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Controversial figures set for canonization


Pope John Paul II set the stage Dec. 20 to make saints of three controversial Catholic figures: Capuchin friar Padre Pio, an Italian mystic who allegedly possessed the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ, and exercised miraculous powers; Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei; and Juan Diego, a young Mexican of Aztec origins to whom the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in Guadalupe in 1531.

On Dec. 20, the pope cleared the way for canonization by recognizing miracles said to have been performed by the three men, along with other miracles attributed to two other candidates for sainthood and several prospects for beatification.

The other new saints will be Italians Ignatius da Santhià, an 18th-century Capuchin, and Benedetta Cambiago Frassinello, 19th-century founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Providence.

No date has yet been set for canonization ceremonies. Ceremonies for Padre Pio and Escriva are expected to be enormous. When Padre Pio was beatified in May 1999, a crowd of 200,000 filled St. Peter’s Square. A crowd equally large turned out for Escriva’s beatification in 1992.

Rumors in the Italian press have suggested that Escriva’s ceremony could take place June 26, the 100th anniversary of his birth. However, Opus Dei Fr. Flavio Capucci, the man responsible for Escriva’s case, told NCR that this date is impossible because it falls on a Wednesday. Canonizations are normally held on Sundays.

Escriva has long been a controversial figure, both for his alleged ties to the Franco regime in Spain, and also because the organization he founded is seen by some critics as a “Catholic cult.”

Padre Pio has an enormous following in Italy, but was viewed with considerable suspicion by both the Vatican and his Capuchin superiors during his lifetime. He was disciplined five times by the Holy Office, the forerunner of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the finances of his charitable organizations were repeatedly investigated.

Juan Diego, enormously popular in Mexico, has been the subject of historical debate in recent years regarding his actual existence. In implicit acknowledgement of the controversy, L’Osservatore Romano published Dec. 20 two pages of material as evidence that he was a real historical figure.

John Paul has a strong personal devotion to Padre Pio, dating back to a 1947 visit to Italy when then-Fr. Karol Wojtyla, 27 at the time, went to confession to the Capuchin friar. Wojtyla visited Padre Pio’s tomb in 1974 as the cardinal of Kraków, and again as pope on May 23, 1987.

John Paul has denied, however, a persistent rumor that Padre Pio predicted his election as pope in that 1947 confession.

The miracle attributed to Padre Pio involved the healing in January 2000 of an 8-year-old boy from a coma. Escriva is said to have healed a Spanish doctor who developed radiation sickness in his hands after exposure to x-rays, while Juan Diego allegedly saved a young man who jumped from a tall building.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001