Friday, January 29, 2010
The Perfume of Violets
In 1938, Princess Marie-José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, paid a remarkable visit to the famed Italian mystic and stigmatist, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. The circumstances were sad and poignant. The 32-year-old princess, by then unhappily married for eight years to Prince Umberto of Savoy, heir to the Italian throne, had recently lost her much-loved father, King Albert, and sister-in-law, Queen Astrid, in tragic and troubling circumstances. In her grief, Queen Elisabeth had seemed, for many months, to have lost all will to live, refusing food and comfort and isolating herself from the world. It is easy to imagine the anxiety her emotional state must have caused her daughter and the rest of her family. Indeed, Marie-José and her mother-in-law, Queen Elena of Italy, had been at great pains to help Elisabeth recover, inviting her to visit them in Italy and trying to assist her, little by little, to take an interest in life again. In addition to all these personal sorrows, Marie-José had tormenting political worries. With the passing of the years, she had become more and more disturbed by Mussolini's regime. Worst of all, Europe was on the brink of World War II.
So, by visiting Padre Pio, was Marie-José, at a time of anguish, seeking religious consolation? Many years later, she told her biographer, Luciano Regolo: "It may be that my state of mind influenced my decision to make Padre Pio's acquaintance. But today, now that the years have made me strong in the face of all types of suffering, I like to believe that my motive was curiosity" (p. 171). The fame of the saintly and mysterious friar, whom striking testimonies credited with the ability to heal the sick, read souls, predict the future and even bilocate, had spread far and wide. At the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Padre Pio was a topic of earnest discussion among Queen Elena's ladies-in-waiting, many of whom were devoted to him. In Brussels, the mystic's reputation had reached the ears of Queen Elisabeth, always drawn to the mysterious and the inexplicable. She wrote to her daughter: "I would like to know something more of the friar they say bears the wounds of Christ and can foresee the future" (Regolo, p. 171). Amidst all this interest, acting on a sudden impulse, Marie-José decided to meet him.
Accompanied by her niece, 11-year-old Princess Josephine-Charlotte of Belgium, and a friend, Marie-José set out for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni Rotondo, where the priest was living. "We got into the car early. For the entire journey, we spoke of nothing but the hereafter, premonitions, and other paranormal phenomena," Marie-José recalled (Regolo, p. 171). When the royal party arrived at Santa Maria delle Grazie, the priest was busy hearing confessions. (By the way, I have heard he could be quite tough on his penitents). Informed of the Princess' visit, Padre Pio responded: "Yes, I'll see her. But first let me finish." Even so august a guest as the Crown Princess of Italy had to wait for her turn. Observing the long line of young men, rosaries in hand, standing before the confessional, she thought: "If this man can succeed in calling back so many boys, he must be a special person" (Regolo, p. 171).
Suddenly, Marie-José noticed a persistent perfume of violets mingled with incense. At the time, she was unaware of the fact that, according to many testimonies, the perfume of flowers and incense was a mark of Padre Pio's spiritual presence. Assuming there must be violets nearby, she looked around, but no flowers met her eyes. "Josephine, do you smell that perfume of violets?" she asked, turning to her niece. "Aunt, what are you saying? Are you crazy? There are no violets here!" Nor did the Princess' friend notice anything unusual. A little later, Marie-José asked a friar, who had come to meet the royal party, if he noticed the perfume. His reply that it was a grace of Our Lord rather perplexed the Princess, always somewhat skeptical of apparently supernatural phenomena.She later explained: "...I have never been particularly religious. My religiosity is of a kind I like to define as 'practical,' excluding all forms of escape from reality. Nonetheless, even today, I cannot find any rational explanation for this extraordinary fact" (Regolo, p. 172).
At last, Padre Pio emerged from the confessional. Marie-José remembered him as a man of great serenity, sweetness, simplicity and humility. His face, she recalled, was pale and marked by fatigue, but his eyes were luminous, radiating joy. He invited Marie-José and her companions into his cell, where he led them in prayer. A heart-to-heart conversation followed. "We spoke for a long time, above all, about my father and my sister-in-law, Astrid. 'They are close to the Lord,' he said, as if he could see them. I did not believe in his gifts as a seer, but his words still filled me with a sense of well-being. The serenity of that man could not leave you indifferent" (Regolo, pp. 172-173). The Princess confided to him her fears regarding the fascist dictatorship, but later forgot his exact reply. Nonetheless, the priest's unusually forceful parting words, as Marie-José kissed him farewell, remained forever engraved in her memory: "There will be war. Be ready, as everything will end soon. Very soon!" (Regolo, p. 173).
For the rest of her life, Marie-José would puzzle over the meaning of this mysterious prophecy. Initially, she thought it must have referred to World War II, and, since, far from "ending soon," the war dragged on for five years, she concluded Padre Pio had been seriously mistaken. Subsequently, she wondered if his words might actually have referred to the fall of the House of Savoy in 1946, astonishingly rapid given that it had, at the end of the 1930's, seemed one of Europe's most secure dynasties. In the end, Marie-José decided the mystic's words could only remain mysterious...Likewise, she could not say whether or not Padre Pio had been a saint; miracles, beatifications and canonizations, she emphasized, were the competence of the Church alone to determine.
She remained cautious of supernatural phenomena, explaining her point of view: "Often, the need to witness otherworldly prodigies...causes people to lose sight of the primary duty of a believer, which, in my opinion, is to aid his neighbor, with all possible means, on this earth." Nonetheless, she insisted: "[Padre Pio is] a personage who merits respect, for having dedicated a large part of his time to the needy, with humility and discretion. Two gifts which are truly rare" (Regolo, p. 173). This respect, moreover, was reciprocal. To the writer Luigi Tucci, many years after meeting the Princess, Padre Pio said: "Marie-José of Savoy is a great lady, a true lady of the spirit ('una vera signora dello spirito') and merits, for that reason, all respect."
The story of Marie-José's visit to Padre Pio has always struck me as a very interesting episode, shedding a rare light on her approach to religion and spirituality.
Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria Jose di Savoia. Third edition. 2002.