Goffredo BARTOCCI, Roland LITTLEWOOD : Modern Techniques of the Supernatural – A Syncretism Between Miraculous Healing and the Mass Media

In : Social Theory & Health, 2004, 2, (18-28)
2004 Palgrave Mamillan Ltd All rights reserved. 1477-8211/04 $25.00

University of Turin, Turin, Italy

University College London, UK
E-mail : r.littlewood@ucl.ac.uk

Considering the career of a modem heating saint, Padre Pio of Pietralcina, this paper examines the close association in certain situations of putative psychopathology with sanctity, and takes up the role of the modern Italian media in bridging contemporary thaumaturgical healing with the official processes of the Roman Catholic Church : a bridge that recalls certain recent currents within clinical psychiatry.

Social Theory & Health (2004) 2, 18-28. doi:10.1057/palgrave.sth.8700017

Do not go to the gods to ask questions and, with soft words, try to discover the nature of the soul […] or the principles regulating the functioning of the nerves ; go and learn about the subject from an anatomist. (Galen, n.d.)


A cultural (anthropological) approach has long been the chosen methodology to analyse : (a) the ethnographic variations in the cultural configuration of the ‘supernatural’ dimension : (b) the clinical repercussions of magical or religious thinking ; (c) therapeutic procedures associated with religious thought that are adopted in different cultural contexts ; (d) the recent return in Western societies to a plethora of polymorphous healing practices that go under the collective name of ‘alternative medicine’ (and which have proven to have a considerable hold on the general Western public, thanks to the media’s reshaping of ancient forms of managing ultrahuman powers by means of exotic local procedures).

The paper briefly develops two themes : first to identify some points of convergence between contemporary psychiatry and the ‘mystery’ of the supernatural ; the second intends to shed light on the influence exerted by the mass media in validating recoveries based on beliefs that are entirely different from the paradigm of Western biomedicine.’ The tenacity with which the Italian media disseminated the miracles worked by Padre Pio from Pietralcina, mystic and thaurnaturge, and now the emblematic figure of one of the largest hospitals in Italy, is a characteristic example of this trend. Pio was consecrated a saint by the Vatican in 2002.

In post-modern Europe, the renewed flourishing of a belief in magic and neospiritualistic forms within society is accompanied by a specific grafting of spiritual factors onto accepted clinical procedures, perhaps thus producing a decline in our international clinical psychiatric practice for the benefit of a new theurgic psychiatry that completely overshadows the ‘delusional theurgy’ (Zilboorg, 1941, p. 100) of the first centuries of our modern era

In recent years, in many international mental health conferences (such as the 12th World Congress of Psychiatry in Yokohama in 2002 and the W.P.A. Regional Conference in Malta in 2003), scientific sessions have advocated the therapeutic effect of a ‘spiritual psychiatry’. The use of a clinical language formerly used for positivistic approaches to mental illness, but which now promotes spiritual therapies as a new and cheap way to solve mental illness, presents a new method aimed to change psychiatry as a whole. Once spirituality is depicted as ‘evidence based healing’ (as at Yokohama), it opens a highway that adds passion to the many advocates of spiritual approaches to menial illness Consideration of the spiritual is now smuggled into mainstream psychiatry in Britain and North America, under the guise of ‘cultural relevance’, diversity or equal opportunities (Sims, 1991 ; Cox, 1996). (2)

Until now the Italian study of the mental attitude that may take the individual as experiencing a special state of consciousness of the religious type. has been usually dealt with from a theological rather than a psychological perspective (Bartocci, 2000). The rigorous methodology, by which science identified the psychopathologies arising from the interaction between biological, psychological and cultural factors in human relationships, is the cornerstone of a methodology that should focus the very same attention on tracing the historical, cultural and ontological phases that, from the world of the magic to the world of the sacred, has contributed to construct a psychological climate in our post-modern century that allows the presentation of re-shaped miracles in a way that once again warns people of the case of the irruption of the extramundane into mundane life. Even if it appears difficult to reduce the epistemological gap between a theologically ‘pure’ (ie without any organic basis) spirituality and a psychiatry with an organic substrate – and which appears the hardest antinomy to solve (Littlewood, 1993, 1997 ; Bartocci, 2000) – we can at least attempt a way that accepts the spiritual dimension as a function of the mind that is deeply influenced by epigenetic and social factors, as in the well-known early relational experiences or through the indoctrination by repetitive cultural messages. ‘By the habitual act of thinking in a particular language, or believing in the form of a particular religion, those forms of thought assume a type of physical reality in the organisation of neuronal networks in the brain’argue Tseng (2001). It is the maturation of certain discoveries about the functioning of the mind that forces science to accept the spiritual dimension as the principal object of our study and not as the extramundane subject motivating our research effort. The cultural approach appears capable of removing the aura of heuristic invisibility that surrounds the spiritual dimension turning it into an intellectually respectable object of study, adding new comparative perspectives useful to avoid the reductionism of both 1 medical materialism’ or deeply metaphysical approaches (James, 1985/ 1902).

Certainly, what Raymond Prince (1971) once called the ‘puzzling relationship between the individual delusions of psychotics and the false or highly improbable beliefs held by large numbers of people’ still lies within the blurriest regions of contemporary psychiatry, since these beliefs have not yet found an acceptable definition that might clearly outline their individual psychodynamic functions (Littlewood, 1993 ; Stevens and Price, 2000).

Cultural psychiatry has suggested that special sets of cultural contextual factors, combined with individual psychic transcendence techniques may trigger psychobiological mechanisms that facilitate the appearance of a particular experience which, in cognitive terms, is felt and described as pertaining to the realm of the ‘beyond the human’, that is, to the cultural category of the divine (Bartocci, 1998 ; Littlewood, 2001). Transcendence techniques supplied by modern societies are now much more sophisticated than the earlier ones studied in field work research (for example, Sargant, 1957, Littlewood and Dein, 2001). The beatification of Padre Pio represents a paradigmatic case aimed at this dissemination of a psychological climate now once again oozing with miracles (Wills, 2002).

Padre Pio

Francesco Forgione was born in the village of Pietralcina, near Benevento, South Italy to an illiterate and pious peasant family. Various miraculous tales are now told about his childhood and from the age of 5 years, he experienced demonic and divine visions that continued throughout his life, and commenced spiritual self-flagellation (Ingoldsby, 1978 ; Guarino, 1999). In 1903, he entered the Franciscan order on nearby Mount Gargano and took the religious name of Pio ; he spent the rest of his life in that Capuchin community. He was frequently unwell with chest pains and exhaustion during his novitiate, which required him to return to his parental home. Ordained in 1910, he was called up for military service in 1915 but discharged on health grounds, and once back in the monastery he was continually bothered by demonic visitations in the guise of various saints and colleagues.

At the end of the First World War, in September 1918, Pio first began to exhibit the full stigmata of the five wounds of Christ’s Crucifixion, which later led To his wearing mittens over his bleeding hands in public. The wounds in his side. hands and feet continued for 50 years : in his last year he had ‘circular wounds almost an inch wide, on both sides of his hands and feet. The wounds were visible : clean exuding bright red blood and surrounded by irregular layers of clotted blood. There was no sign of inflammation and no discharge of pus. The edges of the wounds were quite clean. The wound in his side, the shape of a lozenge, was obviously deep, with clean edges, free from scabs. Hands and feet, especially the left foot, were greatly swollen but not discoloured’ (an observer, Sala, quoted in Ingoldsby, 1978, p. 143). This together with his reputation for spiritual and physical miracles, and his zest for hearing confession (to which he often responded in a playful or else irascible manner) led to an increasing local reputation for sanctity (the Roman Church has only approved around 60 stigmatisers in its history, notably St. Francis, and generally they are found among the laity) ; but in 1922 an intervention of the Holy Office (the quondam Inquisition) deprived him of many priestly faculties. This decision was reversed in 1933, but he continued to he subject to various Vatican investigations. In 1947, he began to build a large local hospital at San Giovanni Rotondo, and in 1968, prayer groups associated with this work were approved. Towards the end of a life plagued with sickness (he died in 1968), he was eventually supported by an enthusiastic Pope Paul VI.

One devoted biographer comments, ‘His call was a call to the supernatural in the midst of post-war chaos, a call to fervent Christian life, to reform of morals, to peace and brotherly love, to a life in which prayer would prevail over material interests’ (Ingoldsby, 1928, p. xv). In spite of Vatican doubts as to his stigmata and miracles, Pio was orthodox in doctrine and observance, his main claims to extraordinary status being his ‘impulses or transports of love, divine touches, strokes and wounds of love, transverberation [‘the seraph’s assault’, the heart set on fire by being pierced with a mystical fiery dart] and stigmatisation’ (Ingoldsby, 1928, p. 42). ‘The extraordinary charisma with which God endowed him were many : bilocation, levitation, prophecy, healing, the power to read men’s hearts the gift of tongues, and the fragrance which emanated from his wounds and which [at a distance] frequently announced his invisible presence’ (Ingoldsby, 1928, p. 89). One hagiographer comments that ‘none of the numerous doctors who examined him from time to time found any trace of imbalance or psychological deviation’ (Ingoldsby, 1928, p. 88) and another enthusiast briefly mentions the Gemelli investigation (v.i.) as ‘brusque and peremptory’ (McCaffery, 1978, p. 108). Many books have been written about the friar of Pietralcina ranging from the enthusiastic (Ingoldsby, 1928 ; McCaffrey, 1978), to the more neutral (Allegri, 1993), to the frankly dismissive (Guarino, 1999).

Together with his individual thaumaturgical powers (Mauss, 1972/1950) that have received wide popular acclaim, more baraka than mana, Padre Pio’s most specific characteristic is his having acquired the stigmata that gave rise to a wide-reaching theological debate but which, nonetheless, led to his recent sanctification process. Initially, Padre Pio the friar was identified as the pious man typical of an earlier medieval period, orthodox, essentially reserved, almost ‘ecological’ in his balanced rural relationship with both material and spiritual Nature. However, it did not take long for the pious man to disappear and make room for unabashed miracle-working activity that gradually made the Pietralcina-born friar acquire the revolutionary, suffering-induced power of the magical Christ depicted by the Italian anthropologist De Martino (De Martino, 1978 ; Bartocci and Prince, 1998). He became an unrelenting and implacable healer, the fulcrum of a supernatural power, compounding all the pathos of the saints and thaumaturges that existed in the history of Western Christianity.


Only a few days before the opening of the recent Roman Catholic Jubilee Year of 2000, the culture columns of the 8th of November 1999 issue of il Messaggero (1999) published an interview with Mons. Villa, disciplinary and spiritual responsible of the Catholic University and spiritual counsellor of Father Gemelli in which he stated that Father Gemelli, a former physician and psychologist and the Rector of the Universita Cattolica at his time of death (1959), denied the diagnosis of hysteria that he had originally made in 1920 in relation to the friar from Pietralcina (Allegri, 1993). That year, Father Gemelli had gone to San Giovanni Rotondo and had nailed Padre Pio down with a diagnosis of hysteria. Already a year earlier another luminary of Italian medicine Amico Bignami, Professor of Medical Pathology at the Regia Universita of Rome, had been sent to see Pio by the Sant’Uffizio. His visit had paved the way for the diagnosis of Father Gemelli, thus putting a halt to the (as they both saw it) wave of popular fanaticism and gullibility originating from the appearance of the stigmata. Professor Bignami very prosaically suspected that, once established, the wounds could have been kept open artificially through the continuous use of tincture of iodine After having seen the friar (although it seems that Father Gemelli’s visit was rejected by Padre Pio). Father Gemelli concluded that not only were the stigmata the outcome of a hysterical process but he also tried to have Padre Pio hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital.

Was it his medical diagnosis or his spiritual blindness that prevented seeing sanctity rather than hysteria ? Father Gemelli wasat the same a priest, a physician and a psychologist ; perhaps the most appropriate person to make a diagnosis on such a sensitive case somewhere between suspected psychopathology and presumed sanctity. It is not up to us to ascertain whether or not the clearcut diagnosis made by Father Gernelli was the outcome of pressures coming from the Roman curia of that time, which was annoyed at the thaumaturgical excesses of Padre Pio, or of some more modernist search for empirical truth. What we can do today is instead assume that his different psychological assessment of the phenomenon and the treatment thereof led to a discrediting of Father Gemelli as a clinician while simultaneously redeeming the medical priest on his death bed before the press, with the aim of favouring a spiritual renaissance within Italian medicine.

The point now is that, by having rejected the initial clinical assessment made by Father Gemelli, we are forced to do away with a scientific discipline that has long served as a loyal vassal of Catholic universities : psychology. The turning chosen for the eventual purification of Padre Pio from the discredit produced by Father Gemell’s first diagnosis is perfect : just when psychiatry appears incapable of making an independent assessment of supernatural phenomena, the news of the repentance of Father Gemelli, the revered university professor, makes the Italian headlines and this is traded off with the initiation of a beatification process for Gemelli himself promoted by the curia of Milan !

The earlier Father Gemelli was defeated subsequently not only by the continuing thaumaturgical activity of Padre Pio that involved his miracles of bilocation but also by the parallel cohabitation in San Giovanni Rotondo of the sacred and the profane : namely a new hospital with 1200 beds that still operates alongside the heavenly invocations of its unrelenting prayer groups (spread throughout the world with an estimated total of 2,186) and also by the inflow of such a throng of ailing followers that the Municipality was forced to authorise the construction of hotels accommodating up to 4,127 people (Guarino, 1999).

The phenomenon of bilocation

Padre Pio has now been blown up into a social phenomenon, not only because of his own doings but through the press coverage he continuously received. A most significant example is represented by the way in which an Italian daily newspaper il Messaggero, again in its 8th of November issue, reported on a miraculous phenomenon that is quite unusual in modern Catholicism but not uncommon in magical practice (Mauss, 1972/1950, p. 33) – bilocation.

‘…in 1933, the friar from Pietralcina was bilocated in flesh and bones and appeared to Pope Ratti in the Vatican during an audience with Cardinals Siri and Gasparri. All three saw Padre Pio kneel in front of the Pope. ‘Who showed him in- asked Pius Xl. The friar bent to kiss his hands and feet and told him : ‘Do not blame this priest’. While he was leaving the room, the Pope told him : ‘Digitus detest hic.’After 2 days, Cardinal Siri went to San Giovanni Rotondo and ascertained the fact that, on the miraculous day, the friar who had been in the Vatican was simultaneously witnessed to be in the village, praying with his fellow-friars’.’

The ‘il Messaggero’ article on bilocation differs from other generic articles on magical or canonical extraordinary events because it does not refer to a miraculous event or extraordinary healing performed on a crowd of peasants, but to a vision of the Pope himself. Insofar as the vision was received by the recognised head of a hierarchical and socially dominant ideology, it cannot easily be converted into and within a critical analysis of the event, being protected by norms and laws that endorse the risk of being charged with offence to state religion. We are not dealing with a sudden vision performed by a patient who, in a conventional way, asks for a supernatural intervention to heal himself or his relatives ; it is not the oneiroid possession state triggered by charismatic or traditional healing ceremonies ; it is not the vision-dream of the god of medicine made by the worshipper in the Aselepiadei temples ; it is not even the traditional hallucinatory trip of a well-trained shaman capable of failing into a trance state at will. The vision of Padre Pio bilocated in the Vatican rooms comes from three dominant figures of the modern Vatican State, while they were in a normal state of consciousness and engaged in normal acts of their daily life. The essential difference with the shamanic experiences reported in social anthropology lies in the fact that Western civilisation, unlike traditional cultures, is founded on a positivistic credo that, whatever we make out of it, has made it possible to carry out a heart transplant or set a human on the surface of the Moon. In ‘small-scale cultures’, characterised by the compounding of the conception of the world with a range of possible ultrahuman phenomena, where animism and magic prevail over material sciences, and where it is perhaps possible to die a sorcery-induced psychogenic death or by the evil eye (Littlewood and Dein, 2001), beliefs and phenomena that are consistent with these particular local cultural values are still compatible. Conversely, in the 21st century, it is difficult to find a consistency between communication levels that are compatible with the ordinary reality proposed by scientific paradigms and the levels of representation of a non-ordinary reality that is stretched beyond its limits by a theologically driven culture ; and with a continuing modern media need for culture ‘heroes’ (Langer, 1998).


The solution proposed by Averroes in the 12th century as the then ingenious possibility of making the dawning biomedicine coexist with the ruling theology (a ‘double register’ – Littlewood, 2001), is now stretched beyond reason in trying to excuse the means used by the contemporary media in humbling the heritage of positivism expressed by a Galileian anthropocentric way of reasoning, which is still the preferred foundation of our freedom from medieval witches (Spanos, 1975).

Modern-day miracle-working does away with even the folkloric dimension that brought about a day-to-day reconciliation between the counteropposing spheres of the sacred and the profane, between religion and science : before the Second World War, it was still possible in rural Italy to see from afar the black tunic of the parish priest, and a youngster still had the time to quickly hide in his pocket the magazine showing naked women that he had stolen from the barber’s shop before going to his catechism class. Today, in order to make room for religious beliefs, it is necessary, as Cancrini (1999) put it, to : ‘avoid contact with reality’ ; for us to believe in the bilocation of a living person in the 21st century requires us to individually activate an internal psychological division that reflects the radical incompatibility between the dual messages coming from the external world (Littlewood, 1996 ; Wills, 2002). This produces what Osterreich (1930) remarked in his book Possession : Demoniacal and Other : ‘Much more probably it was rather the conviction of being possessed which brought about a real division of the mind, whereas in the divisions observed today the relation is reversed : first there arises a genuine division of the inner life, and then the individual declares himself ‘dual’.

Industrialised cultures seem to foster supernatural experiences to an extent that goes far beyond our data relative to the amount of money reported as being annually spent by people seeking the help of students of the supernatural who, in addition, practise a domesticated form of supernatural operation hinging upon diabolical or, at best, astrological grounds (Torgovnick. 1990 ; Lindquist, 2000 ; Penczak, 2001 ; Pike, 2001). The social demand for transcendence can be fathomed on the basis of numerous phenomena such as the proliferation of millenarian neospiritualistic sects (Littlewood, 1993 ; Tseng, 2001), the spreading of self-induced techniques and practices aimed at trying to achieve the goal of coming into contact with the Absolute (Penezak, 2001), and the case with which the mass media now yield to requests for the marketing of miracles (Lindquist, 2000 ; Seale, 2002). Bell (1991) and Seale (2002) note that in the area of healing, there is a continuing media search for miracle stories : how much more so in the politico-religious area of Italian Catholicism where the advent of the national media has allowed a shared experiential community to emerge (Anderson, 1991) among an ‘active’ (Hall, 1980) audience.


1 . We are grateful for comments on this paper from Dafne Accoroni.

2 . And a ‘prayer breakfast’ appeared at the annual meetings of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the 1990s.

3 . GB’s translation-


Roland Littlewood is a psychiatrist and anthropologist (D.Phil., D.Litt.). His fieldwork concentrates on Trinidad, Haiti, Lebanon, and Albania. The is the author of six books including Aliens and Alienists, Pathology and Identity, and Pathologies of the West, plus over 150 papers. He is also a painter, film maker and novelist.

Goffredo Bartocci is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He has three books to his credit. He was earlier a professor at La Sapienza University, Rome, but now at the University of Turin. His interests include the psychodynamics of religious creativity and experience, and religious stigmata.

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