by Mike Morgan
“Well you’ll never get to heaven
In a Chevrolet
Cos a Chevrolet
Don’t Go That Way”
– Boy Scout & Girl Guide Campfire Song
On September 18, 2017, The New York Times reported that a large crowd of devout Catholics descended upon St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City over the weekend. What made the faithful flock to the holy temple? The Catholic Church was sponsoring a road trip, an exhibition designed to awe the believers, maybe recruit a few more souls, and perhaps put some extra shillings in the collection plate. On display was the glove and the cloak worn by Padre Pio, Italy’s numero uno canonized saint.
For those not too familiar with arcane matters related to Catholicism or perhaps too young to have known, Padre Pio was the Elvis Presley of sainthood, the King, the Boss. By the early 1960’s (he died in 1968), he had already attracted enough paparazzi to give the Beatles and the Great Train Robbers a bit of a go in the popularity department. He was a known entity even in the secular world. For Padre Pio was the stigmata geezer, the monk of San Giovanni Rotondo. His hands bled, resembling those of the crucified Christ. Much later, it has been suggested that he used a concoction of bicarbonate of soda and carbolic acid to keep up the appearance. Books have been written about this. These accusations were dismissed by the Catholic Anti-Defamation League. This venerated league of gentlemen could hardly be considered neutral in such matters. After all, he was already a saint.
Padre Pio was also a miracle man, a hallmark of Catholic carnies. He was Lourdes and Lazarus rolled into one, our own 20th Century version of the mystics that used to roam around the desert and hamlets of Palestine over two thousand years ago. Snake oil selling and instantaneous remedies have always been an essential component of Christian mythology. Professors of religious history have long debated what made Jesus different from the other assorted holy men and hippie coots who rattled on about the fire down below and the Big Banana in the sky. Some have concurred that Christ did sleight of hand with food and booze, so his performances had more of a soup kitchen quality to them, probably viewed quite favorably by the shoeless hungry and thirsty inhabitants of the region. In other words, Jesus knew card tricks, but ones that could be eaten and snorted. He was the Mandrake amongst the three-card Monte hustlers. When Jesus was in town, you got your bang for your buck.
I recommend reading Norman Lewis here. A Welsh-born writer, Norman Lewis has penned some classic reads. Naples ’44 – A World War Two Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) describes his encounters on the streets of Naples, after it was occupied by the Allies. He was in a British Army intelligence unit that was responsible for community liaison and generally nosing around neighborhoods.
In The Honoured Society – The Sicilian Mafia Observed (1964), he was among the first to investigate and write openly about the historic and continuing role of the Mafia in Italian society. Norman Lewis explains Benito Mussolini’s inquisition against the Dons. Il Duce held personal grudges against certain Mafia leadership, particularly the mayor of a small burg near Palermo who invited Mussolini to speak in the town plaza. The mayor forbade the citizenry to attend and instead had about two dozen village idiots, town clowns, dribblers, cripples and winos shuffle around the square while the leader scowled from the balcony. Mussolini almost succeeded in destroying the Mafia, but he couldn’t break them, or their code of silence.
Norman Lewis also details the collusion between U.S. Naval Intelligence, General Patton’s Seventh Army, G-Men and Lucky Luciano. Serving a thirty-five year prison sentence for larceny, prostitution and drug dealing in Dannemora, a maximum security joint, Luciano was miraculously released and deported back to Naples in 1946. It was suggested by some of his U.S. handlers that he might become the next mayor of Naples. Then, the U.S. was worried that Italy might fall to the communist agitators and union people. There was even talk of annexing Italy as a U.S. territory. Such moves entrenched organized crime’s control. The mobsters went after the commies with a brutal vengeance. Better dead than red was the order of the day.
Norman Lewis had a Joseph Mitchellesque quality to his writing. If the subject matter wasn’t quirky or oddball enough, he wasn’t that interested. But there is another time and place to discuss his terrific work. For now, we can attribute some of the following citations to Norman Lewis because he took on the Padre Pio phenomenon with much gusto and humor to boot.
In Naples ’44, Norman Lewis wrote:
At Pomigliano [north-east of Naples] we have a flying monk who also demonstrates the stigmata. The monk claims that on an occasion last year when an aerial dog-fight was in progress, he soared up to the sky to catch in his arms the pilot of a stricken Italian plane, and bring him safely to earth. Most of the Neapolitans I know – some of them educated men – are convinced of the truth of this story.
Later on, he lets us know that the flying monk in question was none other than Padre Pio.
And in The Honored Society, Norman Lewis spends an hilarious couple of pages describing the Mafia’s intervention into the religious artifacts racket. High on the scalpers’ list were Padre Pio tee shirts and an endless supply of blood-stained bandages, sold in vast quantities at stalls and booths dotted around San Giovanni Rotondo. It was chicken blood on the bandages, but that didn’t slow down sales. So many thousands of Catholics poured into town daily to have their confessions heard by Padre Pio that tickets had to be purchased. The gangsters became the Ticket Master of the day. For an increased sum, the Mafia soldiers would assure the repenting ones a place in the front of the line, a velvet rope or green room kind of deal. It was like trying to get into a Bruce Springsteen concert. There was even a helicopter-landing pad on the roof of a nearby hospital, so that the sick and afflicted could be airlifted in and out, akin to an emergency MASH procedure. These were for the miracle cures, but the schwartz wasn’t always with Padre Pio, so it was often a hit or miss operation. Prices for medical miracles skyrocketed and a sizeable percentage of the proceeds went straight into the Mafiosi coffers.
According to Norman Lewis, the religious artifacts scam was a huge payday for the mob. He wrote:
In the course of a recent study of Mafia penetration of devotional practices the Italian publication Le Orc carried out, with remarkable results, a brief numerical survey of the most important of such relics. The paper discovered the existence of seventeen arms attributed to St. Andrew, thirteen to St. Stephen, twelve to St. Philip, and ten each to St. Vincent and St. Tecla. Sixty fingers belonging to St. John the Baptist were in circulation and forty heads were revered as that of St. Julian.
Of course not all of the relics were high end such as the afore-mentioned. Many were trinket type gew-gaws that shone in the dark or had a blinking saint or son of god. These were mass-produced by the millions. Many local and international cults preferred their religious medallions to be blessed by a Bishop, and this too was conveniently arranged by the capos. These cheapo chotchkes were a huge step below the price of the limbs and were the penny slot machines, compared to the swanky roulette or blackjack tables, reserved for the bigger spenders. So, mass consumption was critical for profit. It’s not that different from naïve, amateur gamblers and tourists knocking themselves over to visit the casinos in Atlantic City or Las Vegas to try out their luck. The house always wins and a casino can find numerous ways for people to part with their dosh. And lose one will, eventually.
Occasionally, exotic artifacts would be introduced to tempt the more sophisticated buyers. These would include miniature urns of the ashes of Abraham, or a bone from one of the fishes multiplied by Christ in the loaves and the fishes number. All such trade was the domain of the wise guys. It was a criminal enterprise from top to bottom.
Which brings us back to New York City in September, 2017. The Padre Pio traveling circus is nation-wide and is ongoing. He’s the King Tut of 2017. It stops in Philly, Pittsburgh, California, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut, Arlington Virginia, Denver and Saginaw Michigan. It’s like the last tour of The Who, which has been happening since around 1988 or so. The stated reason is to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Padre Pio’s birth and the 15th anniversary of his canonization. Donations raised will help build the Via Crucis in Pietralcina, where old Pio received his first signs of the stigmata. Syrian and North African refugees are drowning by the boatload in the Mediterranean trying to get into countries like Italy so they might be able to live at least, and the Vatican is involved in civic improvements. Something is wrong here.
It is said that when one of the more popular Popes, probably the Polish one, held mass in a field in Ireland that close to 50% of the population was in or near one place at one time. That might be hard to swallow, but god-fearing Catholics do vote with their feet. In other words, these Padre Pio expos have been and will be well-attended events. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I am always astounded by the number of people with cigarette ash smears on their foreheads in midtown Manhattan or on the subway trains. There are a lot of Catholics out there. And the true believers are wearing their faith on their sleeves for this Padre Pio hootenanny. The New York Times quoted one in the article:
When you live a certain way and you embody a certain amount of God, everything you touch, you leave that essence behind. The relic is almost like a portal, like a door.
Perhaps this person will be in the market for the chicken blood hoax. The essence he refers to might be a pong instead. “Yeah, gimme about five of those bloody bandages, man. Got change for a hundred?”
We are now living in an era where blind faith might get one killed or might turn one into a killer. If people choose to believe in this nonsense they obviously can, they won’t be stopped. As the stark realities confront us, the Padre Pio roadshow seems more than a tad outlandish. But then we live in a country presided over by a billionaire real-estate developer, a former reality television star and casino owner, an individual born with a silver spoon in his gob who claims to represent the needs of the have-nots. What’s more outlandish than that? I believe any intelligent, independently minded, self-educated human being should be able to think through these crap arrangements and see the shitty hand that many of us have gotten dealt. The deck was stacked before the game even started. Waiting for the next miracle is not going to cut it.
A faith healer sets his tent up in the town square. That night, the locals fill the tent. The medicine man howls a few prayers at the moon and then calls on two individuals with some kind of deformity to come forward. Bill volunteers, he has a terrible stutter. Then Charlie limps up with a crutch. He is lame in one leg. The faith healer puts them both behind a sheet spread across the stage. He goes into his routine, talking in tongues and sweating up a storm. He yells, “Charlie throw away your crutch,” and a crutch comes sailing over the sheet. And then he carries on, “Bill, tell me what happened?” And Bill replies, “Ch-Ch-Ch-Charlie’s fa-fa-fa-fallen over.”
Mike Morgan, September 2017
(The author lost the faith when he was old enough to think for himself)