessari, in an inteview in L'Osservatore Romano had this to say about him in a June, 2009 article (5):

Padre Pio was “a friar, a religious priest who profoundly observed the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) in his life. He suffered difficulties in silence like an authentic Cyrenean and at the same time was crucified without a cross..."

He went on to point to two fundamental elements that led to Padre Pio’s canonization: “Faith to the bitter end and obedience also to the bitter end, despite the difficulties he encountered in his life..."

Of course, that faith and obedience to the bitter end was within the Institution of the Church, in communion with his superiors, bishops, and other authorities working in the name of the Holy Father.  He did not throw in the towel, but abandoned himself to the path that God permitted him to suffer.

But what about defending one's good name?  St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life in the chapter, "Of Patience" (6) looks at this question more deeply.  He also explains how we should respond to various forms of persecution.  He emphasizes earlier in the chapter that it is easier to suffer persecution from the wicked, and much more difficult to suffer it at the hands of relatives, friends and others with whom we are close.  He goes so far as to say that the devout soul should desire it more than the former.  He then explains what one should do, if innocent, and accusations persist.  This is taken from a Google Book version written in 1891 by Longman's, Green & Co., London:

"The following advice of St. Gregory is useful: whenever you are 'justly accused' of a fault, humble yourself, and candidly confess that you deserve more than the accusation which is brought against you; but, if the charge be false, excuse yourself meekly, denying your guilt, for you owe this respect to truth, and to the edification of your neighbor. But if, after your true and lawful excuse, they should continue to accuse you, trouble not yourself nor strive to have your excuse admitted; for, having discharged your duty to truth, you must also do the same to humility, by which means you neither offend against the care you ought to have of your reputation, nor the love you owe to peace, meekness of heart, and humility."

I would like to quote more, but the section really should be read in it's entirety. 

We should reflect, given this information, had the Internet been available back in those days, would Padre Pio have sent out messages to supporters via multimedia and interviews giving his side of the story? Would he have bothered to point to past support in a public way? Would he create judgment on suspicion among his followers for Church authorities in subtle, or not so subtle, ways? 

There is something to learn from the great saint in the way he handled a particular situation involving supporters.  St. Pio learned that some men were going so far as to expose scandalous information about high-ranking members of the hierarchy in a book. The effort was aimed at freeing him from his "imprisonment". Ruffin explains Pio's response:

When Padre Pio, however, learned of the forthcoming book, he seized Morcaldi by the throat. "You devil, you!" he roared. "Go, throw yourself at the foot of the Church instead of writing this garbage! Don't you set yourself up against your Mother!"

Even after he learned later from Bevilacqua during that visitation that the allegations were true, St. Pio continued trying to dissuade efforts to end his "imprisonment" through the use of what amounted to blackmail.  He did not want scandals exposed, even if they were true, because of the harm that would come to Holy Mother Church, and how it would affect unity. Pio knew that even bishops are not immune to the effects of Original Sin, but that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:18). He accepted what befell him through imperfect men (Matt 23:3), by imperfect means, and he made the best of the situation. In fact, those misguided efforts to free him backfired at one point, bringing even greater trials for St. Pio. He was a man whose virtues were refined like a pencil put into a sharpener, and like steel which is hardened in fire.

Snowballing from that is one more interesting point made by Fr. Hardon in his article, Humility and Obedience in the Priest (7)(which should be required reading in seminaries).  Fr. Hardon writes:

Priests are told that, "The priestly ministry, being the ministry of the Church itself, can only be fulfilled in the hierarchical union of the whole body of the Church." Consequently, a priest is obedient and obediently working with and under and through the hierarchy, or his work will not be blessed by God. There is no such thing as a priest going off on his own, independent of ecclesiastical obedience, and expecting God to grace his labors. A priest is not ordained for himself; he is ordained as the Vulgate has it "ad alios", for others. But being a priest, he is not only ordained for others; he must also work with others, "cum allis", and those others are his fellow priests united under the hierarchy..

This point by Fr. Hardon, is crucial.  God knows more than anyone else about the talents He has given a priest.  If God wants those talents used, then everything will fall into place. God opens those doors; He can shut them without explanation.  A priest should pursue the avenues given to him by the Church, while following lawful directives in the midst of dispute, with docility.  This will make formal appeals all the more credible and God-pleasing.  He must abandon himself to the will of God as it comes through the appeals process.  If all rightful and lawful attempts fail, then God's will has been manifested and what is left is redemptive suffering, or some other plan for one's life.  No one's reward is here in this life; rather it is with hope that we look for it in the next.

We may be perplexed at the fact that God would hinder someone from using what seems to be their best talents, even for some great good.  However, God also knows, intimately, what needs sharpening or correcting in a soul.  Those remedies are often bitter.  Lastly, for those who have already reached high levels of perfection, God knows how to make a priest reach higher.  Few will experience the Evil One visibly as did St. John Vianney.  Rather, the near perfect will be made more perfect through persecution and injustice, which are among the most bitter pills to swallow.

Let us reflect then, not on the fact that St. Pio of Pietrelcina suffered such trials from within the Church.  This is a cross many saints have carried.  It is a cross many will have to carry in their life time.  What we must study is the response of the saints, and Padre Pio shows us how to imitate Christ who suffered the greatest persecution known to mankind without  complaint. 

Works Cited

  1. Stackpole, Dr. Robert. "The Mercy Devotion Spreads — Is Banned — and Spreads Again!" The Divine Mercy Message from the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.
  2. "Padre Pio The Man - Biography." Global Catholic Television Network | EWTN. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.
  3. Note: Full citation forthcoming.
  4. "Fr. Hardon Archives - Childlikeness." The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association. Web. 22Sept. 2011.
  5. Catholic News Agency. "Padre Pio Is Cure of Ars for Today, Says Franciscan Postulator :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)." Catholic News Agency. Accessed: Web. 22 Sept. 2011.
  6. "Introduction to the Devout Life - Saint Francis (de Sales)." Google Books. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.
    (Version published in 1891 by Longman's, Green & Co, London)
  7. "Humility and Obedience in the Priest." The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.
Blogpost Notes: 

Edited September 23, 2011 at 11:25 pm to clarify certain points.  A quote at bottom by Fr. John Hardon, and a Scriptural quote with related text was included.

Edited also September 24, 2011 at 5:16 am to include a relevant quote by St. Francis de Sales; "Works Cited" list was added at 1:15 p.m.

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