Padre Pio, Pope Benedict: Soul Mates?

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Dario Pignatelli / Polaris

The body of Saint Padre Pio displayed to public in the sanctuary of San Giovanni Rotondo.

In 1947, a young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla made the pilgrimage to a small town in Puglia to have his confession heard by Padre Pio, the mysterious Italian monk with the Christ-like stigmata wounds on his hands. It was that encounter — along with Wojtyla's belief that a prayer by the Capuchin monk had cured a friend's cancer in 1962 — that helps explain why Padre Pio was fast-tracked for sainthood once Wojtyla had risen to the papacy as John Paul II. But some may now wonder if the current Pope, the cerebral and professorial Benedict XVI, has the same affinity for the popular Italian wonder-worker who died in 1968?

The issue emerges as as tearful pilgrims and television crews flocked this week to the friar-saint's final resting place, San Giovanni Rotondo, a kind of Las Vegas-meets-Bethlehem hilltop pilgrimage destination. They were there to see the exhumed corpse of Padre Pio, which had been put on display in a glass casket, with a special silicon mask — beard, bushy eyebrows and all — created by London-based wax museum artisans. Everyone knows what John Paul II felt about Padre Pio. But how can Benedict, the intellectually rigorous theologian, dubbed "the Pope of Reason," sanction such widespread belief in faith-healing and emotional attachments to icons and relics?

Some may even note a snub of sorts. John Paul visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1987 to mark 100 years since Padre Pio's birth. But Benedict is making his second papal visit to the Puglia region in June, and has left the town off his itinerary both times

Those who know the current Pope and have worked with the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cannot recall in his extensive writings anything specific about Padre Pio. The only apparent reference to the miracle worker in the three-year papacy of Benedict XVI is a rather straightforward 2006 discourse Benedict gave in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of a hospital founded by the monk. "Emulate him," the Pope told worshipers in St. Peter's Square, "in order to help all to live a profound spiritual experience, centered on contemplation of the Crucified Christ."

The kind of "popular piety" that has built up around Padre Pio and other Church figures and relics, with its promise of special powers and healing the sick, is seen by some critics as veering toward superstition. Benedict has not condemned it, but he has made a point of slowing the output of his predecessor's so-called "saint factory," which during John Paul's 26-year papacy produced hundreds of canonizations.

Close observers of Benedict, however, argue that his focus on reconciling reason and faith does not favor one over the other. While he may not dwell on the popular Padre Pio, the Pope, explains Raphaela Schmid, a Rome-based German philosopher and student of Ratzinger's writings, recognizes that Catholicism's more popular manifestations and the religion's search for an intellectual basis "both have a place in the Church." Schmid says that Benedict has explained why it is "not irrational" to venerate the saints, or believe in miracles. "What you see in this is the language of the heart," she says of Ratzinger's reasoning. "The miracle is the trust."

The kind of devotion that Padre Pio's followers display is not excluded in the Ratzinger recipe for spreading the gospel. Indeed such open-hearted faith, and saint worship itself, is intrinsic to the Pope's message. He wrote of saints in his last encyclical, Spe Salvi or "Saved by Hope." In his recently completed visit to the United States, the saints were the focus of his talk to young people and seminarians in Yonkers, New York. "Fix your gaze on our saints. The diversity of their experience of God's presence prompts us to discover anew the breadth and depth of Christianity," Benedict said. "Let your imaginations soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizons of Christian discipleship. Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder."

Still, every Pope has his favorite saints. Benedict's leans most of all toward St. Augustine, the fourth-century philosopher Father of the Church, whom he regularly cites in his homilies. Last year, Benedict made a pilgrimage to Pavia to pray at Augustine's relics there. And he is not excluding other sites of miracles from his future journeys. In September, Benedict is slated to visit Lourdes, the French town where millions of sick and disabled Catholics go each year to seek healing from a spring revealed by the Virgin Mary.