St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)
Born: Francesco Forgione, May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy
Received Visible Stigmata: September 20, 1918
Died: September 23, 1968, at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy
Feast Day: September 23
Patronage: Civil Defense Volunteers and Confessors
A well-known prelate working in Italy tells the story of how, upon learning that his niece was seriously ill and about to undergo surgery in the United States, he requested the prayers of the custodian in the college where he worked. “Ask our Lord to heal my dear niece,” pleaded the Rector. With a serious look on his face, the custodian replied, Monsignore, in una causa così grave, tu deve andare direttamente a Padre Pio. “Monsignor, in a case so serious, you must go directly to Padre Pio.”
This is obviously a serious transgression against Christian faith, which makes clear that our Lord Jesus Christ – He alone – intercedes on our behalf. What it also demonstrates, however, is the devout piety with which people have come to regard one of Christ’s greatest disciples and saints: Padre Pio. What was it about one of the most renowned Catholic men of the twentieth century that won him such acclaim? Heroic holiness.
It began at an early age for him. Having been born in a poor village to an even poorer family, prayer and faith in God were quite literally his daily bread. What he took as normal occurrences would surely have been regarded as miracles by anyone else. Once, while searching for water to dig a new well, the young Francesco’s father was about to give up in exasperation under the beating sun. “Papa! Dig right here,” Francesco insisted, pointing to a spot in the middle of the field. Having no reason to resist, his father put the shovel to the ground and a small trickle of water bubbled to the surface. Before long, he knew he had found their new well. “How did you know to dig there?” his father asked. “Jesus showed me, Papa.” It was no surprise that by the age of five, he described having consecrated his life to God.
At the age of fifteen, inspired by the example of a Franciscan beggar who came through his town asking for food, he went to enter the novitiate of the Order of Friars Minor. He persevered through extremely austere living conditions, voluntarily taking harsher ones upon himself in private. “Francesco began to pass the nights on his knees. He would not read the Gospel standing up, for it seemed to him that this posture lacked respect… For a whole year, he prayed long hours in the night, not caring what was happening to his flesh and bones. He prayed to be recognized by the Poor Man of Assisi as one of his sons.”1
On January 22, 1903, he was vested in the robe of his father, Francis, and took as his name in religion, Pius (Pio, in Italian), after the patron of his beloved hometown of Pietrelcina, Pope St. Pius V. Thus marked the beginning of 65 years of consecrated religious life.
The most important moment of his life would follow seven and a half years later when, on August 10, 1910, he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood at the age of 23. The offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was the centre and summit of his entire life. It was, in fact, this element of his priestly ministry that would attract the eventual throngs who sought him out from around the world. Witnessing him celebrate the Mass was a deeply moving experience for all who beheld it because, as Blessed Pope John Paul II himself once commented (having attended Mass with him in 1947), when Padre Pio prayed the Holy Mass, “he physically suffered.”2
Not only was the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary made present in the consecrated bread and wine, in a mystical sense, it was made visibly present in the person of Padre Pio himself. However, the Holy Mass was not all for which he was renowned. As a confessor, too, he was sought by hundreds of people per day, spending countless consecutive hours in his confessional. The future pope would also kneel down in that box to bare his sins to the priest and later recalled that Padre Pio was “a very simple confessor, clear and brief.”3
Probably what he would be most widely known for did not take place until the reputation of his sanctity was well established. While making his thanksgiving after having offered the Holy Mass, praying before a crucifix, Padre Pio did what he had done every day of his priesthood: offer his life and sufferings as a victim for the conversion of sinners and the souls in Purgatory. On this particular day, September 20, 1918, our Lord ordained to draw him into His Passion in a new and remarkable way. In a moment he would later describe as “piercing agony,” the wounds of our Lord from the Cross were engraved in his hands, feet and side. He collapsed and lay writhing in an amassing pool of blood until he was discovered by his brothers.
This would mark the beginning of the most severe suffering he would face of all: the scepticism of professionals and canonical sanction by the hierarchy of the Church. Never before had a case such as his been observed, and it was not clear how to handle it. Simultaneously, it was obvious that his fame would only continue to grow. There was a sincere concern – one that Padre Pio also shared – that an undue cult would circulate around his person, creating a frenzy not fed by faith but by superstition. As a result, Padre Pio submitted to many years of being kept under house arrest in his monastery, a time that drew him into fervent prayer and sacrifice for souls – especially for those who sought to put him down. This would only last for so long, however, before the dam gave way. His public celebration of the sacraments was eventually restored, and he returned to a life of complete self-giving.
His day began at 2:30 a.m. when he would rise to begin his prayers and to make his preparation for Mass. He was able to carry on a busy apostolate with only a few hours of sleep each night and an amount of food that was so small (300-400 calories a day) that his fellow priests stated that it was not enough food even to keep a small child alive. Between Mass and confessions, his workday lasted 19 hours.4 His miraculous works also began to multiply, much to his displeasure, and the multitudes continued to grow – exponentially – among those who were in desperate need of grace and healing.
Among his charisms were the gifts of healing, bilocation, prophecy, discernment of spirits, the ability to read hearts, the ability to speak and understand languages that he had never studied, the gift of conversions, the grace to see angelic beings in form, and a fragrance which emanated from his wounds and which frequently announced his invisible presence. These mysteries were inexplicable to him, too, but he did not let them become distractions from his mission to bring souls to Christ and soothe suffering on earth. To this latter end, despite the countless other forms of apostolate in which he engaged, he undertook to raise money and provide direction for the construction of a hospital which would primarily serve the poorest and most suffering of mankind. La Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza (The Home for the Relief of Suffering) opened in 1956 and still operates today.
In the final days of his life, undoubtedly weakened by a nearly non-existent diet, hardly any sleep and the loss of a teacup full of blood per day, Padre Pio suffered tremendously. Every move and breath was laboured, so much so that, during the final Mass he sung, he was gasping for air throughout, and after Holy Communion he actually collapsed. On September 20, 1968, exactly fifty years to the day since he had received the Stigmata, the wounds entirely disappeared and his flesh was perfectly restored. Three days later, during the middle of the night between the 22nd and 23rd, Padre Pio called for his dear son, Padre Pellegrino. They prayed together and Padre Pio asked his confrere to slowly recite the words of the solemn profession of religious vows, which Padre Pio repeated word for word. At 1:30 in the morning, looking into the distance, he kept repeating softly, Gesú, Maria – Jesus, Mary – and clutching his rosary, he slowly lowered his head and breathed his last at 2:30 a.m. on September 23, 1968.
On June 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Padre Pio in one of the most attended canonization Masses in history. Many would claim that it was for the miraculous life lived by the humble Franciscan that he was declared a saint. In actual fact, the miracles were nothing more than a sign of the real reason for any canonization: holiness; a holiness lived under the shadow of the Cross. In the homily of his canonization Mass, the Holy Father commented, “Throughout his life, he always sought greater conformity with the Crucified, since he was very conscious of having been called to collaborate in a special way in the work of redemption. His holiness cannot be understood without this constant reference to the Cross.”5
We need not receive the Stigmata to become a saint; we need to receive the Crucified into our hearts with a more profound love each day. This way, along with St. Paul, and certainly with Padre Pio, we may say, Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.6
– Fr. Cristino Bouvette
1 Oscar De Liso, Padre Pio (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1960), 39.
2 George Weigel, Witness to Hope (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), 83.
4 Padre Pio Devotions, “A Short Biography”; available from http://padrepiodevotions.org/a-short-biography/; Internet; accessed 27 August 2013.
5 Pope John Paul II, “Homily for the Canonization of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, Capuchin Priest” (June 16, 2002), 2. Available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20020616_padre-pio_en.html; Internet; accessed 27 August 2013.
6 Colossians 1:24.