Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sunset on September 15th this year. It’s the climax of the High Holy Days when the judgments of God are sealed upon unrepentant sinners. So, it seemed a fitting time to honor my father’s people by examining a book riddled with coarse anti-Semitism yet long admired in some pious Catholic circles: The Poem of the Man-God by Maria Valtorta.
Here’s a brief review for those who may not remember Valtorta’s heyday in the 1990s when the Christian world was convulsed with End Times speculations and many Catholics rallied to the apparition of the month. To her supporters, the Poem is a “flawless” expansion of the Gospels that has profoundly improved its readers’ souls. But in 1959, it became the second-to-last publication placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
Maria Valtorta was born to Lombard parents on March 14, 1897 in Caserta, Italy. Her father was a non-commissioned army officer. Her publisher describes her mother as “callous,” “despotic,” and extremely severe. Valtorta’s mother spitefully curtailed her education and terminated two promising courtships.
After taking private vows in 1931, Valtorta aspired to be a “victim soul” and became permanently bedridden two years later because of a heart condition and an old back injury. Her spiritual director was Fr. Romauld Migliorini, a member of the Servants of Mary. Valtorta was a tertiary in the same order which has never ceased to promote her writings and reputation for holiness.
Valtorta is supposed to have offered God the sacrifice of her intelligence in 1949. She gradually ceased writing as mental aberrations increased over the next decade. By the time of her death in 1961, she had reached what Fr. Benedict Groeschel C.F.R. has described as “as state similar to catatonic schizophrenia.” Illness would suffice to explain her decline without looking for diabolic causes, as some critics have tried. She died on October 12, 1961.
Originally composed as 10,000 handwritten pages between 1943 and 1947, the published Poem is a 4,000-page Life of Christ in which scenes describing visions are interspersed with direct commentary by Jesus and Mary. Valtorta could remember—and later clarify—what she said she saw in her visions but not the dictation she recorded through a process resembling automatic writing. Valtorta’s randomly generated texts were typed and arranged in Gospel chronology by Fr. Migliorini, who began circulating select bits privately.
Sometime after April of 1947, a bound copy of Valtorta’s complete manuscript was sent to Pope Pius XII via the papal confessor. The Pope received Fr. Migliorini and two other Servites in a special audience on February 26, 1948. His polite murmurs about the Poem reportedly included the phrase “publish this work as it is” which the Servites afterwards remembered and interpreted as a “Supreme Pontifical Imprimatur” This alleged oral imprimatur is the only one the publishers of the Poem have ever received—or sought.
Although a pope could in theory grant such an imprimatur and even do it orally, no one has produced a modern instance of this. Surely, so meticulous a man as Pius XII would have made his intentions perfectly clear and not left his words to be construed after the fact by interested parties.
It’s impossible to determine how much of the Poem Pius XII actually read. Given his crushing burdens leading the postwar Church and the many crises he had to face while the Iron Curtain thundered down, how much time could the pope possibly have devoted to reading and evaluating thousands of pages of manuscript?
After a harsh rejection at the Vatican press, the Poem was released by Italian publisher Emilio Pisani. On December 16, 1959 the Poem was condemned by the Holy Office, then headed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Osservatore Romano printed this decree on January 6, 1960 accompanied by a hostile unsigned review of the Poem entitled “A Life of Jesus Badly Novelized.”
Valtorta’s defenders try to blame this and subsequent censures on a secret “Modernist clan” within the Holy Office. They offer no evidence of how “Modernists” could operate undetected by the strictly orthodox Ottaviani nor why Modernist and other anti-Catholic books continued to appear on the Index, 1948-60.
Moreover, as Ottaviani’s successor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has declared, the 1966 abolition of The Index of Forbidden Books in no way sanitizes previously banned works, including the Poem. In 1994, Ratzinger’s office issued another statement through the apostolic nuncio in Canada reiterating its judgment that Valtorta’s works are simply fiction: “These writings cannot be recognized as being of supernatural origin.” (The Poem’s English edition has been distributed from Canada since 1986 by Editions Paulines of Sherbrooke, Quebec.)
Furthermore, on April 17, 1993, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directed the Italian Bishops’ Conference to order this disclaimer placed in future re-issues of the Poem: “…the ‘visions’ and ‘dictations’ referred to in it are simply literary forms used by the author to narrate in her own way the life of Jesus. They cannot be considered supernatural in origin.”
Almost from their beginning in 1981, the Medjugorje apparitions became entangled in the Valtorta controversy because pilgrimages to the Bosnia site were major vectors for disseminating the Poem. Two of the seers, Maria Pavlovic and Vicka Ivankovic (who is writing her own “inspired” Life of Mary), were queried on Our Lady’s views of the work and reported a positive response. “Our Lady says that The Poem of the Man-God is the truth” according to Vicka. Several other seers /locutionists/prophets of the time concurred. Is it healthy to treat private revelations as the ultimate arbiters of Catholic belief and practice?
Controversy, popularity, and a fundamental flaw
But not everyone was enchanted by the Poem. By the early 1990s, disputes spread beyond the followers of Medjugorje to the overall Marian movement. The Poem’s prominent defenders included Prof. Leo Brodeur, Bishop Roman Danylak, Fr. Rene Laurentin, and Fr. Stefano Gobbi while Paul Likoudis, Fr. Philip Pavich OFM, Fr. Mitch Pacwa SJ, and Fr. Brian Wilson LC argued against it. But these debates largely centered on how the Poem came to appear on the Index and whether that condemnation was justified. Problems with content got less attention. I, however, wrote a general critique for Catholic International magazine in 2003.
So, who am I to re-enter the fray at this late date? The undying embers of the Longest Hatred—anti-Semitism—are reddening again among some stern Catholic conservatives as they denounce “globalism” and George Soros. I also bring unique credentials. Although I’m a mere laywoman and no theologian, I did receive a traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic education, which I’ve employed in the service of the Catholic press for 38 years. History is my field and, unlike any other debaters known to me, I’ve written, edited, and analyzed fiction professionally. I’ve read the Poem in the five-volume English edition (Centro Editoriale Valtortiano srl. Isola del Lira, Italy, 1986, reprinted 1990) and consulted its online version retrieved from archive.org. (I haven’t examined the latest edition of 2014, The Gospel as Revealed to Me in ten volumes from the same publisher.) Its defenders can’t accuse me of ignorance or taking quotes out of context.
The Poem reached hundreds of thousands of readers across the globe in many languages but its anti-Semitic elements seem to have slipped by unnoticed. These are entwined with other objectionable aspects that ought to have disqualified the work from consideration as serious spiritual literature—much less a heaven-sent account of Our Lord’s life.
The Poem’s fundamental flaw is its claim to compensate for the inadequacies of the Gospels. As Jesus himself explains to Valtorta, the New Testament needs to be supplemented (I: p. 432) because of the evangelists’ “unbreakable Jewish frame of mind.” Their “flowery and pompous” Hebrew style kept them from writing everything that God wished. (V: p. 947) So nineteen centuries later, he finds a worthy secretary in Valtorta, his “Little John,” to expand what the Apostle St. John and the others wrote. “There is nothing of my own in this work,” she insists. (I: p. 57) She presents herself as a mere transmitter of Divine content.
But Hebrew is no “flowery” language. Neither is the simple and concrete koine Greek, in which at least three of the Gospels were composed. Moreover, the evangelist Luke was Greek, not Jewish. Nevertheless, Jesus denounces future critics of the Poem who dare to search for mistakes “in this work of divine bounty.” (V: pp. 751-52) The Poem is self-authenticating and any discrepancies were put in it by Jesus himself. (V: p. 753)
Valtorta’s own prose, however, is flowery in the extreme. Consider her page long description of newborn baby Mary (I: p. 24-25) wherein her fists “are two rose buds that split the green of their sepals and show their silk within.” Her figures of speech monotonously feature flowers, jewels, and fabric. The literary effect is further hampered by her fondness for exotic words (“noctules” for bats) and translators’ clumsiness (a line of laden donkeys is rendered as an “asinine cavalcade.”)
The Poem also presumes to “correct” the received text of Scripture. Valtorta’s reading of John 2:4 adds a novel “still” to Christ’s remark concerning the wine at Cana: thereby making it a comment on their own relationship: “Woman, what is there still between me and you?” (I: pp. 283-84) But her reading has no basis in the Vulgate or in any translation into a modern vernacular from the original Greek. The Poem presumes to place itself above the Bible and “Little John” beyond criticism.
Despite claiming a purely celestial origin, the Poem somehow incorporates legendary material from the Apocrypha (ex.” The Acts of St. Paul and Thecla), The Golden Legend, The Meditations of Pseudo-Bonaventure, the revelations of St. Birgitta, and other medieval texts. (Is she borrowing from Carmen when Mary Magdalen tries to attract Jesus’ notice by throwing a rose at him?) Valtorta is at odds with the revelations of Maria de Agreda and Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich in chronology, familial relationships, and details of key events such as the Passion and Assumption. For instance, in the Poem Mary lives and dies in Jerusalem, not Ephesus as the other two visionaries say. The personal stories of the Apostles, however, aren’t traditional. Peter is a short, middle-aged buffoon; Simon is an actual “Canaanite” and not Jesus’ cousin. Judas gets far more coverage than all the other Apostles put together.
A flower-strewn fantasy world and a ranting Jesus
Valtorta supposedly used only the Bible and the Catechism of Pius X as references. There’s no way of knowing what she may also have absorbed earlier from her schooling, reading, sermons, or conversation. What little she knows about first century Palestine and Jerusalem could have come from maps and study aids commonly bound in Catholic Bibles. Otherwise, it’s a flower-strewn fantasy world. Her landscapes, sets, props, and costuming recall soft, gilt-touched Italian holy cards. She is amazingly ignorant of the local living conditions. Her houses resemble Italian farmhouses with fireplaces, porches, and kitchen gardens. The rich enjoy jasmine pergolas and hedged gardens closed with iron gates. The countryside abounds with apple orchards. fields of rye, stands of cactus and agave. Apples are ubiquitous. Dates, figs, and olives seldom appear; lentils, chickpeas, or onions never. People routinely drink fresh milk, even honey-water and cider, but wine scarcely ever appears. The screwdriver and the iron horseshoe are in use, although they were unknown in ancient Palestine.
Valtorta acknowledges her confusion about the layout of the Temple, but still erroneously pictures it as having multiple gilded domes, angel-headed capitals, and a choir of maidens. Not only does Jesus have a bar mitzvah, a ceremony which didn’t yet exist, everything described is false, even to the name of the Bible book he reads as a “test” administered by a bored Temple functionary. Although speaking the Divine Name was taboo, Jesus himself says “Yaweh. “Jehovah”, a word unknown in antiquity, is freely used by other speakers, including Mary and Peter.
But Valtorta’s anachronisms are not nearly as objectionable as her distorted characterizations of Jesus and Mary. They are, of course, fair-haired, blue-eyed, alabaster-skinned and straight-nosed, quite unlike the swarthy Jews around them. A pale complexion—usually but not necessarily—signifies great holiness. (Note that Mary Magdalene and girlish John are fair while Judas is dark.) A hooked nose, however, is always an ominous feature.
Our Lord is a ranting, hypersensitive Mama’s boy whose stripped body “looks like a delicate lady.” (V: p. 564) His last word on the Cross is, in fact, “Mother.” (V: p. 620) Jesus must exercise supreme will power to restrain his aversion toward sinful mankind: “My first contacts with the world had sickened and depressed me. It was too ugly.” (I: p. 432) He would rather touch a corpse than an impure person. “I feel such disgust for lewdness that it upsets me.” (I p. 695-96) “. . . He never laughs.” (I: p.282) (italics in original) He also demonstrates his sublime purity to a prostitute sent to tempt him by trampling a “lascivious” caterpillar underfoot. (IV: p.785) Needless to say, this gesture helps bring her to repentance.
Calling himself the “Man-God,” Jesus openly proclaims his Divinity and Messiahship from the beginning of his public life. He baptizes his Apostles with kisses and preaches every doctrine in the catechism. The Decalogue is the only part of the Mosaic Law that Jesus accepts; all else is priestly accretion. (I: p. 273) But aren’t Leviticus and Deuteronomy books of the Bible? Souls go to heaven before his Passion and Resurrection. (I: p. 263) Incredibly, the wounds of the Risen Christ, his “stigmata,” still hurt and his joints are stiff. (V: pp. 762-64)
His followers are already called “Christians” before the founding of the Church (V: p. 253) despite Biblical testimony to the contrary (Acts 11:26). He even denies that Christian beliefs developed across time because he had already delivered them all, using correct terminology, while on earth. (V: 946) The Poem isn’t “new” revelation added since the death of the last Apostle because it’s just offering material that the Evangelists left out.
Mary, whom Jesus calls “the Second-Born of the Father,” (I: p.7) and “second to Peter with regard to ecclesiastical hierarchy” (IV: p.240) preens over her unique exemption from “the torture of generating.” (I: 115) during her cousin Elizabeth’s hard labor. After the Crucifixion, she rages in morbid hysteria with incestuous overtones (V: pp. 630-59). The grieving Virgin proclaims her hatred of men, who are likened to wolves, snakes, and hyenas. “Man disgusts and frightens me.” (V: p. 640) Yet in the next day’s dictation Jesus praises the Sorrowful Mother’s forbearance and forgiveness (V: 670). Then, in a final twist in his envoi to the Poem, Jesus excuses his Mother’s emotionality by her ethnicity because “…they should consider the nationality of Mary. Hebrew race, eastern race, and times very remote from the present ones. So the explanation of certain verbal amplifications, that may seem exaggerated to you, ensues from these elements.” (V: 947) Valtorta really could not recall what she had written after committing it to paper.
The Poem titillates with several invented subplots of “delicate” maidens barely escaping the Fate Worse Than Death and guilt-ridden harlots’ descents into utter degradation. In one especially tasteless moment, Herod tries to tempt captive Jesus with his lascivious African dancing girls who “touch Christ lightly with their nude bodies.” (V: p. 562)
Despite the vaguely homoerotic flavor of Christ’s frequent kisses, cuddles, and caresses of his disciples, Valtorta has an almost Gnostic loathing of sexuality. To Jesus, all humans are nothing but souls. (I: 672) She claims that unfallen humanity would have reproduced asexually. The Primal Sin was Eve’s perverse dalliance with the serpent followed by intercourse with Adam. (I: p. 83) Now sexual satisfaction is “bread made with ashes and excrement.” (I: p. 665) She never acknowledges it can be licit within wedlock.
Jesus’ sermon on the Sixth Commandment, more vehement and accusatory than on the other nine, betrays an uncertain grasp of human reproduction. (I: p.664). Contraception and abortion were not common in New Testament times. Jesus absurdly claims that animals mate soberly, only for the sake of offspring. (I: p. 30) Can the Man-God be unfamiliar with male dogs? He also teaches delayed ensoulment after a human embryo has started to take shape. (I: 635)
Valtorta’s deplorable anti-Semitism
But Valtorta’s worst fault is her deplorable anti-Semitism, both religious and racial, that stains the entire Poem. Contrasted with Roman soldiers, Valtorta’s swarthy, stinking, big-nosed cowards are stereotypes straight out of The Eternal Jew. To Romans, Jewish corpses are “so many snakes the less.” (V: p. 623) Legionaries gleefully insult the Jewish crowd they are dispersing with blows. (IV: p. 804) Pilate’s confrontation with a delegation from the Sanhedrin is an embarrassing exercise in vulgar comedy with Pilate sniffing a flower to ward off the “billy-goat” stench of Jews. (V: pp. 557 ff)
Valtorta repeatedly compares Jews unfavorably with Romans: “Hebrew wombs conceive vile perjurers. Roman wombs conceive nothing but heroes.” (V: p. 790) Mary Salome calls Jews “cowards” but considers their Roman conquerors “just and peaceful.” (V: p. 652) Mary Magdalen speculates that converted Jews won’t be brave enough to be martyrs. (V: p. 663) Gentiles will be better followers of God than Israel was. (V: p. 852) Significantly, Valtorta’s account of Pentecost doesn’t climax with the conversion of 3,000 Jews. Assuming that the first Christians immediately changed their Sabbath to Sunday, she’s unaware of the slow disentanglement of Synagogue and Church related in Acts.
Mary rages that Rome was right to fear this “tribe of killers.” (V: p. 642). She declares: “I am no longer a Jewess, but a Christian, the first Christian. One fictitious Jewish character converts because “the cult of Israel has become Satanism” and promptly breaks the Sabbath.” (V: p. 673) Nicodemus, having shed his Hebrew identity, plans to carve a statue—the future Holy Face of Lucca. (V: p. 903)
Most distressing of all, Valtorta makes Jews Deicides. The Romans weren’t responsible for the Crucifixion—only Pilate. Aside from Christ’s followers, “the whole Jewish people gathering in Jerusalem wanted his death.” (V: p. 293). The entire city pours out to jeer at Jesus like many thousands of “rabid hyenas” (V: p. 566). Longinus and the Roman soldiers try to minimize his sufferings, but executioners with the “clear Jewish profile” (V: p. 563) scourge the Savior and nail him up. Christ’s plea “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” seems to be directed at the squabbling thieves, not at his diabolical Jewish persecutors.”
As his Passion approaches, Jesus complains about Jewish resistance to conversion: “How grievous it was to be so close to death for so few.” (V: p. 64) He detests Jewish worship: “I loathe your solemnities which are nothing but outward appearances. I will abolish my covenant with the stock of Levi….” (V: p. 426) Later, the Risen Christ declares that God has withdrawn from Jewish rites and Judaism is “dead forever.” “Her rituals are nothing but gestures that any histrion could mime on the stage an amphitheater.” (V: p. 831) He scorns Jerusalem as the site where the synagogue received the libel of repudiation from God for its many horrible crimes.” (V: p. 869) To quote thunderous eternal curses against the people and land of Israel as the very words of Our Lord Jesus Christ while the flames of the Holocaust blazed is detestable blasphemy.
Why in all these years have so few readers of the Poem noticed it blatant defects? Did they meekly follow the recommendations of those they admired as spiritual leaders? Surely few in the audience shared the contempt for Jews and Judaism presented in the Poem. Or does this phenomenon demonstrate Reader Reception Theory: people see what they want to see in a text?
Countless fervent testimonials to “this great and glorious work” suggest this might be the case, especially since promoters advised reading it slowly and meditatively. In my opinion, the cult of Maria Valtorta has been a tragic waste of devotional time, treasure, and zeal—as well as an unfortunate woman’s life. The Poem is what Cardinal Ratzinger’s unnamed informant called it: “a monument to pseudo-religiosity.”
To have written such things while fires blazed in Auchwitz is sheer obscenity. Valtorta is a one-woman argument for Nostrae aetate, the Vatican II decree that condemned the notion of collective Jewish guilt.
These are only a small sample of Valtorta’s many and pervasive errors. “Childishness, fantasy, false history and exegesis” make the Poem exactly what an unnamed writer cited by Cardinal Ratzinger said it was: “a monument to pseudo-religiosity.”
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