Padre Pio: a closer look

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.

Padre Pio young

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