There is no saint that has had a greater influence on belief in the twentieth century than St Padre Pio. The amazing gifts that he was given by the Holy Spirit make him so unique among all the saints of that century. From humble peasant beginnings on a farm in rural Italy to the famous stigmata priest who could read souls, bi-locate and had so many other wonderful gifts.
Often referred to as the second St Francis, Padre Pio was known well for his simplicity of life and his remarkable holiness. The story of St Padre Pio like all saints does not begin with the miracles and the public holiness but rather in the small things and in humble beginnings.
Francesco Forgione named after St Francis of Assisi was born in Pietrelcina on the 25th of May, 1887. Young Francesco’s parents were very devout and visited the parish church every day to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
The village was well known for its religious fervour and great devotion to Mary and the Saints. This no doubt had a major influence on the young Francesco who was known for his personal holiness and early on had a desire to serve the Lord as a friar. At age 12 he received the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion.
His faith continued to grow and in 1903 at the age of 16 he entered the Capuchin Friars receiving the holy habit of St Francis and the name of Bro Pio. On the 27th of January 1907 Bro Pio made his perpetual vows as a member of the Capuchin Friars. He had chosen to spend the rest of his life following the Rule of St Francis. On the 10th of August 1910 Bro Pio was ordained to the Holy Priesthood.
Padre Pio as he was now known had suffered with health ailments and learnt early on in his life what it meant to suffer. During his studies he fell very ill and was diagnosed as having tuberculosis of the lungs. This meant that the young friar would have to return home and could not live with the other friars. However it was discovered that the diagnosis was incorrect and he simply had chronic bronchitis.
Pio continued his studies although they were often interrupted by his poor health and he was sent home to recover. Physicians believed that the ascetic life of the friars was what was making Pio sick. Pio soon learnt to offer up his own suffering for the good of souls and to unite his sufferings with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Thus began what would be a lifetime love affair with Our Lord and the Cross of love that bought our salvation. After ordination due to health reasons Padre Pio was allowed to stay in his home village until September 1916 when he was sent to the small friary of San Giovanni Rotondo. Padre Pio was to spend the rest of his life in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Throughout his whole life, like many of the great mystics and saints, Pio was attacked and persecuted by the devil. Before even being ordained his superiors believed that the devil was trying to harm the young friar. Fr Benedetto who was the Capuchin provincial especially believed that Pio was being attacked by the devil due to his personal holiness, “the closer God draws to a soul, the more the enemy troubles him."1
Pio continued to struggle wit hattacks from the devil for the rest of his life.There were several occasions were Pio believedthat he was under demonic attack and that thedevil was trying to break him.
On September 20th 1918 while kneeling in a chapel praying Padre Pio received the visible wounds of Jesus Christ. He thus became the first stigmata priest in the entire history of the Catholic Church and further united himself with St Francis the founder of his order and the saint that his parents named Pio after. The wounds of Padre Pio were found to have no natural cause by the doctor who examined them when they first appeared. Pio predicted that the wounds would disappear upon his death, and that was the case.
For fifty years Padre Pio was united in a unique and special way to the sufferings of Christ which he bore with minimal complaint although the pain would have been excruciating and he lost much blood each day. The wounds even had an odour that is described as an odour of sanctity. It was similar in smell to perfume or rather fragrant flowers, a rather pleasant smell many said.
From then on Padre Pio’s life was one of prayer and suffering. His sufferings included numerous inquiries from the Church, having faculties to hear confessions and celebrate mass publicly removed, and also being shut away from the people of God. Despite all of this Padre Pio continued to pray for the conversion of sinners and to labour in the vineyard of the Lord with such great love and joy. In the face of all persecution and suffering Pio would always unite his suffering and persecutions with those of our Lord.
One of the biggest critics of Padre Pio was Archbishop Pasquale Gagliardi who was the Archbishop of Manfredonia at the time. This archbishop was very influential and powerful and decided that the wounds that Pio bore were self inflicted and that Pio was a fake.
The archbishop believed that Pio was possessed by demonic forces and required exorcism. There were also others denouncing Pio by claiming his wounds were self inflicted, or even worse that he was somehow in collaboration with the devil and that the wounds were evil. Even after his death some still discredited Padre Pio and made all sorts of accusations not only about the wounds but also about Pio himself.
Although having the wounds of Christ was amazing and a true gift from God, Padre Pio also possessed many other great gifts that few others have had. He was known to be able to read souls, bi-locate, and to be of extremely wise counsel.
There are numerous accounts of people who went to see Padre Pio for confession with the intention of hiding a particular sin that they did not want to confess or they had simply forgotten. Padre Pio would reveal what or they had held back or forgotten to confess. He could also tell them the details of the sin that they had committed and the state of their souls.
He could also read souls outside the Sacrament of Penance. Pio was known to have met people who were in danger of losing their souls and he would call them to conversion and to go to the Sacrament of Penance.
Pio loved the Sacrament of Penance in a particular way that few priests do. He would hear confessions for up to sixteen hours on a normal day and would hear more than 5000 confessions a month. He even heard the confession of a young Fr Karol Wojtyla in 1947 and it was to be this same man later as Pope John Paul II who would canonize Padre Pio.
Fr Joseph Martin an American Capuchin who lived at San Giovanni Rotondo during the last years of Padre Pio’s life had the job of assisting to care for Padre Pio. He had this to say of one occasion when he had to take Padre Pio to the chapel to celebrate mass.
For somebody my size, carrying such a frail man wasn’t difficult. But it made an impression on me because I really felt no weight at all. That’s when I looked at the floor. Padre Pio’s feet were six inches off ground. He was just gliding to the altar. He was levitating on his way to say Mass. 2
But it was not simply the miracles that Padre Pio performed which converted people, but also the way the celebrated mass. Pio was known to celebrate mass in such a way that people were truly drawn into the mysteries of the altar. His preaching touched the souls of all those who were lucky enough to attend a mass celebrated by Pio.
It is clear to see that in all that has been reported about St Padre Pio he was a man of great personal holiness as well as a man specially marked out by God. He was chosen to be a unique witness to the suffering of Christ and our redemption that has been won by Jesus Christ.
In death as in life, St Padre Pio is a man who God chose as his own and set aside as a real Christian witness in this troubled world.
1 Bernard Ruffin, Padre Pio: the true story. (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division: Huntington,1991) 73.
2 Kathleen Stauffer, Padre Pio: An intimate portrait of a saintthrough the eyes of his friends. (Twenty-third Publications: New London, 2007) 5.
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