Saint Padre Pio
Saint Padre Pio was a luminous and captivating Italian priest who generated immense interest and even controversy during his life, but at the core of his mission, served the Lord faithfully through his piety and charity.
Born in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25, 1887, Francesco Forgione was focused on the Lord starting in his earliest days. Baptized the day after he was born, he decided at just the age of five to consecrate himself to Jesus. He enjoyed singing hymns, reading and praying, and even “playing church” where he acted out serving as presider of a Mass. His parents were peasant framers who were very religious and supported his Catholic development, attending daily Mass and praying the Rosary nightly along with his older brother and three younger sisters.
It is written that even as a young boy, he possessed the ability to see and communicate with his guardian angel, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. He didn’t think much of it though at the time, as he assumed other people could see them too.
To help support his relatively poor family, Francesco tended to a small flock of sheep for many years. While this helped his relatively poor family get by, it also delayed his education to the point that later when the first desires to become a priest began stirring in his heart, only having three years of public schooling quickly became an issue.
Francesco was also very sickly as a child. He suffered from gastroenteritis at the age of six and survived a bout of typhoid fever when he was ten. His health would continue to ail him for most of his life, but he never let it get in the way of his pursuit of holiness.
In 1897, a young Capuchin friar traveling across the countryside inspired Francesco to pursue religious life. “I want to be a friar… with a beard” he reportedly told his parents, who traveled with the future saint to Morcone, Italy, home to an order of Capuchin Franciscan Friars. While they were interested in admitting him, they told his family that more education would be needed before he could join.
In order to pay for the private tutoring needed for his son, Francesco’s father Grazio traveled to the United States to search for work. Thanks to his father’s dedication and hard work, enough money was sent home to tutor Francesco sufficiently so that he passed the necessary academic requirements to join the Friars. On January 6, 1903, he entered the novitiate in Morcone, and on January 22, donned the Franciscan habit for the first time. At the age of 15, he was now known as Fra Pio, in honor of Pope Pius I, whose relic he saw regularly at a chapel in his hometown.
Pio’s seven-year study for the priesthood would begin with further health issues, when at the age of 17, he fell severely ill with loss of appetite, insomnia, exhaustion, and migraines. He could only stomach milk and cheese and experienced fainting spells regularly. During this time though, inexplicable phenomena began to occur with Pio, with fellow monks reportedly seeing him levitate during prayer. Pio’s health continued to decline at the friary though, and his superiors decided to send him to a mountain convent, in hopes that the change of air would improve his health. This too proved to be little help, and eventually his doctors advised him to return home, all the while he continued his studies for the priesthood.
On January 27, 1907, he made his solemn profession, and on August 10, 1910, the twenty-three-year-old Fra Pio was ordained a priest by Archbishop Paolo Schinosi at the Cathedral of Benevoto. Four days later, he celebrated his very first Mass at the church of Our Lady of the Angels.
From the very beginnings of his priesthood, Padre Pio became well-known for his immense piety. He would include long pauses of contemplative silence during various parts of the Mass, which could sometimes make the service last several hours. The parish priest in Pietrelcina called Pio “an incomprehensible mystery” and when asked to shorten his Mass, Pio responded, “God knows that I want to say Mass just like any other priest, but I cannot do it.”
Many people began traveling to meet him, confess to him, or simply try to hear some of his wisdom. He compared weekly confession to the act of “dusting a room” and encouraged Christians to recognize God in all things, and to continually strive to do the will of God.
His life took a sudden turn in 1914 with the beginning of World War I. A number of Capuchin Friars became drafted in the Italian Army, and Pio himself was drafted on November 15, 1915. He was assigned to the 10th Medical Corps in Naples, but due to his poor health, he was continually discharged from active service until finally a bout of tuberculosis led to him being declared unfit for military service on March 16, 1918. He returned to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
It was in the period of many people rebuilding their lives after the war that Padre Pio really began to emerge as a symbol of hope among the faithful. He became a spiritual director and began to experience extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit that captivated those who heard of the friar.
On September 20, 1918, Padre Pio had an intense vision of Jesus after serving at Mass earlier that day. When the vision ended, he felt a sharp pain and noticed the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, appearing on his hands, feet and side. They would soon become permanent and remain on his body for the next 50 years. Countless experts and doctors looked at the wounds, with numerous attempts to explain the miraculous nature of their appearance. Some questioned the authenticity of the wounds, which were perfectly round and said to smell of roses.
Pio felt a sense of humiliation from the wounds and the controversy that they created. It didn’t help that many were also attesting to his ability to bilocate, levitate, heal wounds, prophecy, and abstain from sleep and nourishment for extraordinary amounts of time.
“Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs?” Pio wrote. “I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away, not the wound or the pain, which is impossible since I wish to be inebriated with pain, but these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation.”
Life became complicated for Padre Pio, as his popularity soared and became a source of concern for the Church and the Vatican. The authenticity of the stigmata was called into question in 1924 and again in 1931, and the Vatican restricted Pio’s ability to celebrate Mass publicly or to hear confessions. He did not complain or argue against these decisions, and they were reversed soon after. A church investigation into his stigmata concluded that his condition was not faked.
By 1934, he was back to performing his full public duties as a priest. He focused a large portion of his ministry as a “martyr of the confessional”, hearing hours upon hours of confessions from those flocking to his convent to attain absolution. His superiors at the convent were forced to develop an organizational system for making reservations to keep the large crowds under control.
Around 1940, Pio was inspired to erect a hospital for the sick and suffering. In 1946, ground was broken on a plot of land near Mount Gargano that would eventually become a 350-bed hospital known as the “House for the Alleviation of the Suffering.”
In 1947, a young Fr. Karol Wojtyla was studying in Rome, when he made the pilgrimage to meet Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, and have his confession heard by him. Decades later, when Fr. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II (another saint whose relic will be alongside Padre Pio’s in the Our Lady of the Angels reliquary at St. Anthony of Padua), many speculated whether Pio had divulged any prophecy to the future Pope about what was to come. Pope John Paul II later clarified that while he did not tell him that he would one day be Pope, he did reveal that Pio had admitted a rare, significant detail about his stigmata – when asked by Wojtyla which one of his wounds caused him the most suffering, Pio replied “It is my shoulder wound, which no one knows about and has never been cured or treated.”
With many historians providing a diligent analysis of Padre Pio’s life, it is revealed that Saint Pope John Paul II was the only person Padre Pio ever told about his most painful wound. While it is remarkable that Pio refrained from telling the young Polish priest about his future papacy, it is perhaps even more remarkable that he would choose John Paul II, and not any of the future Popes he would meet in his life, about this wound.
Padre Pio continued to carry out his ministries dutifully, garnering large crowds seeking to witness his piety, charity, and quality of his preaching. On June 5th, 1954, Pio was forced to celebrate Mass outside on the plaza in front of the church, because the size of the crowd was too large to accommodate all of the worshippers.
His health declined rapidly in his later years, battling everything from cancer to arthritis. He offered all of his bodily sufferings up to God as a sacrifice and for the conversion of souls, saying “I am fully convinced that my illness is due to a special permission of God.”
On August 10, 1960, Padre Pio celebrated 50 years of priesthood. By 1965, he gained permission from the Holy See to continue to celebrate Masses but remain seated due to this health. He collapsed after celebrating Mass on September 22, 1968, but still went to the confessional in an attempt to administer the sacrament of reconciliation. He was unable to hear confessions due to his condition, but still managed to bless a large group of people who had crowded in front of his church, as well as bless a group of parishioners who had assembled in the church to pray later that evening.
Padre Pio died on September 23, 1968 after receiving the sacrament of confession, renewing his priestly vows, receiving the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and holding a rosary. His last words were “Gesú, Maria” (“Jesus, Mary”) repeated over and over until he breathed his last. He was 81.
His funeral on September 26 was attended by more than 100,00 people, and he was buried later that day.
On March 20, 1983, the diocesan procedure was initiated for the canonization of Padre Pio. He was beatified on May 2, 1999 and canonized on June 16, 2002, both by his close friend, Pope John Paul II. His canonization Mass was one of the largest liturgies in the history of the Vatican. Recalling his encounters with Padre Pio, Pope John Paul II said, “Prayer and charity–this is the most concrete synthesis of Padre Pio’s teaching.”
The San Giovanni Rotondo is second only to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico in its number of annual visitors – nearly eight million pilgrims visit the site of Saint Padre Pio’s incorrupt body annually. He is the patron saint of civil defense volunteers, adolescents, and the village of Pietrelcina.
Saint Padre Pio lived out the words of St. Paul to the Colossians in chapter 1, verse 24: “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.” He embraced his sufferings, his abilities and his love for Jesus Christ in order to captivate the world; not necessarily through spectacular feats and miracles, but instead at the foundation of the wonder, was an awe for his inspiring piety, prayer and charity.