Known and loved more commonly as “Padre Pio,” St. Pio of Pietrelcina has captivated generations of Catholics the world over. St. Pio’s fame could be described as part attraction to his holiness and part fascination with the spiritual curiosities of the austere and pious Italian friar, particularly his share in the wounds of Christ called the stigmata. Subsequent to his death 50 years ago, devotion to St. Pio spread far and wide, culminating in his 2002 canonization.
He is a model of Gospel living for all Christians. Through his witness, each of us encounters Christ.
It is through the prism of St. Pio’s sanctity that everything about him can be understood. His life and relationship with the Lord were as unique as anyone’s. Beyond his well-known supernatural gifts, St. Pio lived, in many ways, the rather ordinary life of a friar. By cooperating with God’s grace and living a virtuous life to a heroic degree, St. Pio’s life inspires all who seek the same. In his story we see the truth of his own words: “It is difficult to become a saint. Difficult, but not impossible!”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to holiness. In the saints we can find common themes, and we must make every effort to incorporate those identifiers in our own lives. But we must also learn to appreciate each saint’s uniqueness, which is no less inspiring, for in it we find a model for appropriating God’s will in our lives. The enduring legacy and widespread devotion to St. Pio is proof that in his life there is something for everyone who wants to be a saint. Or in his own words: “I belong to everyone. Everyone can say: ‘Padre Pio is mine.’”
St. Pio was born in 1887, the son of poor farmers from the southern region of Italy called Campania. He exhibited a unique and special piety from an early age. He suffered from precarious health, particularly stomach ailments, most of his life, beginning in his early years.
Coincidently, his birth name was Francis (Francesco Forgione), and he longed to become a friar in the order founded by his saintly namesake from Assisi. He joined the Capuchin Franciscans when he was 15. As he put it, he only wanted to be a “poor friar who prays.”
In the seminary his frail health continued, indicative of a life of suffering that St. Pio would come to fully embrace. He suffered from terrible headaches and a variety of digestive issues, causing a restricted diet. He also suffered from insomnia at times. He professed final vows as a Capuchin in 1907 after a period of time spent at home due to his ill health. Also, he was given permission to remain there for six years after his 1910 ordination to the priesthood.
Later on he moved to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, where he became known as a popular confessor. On Sept. 20, 1918 — while hearing confessions — St. Pio had the first signs of being marked with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion on his own body. In addition to the bloody wounds on his hands, he was afflicted with tremendous pains and bleeding. The pain intensified at different times and in special circumstances. Many reported the wounds had a pleasant, floral aroma. He bore these marks for the remaining 50 years of his life, which disappeared at the time of his death.
Padre Pio celebrates Mass, assisted by Padre Onorato Marcucci. Wikimedia commons
In addition to the physical pain brought on by the stigmata, there was another dimension to his suffering. That was because of the variety of accusations and suspicion surrounding their origins. Some claimed the stigmata was manmade or self-inflicted on account of a mental disorder. Some claimed the Capuchins were trying to make money off him because of the crowds beginning to assemble to catch a glimpse of the priest or celebrate the sacraments with him. Others feared a cult of personality, emerging by false wounds that would lead the faithful astray. These concerns were only exacerbated by emergence of more supernatural phenomena in St. Pio’s life, such as bilocation, healings, reading souls and the ability to speak in tongues.
His suffering and anguish were exacerbated over the decades by the ensuing, repeated investigations into the authenticity of the wounds. Even the Vatican became extremely suspicious of the origin of St. Pio’s stigmata and his other spiritual gifts, initiating investigations under papal authority. At times St. Pio, due to the investigations or other related provisions, was even forced into seclusion.
All of this often kept him from serving fully in the capacity he desired as a priest. But he embraced it all as God’s will and his share in the Cross of Christ. Eventually, he was cleared of all accusations by the mid-1960s by Blessed Pope Paul VI.
|Prayer of John Paul ll from the canonization of St. Pio in 2002
Teach us, we ask you, humility of heart so we may be counted among the little ones of the Gospel, to whom the Father promised to reveal the mysteries of his kingdom.
Help us to pray without ceasing, certain that God knows what we need even before we ask him.
Obtain for us the eyes of faith that will be able to recognize right away in the poor and suffering the face of Jesus.
Sustain us in the hour of the combat and of the trial and, if we fall, make us experience the joy of the sacrament of forgiveness.
Grant us your tender devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother.
Accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage toward the blessed homeland, where we hope to arrive in order to contemplate forever the glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
A papal encounter
Over the decades, throngs of visitors came to see Padre Pio at the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo. Among them was a young Father Karol Wojtyla. While there in 1948, the future saint heard the confession of the saintly future Pope John Paul II — the one who would eventually canonize the friar. Father Wojtyla reportedly asked the confessor if one of the wounds of his stigmata hurt more than the others. He replied that it was a shoulder wound, one which was never treated or known about. After years of painstaking investigation into St. Pio’s life, it was discovered that Father Wojtyla was the only one who apparently heard this aspect of St. Pio’s suffering. Despite speculation to the contrary, however, the pope revealed that St. Pio did not predict his future election to the chair of St. Peter.
A work of mercy
Though St. Pio fully embraced his suffering out of love and obedience, he wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the poor and sick out of love for them. A heavenly inspiration prompted him to begin a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. Called “Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza” (the House of Relief from Suffering), St. Pio desired it to be a place where God’s love would shine forth for those who needed it most. It quickly gained a reputation as one of Italy’s premier hospitals, which he affectionately called “the apple of my eye” when the hospital was dedicated.
Concluding a life of suffering and service, St. Pio died on Sept. 23, 1968 — just days after marking the 50th anniversary of when he received the stigmata, the marks of which completely healed when he died. He was beatified in 1999 and canonized in 2002. Pope St. John Paul II stated in his homily at the event that St. Pio’s life shows how “difficulties and sorrows, if accepted out of love, are transformed into a privileged way of holiness, which opens onto the horizons of a greater good, known only to the Lord.”
Pope Francis places a stole on a glass case containing the body of St. Pio in the
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at the Shrine of St. Pio of Pietrelcina in San
Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, March 17, 2018. CNS photo via Shrine of St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Model for priests
St. Pio must also be recognized as a model for priests. All priests can learn from St. Pio and be inspired by him, both in his life and ministry. His holiness was achieved in the midst of what could at times be considered persecution by Church officials. And he had more than his share of spiritual battles. But he remained a man of holiness and virtue.
St. Pio’s devotion to the souls God entrusted to him was manifested primarily through the sacraments — especially in the confessional. His dedication to hearing confessions was one of the primary ways he affected the faithful so profoundly. He put aside any distractions or personal desires to make himself available for hours on end to help people encounter God’s mercy. Pope St. John Paul II, in the homily at St. Pio’s canonization Mass, expressed his desire that the saintly friar might “encourage priests to carry out with joy and zeal this ministry which is so important today.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.
|Spirituality of Padre Pio
There is much wisdom in turning to the saints for inspiration from their spiritual lives and practices. From what we learn, we can appropriate what is possible in our own spiritual lives. And St. Pio certainly has much for us to consider, including the following aspects of his spiritual life which can help us form a deeper spirituality:
It should come as no surprise that a saint requires an active, intense prayer life. It is what feeds one’s response to the call to holiness. “Prayer is the oxygen of the soul,” St. Pio said. He knew prayer was of utmost priority in the life of anyone who wanted to grow closer in their relationship with God, especially when overcoming the obstacles to achieving that. He wrote: “Prayer is the best weapon we have; it is the key to God’s heart. You must speak to Jesus not only with your lips, but with your heart. In fact on certain occasions you should only speak to him with your heart.”
St. Pio had great love for the Blessed Mother and promoted a robust devotion to her. “Some people are so foolish that they think they can go through life without the help of the Blessed Mother.” The messages of Fatima, with promotion of the daily Rosary and associated pledge for world peace, took place in the early years of his priesthood. He was a strong proponent of the Rosary and its promises. He wrote, “Love the Madonna and pray the Rosary, for her Rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today. All graces given by God pass through the Blessed Mother.”
St. Pio would regularly counsel the faithful to stay close to Jesus regularly and frequently in the sacraments. Daily Communion was a requisite for his spiritual life and he proposed the same for others. He wrote, “How could I, my Father, live without drawing close to receive Jesus, even for a single morning?” He was a proponent and practitioner of weekly confession. “Confession is the soul’s bath,” he said. “I do not want souls to stay away from confession more than a week. Even a clean and unoccupied room gathers dust; return after a week and you will see that it needs dusting again!”
Spiritual directors will frequently recommend spiritual reading as a means for growth in holiness. It is essential to learn more about the faith and to acquire tools for growth in one’s relationship with God. To this end, St. Pio said, “The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder. ... What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection.”
St. Pio had a unique combination of spiritual gifts than covered the gamut. When you consider them in total you come to understand the amount of intense suffering that he endured throughout his life. His supernatural gifts were mostly a cross for him. He was ostracized, obsessed over, taken advantage of, misunderstood, investigated, constantly observed and gossiped about. Given that suffering is such a major part of St. Pio’s life, some might question, then, how they could be considered gifts. St. Pio answered this, by drawing the connection to the goal of all who desire holiness: suffering can help us be holy since “Jesus is closer to us when we suffer.”
| Padre Pio’s stigmata is visible during Mass in an undated photo. Wikimedia commons
Reading souls: An ability to read hearts and minds was often manifested by St. Pio in the confessional. People would line up in droves to have the holy friar hear their confession in the friary at Pietrelcina. In the early 1960s just under 300 a day were confessing their sins through him. If a penitent forgot some sins or made a confession with inaccurate details, St. Pio would correct them.
Bilocation: Several documented episodes exist of biolaction during St. Pio’s life. One of the most famous occurred during World War II, when Americans conducted air raids in the attempt to release the Nazi grip on southern Italy. San Giovanni Rotondo was a strike zone, but when the planes were in the air and ready to launch their bombs, a friar in a brown habit appeared in the sky, and their attempts failed. It seems St. Pio was keeping a promise he made to the townsfolk that they would be spared of all harm. Later on, one of the pilots happened to visit the friary and identified the heavenly figure that spared San Giovanni Rotondo as St. Pio. The saint credited God’s assistance with these events, describing his instances of bilocation only as “an extension of his personality.”
Battling the devil: St. Pio once wrote, “Do not let temptations frighten you; they are the trials of the soul whom God wants to test when he knows that he is strong enough to sustain the battle and weave his garland of glory with his own hands.” He knew the truth of this firsthand. Biographies written about him contain countless stories of Satan’s repeated attacks against St. Pio. These took shape in a variety of ways, from bodily tortures and fear to spiritual temptations and despair. “The devil wants me for himself at any cost,” St. Pio wrote, knowing in his heart God would bring good from the situation. His experience was not unique, and there are many similar episodes in the lives of other saints, like Gemma Galgani or Nicholas of Tolentino. These experiences enabled St. Pio to provide unambiguous advice about the spiritual battles: “Have courage and do not fear the assaults of the devil. Remember this forever; it is a healthy sign if the devil shouts and roars around your conscience, since this shows that he is not inside your will.” Fundamentally, his battles with the devil gave him a firmer hope in Jesus: “Do not fear. Jesus is more powerful than all hell.”
Stigmata: Through his stigmata, St. Pio became a special friend to the poor and suffering. With love, he embraced the wounds of Christ and bore them in all humility and obedience. He came to cherish the wounds he bore, writing, “My wounds not only do not afflict my body, but they sustain and fortify it. I feel that what formerly depressed me, now invigorates me.” The stigmata enabled St. Pio to understand the redemptive purpose of suffering, when accepted — even cherished — in love. “Suffering, no matter how difficult it may be, when compared to the good that is accomplished, makes every pain a joy for the soul,” he said. In the end, suffering teaches us about life, as St. Pio said: “The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain.”
Healings and miracles: St. Pio was a miracle worker in many ways, always with great humility. Most of the miracles God worked through him are associated with his prayers. Some were miracles of conversion, and some were physical healings. Once St. Pio went to the chapel when the friary ran out of bread for distribution to the poor. He came back with an armful of loaves, crediting a pilgrim. Or once when he was distributing holy Communion and another friar had not consecrated enough hosts, the ciborium ended up with more hosts in it than when the Mass began. And there are many stories of the blind receiving sight or the diseased spared from death.