More Popular than Jesus Christ: 'Padre Pio'

Padre Pio does not come across as particularly likable; understandable, given his medical condition and the psychological complexity of his temperament, itself endlessly analyzed.

Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age

Publisher: Picador
Length: 384 pages
Author: Sergio Luzzatto
Price: $22.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-12

This unsophisticated, testy friar bore the signs of Jesus' own wounds. Padre Pio's fame spread rapidly from Italy worldwide; his claims as a miracle worker and "living saint" aroused both support and suspicion in the Vatican. Whether or not his "literal stigmata" and his powers to not only heal but to bilocate were genuine or not remain, in this scholarly account, unresolved. Instead, this Turin historian places Padre Pio's career within his nation facing the Great War, fascism, communism, anarchism, WWII, postwar reconstruction, and modernization.

Sergio Luzzatto writes with verve, insight, and diligence. Not a hagiography, this lively and thorough study surveys and scrutinizes this Franciscan priest's cultural and political impact during the publicly proclaimed duration of his stigmata, from September 1918 until just before his death in the fall of 1968.

The subtitle, "Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age", may seem at first glance at odds with the intensely Catholic folk traditions and mindsets of this friar's native and rural Italy. Born as Francesco Forgione to a poor family in the south in 1887, this Capuchin seminarian was often ill, and his theological preparation for the priesthood was left scanty. He was assigned to the remote monastery of this branch of the Franciscans on the bleak Gargano peninsula, at San Giovanni Rotondo. There, at thirty-one, as the Great War neared its end, the young priest announced he bled from the hands, feet, and side, after a "mysterious personage" bearing the five wounds of the Crucified Christ had appeared to him during prayer.

Within a society where "metaphorical" stigmata, the disfigurements endured by countless veterans imprinted themselves upon Italy, this appearance of a "literal" stigmata aroused passionate devotion. Luzzatto opens his book by placing this controversial and rare manifestation of Christ's sacrifice within a context that points back to St. Francis of Assisi, who bore for the first time in history these marks. What sparked curiosity, and spurred symbolic identification by many seeking a sign of Jesus amidst such woe, was that this everyday friar was a Padre. That is, he as a priest was the first man who bore the same signs on his hands -- and hands for a priest represented the focus of holiness, in elevating the Host, in blessing, and bearing and bestowing the benefits of blessings brought by sanctified oil in the anointing of the sick and dying.

This is where "secular" enters Luzzatto's analysis. For Francis of Assisi, and others since who have claimed stigmata, the question posed by Rome was whether such signs were real. That they were from God, if true, was not the question. Still, in medieval as in subsequent centuries, the Church acted cautiously at a higher level when it came to approving such folk-based movements emanating from an often credulous populace.

The Vatican and many clerics resented competition by fakers and the deluded. Modernizing tendencies shifted Catholicism towards accommodations with science. Even before Vatican II, leaders sought to replace distracting customs and claimants with a more sensible, rational approach to faith. During Padre Pio's long career, the question was not only whether his stigmata were real, but also whether such signs proved God's existence to a desperate nation and a war-torn century increasingly doubtful of the presence of the divine.

Many Italian intellectuals challenged the clerics; then came the nascent Fascists. Italy had won independence by defeating the Papal States, and Padre Pio's grassroots appeal chafed at anarchists, Reds, and socialists. The friar's claims then became blended, by the foes of the left, into a clerico-fascist alliance which promoted the stigmata early in the fractious 1920s. The Vatican cracked down and for awhile, the friar was kept within an "iron circle" designed to ingeniously test the "living saint" for true sanctity. As Luzzatto phrases it, this ingeniously "repressive logic" ensured that if the claimant was genuine, his piety would enable him to endure whatever suppression the Church could demand. If false, his devout stance would falter under such burdens.

Here, the professor's "intellectual history" shifts away from the friar into extended discussions of this clerico-fascist climate, key players in power politics, and how this situation strengthened or weakened the tolerance by which Padre Pio's fame was sustained. Given Padre Pio was a "relic incarnate", I wanted to know how this peasant friar endured the duties of twelve-hour bouts of hearing confessions, saying Mass to throngs of pilgrims, and walking about as an object of perpetual adoration. Luzzatto's work for all its archival exactitude never lets us have more than a glimpse of a wounded self-proclaimed stigmatist beneath the brown habit. This may attest to the constant pressures the friar endured, as his devoted followers never stopped following him.

It may also attest to how much examination of what skeptics suspected as a 40-year career attracting donations thanks to a "stink of sulfur". Carbolic acid had been ordered by the friar, and investigations into this and his suspicious accompaniment by certain "lay sisters" who commandeered how he spent his time and who merited his attention among the waiting hordes remain open-ended. Luzzatto reports many interviews and reports sent by observers to the Capuchin Order and to the hierarchy and papacy.

Some never got beyond their suspicions, some confirmed, others recanted, some converted. Padre Pio does not come across as particularly likable, understandably given his medical condition and the psychological complexity of his temperament, itself endlessly analyzed. For many of his devotees, this may increase the likelihood of divine intervention to choose such an unpromising figure as an alter Christus, a second Christ. For others, it hardens their disbelief of his manipulations, as egregious as those conducted by any medieval charlatan.

One con man, Emanuele Brunatto, emerges midway as a character worthy of his own biography. This petty criminal has a checkered career even by mid-century European standards of dubious veracity. A forger, an employee of a clerico-fascist publisher, a bogus trader in locomotives, Mussolini's diplomat, and a Nazi collaborationist in occupied Paris, he became Padre Pio's "most gifted and implacable evangelist".

The elegantly dressed, patrician figure survived regime changes, and managed to elude the eye of the future Pope John XXIII who served in post-WWII France as apostolic nuncio. During his reign, this pope would refer in his diary to Padre Pio, after another round of careful Vatican watchfulness to test the patience of a proverbial saint, as nothing but a "straw idol". Meanwhile, back in 1946 Paris, the then-Msgr. Roncalli recorded having hosted one "Emanuele De Pio" often -- while denazification campaigns hunted out such malefactors and betrayers of the French nation as Brunatto. You can see where he borrowed his disguise.

Brunatto, for all his ill-gotten gains, managed to support at a significant cost of at least 1.3 million francs free meals given out for charity in two train stations in Paris for three years of the Occupation. He traded in jam and chocolate; his black market profits in great part funded Padre Pio's project, a large hospital next to San Giovanni Rotondo's monastery. A secondary source of income came from funds diverted by the Vatican and the Christian Democrat party from UN relief aid after WWII.

The later decades of Padre Pio's story, as often with such figures, look less colorful. With success came the freedom afforded him by his Order -- who professed to emulate their humble and truly poor St. Francis -- to control disbursement of hospital funds sent in by admirers worldwide. Despite its faraway location, this accelerated prosperity for the isolated and impoverished region, in need of such investment after the war.

The friary church was twice rebuilt; its dilipidated condition (where, one wonders and not only in the Vatican, did all those donations go earlier in the century?) and limewashed austerity were replaced by a massive concrete church holding eight thousand pilgrims, designed by a world-famous architect. Padre Pio's friary had remained four-and-a-half centuries in a tiny village. San Giovanni Rotondo is now a tourist-dependent city of 30,000. It rivals Lourdes as a place for wonders worked; RAF bombardiers attested that he appeared to them to spare the friary from death from above during WWII; Silvio Berlusconi inserted Padre Pio's picture into election propaganda. The friar's Italian-turned-international cult after his 2002 canonization by the late John Paul II has been memorialized -- the undeniable fact that near his death, his stigmata vanished after half a century attests to its own symbolism.

Padre Pio's relics are venerated, his petitioners vetted, and his tomb is visible on an eternal web-cam hookup. Yet, one closes this book more chastened than inspired. For all the labor of Luzzatto (ably translated by Frederika Randall), the mystery of how this bearded, frank friar achieved a status as the most famous figure of devotion in Italy (beating out not only St. Francis of Assisi but the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth) endures as a vexing moral in an complex exploration of a lowly man invoked as official saint.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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