There were many saints who were renowned for their fiery devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist. Saints Peter Julian Eymard and Philip Neri come to mind at once. But, surely, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina is among the most seraphic of all adorers because he was literally nailed to the cross with Christ as he offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass. One wonders from the picture below of him offering Mass if Padre Pio’s eyes are fixed beyond the accidents of bread and on the Victim Himself in His Sacred Humanity.
When the Capuchin friar died on September 23, 1968, at the age of eighty-one, in his monastery high in the Gargano mountain range in southern Italy, one million people from every corner of the globe began making their way by plane, train, bus, and automobile to the Church of Our Lady of Grace to pay him tribute. His body would lie there in state for three days as his devoted children would file past him one by one to pay their respects and ask him to remember them in eternity.
Who was this humble old friar who for fifty-two years never left his monastery (except to vote) and what did he do that would move so many people of every race?
A Noodle Without Salt
He was Francesco Forgione, the son of Grazio Maria Forgione and Giuseppa De Nuncio, poor farmers of the small village of Pietrelcina in the province of Benevento in the region of Campania. He was born on May 25, 1887, the fourth of eight children, two of whom had died in infancy.
Reared in the Catholic Faith by his devout parents, young Francesco treasured the truths of the one true religion with a zeal that was far more mature than his years. Even as a child he loved to go off alone and pray, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. Although he did not avoid normal activities with boys in the neighborhood, he was shy by nature and non-aggressive by temperament. Other than his extraordinary attraction to solitude and prayer, Francesco was in every other sense unremarkable. His own self-effacing description of his childhood personality is typical of the saint’s gritty wit: I was like “a noodle without salt,” i.e., not very colorful.
The local parish priest knew differently. At times, the priest would find Francesco alone in church in a state of ecstasy. It wasn’t until he was a young priest that Padre Pio revealed to his confessor that he had visions of Jesus and Mary from the time he was five years old. Fully aware that his son was especially graced, Grazio (or Orazio as he came to be called) once told him, rather prophetically, that he was not made for outdoor work, but would labor indoors. It was his way of saying that his son would be a monk. This was all the more obvious when a Franciscan Capuchin, Brother Camillo, would come to town to beg for the friars in the monastery at Morcone. Francesco was fascinated by him and by his long black beard. When he told his father that he wanted to be that kind of religious, with a large hood and beard, Grazio realized that he needed to supplement Francesco’s mere three years of primary education. That meant more money than he had. So, off he went to America, where one third of the men in impoverished Pietrelcina had already gone in order to make enough so that they could feed their families back home. This was a tremendous sacrifice on Orazio’s part; but, had he not done so, the world may have never known Padre Pio the saint.
Fra Pio the Sickly Capuchin
After some years of private tutoring, Francesco Forgione was ready to apply for acceptance with the bearded friars at Morcone. Although only fifteen at the time the friars were happy to take him in; however, they warned him that the life was strict and rigorous and the meals far more frugal even than that of the poor farmers. At his investiture young Francesco took the name Pio in honor of St. Pius V. Fra Pio was beloved by all his confreres for he was the model of humility and obedience and his disposition was always joyful. Nor did his gift of tears, which manifested itself from the start of his religious life, ever quench his joy. He wept over the Passion of Christ and the sins of Catholics. His poor health, however, was a serious problem and it would continue to be so until he received the visible wounds of Christ crucified in 1918.
During these early years of religious life Fra Pio gave himself to long hours of private prayer and he practiced many mortifications, but it was a strange illness that caused him a most intense suffering. He could not hold down food; he could not sleep; and his fevers were so hot that thermometers burst in the attempts to measure them. (One of these thermometers is on display today in the monastery relic room.) With temperatures exceeding 120, and the constant vomiting and the spitting up of blood, there was no human explanation for the young novice’s remaining alive. After some months his superiors had no choice but to send him home in the hopes that he would recuperate with more maternal care.
While home with “Mamma Peppa” he was examined by several doctors. The first could find no cause for the racking symptoms, the second diagnosed him as tubercular, the third as having chronic bronchitis. In time his health did improve and the Capuchins received him back, but when his condition worsened again they tried moving him to another monastery, then another, then another, thinking changes in climate might help him. They didn’t. Once more Fra Pio had to be sent back to his family home in Pietrelcina, where his mother Guiseppa, all alone, was raising five other children while her husband earned bread in America to pay for their son’s education.
Fra Pio Becomes Padre Pio
In due time Fra Pio regained some strength and he was able to return to his monastery and finish his courses in theology. He was now twenty-three, still too young to be ordained, but due to the severity of his illness he received a dispensation lest he die without being able to offer the holy sacrifice. On August 10, 1910, in the cathedral of Benevento, in the presence of his family, Fra Pio became Padre Pio. Only his father was unable to be there, having to work across the ocean in order to make this day possible. Four days later Padre Pio offered Mass in his home parish, where he had been baptized, in Pietrelcina. Here obedience declared that he must remain and give his lungs and intestines a longer period to heal. Five years past. Pio, the priest, offered Mass daily in the local Church, giving the rest of the day to prayer and study. Don Salvatore Pannullo, the pastor, was well aware of the mystical experiences of the “convalescing” friar, and he gave him all the privacy he needed. Padre Pio had made himself a little hut on the family farm lot where he lived the life of a hermit most of the day, practicing severe mortifications and fasting. Despite this he maintained a steady weight of about 165 lbs on his 5’10” frame.
The First Stigmata
It was only a month after his ordination, that Jesus and Mary came to Padre Pio as he was praying in his favorite hideaway. The humble friar had offered himself as a victim for the sins of the world. The date was September 7, 1910. Suddenly, as he was conversing with them in prayer, he felt a sharp pain in his hands and feet. His offering had been accepted. He was pierced with the wounds of the Crucified. The wounds were not open and appeared on both sides of his hands and feet as red marks about a half-inch in diameter. He told no one of about this, except Father Pannullo. The pastor did not know what to think at first, so he had a doctor, who knew the Forgiones, and was aware of Padre Pio’s extraordinary holiness, examine them. The doctor had no explanation.
One day when Giuseppa called for her son to come home for dinner she found him shaking his hands in the air as he walked toward the house. “Are you playing the guitar?” she asked. “No, mamma,” he answered, “but my hands are stinging in great pain.” He quickly covered them under the long sleeves of his habit. In writing to his spiritual director, Father Benedetto, a year later, Padre Pio explained how frightened he was at receiving the visible marks of the stigmata. It was too much for him at the time, so great was his desire to lead a hidden life. He wanted to suffer without anyone knowing the cause. Father Pannullo understood, and so they both prayed together that the wounds would disappear. Soon after they did disappear and the pain did remain, but not permanently. Sometimes it would go away, then return again. It was a prelude to what was to come later.
What came first was World War I (1914-1918). And, Italy’s masonic republic made no exceptions for the clergy in the draft. Padre Pio was summoned to serve. This, of course, only made his lungs worse, and, in the cold barracks of the camps the future saint almost coughed himself to death. Eventually, he was honorably discharged.
When the “soldier priest” returned home early in 1916, his spiritual director, who knew all of Padre Pio’s mystical experiences, counseled him to return to the Capuchins. Father Benedetto had found a place where he was sure Padre Pio would fare well. And there he went in the cold of February, eighteen hundred feet above sea level, in the mountains of Gargano, to San Giovanni Rotundo, to the monastery of Our Lady of Grace. And there he would remain until his death fifty-two years later.
The Visible Stigmata
On August 5, 1918, while hearing the confessions of some students a “mysterious person” appeared above Padre Pio brandishing a glowing sword. He thrust the sword deep into the saint’s side causing him inexpressible pain. Several other saints have experienced this piercing (or, transverberation, as it is called in mystical theology) of the heart, but in Padre Pio case the wound was physical. It left an open gap, which had the shape of a cross and issued blood. Then, on September 20, while making his thanksgiving in the choir loft after Mass, the saint was put into an ecstasy. The same “mysterious person” appeared again with blood issuing from open wounds in his hands and feet. “The sight terrified me,” he wrote his confessor, “I thought I should die . . . my heart was about to burst out of my chest.” When he was released from the vision he cried out from the excruciating pain that was in his hands and feet. His fellow friars ran up to the loft and found their brother unconscious on the floor bleeding profusedly. The invisible stigmata, that had come and gone over the years, was now visible, permanent, and even more painful. Just three days before the friars had celebrated the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. It was also on this day, eight years before, that Padre Pio first received the temporary stigmata as previously described.
Padre Pio’s Mass
The visible stigmata of Padre Pio never healed, no matter what salves doctors applied, nor was there any infected tissue around the gaping holes. From his side alone he lost a cup of blood a day. More blood was shed on Fridays when the saint underwent the scourging and crowning with thorns. Equally inexplicable was the heavenly fragrance that the wounds emitted. Except for when he offered the Mass, Padre Pio’s hands were always covered with gloves cut open for his fingers. His Mass lasted an hour and a half. During the un-bloody sacrifice the stigmatist endured even greater agony from his wounds. His Mementos for the living and deceased would last fifteen minutes each because he prayed for so many souls. At the consecration he would pause for long periods of adoration, especially of the Sacred Host become the Body of Christ. The friar assisting him would have to wipe away the tears that fell in abundance from his transfixed eyes. Sometimes, prior to ascending the altar, the saint would show his irritation if there was any talking by the faithful in the Church: “Silenzio,” he would shout, “silenzio!”
A typical day for Padre Pio began at 3:30 A.M. after three hours sleep. His Mass began at 5:00. After Mass he made a long thanksgiving until breakfast time. For his prima colazione, he took a glass of water, then he went to the sacristy to hear the confessions of men. At noon he took his only meal, which was always very light and rarely included meat. He preferred fish, cheese, vegetables, and occasionally eggs. It is a marvel that a man who slept only three hours and consumed only three or four hundred calories a day would be able to hear hundreds of confessions every day, sometimes for eighteen hours. In the afternoon he heard the women’s confessions. Female penitents were turned away if their dresses did not fall at least eight inches below the knee. Peering into the soul of a penitent if he saw lack of proper contrition or poor preparation he was not immune to denying absolution. To one woman who had had an abortion and already confessed it, he said, “I hear a baby crying.” Although her sin was forgiven he admonished her to do more penance.
Daily Life at Our Lady of Grace Monastery
Always fingering his rosary beads, it was believed that Padre Pio could do two things at the same time. This would account for the fact that in addition to saying all the hours of the divine office he was able to say forty rosaries daily. A period each day he set aside to work at his desk, sipping a big glass of water or bowl of coffee, while reading and writing letters. In the evenings, after retiring to his cell, he chatted with visitors, often inviting them to share the bottle of beer that was brought to his room after the community dinner. Padre Pio’s life as a Capuchin wasn’t all work, however; he would join in recreation with his confreres, take walks in the gardens, and enjoy light conversations with friends and guests. There is a wonderful photo of him in the monastery courtyard with opera singer Beniamino Gugli as he listens with great delight to the tenor’s Mamma Mia. Too, there are so many testimonies to his quick wit and humor that, were it not for his slow gait and the shuffling of his feet as he walked, one could forget that he was in uninterrupted agony. “Do your wounds hurt, Padre,” someone once asked him. His answer came quick: “Do you think God gave them to me for a decoration?”
There are many books written about Padre Pio detailing a life full of miracles. Bi-location is one of the more fascinating of his gifts, physically to be in two places at the same time. There are numerous, documented accounts of his appearing in a certain place while never leaving his monastery at San Giovanni Rotundo. One of these accounts, personally delivered to Pope Pius XI by a priest friend who witnessed it, helped convince the pope to lift the restrictions that had been imposed on Padre Pio by the Vatican in 1931. When Pope Benedict XV first heard about Padre Pio’s stigmata in 1918, he had ordered pictures taken of the friar’s wounds, and that was about as far as the investigation went. But during the pontificate of Pius XI several priests had gone to Rome and spoken ill of the stigmatist and the friary, thereby giving the Holy Office an erroneous impression of him. Two of these calumniators were very influential. One was a very proud psychology professor, the founder of Sacred Heart College in Milan; the other was a luxury prone archbishop, the head of the diocese of Manfredonia, in which diocese San Giovanni Rotundo was situated. The false information, and lies, that these and a few other detractors told the Holy Office made poor Padre Pio even more conformed to the Crucified, who Himself suffered the same kind of malediction. For two years Padre Pio was forbidden to offer Mass in public, hear confessions, have visitors, or write letters. He was even forbidden to correspond with Father Benedetto, his director. Then, in 1933, two things happened to change all this. First, an important document, authenticating the divine origin of Padre Pio’s stigmata, was found after having been misplaced in the Vatican. Padre Pio revealed to a friend where this document was to be found, and the friend got the word to Pope Pius, who discovered it to be exactly where the stigmatist said it was. Second, a certain priest who had received permission to pray privately at the tomb of St. Pius X, upon entering the crypt (which he needed a key to get into), found Padre Pio praying at the tomb. Upon hearing this priest’s report, Pius XI called Padre Pio’s superior, who assured him that the stigmatist had never left his monastery.
Several other priests had also seen Padre Pio praying at Pius X’s tomb or at other holy places, including the Holy House of Loreto. Blessed Don Orione, disciple of Don Bosco, counselor of popes, founder of many schools, missions, and the Sons of Divine Providence, personally told Pope Pius XI that he had seen Padre Pio bi-located in Rome. Another holy priest, Padre Domenico da Cese, who entered the Capuchin cloister at Manoppello, Italy, to venerate all his life the Veil of the Holy Face that is there, claimed that he saw Padre Pio praying before the holy image on the night of September 21, 1968, the night before the saint died.
There are many other Padre Pio bi-location stories. One of my favorites is that of the U.S. Army pilot whose plane was shot down somewhere in northern Italy during a dogfight with the Germans in World War II. He had managed to eject his seat after the hit, but the parachute got ripped and he was left falling to certain death – that is, until a robed man grabbed him in mid-air and carried him safely to the ground. The pilot found his way to the American camp, and much to his chagrin, his story drew nothing but compassionate smiles and blank stares. Nevertheless, that story, and one other involving a flying friar who waved off a WWII bomber pilot from dropping his load on the wrong target, made it into the U.S. military’s official records. When the first pilot returned home, his mother, whom he had told by letter about the miraculous rescue, showed him a prayer card that she had of Padre Pio. “That’s the man!” he exclaimed, “that’s the man who saved my life.”
His Many Charismata
Another gift of Padre Pio was his ability to be present somewhere invisibly. Thus, in 1942, when his spiritual director, Padre Benedetto was on his deathbed, his confreres expressed sorrow that Padre Pio was not there, for, in fact, the confessor had been assured by the stigmatist that he would be there to help him at that hour. The holy padre just smiled at his brethren and quietly said: “He is here.”
When necessary Padre Pio could read souls and prophesy; he knew what needed to be known of a penitent’s past, he could see things hidden from the senses, at times things hidden even from the angels, such as future events. He is recorded to have said before the death of Pius XII that Cardinal Roncalli would succeed him as pope and that he would take the name John. But he did not have the gift of tongues. If you could not speak Italian or Latin he would send you to another priest for confession. Some of the accounts of his preternatural clairvoyance are stunning, such as the time he suddenly interrupted his conversation with some visitors and said: “Let us pray for the King of England who has just died.” Some hours before this the saint had asked one of the friars to pray with him for King George VI because he was about to appear before the judgment seat of God. This would seem to indicate that Padre Pio’s prayer was efficacious and that the king died a repentant Catholic. News of the monarch’s death did not reach Italy until the following morning.
Then, there was the case of a agnostic doctor who went to see Padre Pio just to satisfy a friend’s request that he do so. His friend had gave him a sealed letter for Padre Pio in which he asked the stigmatist to convert the doctor. The agnostic left without ever speaking to the saint. Padre Pio knew that the man had left and he knew that he would come back, and so he did. This time Padre Pio accosted him immediately saying: “You carry your own condemnation in your pocket; you are a delinquent, read the letter in your pocket.” The doctor read the letter, grew pale, and kneeling down begged forgiveness, and was thusly converted. Some accounts are of matters so trivial that they would argue that Padre Pio must have constantly been getting revelations, every minute. Two pious sisters wanted very much to see the saint. Their father gave them permission, but made them promise not to kiss the stigmatist’s gloved hand because there would be too many germs on the cloth. In the excitement with all the pilgrims pressing to meet the saint, the girls forgot their promise. When Padre Pio greeted them the elder sister made to take his hand, but the saint pulled it away: “Remember the promise you made to your father,” he said with a winsome smile.
Another gift that was Padre Pio’s way of assuring someone that he had heard their prayer favorably was a heavenly fragrance, a scent of flowers, or aromatic incense. Again, this was so commonly done by him that many thousands of people have testified to it with a variety of descriptions concerning what kind of fragrance they smelled. One of them was my mother, whom Padre Pio protected during a grave illness. My mother did not smell the fragrance but the nurses in the hospital where she was to be operated on did. They insisted on knowing what kind of perfume my mother was wearing. She was wearing none, being near death’s door. Nor were there any flowers at all in the room.
The obedience of our saint was without hesitation or compromise. Although it is difficult to understand why, Padre Pio was forbidden to preach after receiving the stigmata. This must have been a heavy cross. Then, again, he was a living sermon, everything he said and did, especially his holy Mass.
For the Love of Mary
Padre Pio lived in this world physically, but he also lived in heaven, or shall we say heaven came to him. No, he did not have the beatific vision, but he enjoyed the company of the angels and saints, and his “dear little Mother,” as he called the Blessed Virgin. When a priest asked him if Our Lady had ever appeared to him, he gave this astonishing answer: “Why not ask me instead if she ever leaves my room.” Mary gave him such consolation that he was made to feel that he was her sole concern. “Poor dear mother,” he wrote in a letter, “how much she loves me! What great care she took to accompany me to the altar this morning. It seemed to me that she had nothing else to think about except myself, as she filled my whole heart with sentiments of holy love. I wish I had a voice strong enough to invite the sinners of the world to love Our Lady.” He conversed with his guardian angel, the “little man,” as a friend to a friend, employing him to perform many tasks, deliver messages, protect his spiritual children, and move a sinner to repentance.
His Charity to the Souls in Purgatory
Souls in Purgatory were the saint’s special concern. Often they would appear to him begging for his prayers and to be included in his Memento for the dead at Mass. Sometimes souls who were released would make a stop in his cell on their way to heaven. On one occasion the friars heard loud shouts of “Viva Padre Pio” echoing through the monastery corridors. They are soldiers, the saint told his confreres; they had come to thank him for the early end of their purgation.
The Fury of Demons
Padre Pio’s invisible visitors were not always friends but many times they were fiends. Demons would let loose their rage on him during the night, beating him and scourging him. One time the stigmatist was left soaked in blood and half dead on the floor, his face a bulbous mess, and gashes so deep as to require sutures. The attack left him so weak that he was unable to say Mass for three days. His brothers would hear these assaults at times, that is to say they’d hear the cries to Mary coming from the victim. “Dear Blessed Mother, help me,” he would cry out. At other times the devil would appear as a saint or a deceased spiritual director counseling him to abandon his penances as they were no longer pleasing to God. It was to no avail. Padre Pio would simply ask the arch-deceiver to say “Viva Gesu!” Unable to do so, the devil would disappear.
House for the Relief of Suffering
In the Gospels we read that Jesus healed all those who came to Him for a cure, both the good and the bad. Like his divine Exemplar, Padre Pio would have done the same if God had given him this power. Yet, although not everyone was healed who came to our saint seeking a cure, hundreds, perhaps thousands, were. For fifty years people made their way to San Giovanni Rotundo hoping to be healed spiritually or physically, or both. It would seem with our saint that only those who would benefit spiritually from a physical cure obtained one. On the other hand, charity is a virtue that reaches out to do good to all ones neighbors. To fulfill this burning desire of his heart, Padre Pio determined that he would do all in his power to see that a House for the Relief of Suffering be built in San Giovanni Rotundo. This “House” would open itself to tend to every kind of misery and give relief to all the needy who came for assistance. Believing, as did all the saints, that Jesus was “doubly” present in the poor and needy, Padre Pio announced his plan to a few close friends to whom he hoped to entrust the project: “We must build a hospital,” he told them as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin. He would be the first donor.
There were many sound arguments offered against building a hospital in such a remote location, but all of them surrendered to the determined will of the stigmatist who placed all his trust in God. Once news of the proposed hospital was publicized, donations began pouring in from all parts of the world. A major donation from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency was procured by Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City. La Guardia’s father had had a farm in the same region of the Gargano Mountains. Construction of the fifteen-hundred bed hospital took nine years. Before the cutting of the ribbon ceremony (for which our saint did the honors), on May 5, 1956, Padre Pio offered Mass on the steps leading to the front entranceway. There were fifteen thousand people behind him. How fitting that May 5 just happened to be the feast day of St. Pius V, Padre Pio’s patron saint.
One of the honored guests and speakers at the event was Doctor Paul Dudley White, world-renowned heart specialist. He had worked with Padre Pio’s spiritual children in America to get donations for the hospital. At the time Doctor White was not a Catholic. He was later converted by Father Leonard Feeney, with the help, of course, of the prayers of Padre Pio.
Well Done Good and Faithful Servant
As Padre Pio entered into his seventies, his gait slowed down to a shuffle and his body grew much weaker. The crowds, however, grew larger as the years went by, thanks to the expanding conveniences of modern travel. After Mass, when the stigmatist walked through the crowd of visitors, there always had to be a friar escort beside him. It was not unusual to find women with scissors hidden in their pocket and ready to snip a piece of cloth from his cloak. He could be quite gruff with such as these, and with others who just came to see him out of curiosity. He once scolded one young mother very severely for waiting three months to have her baby baptized, just so she could have Padre Pio perform the rite. “What? You allow your child to be a child of hell for three months? And now you come to me?” He sent her to another priest.
Eventually Padre Pio could drag his feet no more. He had to be confined to a wheelchair. But he continued to say Mass publicly from this sitting position and to hear confessions. During the last days of his life he spoke often to his brothers about his desire to die, while repeatedly asking them to forgive him for “all the trouble” he had given them. His final Mass was offered on September 22, two days after the fiftieth anniversary of his receiving the stigmata. That Mass, much to his dismay, was filmed. When he saw the camera rolling, he was heard to say “Even here, even here.”
Just after midnight, the next day, he summoned the friars to his cell by ringing his bell. It was time. The saint passed away at about two-thirty after receiving the last rites and making his final confession. Before dying, as he held his rosary in his still bleeding hands, he exclaimed that he could see two mothers: his earthly and his heavenly. His mamma, Giuseppa, and his “dear little mother” Mary had come to take him home. Gesu, Maria, he sighed aloud with his last breaths, Gesu, Maria, Gesu, Maria.