Contested Will

Luisa Piccarreta lay confined to bed for more than sixty years, each day recording in her notebooks all that Jesus revealed to her. The notebook entry for January 29, 1919, reads:

My beloved daughter, I want you to know the order of my Providence. In every 2000 year period I have renewed the world. In the first period I renewed it with the flood. In the second 2000 years I renewed it with my coming to the earth and manifesting my humanity from which, as so many channels of light, my divinity shone. And in this third period of 2000 years, those who are good and the saints themselves have lived the fruits of my humanity, but have enjoyed my divinity scarcely at all. Now we are at the end of the third period and there will be a third renovation. This is why there is general confusion. It is due to the preparation for the third renovation.

Suffering from a mysterious aliment and allegedly consuming only the Eucharist, in her lifetime Piccarretta filled thirty-six volumes describing the “Kingdom of the Divine Will” that will be ushered in before the new millennium. Promoters of Piccarretta’s cause for beatification urgently explain this Kingdom of the Divine Will as the third and final fiat of God, completing the work he began at creation and redeemed by the Incarnation. They stress a “definitive coming,” the final period of time when the Holy Spirit will pour out such graces that all reality will be transformed to do God’s will.

Her supporters claim that priests often gathered at Piccarreta’s bedside to observe the raptures that stiffened her body into a stony slab, reanimated only by the touch of a cleric. Theologians counter that Divine Will promoters are luring faithful Catholics with false revelations and millennial hysteria.

Who is Luisa Piccarreta? Is she the holiest person to have lived, save the Virgin Mary? Piccarretta wrote that Jesus bestowed upon her the title “Herald of the New Era.” The Divine Will publications preach a restored Eden. Has God revealed to Luisa a new and final era?

The Controversy Grows

Luisa Piccarreta was born in Corato, Italy, in 1865 and was declared “Servant of God” in 1948, one year after her death. Never advancing beyond a first-grade education, she became a “Daughter of Mary” at age eleven and a third-order Dominican in her teens. Many of her neighbors reported that she seemed to be a victim soul, suffering a mystical stigmata so painful that she was bedridden for most of her life.

In 1938 Church authorities asked Piccarretta to surrender her thirty-four volumes of revelation, three of which were put on the index of questionable books by the Holy Office. The set of diaries was kept in Vatican archives until 1994. However, before the books were originally confiscated, Piccarretta’s confessor, Annibale Di Francia, permitted nuns to transcribe portions of volumes one through nineteen. These copies were translated into English and Spanish, and circulated quietly with Di Francia’s Nihil Obstat. According to the transcriptions, Jesus told Piccarretta, “These writings will renew the face of the earth.”

Followers of Divine Will believe we are living now in the time that Jesus warned his disciples would occur near the “last days”; they cite private prophecies, both approved (LaSalette, Fatima, Akita) and nonapproved (Fr. Gobbi, Louis de Montfort). According to her promoters, this revelation of God’s plan for his children in the days of mass apostasy was given to the bedridden Luisa Piccarreta.

Fr. Venard Poslusney, O. Carm., a supporter of Piccarreta who gives presentations on the Divine Will, stresses this same point, reciting Jesus’ words to Piccarretta: “Having sent forth from the bosom of my creative power the first two FIATs, I wish to emit the third FIAT, since I cannot contain my love any longer. This will complete the work that poured forth from me. Otherwise, the work of creation as well as redemption would remain incomplete.” Excitedly, the Carmelite priest continues, “I’ve never, outside the Blessed Virgin Mary, read a life of a saint like this. She never ate or drank, she was perfectly obedient—she has passed all the tests—and God gave her revelations for us.”

Despite the enthusiasm of Poslusney and others, her promoters have found scant ecclesiastical support for Piccarretta’s movement and her cause of beatification in America. Archbishop Levada of San Francisco rebuffed their request to hold a conference on the Kingdom of the Divine Will in his diocese. The movement met a similar chill in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bishop McDonald wrote to a parish priest, “By this letter I forbid either the public or the private promotion of the Kingdom of the Divine Will movement in the Diocese of Little Rock. You may post this letter and use it as the occasion requires.” Divine Will proponents label this rejection “persecution” and see in it an analog to the seventeen years Blessed Faustina labored to give the Church the Divine Mercy devotion that was revealed to her by Christ. Yet, the astute recognize that the devotion given to Blessed Faustina is not new revelation, but a recalling of what is already known and taught.

Opponents of Piccarretta’s writings make two critical points: First, nothing new is needed to complete the work of Christ; no new fiat or revelation can be added to the deposit of faith. Second, private revelation cannot contain new information necessary to the salvation of souls, otherwise the saints who lived before Piccarretta’s writings would have been deprived of a substantive aid to Christian life.

Supporters answer the latter objection by quoting one of Jesus’ revelations to Piccarretta: “Creatures are incapable of comprehending my work all at once. Therefore I must manifest myself little by little.” Further, they question the right of bishops to obstruct their activities, citing the Vatican’s release of all previously confiscated volumes held in the archives. Presently, Piccarretta’s work is undergoing new scrutiny by a diocesan tribunal in her home diocese of Trani under the direction of Archbishop Carmelo Cassati.

Supporters hasten to add that the writings of Piccarretta enjoy the approval of theologians commissioned by the diocesan tribunal to study her volumes. Yet, the theologians named in American Divine Will promotional literature are not known to U.S. theologians, and the U.S. papal nuncio’s office has no information about the Pontifical Theological Institute of Southern Italy, where one of the defending theologians is the rector. Tom Fahy, president of the Center for the Divine Will in Jacksonville Florida, responded to an unfavorable article in The Wanderer by claiming that “none of Luisa Piccarreta’s original writings were ever condemned by the Church or placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Any statement or insinuation to the contrary is false. ”

But it is Fahy who insinuates falsehood; he isn’t entirely forthcoming about the disputed writings. The volumes Fahy tries to protect include Watch of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, In the Kingdom of the Divine Will, and The Queen of Heaven in the Divine Will. Reporting the condemnation, L’Osservatore Romano (9/11/38) stated the censure indicated “a false and dangerous mysticism which is frequent in our days. . . . [T]he Divine Will is conceived in an exaggerated, erroneous manner. . . . [I]t was then opportune to put the faithful on their guard.”

Fahy contends that Piccarretta’s confessor edited her volumes erroneously, and this faulty editorial process is the doctrinal snag, rather than the content and meaning of Piccarretta’s diaries. This is thin cover. Consider an entry from The Book of Heaven, where Jesus says to Piccarretta,

“Now daughter, you . . . are unique in my mind; and you will be unique in history. There will not be—either before or after you—any other creature for whom I will obligate through necessity the work of my ministers. . . . Since I wanted my Mother with me as the first intermediary of my mercy . . . I wanted her on my right. . . . I wanted you [Luisa] as the first intermediary of justice. . . . I wanted you on my left.”

The breathtaking elevation of herself as another Virgin Mary is evidence of the extravagant claims in Piccarretta’s diaries that the condemnation decree found objectionable. Additionally, there is the matter of forcing the will (“I will obligate through necessity”), which is contrary to Church teaching that God never usurps the will, that we are always free to offer voluntarily our will in conformity to the will of God.

Another startling page from The Book of Heaven reads:

[T]o no other souls, however much I have loved them, have I shown how to live in my will. . . . Search the lives of the saints as much as you wish or in books of doctrine and you will not find the wonders of my will working in the creature and the creature acting in my will. The most you will find will be resignation, abandonment, the union of wills, but the divine will working in the creature and the creature in my will, you will not find this in anyone.

Again, Piccarretta draws from her visions the understanding that she alone, and no other soul to this point, including St. Peter, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thomas Aquinas, or any of the great saints, has received the gift of the divine will. These claims are not refuted by Fr. Venard, Fahy, or anyone appointed to promote Piccarretta’s beatification. Clearly, the indexed books were not poorly edited victims awaiting correction, since all of Piccarretta’s volumes make similarly astounding pronouncements.

Holy Delusions

Fr. Terrence Staples of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, wrote an incisive critique of the Divine Will which was uploaded to PetersNet, an orthodox Catholic web site. Fr. Staples’s examination of the Divine Will served as fuel for the fire; soon embers roared into flames of point-counterpoint. Rebutting some of the more theologically problematic points of Piccarretta’s work, Fr. Staples strenuously objected to the idea that Piccarretta brings the Church a new revelation. “Everything we need for holiness and increase in faith has been handed on from the apostles once and for all. What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”

Shortly after Fr. Staples’s critique appeared, other Catholic publications and associations expressed concern. Catholics United for the Faith issued a bulletin outlining the errors in Luisa Piccarreta’s Divine Will. Our Sunday Visitor characterized the debate that has “raged in certain conservative Catholic circles” as divided between those who see Piccarretta as a saint, and those who fear this pious woman was deluded.

Fr. Staples points out that no one is assaulting the character of Luisa Piccarreta. Rather, he sees in the Divine Will the manifestation of vainglory, which according to St. Thomas Aquinas includes the presumption of novelties.

When pressed about Luisa’s cause of beatification, Fr. Staples replied, “I’m comfortable saying Piccarretta will not be beatified.” Fr. William Most of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, concurred, adding this caution: “Mary of Agreda’s canonization process was stopped by a pope of the same Franciscan order as she was because she said all are obliged to accept her teaching.”

Kingdom Brings Division

“They just don’t understand what it means to live in the Divine Will,” retorts Peter Gruters, a civil engineer who left his profession once he learned of the Divine Will. Today he lives in rural Minster, Ohio, where he runs Our Lady’s Foundation, a small publishing concern. Each month the company trusts God will send sufficient funds to continue to print the books Gruters is writing. Gruters claims that he has received the gift of living in the Divine Will and has had locutions nearly every day. He has written down what Jesus tells him, comprising the six volumes that his apostolate publishes. Gruters describes the Divine Will as “Indwelling Will” that gives the grace to be more like Jesus. The primary benefit is that this new gift of the Divine Will brings the “gift of order,” which means the “disorder of human will” passes away, leaving in its stead the Kingdom of God on earth, according to Gruters.

The promise of peace and order draws many faithful Catholics to the Divine Will movement. The fruits, it would seem, have been dissension instead. Many former members have described the division that has been caused in rosary prayer groups when the Divine Will is introduced. Typically, those who accept the Divine Will see those who do not accept it as outside the Will. Soon allegiance is transferred to a Divine Will cenacle where prayer is combined with readings from the books of Luisa Piccarreta. John McMillan of Orlando, Florida, a former supporter of the movement, relates, “We were told that we need only say the first decade of the rosary before the presence of the Blessed Virgin would join us, so we need not say a whole Rosary since she was with us in prayer. I noticed some who used to go to daily Mass stopped going. (Piccarretta writes of the Divine Will as the ‘sacrament of sacraments.’) And then, you know, the bishop asked them to leave, but they didn’t.”

McMillan attended an independent Divine Will group that the authorized promoters of the cause of Luisa Piccarreta do not support. Fr. Tom Celso, listed as an “Ecclesiastical aide to the cause of Piccarretta in the U.S.,” explains that there were five priests who came from Italy to Florida to establish the Apostolic Sons of the Divine Will. Fr. Celso, ordained in the Diocese of Rochester by Bishop Matthew Clark, became interested in the movement and sought leave of his diocesan duties to study the Divine Will. He briefly visited the St. Cloud, Florida, Sons of the Divine Will in 1986, recalling in an interview:

When I learned their bishop in Italy disbanded the group, I made no further contact with that group. ‘The Society of Apostolic Life’ led by Fr. Gustavo is in no way connected with the official Church in the promotion of the cause of the Servant of God, Luisa Piccarreta. The Bishop in Orlando asked Fr. Gustavo and his group to leave. . . . [W]e are not in contact with them.

This independent group, and twenty others patterned on its model, are scattered across the United States. Some live communally, encouraging those who join to give all their possessions to the commune. They give as ecclesiastic authority the former Bishop Raymond Roy of St. Paul, Canada, who resigned his see under the weight of a financial mismanagement scandal.

These irregularities and the activities of independent groups harm the true cause of Luisa Piccarreta, her defenders lament. The independents, like Peter Gruters, underscore that the two groups have a separate focus, “We just want to live in the Divine Will. Piccarretta’s beatification is secondary to us, since the Will is the gift, and Piccarretta was the instrument. The Center for Divine Will under Tom Fahy have as their focus the promotion of the cause for beatification of Piccarretta, not necessarily living in the Gift. That’s the difference.” Both groups exhibit a heightened sense of the imminent unfolding of the events foretold in the Book of Revelation.

Fr. Staples warns that the “apparition prone” are likely to find the messages they seek in every corner. What is more, many who discuss their belief in the Kingdom of Divine Will also refer to the writings of Maria Valtorta, author of the condemned Poem of the Man-God, or Vassula Ryden, a Greek woman who claimed to receive apparitions, both rejected by Church authorities.

Time For Reflection

Fr. Celso and the defenders of the cause of Piccarretta are uniformly warm and generous. Fr. Celso underscored his adherence to the Church even if the cause of Piccarretta should not be realized. However, he points out that he had every expectation that her cause would go forward, as John Paul II beatified Piccarretta’s confessor, Annibale Di Francia, in 1990. Annibale wrote letters to Piccarretta praising her holy life and the “sublime” teachings. Who can pass judgment on Piccarretta, the defenders ask, before the process has been completed? Fahy finds the 1100 people who attended a recent Kingdom of the Divine Will conference in Rome, Georgia, to be a strong indication that many believe Piccarretta is an instrument of God. Fr. Venard stresses the undisputed holiness of Piccarretta’s life as proof of her worthiness.

Fahy’s rebuttal to the Wanderer article by Paul Likoudis included a call to revisit the eighth commandment. Clearly, he is concerned that unfounded accusations against Piccarretta’s cause not be given ink. Yet, for her promotion to be creditable, some discrepancies need to be clarified.

In an interview, Fahy tantalizes with the suggestion that there may be evidence that Padre Pio was reading Piccarretta’s Hours of the Passion when he received the stigmata. Fr. J. P. Martin of Our Lady of Grace Friary in San Giovanni Rotondo defends Padre Pio with strong words, saying, “There are absolutely no grounds to connect the Venerable Padre Pio with that movement and I strongly desire that his name not be used in any connection whatsoever.” Fr. Celso and Fr. Venard indicated Piccarretta was declared “venerable,” but a check revealed no such designation. When asked to clarify, Fr. Venard said the term “venerable” is no longer in use, and that “Servant of God” is now the term used by the Church to indicate a life worthy of emulation. However, as recently as December 1997, Padre Pio was named venerable by the Church.

Divine Will promoters hold that the beatification of Di Francia indicates a tacit approval of Luisa Piccarreta. “Don’t you think the Holy Father had to know of Piccarretta’s writings since he approved of Annibale?” asks Fr. Venard. Di Francia founded an order of priests, the Rogationists, whose formation does not include Divine Will spirituality. Fr. John Bruno, R.C. J., superior of the order’s seminary, notes that there is no mention of Piccarretta in the biography of their founder. Fr. Bruno explained that he’d never heard of Piccarretta Piccarreta or the close relationship his founder is reported to have had with her. His first hint of the relationship was just recently, when Tom Fahy and Fr. Celso came to visit the Rogationists and gave him a photo of Di Francia and Piccarretta. Fr. Bruno was so impressed by the Divine Will that he gave an address at the group’s conference in November 1997.

Fr. Bruno had this response to the question of why there has been no mention of the relationship, “I think the postulator of the cause of beatification of Fr. Annibale did not want to stress the relationship since some of her writings were on the Index.”

This poses new questions. Did the Congregation have all the relevant documents when considering the cause of Di Francia, or, as Fr. Bruno speculates, were some withheld because they might encumber Di Francia’s promotion? On the other hand, was there in fact a close relationship between Piccarretta and Di Francia, or, once the priest was beatified in 1990, did Piccarretta’s supporters see an opportunity to exploit his role as her confessor? It seems likely that Di Francia approved of some of Piccarretta’s work, but as he died before her works were placed on the Index, we cannot know how he viewed the complete body.

These questions and other irregularities have also troubled Archbishop Carmelo Cassati of Trani, Italy. A letter was sent in January from his office to Fahy, Fr. Celso, and others who had been authorized to promote Piccarretta’s cause. The letter rescinds that authorization and prohibits any further publication of Piccarretta’s work or any new conferences held to promote her cause or her writings. The archbishop, fearful that “without realizing it we are hurting the very same cause of beatification of Piccarretta,” has now ordered all further inquires about Piccarretta be directed to his office.

Fr. Celso welcomes this development, as the archbishop has promised to read Piccarretta’s work in her own handwriting and produce new translations that will forestall questions about Piccarretta’s orthodoxy. Fr. Staples, too, is gratified with the archbishop’s new caution. It underscores Archbishop Cassati’s promise to Fr. Staples that he would study very carefully the theology expounded in Piccarretta’s work in light of Church teaching. The archbishop, in a caution that seems highly appropriate given the enthusiasm of Luisa’s supporters, wrote, “I think it is necessary for all of us to pause for a period of time for reflection.”

Mary Jo Anderson

By

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She has been a frequent guest on "Abundant Life," an EWTN television program, and her "Global Watch" radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She writes regularly for Crisis Magazine. More articles and commentary can be found at Properly Scared and at Women for Faith and Family. Mary Jo is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote "Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions," published in 2005 by Catholic Answers. In 2003 Mary Jo was invited to the Czech Republic to address parliamentarians on the Impact of Radical Feminism on Emerging Democracies.

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