Brotherly Harshness in a World of Tribal Empathy

Padre Pio
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Concerning empathy, Dr. Jacinta Jiménez quotes Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Bloom writes, “Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our daily lives) shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal, and often cruel.” Dr. Jiménez goes on to say,

Studies suggest that empathy—while well-intentioned—isn’t neutral. It’s even suggested that it can sometimes hurt more than help our relationships and our ability to lead effectively.
Empathy can make us unconsciously more sympathetic towards individuals we relate to more. This makes us less likely to connect with people whose experiences don’t mirror ours.
That’s because empathy comes from a feeling of sameness. Being human is a good starting point. But from there, biases are impossible to avoid.

Recent eagerness and angst concerning the upcoming Roe v. Wade related Supreme Court ruling has, for me, given rise to reflection on the life of St. Padre Pio. Born Francesco Forgione (1887), Padre Pio was an Italian Franciscan Capuchin friar, priest, and mystic who bore the stigmata (the wounds of the crucified Christ). He died in 1968, leaving no small impression on the lives of many who lived in his time. 

I remember a conversation I had with a young priest a few years after Padre Pio’s death and before his canonization by Pope St. John Paul II in 2002. The name of the great mystic had come up, I remember not how or why. What I do remember was the blatant disdain of the young priest who dismissed him, saying “He was mean in the confessional!”

To put things into perspective, St. Pius of Pietrelcina, as he is known in English, developed during his lifetime a tremendous following having mostly to do with his purported gift of being able to read souls. For this reason, suffering sinners traveled great distances to confess to him, and he was known to hear confessions for as long as nineteen hours in a single day. His great personal holiness and fame led, as it inevitably does, to his persecution from both within and without the Church. 

The reader will perhaps recall the 2005 CBS miniseries Pope John Paul II. In the series, a young Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (portrayed by Cary Elwes) tells of how he prayed to Padre Pio for a friend who was suffering with bone cancer and how that cancer then went into medically unexplainable remission. Reports of miracles were common even while the great saint lived, and those reports went a long way toward hastening the canonical process for his sainthood. 

The young priest’s statement above about Pio being “mean in the confessional” has to do with several widely circulated but unverifiable tales concerning the confessions of various souls to the saintly priest. However, credence can perhaps be given to the writings of Fr. Pellegrino Funicelli, a Franciscan friar whose cell was, for fifteen years, a few doors down from that of Padre Pio. 

Fr. Funicelli’s book, Padre Pio’s Jack of All Trades (1991), relates Funicelli’s own experience and the counsel given him by Fr. Pio. Funicelli confessed his own weakness and complicity when, upon hearing a distraught woman’s confession, wherein she confessed her desire to seek an abortion for her child (who was due in three months), he had told her that she could do “whatever she wanted” in that matter. 

He recalls that later the same day Padre Pio called him to his room and asked him to read a short story about a poor woman who considered getting an abortion but had a conversion of heart. Pio pointed out, “Even a lost woman, when she feels and defends her maternity with such beautiful force, not only does she redeem herself but, without realizing it, she becomes holy.” Padre Pio continued, “God transforms the lowest human miseries into beautiful things.” 

Funicelli goes on to recount how Padre Pio insisted that abortion is not only murder but a form of suicide, saying that it was “suicide of the race” that would lead to a world “populated by dribbling and toothless old people, devoid of children and burnt like a desert.” He explained that his harsh view was that of “brotherly harshness” which is “of greater value than all the sentiment in the world put together.” (It should be noted that his thoughts about the “suicide of the race” resonate deeply with the current opinion of Elon Musk, who strongly believes that “Population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization.”)

Fr. Funicelli relates how he asked if Pio could have just a little more compassion and respect for those who believe that abortion is the only solution; that they turned to it not out of wickedness but to escape difficulty. To such false compassion, the good Pio answered, “Oh, if only they sought the impulses of truth and goodness in the intimacy of their consciences, how much peace and comfort they would find!”

In the words of St. Pio, the “race that does not accept respect for man from the time of his conception, is destined to an ignominious end, because it distorts the concept of love of neighbor, mistakes it with egoism, and cannot conceive the love of God at all.” The woman in the story gave birth. And knowing full well what had transpired between the two priests, eight years later she brought her son to Padre Pio to make his first Holy Communion. 

This redeemed woman’s story (and the fruit of her womb) has never been more pertinent. In a world torn apart by trivialities like mean tweets, it becomes very clear that few can appreciate the difference between meanness and “brotherly harshness.” Meanness is meant to be demeaning; brotherly harshness is the sounding of an alarm calculated to wake a sleeping conscience. Sleepy consciences are, of course, prone to finding all correction demeaning. 

In a previous article, I addressed the simple reality that a better world is wholly dependent upon each and everyone’s personal holiness. It is an article that could, in part, be summarized by a saying widely attributed to G.K. Chesterton who, when asked what is wrong with the world is said to have responded, “I am.” 

Can one be kind and harsh at the same time? Is there really any choice when all other tools in the tool box seem to be failing? At his confessional door, Padre Pio had long lines of forgiveness seekers to shepherd on a daily basis. He spent many grueling hours counseling those sinners, witnessing every monstrosity of the human soul. 

It was a torturous occupation that most of us can only imagine, and he did so with little to no comfort and support from his brother priests or from the hierarchy of the Church. He did so because souls were in need and because he had gifts from God that needed to be shared. And those souls showed up in droves, knowing full well the reputation of the no-holds-barred, harsh mystic of Pietrelcina.

He is, perhaps, the quintessential saint for our time, a time in which representing truth gets one banned, shadow-banned, cancelled, and just generally thrown under the bus. He is quintessential for recognizing that evil will always cocoon itself in empathy, sympathy, pity, or any other emotion or passion it can hijack. 

In an age of shoulder shrugging, responsibility shirking, and finger-pointing, the adult in the room will be the one willing to exercise brotherly harshness, and willing to be vilified for the same, finding his or her respite in the infinite love and universal empathy of Christ alone. Chesterton wrote that “The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness,” which is to say that God will use whatever means necessary, regardless of its seemingly extreme nature, to save a soul; and brotherly harshness certainly does not fall outside of that realm. 

[Image Credit: padrepiodapietrelcina.com]

Jerome German

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Jerome German is a retired manufacturing engineer, father of eleven, and grandfather of a multitude. His parochial activities have included music ministry, faith formation, and spiritual direction/talks for men’s retreats. Before retirement Jerry’s writing was largely in the technical realm and he is a late-bloomer to writing for faith formation. The Wisconsinite and his wife spend summers in Wisconsin and winter on the Riviera Maya where they own a small vacation rental business.

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