In the local Catholic Church to which I converted in the 1980s, there was a great cultural split between those who followed the ‘social gospel’ and those still caught up in what were known in a derogatory term as ‘private devotions’. A group met every Saturday afternoon in a local parish to pray the prayers suggested by Padre Pio, an Italian Capuchin known as a contemporary mystic who could bilocate, had been seen saying Mass in two different locations at once, and who suffered the stigmata for decades, bleeding profusely from wounded hands but apparently suffering no ill effects from this strange phenomenon.
The group of elderly men and women who met each week were not involved with any of the social outreach projects of the parish or diocese. They didn’t work with soup kitchens, didn’t join protests against apartheid, didn’t like the youth projects or sign up on parish lists for visiting the sick in hospital or making prison visits. They liked rosary groups, devotions to particular saints and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
I liked prayer groups and Exposition of the Sacrament too, but felt it was vital to get out and work in pastoral care in order to erode some core selfishness and connect with those who suffered so much and whose faith burned so brightly.
An older priest once commented to me that a friend of his from seminary days had once made an appointment to have a session of spiritual direction with Padre Pio, had saved up for a flight to Italy and accommodation. This was to be the turning point of his ministry. Alone in his hotel room the night before he was due to meet with the great mystic, the priest had lost his nerve, cancelled the meeting and flown back home the next morning. He told his friends that he couldn’t face the insights or challenges of what Padre Pio might say to him. He wasn’t ready to change his life, he wasn’t ready to die to self.
Pio of Pietrelcino was born Francesco Forgione to a poor sheep farming family in southern Italy in 1887 and given the name Pio or Pius when he joined the Capuchin order as a young man. As a child in a devout family, he had experienced visions and later carried out extreme ascetic penances, sleeping on the floor uncovered with a stone for a pillow. His health was frail and he had debilitating illnesses, including typhoid.
When he felt called to enter a religious order, he struggled to improve his educational qualifications: his father worked in the United States as a labourer to pay for Pio’s tuition.In 1903 at the age of 15, Pio entered the Capuchin novitiate.
His health did not improve and his fellow novices and later priestly confreres witnessed him levitating and conversing with saints. He joined the friary in San Giovanni Rotunda, Foggia, and would remain there until his death. After the end of World War I, Padre Pio became a spiritual director for the Capuchins. He promoted five ‘habits’ or rules for spiritual growth: weekly confession, daily Communion, spiritual reading, meditation, and the Ignatian examen of conscience.
He compared weekly confession to dusting a room weekly, and recommended meditation and the examen twice daily: once in the morning, as preparation to face the day, and once again in the evening, as retrospection. His advice on the practical application of theology he often summed up in his now famous quote, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry”. He directed Christians to recognize God in all things and to desire above all things to do the will of God.
Throughout his life, his health was bad and he suffered greatly, but kept working and maintaining his own prayer ‘discipline’. As early as 1911, he wrote to his own spiritual adviser to reveal something he had experienced for a year:
Then last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain.
These mystical wounds of the stigmata would reappear in September, 1918 and along with them, to his great humiliation, Padre Pio would experience the cruelty of the crown of thorns and scourging. His body was marked and bleeding without visible cause. His experiences of mystical suffering find a parallel in those of St John of the Cross who wrote of them this way:
The soul being inflamed with the love of God which is interiorly attacked by a Seraph, who pierces it through with a fiery dart. This leaves the soul wounded, which causes it to suffer from the overflowing of divine love.
When Padre Pio offered himself as a victim of the war ravaging Europe, Christ came to him in a vision and pierced his side. The physical wound caused him agony. And that same year, the war would end with millions dead in trenches across Europe in a world broken and shattered by global war, altered societies finally at peace. But the suffering of Padre Pio was just beginning.
As I write this, the strangeness of such experiences and the desire for suffering are hard to describe. In the vapid and narcissistic societies of the West, it is unthinkable now that to embrace Christianity might mean literal agony or a crucifying torment, or slow death to self. We have convinced ourselves that God does not ask anything so cruel or frightening of us.
This self-immolating torture would remain with Padre Pio for the rest of his life, an inner wound bound up with his love for the Crucified. For the next 50 years he would bear the five bleeding wounds of Christ, the visible stigmata.
I cannot tell you how much I suffered during this period of anguish. Even my entrails were torn and ruptured by the weapon, and nothing was spared. From that day on I have been mortally wounded. I feel in the depths of my soul a wound that is always open and which causes me continual agony.
Along with the mystic phenomena came the shrewd and unerring ability to read hearts. He was a gentle thoughtful confessor with terrifying penetration into the motives and evasions of those who came to him.
In the more scientific and sceptical climate of the 20th century, suspicions grew about Padre Pio and he was accused of being a self-mutilating hysteric who manipulated those around him. For many years the Church would not permit him to say Mass.
Over the decades his following grew as did his reputation as a humble and holy man. He was often heard to say, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” He died 50 years after receiving the stigmata, on 23 September, 1968. Immediately after his death, the wounds of the stigmata vanished without trace.
Pope John Paul II declared Padre Pio a saint on 16 June, 2002.