The Truth about Padre Pio's Stigmata
Answering the carbolic acid accusations
Published in the June 2012 issue of Catholic Family News
and scheduled for The Voice of Padre Pio, Sept-Oct. 2012, published by his Friary in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy
by Frank M. Rega
When Canada’s McGill University conferred its $75,000 "Cundill Prize in History" to a book about Padre Pio (1), the Montreal Gazette reported on Nov. 15, 2011 that the book raised the possibility that the saint used carbolic acid to self-inflict the wounds of his stigmata (2). The carbolic acid canard was quickly seized by the press. The next day The Telegraph of Britain announced that "Italy's Padre Pio used carbolic acid to cause bleeding wounds on his hands that he claimed were replicas of Christ's, according to a new book." (3) The Huffington Post reported that the book suggests that "Italian saint Padre Pio reportedly used carbolic acid on his hands, feet and sides to ‘self-inflict’ the wounds…" (4)
A large spate of articles soon followed both in print and online, which cast doubt upon the authenticity of Padre Pio's stigmata. Even Catholic websites parroted the claim. The faith of many Catholics in the canonization process as well as in the sanctity of Padre Pio was shaken.
Of course it was also convenient fodder for opponents of the traditional Church, especially critics of her veneration of the saints (5). Concerned about possible distortions, British editor and columnist Damian Thompson wrote: "What bothers me about the claims about Pio – which I haven't studied closely enough to evaluate – is that they will be used by the secular world and its Catholic allies to pour scorn on the peasant and working-class devotions that Vatican II ideologues tried to eradicate." (6)
However, the charge that St. Padre Pio used chemicals to sustain the stigmata was shown to be baseless as far back as 1919, less than a year after their occurrence. In that year, a little-known attempt at a medical "cure" effectively ruled out chemical agents as the cause of the wounds on the saint's hands, feet and chest.
Only three official medical examinations of St. Pio’s wounds were ever authorized, and they all occurred in 1919. The examining physicians did their work independently of the others. One of the three was Dr. Amico Bignami, Professor of Pathology at the Royal University of Rome (Regia UniversitÓ di Roma). The Procurator General of the Capuchin Order, responding to a request from the Holy Office at the Vatican, invited Dr. Bignami to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo. He was asked to perform a medical examination on the wounds of Padre Pio, and to render his judgment (7).
Bignami was an atheist and logical positivist, which meant that he would only give credence to phenomena which could be proven scientifically or explained naturally. At first he refused the commission, but upon learning that the request originated from the Curia, he accepted, but wished no one to know of the assignment (8).
He arrived in July of 1919, accompanied by the Capuchin Provincial, Padre Pietro of Ischitella. He only remained a few days, and drew up his report on the 26th of the month. During his short stay he examined Padre Pio several times.
To his credit, in his final report Bignami depicts the friar as having an expression on his face that is "full of goodness and sincerity, which inspire affection . . . that in spite of his apparent weakness he supports fatigue very well. He can, for example, hear confessions for even 15-16 continuous hours without eating. He usually eats little . . . He has a vivacious, gentle, and sometimes wandering look . . ." (9)
His five-page report then proceeds to describe in detail the anatomical and histological characteristics of Padre Pio’s wounds (10). He is struck by the symmetry of the "lesions," that is, that the wounds on the palms and soles are in a corresponding place to those on the opposite sides of the same hands and feet. As for the chest wound, he considers that it is simply the result of a superficial abrasion of the epidermis.
He notices that the skin around the wounds is colored with a halo from tincture of iodine, and this arouses his suspicion. In response to Bignami’s questions about the iodine, Padre Pio says he uses it as a disinfectant a couple of times a week or more, and it also helps to lessen the bleeding.
In his report, the professor proposes three hypotheses for the origin of the wounds on Padre Pio. As a positivist, Dr. Bignami only considers natural explanations, ignoring any supernatural possibility.
They are artificially and voluntarily caused.
They are the manifestation of a morbid (pathological) state [stato morboso].
They are partially the product of a morbid state and partially artificial.
He rules out the first option, writing that the "impression of sincerity that Padre Pio has made on me" does not allow him to consider the possibility of deliberate simulation as the cause of the wounds (11).
Regarding the second hypothesis, he deems that the wounds on the feet and hands have in fact a pathological origin, due to neurotically-caused cell deterioration [necrosi neurotiche], but this cannot explain the unexpected symmetry of the wounds.
Therefore he has recourse to the third hypothesis, which he develops further. "We can in fact think that the lesions as described first began as a pathological condition (multiple ‘necrosi neurotiche’ of the skin), and then perhaps by a process of unconscious suggestion, they came to completion in a symmetrical form, and are now maintained artificially by a chemical means, for example with tincture of iodine." (12)
Thus, he essentially proposes a three stage process – a pathological origin of the wounds, then the influence of autosuggestion to explain their symmetrical location, and finally the use of a chemical to sustain the wounds over time. It is important to note that he does not accuse Padre Pio of intentionally creating the wounds by chemical means.
Bignami’s report then concludes: "This seems to be the most reliable interpretation of the facts that I have observed. In any case one can affirm that there is nothing in the alterations of the skin as described that cannot be the product of a morbid state and of the action of well-known chemical agents." (13)
As a medical professional Bignami believed that Padre Pio’s lesions should respond to clinical treatment. In order to conclusively demonstrate that Padre Pio’s "sores" had a natural explanation and were maintained by the application of chemicals such as iodine or carbolic acid, Bignami designed a simple procedure, which he believed would lead to a cure of the lesions.
First, any chemicals found in Padre Pio’s room should be removed (the only chemical found there was iodine). Next, the doctor proposed that the friar’s wounds on his hands, feet and chest were to be bandaged and securely sealed by reliable witnesses, to prevent any tampering. Each day for eight days the bandages would be changed and resealed, and the progress of the treatment was to be noted.
If the wounds were being maintained by the application of chemicals, then protecting them from external substances with bandages should cause their bleeding and size to diminish significantly. Thus, at the end of the procedure the lesions should be well on their way to being healed.
While Bignami was specifically concerned about Padre Pio’s use of iodine, Padre Paolino, the Guardian of the friary, thought carbolic acid [acido fenico] had been applied to the wounds in order to stem their bleeding (14). Carbolic acid was in fact being used in the monastery at that time to sterilize the needles used for injections to prevent the Spanish Flu (15).
The Father Provincial of the Capuchins, Pietro Ischitella, agreed to the procedure. Under the precept of obedience, he ordered the monastery’s Superior, Padre Paolino, and a small group of priests to implement Dr. Bignami’s treatment. Padre Pietro made the friars swear that they would scrupulously follow the directives.
The Capuchin friars were extremely willing to undertake this task. Now they would be able to see for themselves the stigmata that Padre Pio was always so careful to conceal even from his brothers in religion. Padre Paolino, as the Superior, could have exempted himself, but would not let the opportunity pass. Three others were chosen to be the "reliable witnesses:" Padres Placido, Ludovico, and Basilio.
Padre Paolino later wrote: "The Father Provincial departed, and the next morning, in the presence of the witnesses, I helped to remove the habit and undershirt, together with Padre Pio’s socks; along with the other Fathers, I was able to see quite clearly the mark on his chest and those on the feet and hands…" (16)
He continued, "Thus during the space of eight days every morning we removed the bandages of the preceding day after having verified that the seal was intact, and we put new ones on; and in this way we easily observed the stigmata on Padre Pio, who however suffered immensely in the depths of his heart in exposing these wounds, which he always tried to keep hidden from the eyes of others."
"Never had the wounds shed so much blood as in those days," wrote one of the witnesses, Padre Placido, in his memoirs (17). "In the morning, before he ascended the altar to celebrate Mass, we unbound the hands, and in order prevent blood from staining the vestments and altar cloths, one of us every so often dried the wounds with a cotton wad."
Each morning the seals and bandages were always found intact. On the eighth and last day so much blood issued from Padre Pio’s hands during his Mass that the friars had to send for some handkerchiefs so that the Padre could dry them. Paolino wrote: "It seemed to us that it was a very clear sign from God against the arguments of Professor Bignami." (18)
Not only was there no improvement in the condition of the lesions, but they did not even begin to heal! Instead, the bleeding on the last day was worse than before and the blood had taken on a vivid red color. Also, not only the hands, but each of the wounds bled every day, according to a signed deposition of the witnesses (19). The existence and sustained bleeding of the stigmata persisted over time, even when any possible application of chemicals was prevented. This proved very clearly that the duration and condition of the wounds did not depend on iodine, carbolic acid, or any other external substance.
Dr. Bignami had departed the friary before the experiment was over, and it is not known what his reaction was. Rev. Bernard Ruffin’s well-respected biography of Padre Pio states: "He never again visited Padre Pio, although rumor had it that years later, when he was paralyzed by a stroke, he asked for Padre Pio’s prayers." (20) Ruffin also noted: " . . .while the stigmata never healed, all the other wounds sustained by Padre Pio during the course of his life mended normally." (21)
Less than 2 years after Bignami’s cure had failed, the Holy Office sent an Apostolic Visitor to San Giovanni Rotondo, Bishop Raffaello Carlo Rossi. He was the Vatican’s official Inquisitor into the person, stigmata, phenomena and environment surrounding Padre Pio. His final report and its accompanying documentation comprised almost 200 pages, and had been kept secreted in the Vatican archives until its release in 2006. In it, Bishop Rossi stated this about the stigmata: "We can then conclude that they were not caused or preserved with physical and chemical means, which, after all, would have been in absolute contrast with Padre Pio’s proven virtue . . ." (22)
Not surprisingly, the book which ignited the current carbolic acid controversy (see note 1) devotes only one paragraph to Bignami’s attempt at a cure. It does not offer comments on the results and neglects to draw the obvious conclusion. Of course, doing so would have blunted the impact of its sensationalist innuendos, which served to arouse suspicions that Padre Pio had used carbolic acid on his wounds – an allegation which has never been proven.
Padre Pio himself testified about this to the Apostolic Visitor, after taking a solemn oath upon the Holy Gospels to tell the truth. The Bishop pointedly asked him whether he had ever used carbolic acid on himself, either diluted or pure. The saint answered: "No, except when the doctor used it to sterilize when he would give me an injection." (23).
To understand the actual truth about Padre Pio’s stigmata, on must rise to the level of faith. While in ecstasy on the morning of September 20, 1918, he witnessed his risen savior hovering before him, "dripping with blood and shining forth rays of light and flame" from the wounds of His crucifixion. "When the vision disappeared he found himself on the floor and saw that his own hands, feet and side were dripping blood. He managed to crawl and drag himself back to his cell, unable to walk because of the pain in his pierced feet. He cleansed the wounds, and then remained alone in his room in prayerful weeping and thanksgiving." (24)
No, St. Padre Pio was not a fraud who "faked" his stigmata. Rather, they were a gift from the Lord, given to Padre Pio as a share in His passion, for his own sanctification, for the salvation of souls and for the glory of God.
Dr. Amico Bignami, tenured professor of medical pathology at the Royal University of Rome.
Padre Pietro of Ischitella, the Provincial of the Capuchin Province to which belonged the Capuchin Friary of Our Lady of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo.
Padre Paolino da Casacalenda, the Guardian (the Superior) of the Friary, and one of the four witnesses to the "cure."
Padre Basilio da Mirabello Sannitico, witness.
Padre Ludovico da San Marco in Lamis, witness.
Padre Placido da San Marco in Lamis, witness. He was not present at the time of the signing of the deposition.
A special thank you to Michael Brown of www.spiritdaily.com who emailed me about "that ridiculous carbolic acid claim," inspiring me to research and write this article.
All translations from Italian language sources are by the present author. Some online articles may no longer be available.
1. Luzzatto, Sergio, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2010.
2. "McGill Prize Honours Book on Padre Pio," http://www.montrealgazette.com/opinion/editorials/McGill+prize+honours+book+Padre/5710411/story.html
3. "Italy’s Padre Pio ‘faked his stigmata with acid’," http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1567216/Italys-Padre-Pio-faked-his-stigmata-with-acid.html
4. "Padre Pio's 'Stigmata Wounds' Caused By Carbolic Acid, Sergio Luzzatto's New Book Suggests," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/padre-pio-stigmata-wounds_n_1107890.html
5. "The Padre Pio Question and Bias in the Media," http://www.panoramitalia.com/en/blog/life-people/padre-pio-question-bias-media/486/
"Padre Pio and carbolic acid. Could the saint really have been a
7. Di Flumeri, Padre Gerardo, Le Stigmate di Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, San Giovanni Rotondo, Edizioni Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, 1995, p. 173.
8. Saldutto, Gerardo, Un Tormentato Settennio Nella Vita di Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, San Giovanni Rotondo, Edizioni Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, 1986, p. 115.
9. Cruchon, Giorgio, "The Stigmata of Padre Pio," in Acts of the First Congress of Studies on Padre Pio’s Spirituality, San Giovanni Rotondo, Edizioni Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, 1973, p. 124.
10. Le Stigmate, pp.. 173-179.
11. Ibid., p. 177.
12. Ibid., p. 178.
13. Ibid., pp. 178-179.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
15. Rega, Frank M., Padre Pio and America, Rockford, TAN Books and Publishers, 2005, p. 55.
16. Le Stigmate, p. 83.
17. Ibid., p. 72.
18. Ibid., p. 84.
19. Ibid., p. 64.
20. Ruffin, C. Bernard, Padre Pio: The True Story, Huntington, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991, p. 177.
21. Ibid., p. 165.
22. Castelli, Francesco, Padre Pio Under Investigation, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2011, p. 118.
23. Ibid., p. 204.
24. Padre Pio and America, Pp. 54-55.
Frank Rega is the author of Padre
Pio and America,
and of St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, both from TAN Books.
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