Relics of Padre Pio—the late, alleged stigmatic—attracted the credulous faithful during two tours of the United States in 2017. The show was apparently good for business everywhere.
On display (May 6-21 and Sept. 17-Oct. 8) were such items as the cloak and a bloodstained glove of the Italian friar. Many touched the reliquaries in expectation of healings or just good luck. With, ah, pious bias, they would later be able to attribute any future good fortune to Pio, who, they believe, continues to work wonders although dead. Meanwhile visitors were able to buy commemorative T-shirts and other merchandise, and to insert dollars into machines that returned “golden coins” embossed with the image of Padre Pio. (See Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times , September 17, 2017.)
Born Francesco Forgione in 1887, the future saint took the name Fra (“Brother”) Pio (“Pious”—after the sixteenth-century pope, St. Pius V)—and then became celebrated as Padre (“Father”) Pio for the remainder of his life, dying in 1968. Long sensationalized as a wonderworker in both life and death, he was canonized in 2002.
Pio had his detractors, to be sure. Skepticism had grown after his early antics of supposedly being attacked by spirits were followed by his display, first in 1910, of the stigmata, the “miraculously” appearing wounds of the crucified Jesus. The local clergy accused his friary of exhibiting him to make money. As he attracted a cult following, village hucksters sold purported relics of Pio in the form of cloth swatches dabbed with chicken blood. Skeptics thought his wounds looked superficial, but his devoted family physician claimed—impossibly—that he had seen light through them!
Pio’s wounds were allegedly never-healing, but then he never experienced those of the crown of thorns, and the others—the lance wound in the side and nail wounds in the feet—were covered, respectively, by his clothing and slippers that replaced his sandals. Thus only the wounds of the hands could be seen (if the others even continued to exist). He was accused of maintaining the hand wounds by using acid. Indeed, after his death a pharmacist reported that she had secretly supplied him with undiluted carbolic acid. The pain and trouble this caused apparently prompted him to cover the hand wounds also, supposedly out of a pious modesty. For that he wore fingerless gloves (one of them enshrined on the tour in a bejeweled silver-cross reliquary).
That the gloves had probably been a ruse, however, was indicated before and after his death. Once before he passed away, showing his age, he struggled to celebrate Mass but neglected to hide his hands, which were seen to be unblemished. And after his embalmed body was exhumed in 2008 and displayed (with the intention of boosting reverence and revenue), there was no visible trace of stigmata.
Interestingly, despite the canonization, the church never affirmed Pio’s stigmata to be miraculous—instead the two “miracles” chosen for the purpose being only the typical, supposedly supernatural healings that were believed to have been accomplished posthumously.