Padre Pio, the stigmatic Capuchin priest, was the first priest ever to bear the visible wounds of Christ in his body. This and other powerful charismatic gifts drew thousands of people each day to Padre Pio’s monastery in the village of San Giovanni Rotondo, near Foggia on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
A very great source of this saintly man’s exceptional spiritual power was his devotion to the mother of Jesus. It was second only to his devotion to the Eucharist which was manifested in a dramatic way through his ecstatic celebration of the Mass. Padre Pio’s Mass deeply moved all who were privileged to witness it.
HIS PARENTS WERE OUTSTANDING CHRISTIANS
The mind and heart of those destined by God for important missions are shaped by His grace as it works through human agencies, among which parents usually figure very prominently. So it was with Francesco Forgione, born in Pietrelcina near Benevento, Italy, on May 25, 1887, and later known by the name of Pio which he adopted when he entered the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan Order. His father Orazio and his mother Maria Guiseppa were outstanding Christians, poor in the things that the world esteems but rich in those that count with God.
Orazio and Maria Guiseppa recognized the hand of God on their son and, when he gave himself to the Lord and to St. Francis at the tender age of 11, Orazio told his son: “ I shall go and work in America. You will have books. I will be able to pay for your studies.”
Orazio went first to Buenos Aires from 1898 to 1905 to earn the necessary money. In 1910 he sailed again and until 1917 worked in New York and the Bay of Jamaica to defray the medical expenses that resulted from illness of the then Brother Pio. These were powerful lessons of self-sacrifice that would not be lost on the young man whom God had called to a special life of suffering.
From Maria Guiseppa, his mother, Francesco acquired those great twin loves of his life: the Eucharist and the mother of Jesus. The good Maria abstained from meat three times a week in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and she attended Mass on weekdays as frequently as she could.
So, we see again an example of the profound influence of parents on their children, a fact so often verified in the lives of the saints and which Our Lord reminded us of when He told us that good fruit comes from good trees (Matt: 7:16-20). Considering the example of his parents, we are not too surprised when we learn that young Francesco used to stop at the village church of Our Lady of the Angels to visit the Blessed Sacrament and to pray to Our Lady of Liberty, the special patroness of the area, or that he also prayed before images of Mary, St. Michael, and St. Anthony of Padua at a simple outdoor shrine near his humble home. Love of Mary and of the Eucharist would grow daily and at a parallel pace all during his life.
AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE; FREQUENT VISIONS
Padre Pio’s life was so filled with the unusual and extraordinary that the modern critical mind has trouble with it. One could almost say that Padre Pio breathed the extraordinary, so habitual were these things in his life. And yet these facts that defy the imagination are well established and duly authenticated. They come to us from well-informed and reliable witnesses.
Special gifts of God manifested themselves very early in his youth and continued throughout his life. Before he was nine years old, he was enjoying frequent visions of Our Lady and the visible presence of his Guardian Angel. Diabolical manifestations also began to occur during his early youth and took on many forms over the years.
In 1911, when Padre Pio was 24 years old, he spent about 40 days, from October to December, in the Capuchin monastery in Venafro, a small provincial town of Isernia. He had been ordained on August 10 of the previous year and went to Venafro to study sacred eloquence under the guidance of Father Agostino of San Marco in Lamis.
Father Agostino had previously taught theology to the young Capuchin and had been his spiritual director and confessor for several years prior to his coming to Venafro. He would remain his spiritual director and confessor until he died in 1963, five years before the death of Padre Pio. THE DIARY OF FATHER AGOSTINO OF SAN MARCO IN LAMIS is one of our most authentic sources of information on the famed Capuchin stigmatist.
Padre Pio’s 40 days at Venafro were like a blueprint or capsule preview of much of his life. All kinds of unusual happenings and special spiritual gifts filled this short period. Father Agostino was an eyewitness to these events, including the diabolical attacks, and he describes them in his DIARY.
Among these extraordinary happenings was a mysterious, on-and-off illness that defied doctors. This complicated malady included very high temperatures, pulmonary infections, coughing, agonizing chest pains, upset stomach, very painful headaches, crises of acute and paralyzing rheumatism, and on one occasion his sight was so menaced it was thought that he might go blind.
At Venafro, as well as during much of Padre Pio’s life, there were manifestations of the devil, including severe physical beatings. But these appearances and molestations by the devil were richly compensated for by very frequent heavenly visions and ecstasies.
Padre Pio was able to live on the Eucharist alone without any other nourishment. At Venafro he stayed at least 20 days in this way. There, too, as later, he was given to know the hidden secrets of men, what they were thinking and the temptations they were enduring.
Father Agostino affirms that Padre Pio’s apparitions and ecstasies began in his early youth and were continual. Because they started so early in his life and were so frequent, Padre Pio took them completely for granted. When he was asked why he had kept them hidden for so long, he gave the surprising and candid answer that he thought they were quite ordinary things that happened to everybody.
Father Agostino adds that one day Padre Pio asked him very naively if he had visions of the Madonna. When he replied that he did not, the Capuchin stigmatist replied: “ You don’t want to admit it because of humility.”
According to Father Agostino, Padre Pio’s ecstasies took place two or three times each day and lasted from one to two-and-a-half hours. They generally occurred after the diabolical manifestations and consisted of visions of Jesus and Mary, of his Guardian Angel (who was rarely missing during any apparition) and of the Saints, among whom St. Francis occasionally figured. The visions that followed the attacks of the devil were to comfort, console, and one time even physically restore him.
During one of these ecstasies at Venafro, Father Agostino checked Padre Pio’s heartbeat and pulse. The heartbeat was exceptionally strong and rapid, as though the heart were about to burst. During the ecstasy, Padre Pio could be heard repeating: “ Lord, what’s the matter with my heart? Does it want to leave me? Take it, it’s Yours! I love You, I love You.”
Father Agostino’s observations were verified later by Doctor DeVincenzi, a physician from Pozzilli, during the final ecstasy at Venafro, December 31, 1911. The doctor was amazed to discover that Padre Pio’s heartbeat was not synchronized with his pulse. He was also enraptured by the beauty and vivacity of the monk’s countenance during the ecstasy.
Two other gifts, bilocation and prophecy, were first manifested on January 18, 1905, when Padre Pio was only 17 and still a seminarian at the Capuchin monastery of St. Elia a Pianisi. He described this manifestation in writing in February of that same year.
It happened at about 11 o’clock in the evening as he was praying in the choir of the chapel. He states that suddenly he found himself “at the same time in the palace of an extremely wealthy family” in the city of Udine. The owner of the palace was at the point of death, while his wife was about to give birth to a daughter. Our Lady appeared to Brother Pio at the palace and told him that she was entrusting the unborn child (actually born that very night) to his care and protection. He would be her spiritual director and it would be his mission to “shape and polish her” and make her into a “brilliant jewel.” When the humble brother asked how this could be possible since he was only a seminarian and not yet a priest, and in any event would be living far from the palace, Our Lady predicted that his spiritual daughter would come to him, but that at first he would meet her in the basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The young capuchin then states: “After that, I found myself back in the choir.”
What Our Lady foretold came about as she had announced, and this woman’s extraordinary case is presently being used in the cause of beatification and canonization of Padre Pio, the preliminary phase of which was initiated on November 23, 1969, just 14 months after his death (September 23, 1968). This particular incident of bilocation and prophecy also highlights still another of Padre Pio’s gifts, one very special to him, that of his spiritual paternity. He had many thousands of “spiritual sons and daughters” throughout the world. These were people who had asked him directly for this relationship, or who automatically attained it by becoming a member of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima. Padre Pio prayed regularly for all his spiritual children. He told them to lead good lives and to pray the rosary, and he said for all of them, “I will see you in heaven.”
The exceptional gifts of Padre Pio mentioned above, and still others that manifested themselves later, were for the most part ministry gifts, bestowed on Padre Pio for the welfare of others. Thus, the visible stigmata and the fragrance that came from these wounds, the visiting of people in bilocation, the ecstatic celebration of the Eucharist, the reading of men’s minds and consciences, were all gifts for the welfare of the people who saw or heard these things or were otherwise involved in them.
In his DIARY, Father Agostino says that one day he questioned Padre Pio about his gift of discernment. His answer is very enlightening: “In the souls of others, I see clearly through the grace of God, but in my own I see only darkness.” Padre Pio had a spiritual director for his personal guidance all during his religious life. He leaned very heavily on him at first; later, as his soul was purified and enlightened and he gained experience, he was much less dependent upon him.
Some of the special gifts that Padre Pio received were specifically sanctifying gifts, such as the gift of prayer and contemplation. Also many of the apparitions of Our Lord, of Our Lady and of the Guardian Angel, though not directly sanctifying in themselves, were indirectly powerful aids to drawing Padre Pio closer to God. He was consoled and encouraged by them. He saw in them proofs of God’s love for him, and this nurtured the powerful sanctifying virtues of faith, hope and love.
For example, Our Lady appeared frequently to Padre Pio. She spoke with him and comforted him. He developed a tender love for her and invoked her with the words, “Mamma mia.” In a letter to Father Agostino, Padre Pio wrote that on that very morning his heavenly mother had lovingly accompanied him to the alter and that his heart had been filled with holy affection. “Poor little Mother, how much she loves he, “ he wrote.
HE PRAYED CONTINUALLY: THE CROSS AND THE ROSARY
The great gifts by which Padre Pio is so well known were not substitutes for the normal working of God’s saving grace. Like all of us, he needed the regular channels of grace- the Sacraments, scripture, the Mass and private prayer. In fact, his need for prayer was very great, in direct proportion to the greatness of his mission and of the gifts received for the fulfillment of that mission. Prayer was for Padre Pio, as for us, the means of obtaining God’s help for avoiding sin and practicing the Christian virtues.
Padre Pio was chosen by God to teach and to remind the world of the redemptive value of Christian suffering. That is the divine purpose behind his mysterious, life-long illness, the long years of molestation by the devil, the tedious hours in the confessional and the 50 years of atrocious pain in his hands and feet, his side, shoulders, and head. God chose him to remind a world which had come to shudder at the very thought of pain and suffering that man is expected to share in the sufferings of Christ, after the manner of St. Paul: “ In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col. 1:24. See also II Cor. 4:10-11).
Continual prayer was vital to Padre Pio because of the continual crosses that he was called to carry. This began in his very early youth. When he was only six years old, he would leave home early in the morning to go to the mountain to pasture two sheep owned by the family. He went with another child of his age. Rather than play, as his friend wanted to do, he made little crosses with twigs of wood and planted them in the ground. The remainder of the time he spent reciting the rosary. The cross-in many forms- and the rosary. These would be the two most representative things of Padre Pio’s life.
The rosary was part and parcel of Padre Pio’s love for the mother of Jesus. He used this prayer to maintain and nourish his love of Mary. But he also used it as a most powerful intercessory aid for obtaining from God the help that he needed for himself and that he sought for others.
The saintly Capuchin’s love of Mary and constant recourse to her through the rosary was based on the teaching and recommendations of the Church, for which he always had the greatest respect, also on his sense of faith, which was a gift of the Holy Spirit. His love for his heavenly mother and his confidence in the power of her intercession grew daily through what one priest has called, “the reality test”- the proof of experience.
As one would expect from someone so filled with the love of Mary and so convinced of the power of the rosary, Padre Pio recommended both to all who approached him and particularly to his “spiritual children” who sought his very special protection and help. He sent them all to the mother of Jesus and told them to say the rosary every day.
Padre Pio’s example confirmed his words. He gave the example of private, personal use of the rosary, as well as public recitation of that prayer. Those who saw Padre Pio in what he called his free moments, as he walked from one place to another, will remember him holding the rosary to his breast and praying it as he walked. Father Eusebio of Castelpetroso, a Capuchin who was Padre Pio’s constant companion for five years, once decoyed him into revealing that on a particular day he had said 60 rosaries of 15 decades. It must be remembered that Padre Pio slept at the most two or three hours a night, never continuously, and often he never slept at all. The precise number of rosaries he said each day, of course, is not the point. The point is that he prayed the rosary continually in his free moments.
It was one of Padre Pio’s joys to officiate at the recitation of the rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the church. During the last years of his life when he could no longer officiate, he continued to attend faithfully, helped to the church by two brother Capuchins who supported him under each arm.
JESUS AND MARY
Padre Pio is a man of our day. He died but a few years ago. Father Pellegrino, who spent the last two-and-a-half hours of Padre Pio’s life in his room with him, says that the prayer “Jesus, Mary” was constantly on the lips of the dying stigmatist. These two words summarize his life.
As we study Padre Pio it becomes evident that the distinctive feature of his life was to recall to our modern world the redemptive value of suffering freely accepted and joined to that of Christ. A corollary lesson taught for our age by Padre Pio’s life is in the Father’s redemptive plan. The significance of this lesson is underscored by the fact that the American bishops, in November of 1973, and the pope, in February of 1974, have seen the need to issue major documents on Mary.
The vital link between Mary and Jesus can only be seen with the eyes of faith. Only the poor in spirit and the humble of heart like Padre Pio see it with any real clarity an act upon it with any consistency.
There was deep humility behind Padre Pio’s constant praying of the rosary. He knew that the great gifts that men admired so much in him were entirely from God and did not make him any better than his fellow men. He was very conscious of the fact that as a man he was a sinner like everyone and needed help at every step of the way. “The anointing that comes from the Holy One” (1 John 2:20. See also 27), the deep teaching that the Holy Spirit alone can give, enlightened him, as it has all the saints, concerning the great power of intercession which God has freely decreed to confer on the mother of Jesus.
God teaches all of us through the lives of His faithful servants. These lives are beacons set on a mountain for all to see, that all may be guided by them. Many know Mary only with their minds. Padre Pio knew her with his heart. There is no doubt either that he gained this knowledge of the heart through the constant praying of the rosary. There is no doubt either that if he could speak to us at this very moment he would invite us to seek this same knowledge of the heart through the same simple means so dear to him, the rosary.