Brian Salter's Blogs:
Saint or Charlatan? Who really knows the answer?


I often think that those who have real faith are lucky. It must be comforting to ‘know’ that there is always something somewhere keeping an eye on things and looking after you; someone who can step in when things go bad and make things right again.

But I’m an old cynic and have always found it difficult to understand the lure of the church, and of religion, and of relying on a spirit to take care of me in my hours of need. And yet…

I was recently taken to a national Catholic shrine in Batangas, south of Manila. It was devoted to Saint Padre Pio – someone whom I had hardly even heard of. Yet Padre Pio has become one of the world's most popular saints, with more than 3,000 ‘Padre Pio Prayer Groups’ worldwide. A 2006 survey by the magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics pray to Padre Pio for intercession than to any other figure.

As far as I am aware he never ever went to the Philippines, yet apart from in his home country of Italy, there are shrines dedicated to Padre Pio not only in New Jersey, in the USA, but also here in Santo Tomas, Batangas.

The shrine in Batangas is only around a decade old and is a right hotch-potch of the uplifting and the downright tacky, depending on your point of view. For instance, some might think these street lamps are veering on the side of tackiness, though I have to admit I quite like them.

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in a town in the southern Italian region of Campania in May 1887. He was given the name of Pius (Italian: Pio) when he joined the Capuchin Order of Friars. He became famous for exhibiting stigmata for most of his life – from the age of 31 until he died at 81 – and was both beatified (1999) and canonized (2002) by Pope John Paul II.

Pio is said to have lost up to a cup of blood every day. But surrounded in controversy throughout his life, the debate rages on even now, after a book published in 2011 by Italian historian Professor Sergio Luzzatto relates how a letter, from a pharmacist who arranged the delivery of carbolic acid to Pio, was discovered in the Vatican’s archives. Luzzatto suggests it was the corrosive acid that caused the bleeding on the saint's hands. He also said that many Popes had expressed doubts and suggested the Vatican only canonised Pio because of public pressure.

Luzzatto’s claims were dismissed by the Catholic Anti-Defamation League in 2007, with a stiff rejoinder that according to Catholic doctrine, canonisation carries with it papal infallibility! (It must be great never to be wrong about anything!)

Locals of San Giovanni Rotondo, where he lived, have accorded him a position only just below that of the Virgin Mary. He apparently displayed persuasive powers of conversion, healed the sick and could prophesy the future. Followers also believe he had the gift of 'bilocation' – the ability to be in two places at once.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, it doesn’t actually matter if he had such mystical powers or not. It’s a well known medical fact that a positive attitude helps in the cure of illnesses – that one’s own psychosomatic powers can make a huge difference to one’s chances of recovery. If you have a strong faith to add to that feeling of positivity, this could well explain many of the cases reported of people regaining their health after visiting Padre Pio.

So back to this shrine in Batangas. Almost the first thing that you see ahead of you is the Mother of Mercy bell tower, which you can go up if you have a mind to.

The structure of the main church is made mostly of local materials such as wood, stone, bamboo, nipa leaves and sawali (woven bamboo strips). The shape of its roof is said to resemble a salakot, a traditional Filipino hat used by farmers as a protection against the sun. The structure is open so that the pilgrims can enter and exit freely, while also allowing cooling cross-drafts throughout the church.

Inside hangs a huge replica of the ‘Glorious Cross’ based on a design used for the Archdiocese of Lipa during the Jubilee Year of 2000. The cross at the crucifix, the bottom of the altar table and the lectern are made of drift wood; and at the back is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel while the Baptistery is found below.

Everywhere – and I really do mean everywhere – are depictions of Padre Pio… wooden, plastic, plaster, paintings… and I guess this is where you’ll find a fine dividing line between religious symbols and tacky artefacts, depending on whether you are one of the faithful or not.

You can look up at him…

You can look down at him over the railings…

You can be beside him as you walk around the main church…

You can see him smiling down on you from the water tower…

…or maybe you will be tempted to buy a half size figure of him to stand in your hallway at home…?

Across from the main church you will find the ‘Sanctuary of the True Cross of Christ’ which can be used as an overflow church when the main hall gets too crowded.

It, too, is massive and open to the elements.

Inside, apart from the statues and pictures of Pio, is a model of Pope John Paul II, who had been responsible for Pio’s canonisation. The glass cabinet also contains a papal relic, but I have no idea what that relic consists of.

Around the perimeter of the site you can find symbolic ‘stations of the cross’. Here, for instance, is the Last Supper.

Naturally there are also loads of statues of the Virgin Mary (though not as many as Padre Pio, I have to say) …

And of course, you can burn candles, the way you can in most catholic churches.

What I hadn’t been aware of was the fact that the colour of the candle should be chosen according to what prayer you are hoping the candle will help with… Green for good health; yellow for financial blessings; orange for family matters; pink for love; and red for crises, to name but a few.

I’m not sure if this colour coordination also goes for the many ‘Christmas tree’-type lights that are draped over many of the small trees…

You can also admire Padre Pio sitting on top of a gurgling burbling fountain in the Holy Water Sanctuary, where many fill bottles of water to take back home with them.

You need a drink? How about the water jars lining the sides of one of the paths …

And don’t miss the incredible ‘phallus’ plants – a member of the ginger family, if I remember rightly.

Yes. There is surely something here for everyone, whether you are one of the faithful or not, and whether you believe that Padre Pio was rightly beatified, or whether he was simply a charlatan.

Cynicism is easy; but this place is testimony to the faith that many Filipinos have in their church. And that is probably no bad thing, when all is said and done.