The Popes and the Mystics



By the mid-1960s, most observers felt Padre Pio was headed for the dustbin of church history. Paul VI, however, looked kindly on the Capuchin and called off the dogs. In return, one of Padre Pio’s last acts, just days before he died in September 1968, was to write a public letter praising Paul VI’s birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae. – John Allen Jr.

St. Teresa in Ecstasy

Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who is in charge of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s canonization process, aptly wrote: “One can justly think that John Paul II was gifted with an extraordinary perception of the supernatural. A member of his entourage, while they were talking about Marian apparitions, asked him if he had ever seen the Madonna. The pope’s response was clear, ‘No, I’ve never seen the Madonna, but I sense her.’”

That astute perception of the supernatural is something that not all popes have possessed in the same degree. It seems, as history and facts have shown us, that certain popes have had a greater grasp of mystical realities, a deeper intuition of spiritual phenomena than other popes. The case of Pope John XXIII speaks well to this.

John XXIII is most famously known as the pope who formed the Second Vatican Council, of course one of the most important religious events of the twentieth century. For that he does deserve much esteem. However, what is less known about Pope John is that he’s had a very dubious history with the mystics; in essence, he’s had much trouble with correctly discerning the authenticity of God’s divine presence and work in the lives of many contemporary mystics. For example, Pope John had a negative opinion of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, the Apostle of Divine Mercy, who today is recognized as one of the great visionaries and saints of the twentieth century, being canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. The private revelations and writings of the Polish visionary have not only led to a popular feast day within Catholicism – Divine Mercy Sunday – but also to a popular prayer devotion – the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Yet, before all this could transpire, Pope John placed Sister Faustina’s Divine Mercy writings on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Similarly, speaking of one of the most revered and esteemed saints of the twentieth century, Padre Pio, the great Italian stigmatic and mystic, was also someone who John XXIII had a negative opinion of.  Today Padre Pio has become one of the most popular saints in all of Catholicism, having a worldwide following among millions of devotees and being, reportedly, responsible for thousands of miraculous healings with his saintly intercession. Yet, Saint Pio’s reputation was not always so esteemed within the Church. A recent story published about the great man in the New York Times, which originally appeared in the San Giovanni Rotondo Journal, explained: “Popes had various opinions of him, however, the harshest being John XXIII, who, a recent book contends, considered him a fraud and a womanizer. In 1960, the pope wrote of Padre Pio’s ‘immense deception.’”

The path of controversy is a path that every mystic must walk. And, unfortunately, Padre Pio – like most mystics – had many false and slanderous rumors spread about his sanctity before the historical record was cleared up of all distortions and, finally and formally, the Italian friar was recognized as a saint by the Church in 2002; again, under the guidance and encouragement of Pope John Paul II, who for a long time revered the holy friar.

Interestingly, it was not simply Pope John Paul II who had a different perception of these modern mystics from John XXIII. John’s predecessor Pope Pius XII and John’s successor Pope Paul VI also had a different perception of the mystical from the Vatican II pope. In fact Pope Pius XII was pressured by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office then, to place Sister Faustina’s Divine Mercy writings on the Index. Pius refused to do so. Cardinal Ottaviani therefore pressured his successor, John XXIII, with the same task. John signed the decree to place Sister Faustina on the Index of Forbidden Books. 

Interestingly on the same day that Saint Faustina’s writings were placed on the Index, Maria Valtorta was also placed on the Index by John XXIII with Cardinal Ottaviani’s insistence.  Valtorta, the twentieth century mystic who reported experiencing visions of Christ’s life in first century Palestine, culminating in her multivolume work The Poem of the Man God, where she recorded her experiences, did see support – like Faustina – from Pius XII, John’s predecessor.  

Pope Pius held a positive opinion of Valtorta, once enunciating about her work: “Publish this work as it is. There is no need to give an opinion on its origin, whether it be extraordinary or not; whoever reads it will understand. One hears talk of so many visions and revelations. I do not say that all are true; but some of them could be true.” These words were spoken by Pius during a papal audience with Fr. Corrado Berti, Professor of Dogmatic and Sacramental Theology at the Pontifical “Marianum” Theological Faculty of Rome from 1939 onwards, who later become Secretary of the Faculty, as well as a consultant at the Second Vatican Council. The very next day, L’Osservatore Romano recorded this meeting in its February 27, 1948 edition.

Interestingly, Pius XII was also a great supporter of Padre Pio, encouraging devotees to visit the Italian friar. Thus, that’s three cases of modern mystics with which Pius’ opinion differed from John’s: on Sister Faustina, Padre Pio, and Maria Valtorta. This disagreement in spiritual discernment would also be seen in Pope John’s predecessor, Pope Paul VI.

Paul VI also seemed to possess that deeper intuition of the supernatural, that sense of the mystical as seen in popes like Pius XII and John Paul II. Paul VI actually made sure to counter some of John XXIII’s negative opinions and decisions against the mystics. First, Paul VI made sure to officially dismiss all ecclesial charges against Padre Pio, showing them to be without merit. “By the mid-1960s, most observers felt Padre Pio was headed for the dustbin of church history. Paul VI, however, looked kindly on the Capuchin and called off the dogs. In return, one of Padre Pio’s last acts, just days before he died in September 1968, was to write a public letter praising Paul VI’s birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae,” John Allen wrote of the matter.

Second, in addition to starting the rehabilitation process that would lead to Padre Pio’s eventual beatification and then canonization through John Paul II’s papacy, Paul VI also made a significant decision that would affect the legacies of both Sister Faustina and Maria Valtorta. He abolished the Index of Forbidden Books on June 14, 1966.

In fact, with regards to Maria Valtorta and her writings, Paul VI had a personal history, a personal connection and devotion to her work. When Paul VI was Archbishop of Milan, he read one volume of Valtorta’s Poem of the Man God, deeply appreciating it and, thereafter, deciding to send her whole published work to the Seminary of Milan. This information was conveyed to Fr. Corrado Berti during a private meeting that the priest had in 1963 with Monsignor Pasquale Macchi, the private secretary of Pope Paul VI.

Interestingly, this means that the negative opinions that John XIII held of three eminent mystics of the twentieth century – Faustina Kowalska, Padre Pio, and Maria Valtorta – were at odds with the positive opinions that Popes Pius XII and Paul VI held of these mystics, not to mention the positive opinions that Pope John Paul II held of both Faustina and Padre Pio, eventually presiding over their canonizations.

A word is necessary here on the topic of papal infallibility. Unfortunately, many people, including not a few sincere Catholics, do not have a proper understanding of what the term “papal infallibility” means. It does not mean that the Pope is perfect and never makes mistakes—a popular misconception. The Pope, like every other human being in history outside of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, was born with Original Sin and, therefore, also makes mistakes. Pope John Paul II, for example, reported going to confession once a week. Papal infallibility simply refers to the fact that a pope’s decision is infallible when he defines and promulgates a universal dogma in the Church to be true, ex cathedra. Ex cathedra, a Latin term that literally translates to “from the chair,” refers to a dogmatic teaching of a pope that is made with the intention of infallibility and, therefore, cannot be overturned, for it is an eternal and universal truth recognized as being part of divine revelation. Things like the Index of Forbidden books, however, are not infallible. The negative personal opinions of certain popes about mystics or mystical claims, as the prominent example of John XXIII shows, also are not infallible; and, hence, the reason why rehabilitation of mystics and their reputations is a possible, and often occurring, phenomenon.

Not all popes have had the same intuitive sense of the supernatural. We see this fact throughout the twentieth century. Certain popes were clearly blessed with a greater perception of mystical realities in the Church. Popes Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul II all exuded a deeper and keener proclivity, in their decisions, of comprehending and understanding deeper, sublime truths associated with private revelations and mystical figures. John XXIII, on the other hand, while gracing the Church and the world with the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council, did not, as history shows, possess that same grasp of mysticism.

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