The spiritual career of Padre Pio poses a challenge for those who, following Max Weber, expected that the world should become more and more disenchanted in the face of modern capitalist civilization.footnote1 It also helps to dismantle the notion that modernity is a univocal concept; rather, we must speak of plural modernities, simultaneous and mutually irreducible. From the former perspective, it is difficult to explain the fact that Francesco Forgione—as Pio was named on his birth in 1887—would become the most famous Italian of the last century. Neither Antonio Gramsci nor Benito Mussolini can match the hordes of pilgrims, several million each year, who visit San Giovanni Rotondo to worship at Forgione’s grave. How could this sickly, ill-educated southerner achieve such global renown? The details of his life have been rehearsed endlessly in media of every kind. Yet this translation of Sergio Luzzatto’s outstanding biography gives Anglophone readers the first opportunity to consult a serious account of the Padre Pio phenomenon, a study of the man and of his socio-political environment, based on comprehensive research by a skilled and subtle academic historian.

Most of the books and articles devoted to Forgione—Luzzatto rightly speaks of a ‘logorrhoea’ inspired by the saint—have set out to confirm or deny his holiness, his capacity to bestow miraculous cures upon the sick, his legendary stigmata. Luzzatto, a professor of modern history at the University of Turin, declares his intention to avoid such matters in the book’s preface: ‘All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were “real” had better close this book right now. Padre Pio’s stigmata and his miracles interest us less for what they tell us about him than for what they tell us about the world around him.’ And that world showed—and shows—a desperate hunger for belief in the sacred and the supernatural. Heine and Nietzsche first spoke of the ‘death of God’, and some philosophers went even further in the 1960s, formulating a ‘theology of the death of God’. This report of divine mortality proved to be as mistaken as Weber’s theory of disenchantment: not only has God not died, but all of the various gods continue to prosper, as witnessed by the rapid diffusion of Pentecostalism around the world, the strength of Christian fundamentalism in the hyper-technological and capitalist usa, the popularity of Islamist movements and of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Superstitions, do-it-yourself beliefs, all sorts of magic are thriving. Who in the early twentieth century would have expected that in a hundred years’ time, several Christian denominations would each have more followers than all the parties of the global workers’ movement put together?

Francesco Forgione was born in the village of Pietrelcina in southern Italy, about sixty miles east of Naples. In all the years preceding his death in 1968, Forgione never travelled more than eighty miles from his birthplace. He became a novice at the age of fifteen and joined the Capuchin Order two years later. Having managed to perform his military service well away from the front line during the First World War, Forgione secured a discharge on grounds of physical disability and entered the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916, never to leave this corner of the Gargano Peninsula again. In the summer of 1918, as the war approached its conclusion, wounds appeared on the hands and feet of the man who would become Padre Pio: they were soon interpreted as stigmata by the believers, who compared them to the wounds of Christ’s crucified body.

Luzzatto is greatly interested in those elements of mass psychology which create and disseminate popular beliefs about the extraordinary powers of a certain person’s body—a king, a duce, a saint. His early research on the French Revolution was influenced by Marc Bloch’s seminal work on the healing power of French kings, and Luzzatto’s study of Padre Pio follows his previous book The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy (2005). The historian evokes the trauma of the First World War to explain why, as soldiers returned from the front—many carrying their own wounds—belief spread that a humble Capuchin in a southern convent had received the sanguinary marks of Christ. The immediate context for this belief was of course the traditional superstitions and the almost folkloric cult of saints among southern Italians, as evoked by the Fascist writer Curzio Malaparte: ‘St Martin on horseback, St George with his spear, St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, St Rocco with his unguents for the plague, St Anthony among the pigs, St Christopher at the ford, St Joseph with his carpenter’s plane, St Agnes of the seven swords.’ Yet already by the 1920s, the Padre Pio cult had become a national phenomenon, transcending its southern origins. ‘The majority [of pilgrims] came from Tuscany’, notes Luzzatto, ‘followed by Liguria, Lazio and Lombardy, with a few from southern regions of Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia.’ Nor was belief in Padre Pio’s miraculous gift confined to Italy: the guestbook at San Giovanni Rotondo for 1924 already contains signatures from Spain and France, Brazil and Argentina, Ireland and Chile.

The birth pangs of the cult coincided with another event that brought San Giovanni Rotondo to national attention: the shooting of eleven Socialist demonstrators by government troops in the autumn of 1920. Padre Pio did not hesitate to bestow his spiritual authority upon the ‘party of order’—fascio d’ordine—preparing to engage in temporal battles against the rising Left. Shortly before the massacre, the saint had emerged from his cloister to bless the banners of right-wing army veterans in the town. He would go on to receive Giuseppe Caradonna, a prominent southern Fascist whose squadristi transformed Puglia’s political conflicts into a one-sided civil war, also playing their part in the March on Rome. As Luzzatto recalls, Caradonna’s great enemy in the region was the trade unionist Giuseppe Di Vittorio; born a short distance from San Giovanni Rotondo, Di Vittorio would himself become a ‘secular saint’ of the Italian labour movement, his photo circulating among working-class militants much as images of Padre Pio did among the faithful. (After Di Vittorio’s death in 1957, Pio’s hagiographers made baseless claims that he had planned to visit the monk: not even a Communist could escape the divine embrace.)

However committed he may have been to the defence of the established order, Forgione’s immense popularity was by no means a source of delight for the Vatican. One of the main themes of Luzzatto’s book is the conflict between the popular religiosity inspired by Padre Pio and the distrust of the institutional Church. The monk endured several years as a ‘prisoner of the Vatican’, compelled to isolate himself from the laity on strict orders from the church hierarchy. During this period some of Forgione’s more enthusiastic partisans suggested that he might play the role of a modern-day Savonarola, purging a ‘decadent’ Church of its worldly leaders, while Vatican loyalists compared him to Rasputin. Pius xii—whose dubious relationship with the Axis powers remains a source of occasional awkwardness for the Church—was the first pope to embrace Padre Pio and grant free rein to his cult. This coincided with the emergence of Pio as a global celebrity in the period following the Second World War. Before the war he had received 9,000 letters annually; by 1945 there were 40,000 arriving at San Giovanni Rotondo every year, and the numbers continued to rise.

The story of the hospital built under Pio’s supervision, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, illustrates his passage from outlaw status within the Church to respectability. The project began with a huge donation of 3.5 million francs bestowed upon the Capuchin by his most devoted supporter of the inter-war period, a certain Emanuele Brunatto, who had worked as an informer for Mussolini’s secret police and made his fortune on the black market in occupied France supplying luxury goods to the German officer class. One hagiographer quoted by Luzzatto prefers to overlook such unseemly matters: ‘It has never been clear from where such a sum in francs, so large for those times, could have come’. Yet work was completed on the hospital after the war with the help of a new sponsor: Barbara Ward, foreign editor of the Economist. A devout Catholic who had visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1947 and found herself ‘enchanted’ by Padre Pio, Ward was also the fiancée of Robert Jackson, deputy chief of the un Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Her lobbying efforts, in tandem with those of the Vatican and the Christian Democrats, ensured that the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza would receive 250 million lira from unrra; by contrast, the entire Red Cross organization in Italy was given just 130 million lira. As the crucial election of 1948 approached, us officials could see the propaganda value of a large grant to Padre Pio, who thus found himself in charge of the best-equipped hospital in southern Italy.