By Michael H. Brown
An archbishop who mercilessly persecuted Saint Padre Pio, the famed Italian mystic, was the center of a scandal rivaling any in our present day. The prelate, Archbishop Pasquale Gagliardi of Manfredonia, was accused of sexual molestation and had even been arrested by civil authorities, according to Padre Pio: The True Story, a landmark book about the mystic and available in our bookstore.
Records show that “Gagliardi was on several occasions publicly accused of sexual molestation and unchastity,” says the author, Bernard Ruffin. “Although there is no solid evidence for any practice of homosexuality on Gagliardi’s part, it was beyond question that he showed a preference for priests who had been convicted of this crime.”
Gagliardi appointed as archpriest in the town of Vico a man who had been arrested and convicted three times for sodomy. In the same town, the archbishop appointed another priest who had an extensive police record for `continued and habitual pederasty.’ Several witnesses testified that many of these homosexual priests sent Gagliardi expensive gifts after he gave them positions in his archdiocese.”
The archbishop’s personality apparently engendered strong bias and dislike — making it difficult, especially so many years after, to know exactly which charges to believe. Moreover, this is not to judge; we have no idea how God viewed the Manfredonia archbishop, who was surely possessed of certain good qualities and had been elevated to the archepiscopate at the age of 38 by no less than Pope Leo XIII (who will rank in the pantheon of popes alongside the likes of Gregory the Great and John Paul II).
But according to Ruffin, “there were complaints about sodomy in the archdiocese, about `ignorant and immoral’ candidates for priestly office being preferred over men of character. There were complaints that the aging prelate no longer even took the trouble to confer the sacrament of confirmation.”
We are talking here of events that occurred in the 1920s — indicating that the current Church crisis is one in a long history of tribulation and showing the level of spiritual warfare that has always been waged. In the case of Pio, the goal was clearly to halt his tremendous ministry, and it was Archbishop Gagliardi who, railing constantly against the mystic, took the cause all the way to the Vatican.
That campaign, joined by several other powerful members of the Church’s inner circle, led to a series of mandates that for a period greatly limited Pio’s priestly duties. Among the sanctions was a 1922 order by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val of the Vatican that limited the soon-to-be saint’s contact with “devout people seeking counsel”; disallowed him from showing or discussing his stigmata; and prohibited Pio from blessing crowds from his window.
At one point there had been a move to transfer Padre Pio away from his adoring followers in San Giovanni Rotundo — and even thoughts of relocating him in America.
Later still, in the early 1930s, Padre Pio — who will be canonized June 16 before what is expected to be the largest crowd for a canonization at the Vatican ever — was stripped of all priestly faculties except celebration of Mass in his friary’s inner chapel.
Padre Agostino Daniele, Pio’s best friend and confessor for more than fifty years, charged that Gagliardi waged “a veritable satanic war” against Padre Pio, soliciting letters with “accusations, exaggerations, and calumnies” to forward to the Vatican — while it was the archbishop himself who was the center of controversy.
So bad was the situation that a number of priests in the archdiocese petitioned Pope Pius XI to end what they saw as the “disorder,” “immorality,” and “clerical degeneracy.”
This was not the case, however, with Padre Pio. He never retaliated against the archbishop, nor even criticized him. In fact the angriest the famous mystical priest was seen to get was with a supporter — a Pio defender — who had attacked the archbishop. Although shattered, Pio was said to have submitted to the bishop’s attacks with what Father Agostino recalled as “holy resignation.” The same was true of Padre Pio’s spiritual director, Padre Benedetto Nardella, who uttered no complaint against the unfair sanctions.
“God’s will be done,” Pio, a Capuchin monk, is quoted as saying. “The will of the authorities is the will of God.”
Later, when Archbishop Gagliardi died, Pio immediately said a Mass for him.
But with the patience — with the longsuffering, with prayer — had come supernatural interventions. According to Ruffin — whose book is the best-documented account of Pio’s life that we have seen — during the summer of 1923, when Pius XI was about to suspend Padre Pio a divinis — from all priestly functions — “suddenly, while he was speaking, a Capuchin friar appeared, knelt, and kissed his feet, saying only, `Your Holiness, for the good of the Church, do not take this course of action.’ He then asked the Pope’s blessing, kissed his feet again, rose, and left.”
When the Pope asked who let the friar in, no one knew. The guards strenuously denied having seen any friar either enter or leave. When this was reported to the Pope, he grew silent and ordered no one to speak of the incident, writes Ruffin. Pius did, however, ask a cardinal to find out where Padre Pio was at the precise time — and learned to his bewilderment that the holy Capuchin had been in the choir of his friary, which was more than 150 miles to the east, saying his daily Office.
After this, there was no further talk of suspending Pio from his priestly faculties, at least not by Pope Pius.
[resources: Padre Pio: The True Story]