July 7, 2000

EDGARDO Mortara was two-years-old when he contracted a fever. His parents feared he would die as he lay in his cot, and begged their rabbi and friends in Bologna’s small Jewish community to pray for the boy’s recovery.

Saints alive! How can Vatican beatify Pius IX?

EDGARDO Mortara was two-years-old when he contracted a fever. His parents feared he would die as he lay in his cot, and begged their rabbi and friends in Bologna’s small Jewish community to pray for the boy’s recovery.

The Mortara’s servant girl also wanted to intercede with God for the child. But she was a Catholic, devout and simple-minded, and she truly believed that the little boy’s soul would be cast down into the Christian hell if he died unbaptised.

Under the pretence of mopping his burning face, she sprinkled water over his brow to baptise him. The boy survived, and the maid told her priest what she had done. Four years later, pressed by hardline advisers who claimed canon law obliged the Church to care for every baptised child, Pope Pius IX ordered police to seize Edgardo from his parents, to drag him from his six brothers and sisters. Despite the pleas of his parents, which roused international condemnation of the Vatican, Edgardo never saw his family again. He was more or less adopted by Pius as a son and became a priest.

After his death in 1940, his diaries revealed a tormented and guilt-ridden mind. Edgardo was far from being the only Jewish boy baptised into the Catholic faith in the teeth of his family’s pleadings and anguish.

During his reign, between 1846 and 1878, Pius banned Jews in the papal states from receiving secondary and higher education, limited their rights to hold property or take employment, and ruled their evidence was inadmissible in court.

He laid the ground for the rise of genocidal antisemitism in Italy and across Europe. Yet in September Pius IX will be beatified — the first stage of his elevation to sainthood.

It is hard to understand how a Pope who prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem this year could regard such a man as saintly. It is hard to imagine how this promotion could have been conceived as anything except a deliberate insult to Judaism.

Even the Catholic writer Margaret Hebblethwaite said: ‘‘It is gratuitously offensive to Jews. It is silly. But the Vatican is not very sensitive to criticism.’’

Pope John Paul II is no antisemite. His ambition, in the words of the former Catholic Herald editor Cristina Odone, ‘‘is to place his Church at the heart of a new religious alliance that would bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians in a great armada of God’s troops on earth’’.

Growing up in Wadowice, southern Poland, the man who was then still Karol Wojtyla lived in a house owned by a Jewish family. He played football for the town’s Jewish team and his closest friend, then and now, is 80-year-old Jersey Kluger.

Karol’s first, and perhaps only, love affair was with a Jewish girl, Ginka Beer, who was said to have ‘‘stupendous dark eyes and jet black hair’’. She was also ‘‘slender’’ and ‘‘a superb actress’’, and Karol developed a sudden and irresistible interest in the theatre which compelled him to attend all Ginka’s rehearsals.

Decades later she visited him, among a group of his old friends, at the Vatican. When the Pope remembered Ginka’s mother fondly, he was shocked to learn she had been killed at Auschwitz. Of 1500 Jews in Wadowice, only 80 survived the Holocaust. ‘‘We have a paradox here,’’ remarked Elan Steinberg, of the World Jewish Congress. Paradox is an understatement.

Here is the first Pope to visit a synagogue, the Pope who decreed antisemitism was sinful, now declaring that a child-snatcher and a Jew-hater is ripe to be called a saint.

Few would be surprised now if Pius XII, who ignored the Nazi slaughter of Jews and even promoted it, became a candidate for beatification.

This can only be understood by regarding the roster of saints with a worldly Jewish eye. Most Christians, Catholic or not, believe a saint must certainly have been a very good, kind and spiritual person.

The first saint to spring to anyone’s mind would be Francis of Assisi, a kind of Gandhi of the Middle Ages, who talked with animals and healed with a touch of his hands. People like him have existed in our history — but very few of them. Most have earned the distrust or outright anger of the Church, the upper classes and their governments: nothing is more dangerous to the establishment than a man or woman of true principles. One of this rare and inspirational figures was Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a priest whose hands and feet wept blood from stigmata — mysterious wounds with no physical cause, following the pattern of Jesus’s crucifixion scars.

He has no prospect of a sainthood, for he defied the Vatican throughout most of his career. St Francis was a stigmatic. So too is a teenage Catholic girl, Audrey Santo, who lives near Boston, Massachusetts. She has been in a coma since 1987, but many thousands say she, like Padre Pio, has answered their prayers for healing.

These people are rare and miraculous. They deserve the veneration and love of all humanity. Karol Wojtyla too is a figure of inspiration to many, who is said to possess a marvellous gift of healing. But when the Pope acts to beatify antisemites and kidnappers, we know ‘sainthood’ has nothing to do with saintliness. The title ‘Saint’ has become a politician’s bauble, as meaningful as a life peerage or a civil servant’s long-service medal.

No one, of any religion, should look to political ‘saints’ for inspiration and guidance. Turn instead to the rarest and best of humanity — the truly good.

Uri Geller’s novels Dead Cold and Ella are published by Headline at £5.99. Mind Medicine is published by Element at £20.
Visit him at and e-mail him at [email protected]


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