(This guest column is a reflection by Padraig Caughey, the Irish gentleman who runs the marvelous Mother of God Forum. It is on hiatus for a few more weeks, so Caughey was kind enough to offer this column. It reminds us all that the battle between good and evil, even in the Church, is nothing new, but an ongoing battle through every generation of the faithful. As bad as the child abuse scandals were in the United States, they were perhaps nowhere as pernicious as in Ireland.)
The Feast of Saint Padre Pio 23rd September
I met my first Saint when I was just 16 years old. I had often heard his fellow religious describe him as such, speaking about this priest in tones of almost awe. For myself , a teenage boy, who loved to read the lives of the saints and had been reading about them avidly all my life and who wished more than anything to be a saint myself , it would be like a dream to meet one. In those far off days back in 1970 I was in a Junior Seminary of the Passionist Order. They caught them young in them days and I had gone away to join them when I was just 15 years old, having wished to be a priest since I was about five .
The priest I was to meet with was Father Paul Mary CP. He had for most of his priestly vocation been a missionary in South Africa. The old saying goes that no man is a hero to his valet. The principle, I suppose, being , that when you get close enough to any diamond, no matter how big and how beautiful on the surface ,when you get up close by living with them you start to see the flaws. This principle holds more true than ever when it concerns brothers and sisters who live closely together side by side in their Religious Houses and where every diamond flaw will loom as large as a Tibetan chasm.
I once read a report by a Capuchin Priest who, although he had never actually met Saint Padre Pio, was asked why he regarded the stigmatic as a saint. The Father wisely replied that it was because although he had met many religious priests and brothers who had lived side by side with Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotoundo none of them, not a single one had ever found the least bad thing to say of the old saint. This particular diamond had been held to the glaring light of community life and been found to be without flaw. A true miraculous jewel of grace. When a neighbour claims a man or woman to be a saint you tend to eat the story with a large pinch of salt, when the guys husband or wife tells the same tale you begin to sit up and take notice.
I first saw and met Father Paul Mary for the one and only time coming down the small windy stairs at the back of house and he knew me and greeted me by name. We only spoke for a minute or so but he left me in awe and awe I preserve to this day over 40 years later.
How so? What about a meeting of a minute with a total stranger impressed itself so deeply on my heart that now at the distance of nearly half a century it is impressed with the odor of sanctity that I can smell those flowers of holiness still? Well I come from a very large family, they did things big back then. Ten children. I tried to count my cousins at one time and stopped counting at a hundred. Even my High School had been big with over a 1000 pupils grouped in equally big classes. Even so I was loved and well loved or I would never have had the tree of Faith grown so hardily strong in my little soul. Even so I was always , always one among many and with so many others to scatter love and attention too I had to reach out and grasp crumbs of attention of very busy parents and teachers as they rushed by. Looking back on it too I was a child who so needed love and would have readily given it back in return. But having failed so often to find the caress of love in those around me had retreated to the lonely places of prayer in empty chapels and the lonely vastness of Irish Mountains and hills to pray to someone who always had the time to listen and give love to a lonely Irish boy. To Mary the Mother of God who was never too busy to listen and to speak when I came, as I often did to sit at her feet for comfort. For God in the busy lives of others had carved an empty place in His heart that he desired that only He and His Blessed Mother Mary would ever fill….
But with Father Paul Mary it was different , so different. Although we only spoke together for two minutes I had his total loving attention. I seemed to be at the center of his Universe. This is what I remember, not the words, or the advice or anything else but this; the loving attention.
Father Paul Mary taught me that the saints, that I had so often read about, were real people, that they really did exist because I had met one in the flesh. More than that he taught me that being a saint was something I myself could aspire to, that it was possible that I could be a light of love in a world that so often simply hustled by.
Some years later I heard that Fr Paul Mary had been critically injured in Soweto (South West Township) when he was stoned by local youths in rioting associated with apartheid violence in South Africa. I asked a Passionist priest how he was doing and was told that although his body was recovering, his heart was broken as it was the very people he was trying to help who had stoned him.
Another great lesson, that the saints always rest on the Cross to which they are nailed. Another Catholic missionary priest to South Africa told the most interesting tale about apartheid and the Catholic Church out there. He visited a Catholic Convent and found that the black nuns were using one toilet and the white nuns were using another in the same convent, in the same community. When he protested to the white Irish Mother Superior she told him coldly that it was the law. No matter how he insisted it offended against charity she refused to budge. He said he noticed two kinds of Irish Catholic Missionaries out in South Africa during apartheid; those who cooperating with segregation, regarding it as the law and those who refused to bend the knee and struggled against it , even at the cost of imprisonment and social leprosy. He also noticed that it was the Irish Missionaries who had fought against injustice in Ireland who went against apartheid and those who tended to go along with the powers that be that willingly bent the knee to gross racialism and injustice.
Again a good definition of a saint as someone willing to hang on the Cross for others, while a scoundrel will run for cover in deep moral cowardice and indifference..
Soweto uprising against apartheid.
This I think , for me, is so good a description of the saint and of the scoundrel. The saint, like a house fire, gives of the heat of love, making those around him/her more alive and joyous the scoundrel , on the other hand draws in the warmth of love and makes all around him more cold and dead.
There is an old saying that there is no one more hard to live with than a saint. I never found it so. It is a joy to be around them. Padre Pio , for instance, is described as the life and soul of his recreations. They challenge, certainly, but which of us never needs to be challenged? But much more than this they bring the fire of Christ, the fire of love, into our lives and I recall with deep gratitude one 16 year old kid who so needed the warmth of meeting a saint and got it.
Fr Paul Mary CP
As for scoundrels….well scoundrel indeed was Fr C, though I state at once that when I knew him, before he went to prison for five years I found him a very funny and amusing character and was very fond of him. He made me laugh. I recall one time talking with him about Padre Pio and the length of his masses, which sometime took three or four hours and were described by one witness, Maria Winowska as follows:
The Capuchin’s face which a few moments before had seemed to me jovial and affable was literally transfigured. . . . Fear, joy, sorrow, agony or grief …. I could follow the mysterious dialogue on (his) features. Now he protests, shakes his head in denial and waits for the reply. His entire body was frozen in mute supplication….
Suddenly great tears welled from his eyes, and his shoulders, shaken with sobs, seemed bowed beneath a crushing weight. . . . Between himself and Christ there was no distance…. I defy those who have been at San Giovanni Rotondo to attend Mass as mere spectators…. One Friday I saw him panting, oppressed as a wrestler at bay trying in vain with swift tosses of the head to shake off some obstacle which prevented him from uttering the words of Consecration. It eventually resembled single combat from which he emerged victorious but broken. On other occasions after the Sanctus great drops of sweat poured from his forehead, bathing his face which was distorted with sobs. Here was truly the man of sorrow at grips with the agony.
Fr C, however, had a very different take on Saint Padre Pio. He grew cross, said he too could take three or four hours to take to say mass..if he wanted the attention and what was so special about Padre Pio and on and on and on… This was so very different from my own understanding of the saintly Capuchin as to make me laugh. It was so exactly the opposite of the view everyone I ever knew, here in Ireland , where Padre Pio was always held in awe. It startled me, for here was a shadow of the terrible opposition the saint met from the very highest quarters of the Vatican and the Clergy right from the very beginnings of his Apostolate. Fr C, I could plainly see, was jealous of the saint and the huge veneration and admiration in which he was held. Thus in his own turn the irascible Fr C gave me a light into the thinking of the Vatican Monsignori who wished to crush the Saint for, had it been jealousy with them too?
Fr C was a small bustling little man and wrote many, many very well selling religious little booklets which sold very well and he had his very own little following amongst the pious Faithful. On one occasion , he appeared to have worked a not inconsiderable miracle. A childless couple who had been married some years came to him to ask his prayers and blessing that they might have a child. A short while thereafter the lady conceived and they had a healthy, bouncing baby boy. The Doctors themselves declared this miraculous as they stated that the physical condition of the mother made conception impossible, yet she had indeed conceived shortly after Fr C’s blessing!
But before you break out the candles to light in front of a picture of Fr C I must relate the story of his downfall. I was in them distant days very innocent. I think partly this arose from the fact that during my three and a half years in the monastery I did not spend a lot of time talking to folks or hearing the gossip. Since it was a Trappist Monastery, with few legitimate occasions for talk and no recreation periods my innocence of what was going down around me may be more understandable. I had however heard a rumor that Fr C had been caught near a children’s playground in a town some miles away. He had been arrested by the police. But the Church, having considerable authority in Ireland back in those days, had him released into their charge to protect themselves from bad publicity.(this was of course very, very wrong of them there are worse scoundrels than priests who abuse children and that is the scoundrels, the Bishops priests and Cardinals who covered up for them,. They displayed gross moral cowardice and indifference to the suffering of the abused children) .
Later, after I left the monastery Fr C was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for a repeat performance of the same gross crime. Though a scoundrel I cannot easily describe Fr C as an evil man . There was something wrong inside him, something broken, which at the time in my innocence I did not understand. A scoundrel who did evil acts, certainly and someone who deserved to be sent to prison. I read somewhere that something like 90 per cent of abusers were themselves abused as children and of course, as is well known, by far the great proportion of sexual abuse occurs in the child’s own homes by their own near relatives. Very often the child’s own father. The abused again in their own turn abusing the abused so to speak.
There is a story told of Padre Pio which illustrates so well this meeting of the scoundrel and the saint. In the early days of Padre Pio’s mission, not too long after he had been given the visible stigmata Padre Pio was visited by a local Archbishop. This particular Archbishop had, up until then, been very vocal and open in his support for the saint. This high clergyman asked for the saint to hear his confession . In short order the raised voice of Padre Pio was heard by onlookers loudly berating the mortified dignitary who was ejected from the confessional by an enraged saint and left the monastery white faced and furious in a great hurry, never to return. The Archbishop had in fact been involved in child abuse of altar boys at his Cathedral. At last infuriated by this scoundrel’s goings on a crowd of locals gathers outside his palace, broke in and gave the scoundrel Archbishop a very well deserved beating. Breaking the proud Episcopal nose in the process.
So on this Feast of Padre Pio I think of Saints and scoundrels I have known and how I wish I might have gotten to meet perhaps the greatest saint of our times Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. How a lonely 16 year old kid who wished to be a priest would have loved to have met perhaps the greatest priest and saint of them all, the humble Friar who many claim to have been the greatest mystic of the 20th century.
In Padre Pio and other saints I am reminded so much of the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and its story of saints and scoundrels.
In it Mary, Queen of Saints, stands resplendent in glory, made beautiful because she loved. At her feet lies the snake, the greatest scoundrel of them all and on its head rests Mary’s foot triumphant crushing its evil. For the saints will always defeat the scoundrels. Just as the light of holiness and love will always overcome the darkness of evil in our Church and in our world. The scoundrels may bruise the heel of the woman, but in the end the foot of holiness will always crush their heads.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
St Padre Pio pray for us. Teach us always to be saints and give us the courage to recognise evil for what it is chase and crush the scoundrels, whoever and where ever they may be.