Padre Pio refused a Canadian lady absolution and told her to return home. The lady had been selling women’s trousers in her clothes shop in Vancouver, but she had travelled all the way to Italy to meet Padre Pio. But when she went into the confessional, Padre Pio asked her to go home, dispose of all the trousers in her shop and not even to donate any of the items to women who might wear them.
When I first read this account – I thought it was exaggerated. I did further research because it did seem as though some anti-women-wearing-trousers webpages were using an incident where Padre Pio told a woman (who made her living from selling women’s clothes) as an exemplar to prove the erroneousness of women wearing trousers. But the account of the women-who-sold-trousers-and-was-refused-absolution is genuine and was published in the book Arrivederci, Padre Pio. But to recount this story without bearing in mind how Padre Pio suffered when he had to refuse someone absolution is not only an injustice to Padre Pio’s character, but it also makes it sound as though Padre Pio was gratuitously punishing the lady. When asked why he, on occasion, closed the small confessional in the faces of some, Padre Pio said, "Don't you know?" he asked, "what pain it costs me to shut the door on anyone? The Lord has forced me to do so…I am His useless tool."
Much is also made of Padre Pio’s disdain for mini-skirts; the sign that was displayed in the San Giovanni Church read; ‘by Padre Pio’s explicit wish women must enter the confessional wearing skirts at least 8 inches below the knee. It is forbidden to borrow longer dresses in church and to wear them for the Confessional’. Again, I’ve often heard it cited by both Catholics and non-Catholics that if Padre Pio was against mini-skirts, then us women folk should not wear them.
Padre Pio is often painted as a stern figure who had behind-the-times ‘issues’ with women’s clothes. But Padre Pio was no misogynist. It is often forgotten that Padre Pio was as strict with men about clothing – men were not permitted to enter the church with short or three-quarter length sleeves or short trousers or shorts. Both boys and men had to wear long trousers, or else they were shown out of the church. In the 1960’s, Padre Pio’s fort was one of the few churches where the fashions of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were favoured over those of the 1960s. But I would love to hear Padre Pio’s opinion on some men that I have known who like to show off their 'designer' underwear while wearing low jeans, but then criticise women in trousers.
Padre Pio also admonished priests for their sartorial ‘disguise’. One day a gentleman dressed smartly in a jacket, tie and pants was in the sacristy waiting for Padre Pio. When Padre Pio clapped eyes on this sophisticated man he said, ‘Father, you came in disguise, but you don’t have to be ashamed, next time come dressed as a priest.’
Once Padre Pio met a young man who was in trousers and a sweater – Padre Pio told him to come back wearing the cowl of St Dominic. The man was flabbergasted, but confessed to being a Dominican priest. In this instance, Padre Pio showed-up a man who was wearing ordinary trousers because it hid the fact that the man was a priest.
(Not to got off the topic, but there is an ancient Golden Girls episode where Dorothy, the swotty, opinionated, tall-as-a-tree school teacher falls for a fellow who dresses in jeans and a shirt – until she finds out that he’s a priest - he comes to her house for dinner dressed in a clerical garb to show her that he’s unavailable. He revealed that he was a priest a bit late – Dorothy is distraught. Sophia (Sicilian widow who once when trying to woo another Italian dressed all in thick black head-to-toe, ‘so he’ll know I’m available!’) struts down to the Church to give the priest a piece of her mind.)
When other great and highly esteemed Catholics like GK Chesterton and Cardinal Siri argue about what women should and shouldn’t wear, there is a sense that they think only women have a responsibility for dressing well and for modesty. Not to affront GK Chesterton fans, but his remarks on women wearing trousers are crass: ‘as a little while ago it was common for an "advanced" woman to claim the right to wear trousers; a right about as grotesque as the right to wear a false nose...’ Chesterton may have been writing in a time when the dictatorship of politically correctness did not reign, but by only stating, in his opinion, that women in trousers may be ‘grotesque’, without remarking on men's ‘grotesque’ choices of clothes, he presents an unbalanced argument.
One can say that Padre Pio had unfair advantage in commenting on modesty and clothes – he could read minds and souls. He prevented a gangster from killing his wife, a girl from knifing her ex-boyfriend and even when a priest ‘in civvies’ approached him, he knew he was a priest because Padre Pio could see the indelible mark of ordination of the priest’s soul. But for the advantage of us ordinary people who cannot read souls, Padre Pio gave this advice; ‘nothing represents an object more faithfully or clearly than a mirror. In the same way, nothing more widely represents the good or bad qualities of a soul than the greater or lesser regulation of the exterior, as when one appears more or less modest…the internal virtue of modesty, which regulates the external workings of the body.’
When Padre Pio was explaining how the exterior of a person reflects their interior – he did not say that this applies more to women than to men. And this is the problem with modern commentary and debate on fashion and clothes – it is often about contesting what women should and should not wear – while forgetting that men too bear a responsibility to be modest.