Date: Sun, 2 May 1999 18:40:49 EDT
Subject: AANEWS for Sunday, May 2, 1999
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Pope running ‘saint factory’?

American Atheists, AANews, #566, 2 May 1999

John Paul beatifies monk accused of mental illness, fraud, philandering

Is Pope John Paul II becoming the Mark McGwire of the Vatican's saint-making machine? News reports of today's pontifical beatification in Rome of “Pardre Pio, a Capuchin friar and mystic who died in 1968, refer to a “saint factory,” and show John Paul at the top of the “Saint-O-Meter” for his sheer number of candidates for holiness. Indeed, the current pope has canonized 283 saints since his election in 1978, almost surpassing the record of all previous popes in the past 407 years when official Vatican records were started. Assuming that the aging pontiff survives and continues his frantic pace of declaring persons to the sainthood, “John Paul II will enter 2000 as the most prolific saint-maker in history,” notes Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Today, an estimated 1 million faithful from around the world are expected to converge on Rome for the beatification of Padre Pio, who for fifty years reportedly exhibited a “stigmata,” wounds replicating the bleeding said to have been suffered on the cross by Jesus Christ. During his lifetime, Padre Pio was the subject of two official investigations conducted by Vatican authorities. There were claims that he liked the intimate company of young women who wore perfume, and had even inflicted stigmata wounds on himself using acid.

Pio was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy in 1887. He is described as having been a pious youth who regularly fell into “trances” and hallucinating states of altered consciousness. He also developed a habit of self-flagellation, a behavioral phenomenon which some have speculated fuels those altered mental states and creations visions or feelings of wholeness and transcendence. At age 31, he joined a monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, where reports of the trances continued, along with stories of Pio awakening covered with blood. Church authorities were skeptical, especially when a cult emerged around Pio, and his followers began fighting over pieces of cloth torn from his vestments. The Vatican then order the notorious friar to celebrate his masses in private, and not display his wounds in public.

Stories about the sanctity and miraculous character of Padre Pio spread. One tale recounts that after hearing the suggestion that the friar be exiled to a monastery elsewhere in Italy, Pope Pius XI received a vision begging him to show mercy on Pio. It is also claimed that during World War II, allied bomber pilots reported seeing Padre Pio in the sky directing their attacks away from the San Giovanni Rotondo. The friar was also described as having miraculous healing powers; and in 1962, a Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla — who later became Pope John Paul II—wrote to Pio asking him to pray for a women who was dying of cancer. Church authorities claims that following Pio's intercession, the woman was examined by doctors and no traces of cancer were found.

Pio has become the focus of a burgeoning “sainthood industry” complete with rituals, sacred centers of pilgrimage, fantastic claims and apocalyptic warnings. The Daily Telegraph notes that John Paul “has steadily advanced the cause of Padre Pio,” and the friar's beatification today is considered a sure step on the road to full canonization in the year 2000, part of the Vatican's much-hyped “Jubilee” celebration. Up to 20 million religious from around the world are expected to pour into Italy and Israel, some merely to commemorate the new millennium, others to await the apocalypse and the end of the world. Indeed, Padre Pio is the subject of web sites, organizations, hundreds of books and a Catholic cult spurred by reports of supernatural visions and fears of an immanent “Great Chastisement” to punish the world before the Second Coming of Jesus.

Churning Out The Saints

Pio is just the latest of a flurry of saints and saints-in-waiting being produced by Vatican authorities, mostly at the urging of Pope John Paul II. In addition to the 283 declared saints, the current pontiff has also ordered 819 beatifications. Ceremonies to beatify Popes Paul VI and John XXIII are planned for later this summer. That puts John Paul II clearly at the top of the “Saint-O-Meter” depicted in today's edition of the Telegraph paper.

Some of the sainthood choices, though, are prompting controversy. The theocratic dictator and 15-th century Girolamo Savonarola was approved last month. John Paul also attracted controversy early in his pontificate when he beatified Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of the Opus Dei group who was a virulent anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer. Today, Opus Dei has been elevated to the status of a “Permanent Prelature” headquartered in Rome, and answerable directly to the pope; it lead's the Vatican's worldwide efforts to combat heresy, abortion rights, birth control and other culture war issues high on the Holy See's list of priorities.

John Paul's enthusiasm for operating this “sainthood factory” stems in part from the approach of the Year 2000 celebrations, and his record as a media-savvy pontiff. Italian commentator Giuliano Ferrara told the Telegraph, “The Pope is very sensitive to the needs of the mass media,” and singled out the Vatican's decision to elevate Edith Stein, a Jewish-born nun who died in Auschwitz. There is also the perceived need to create celebrities which “common folks” can identify with; many recent candidates for sainthood include gypsies, itinerant preachers, even an illiterate horse trader known as El Pele who was shot during the Spanish Civil War.

All of this has called for streamlining and downsizing the Holy See's cumbersome bureaucracy which often spent decades evaluating the lives and deeds of potential saints. Escriva was beatified after a mere 17 year period, and since then the “fast track” to sainthood has been greased even more. In 1983, the Vatican issued new and easier guidelines for declaring a person fit for sainthood, and did away with the office of the Devil's Advocate, a church scholar charged with “casting a critical and challenging eye over the evidence,” according to the Telegraph.