Padre Pio – A saint for our time
Padre Pio is a saint for our time. He has been recorded on tape, filmed, and photographed by many people. I’ve known and spoken to people who have met him, talked to him, and been to confession to him. I lived with a friar who, while a theology student in Rome, spent the summer months during World War II sitting beside him at table in the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo. He has enormous appeal and while he was alive, over the years, people flocked in their droves to meet him, to be blessed by him, and to listen to what he had to say.
Part of his mystique was the supernatural dimension to his everyday life and these examples are well known. Among them was his ability to be in more than one place at once, his power to read souls, his gift of healing, and of course the stigmata.
The stigmata, the visible wounds of Christ crucified on his body caused him great physical pain and more than that, great emotional pain. It meant that he was an object of curiosity, and ridicule by some. He prayed for the physical marks to leave him but for the pain to remain. Each day friars used to bind the wounds with fresh bandages and cover them with a mitten, a fingerless brown or black glove which he removed for Mass. The visible wounds appeared on his body in 1918 and for 50 years they were a daily source of pain and embarrassment for him. Medical experts were at a loss as to why the wounds continued to bleed over the years. They began to disappear in the months prior to his death in September 1968.
Today, people find great consolation in the mitten of Padre Pio. We get a lot of calls enquiring about the mitten or relics of Padre Pio and asking for them to be brought to hospitals or to those sick and in need. While the friars do their best despite their other work to help those who ask for the mitten, we need point out there are important protocols for visiting a patient in hospital. I say this from some years’ experience as a hospital chaplain.
Sometimes the only power the sick person has is the desire to be left alone. I remember a patient in hospital say to me; “Nice to see you visit me, but even nicer to see you go.” They were simply too ill for visitors. Does the patient or their next-of-kin know or have they agreed to be blessed by a relic? Is the ward manager or nurse-in-charge aware that someone from outside is calling to see the patient? Is the visit within the visiting hours of the hospital? Are there other restrictions in the hospital which should prevent visitors like MRSA or norovirus etc.? It may be that the patient is in an isolation ward or restricted for visiting.
The main pastoral outreach in hospitals today is the Chaplains. These are appointed by the diocesan bishop/ church authority to the hospital authority, are trained and police vetted, and thus lawfully provide for the spiritual and the sacramental need of the patient. Be aware that there will be further protocols in the care of sick children. It is necessary and courteous for the hospital chaplain on call, day or night, to be asked if it’s okay for an outsider to come on to administer pastoral care to a patient, especially with relics of saints.
There is no doubt that the power of prayer can add to the healing and recovery of patients at home or in hospital. Though there are many stories of help through the intercession of saints by praying with their relics, it is the Lord alone who heals. God heals the sick through the great skills of the medical doctors, surgeons, nursing, and other care staff.
When he was alive, St. Padre Pio spearheaded the building of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (Home for the Relief of Suffering) in San Giovanni Rotondo. Today, it is one of the finest hospitals in South Eastern Italy. He knew the hardships of the sick and also what their families go through. Padre Pio would say that while he will always pray for the sick, he would offer every support to the great work of those whose skills are put at the service of patients.
Padre Pio as a Capuchin Friar.
Padre Pio was asked once who are you? He replied; ‘I’m just a poor friar who prays.’ I’ve no doubt that he would prefer to be remembered for this rather than all his supernatural gifts. Many years ago, one of our Irish Capuchins who ran the Padre Pio Prayer Group in Church Street often said of Padre Pio that he will not be canonized because of the stigmata, or the bi-location, or the ability to read souls, or the supernatural gifts he had. Padre Pio will be canonized because of how he lived the Franciscan life.
We know that Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione into a farming family in 1887 in Pietrelcina in south eastern Italy. Interestingly, this man who would become a Capuchin Franciscan and eventually bear the stigmata was given the same name as the great saint of Italy, Francis of Assisi who also bore the stigmata in his time. While Francesco Forgione didn’t have great health as a boy and as a young man, he did like to play the odd game of football with his friends in the locality. Religion and the Church had a big part to play in everyone’s life then and Francesco was no exception. It was felt by many people who knew the Forgione’s that Francesco would probably end up as a priest and as a religious. He was drawn to the Capuchins because he was inspired by a talk he heard from a young Capuchin brother who was questing in the area. Capuchin Friars often travelled between friaries preaching and promoting vocations and questing – or begging for alms for the friary and the poor.
When he joined the Capuchins in his late teens in Morcone, 20 kilometres to the north of Pietrelcina at the turn of the 20th century, as a novice friar he was given the name Br. Pio. In those days the Capuchin Friars were more identified by the place they came from rather than their surname. (Padre Pio of Pietrelcina rather than Padre Pio Forgione) As a student friar in simple (or temporary) vows he was in studies for the priesthood. He was perpetually professed, and then ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Benevento on 10th August 1910 at the age of 23. Four days later he offered his first Mass. Interestingly, for six years he was permitted to remain with his family living at home as a Capuchin due to continued bad health. It was after this, on September 4th 1916, that he was sent by his superiors to be stationed in the friary of Our Lady of Graces, San Giovanni Rotondo, in the province of Foggia. Apart from a period of military service in the Medical Corps in Naples in 1915, Padre Pio was to remain in San Giovanni Rotondo until his death in 1968.
All Capuchin Franciscans take the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. We take them for a probationary period of time first. Later after discernment by the student friar, those responsible for formation, and the Holy Spirit, we take that life-long commitment. In the first chapter of the rule of St. Francis of Assisi which he wrote and which was approved by the Holy See in 1223 we read; “This is the rule and life of the Friars Minor, namely to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity. Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our lord Pope Honorius and all his successors canonically elected, and to the Roman Church. And all the friars are bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.” Here we see the beginning of the rule of life that Brother (later Fr.Pio) professed and he did so living in community with the other brothers.
Day in and day out, and sometimes rising at midnight, Padre Pio lived the rule of the friars. They had meditation in common and prayed the liturgical hours during the day. The friar’s day is interspersed with prayer, work, and meals and recreation. There are five Franciscan charisms which we try to live by; the first is Fraternity. Fraternity means we live as a family, as a brotherhood, and all the other things stem from this. The second is Prayer and Contemplation. Day and night, alone and in common we pray as brothers. The third is Poverty and Minority. We are Friars Minor, we try to seek the lowest place after the example of the ‘Poverello,’ St Francis of Assisi. Again, when Padre Pio was asked who he was he often said; “I’m just a poor friar who prays.” The fourth charism is Ministry and Apostolate; We are engaged in many different ministries at the service of the Jesus Christ and the Church and especially the poor. And the fifth charism is Justice, Peace, and Respect for the Integrity of Creation. This was something that was very dear to the heart of Francis of Assisi. To love all the environment, the plants, the animals, and humankind as being created by God.
Today the life of a Capuchin friar is not as difficult as it was a long time ago. The daily life of the friars as I pointed out was taken up with prayer, Mass, work, recreation, and meals. On Fridays to this day, the friars renew their vows together in the refectory. In the past, there were also certain penances the friars practiced in the choir and in the refectory on Fridays and days of penance. In the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio would have participated in meditation and prayer in common, and in the common penances, and in the partaking of meals in common with the other friars. He would have shared in the housework, and in the refectory and around the house when his health permitted and he would have been at the disposal of the guardian (superior) of the friary and of the Provincial Minister.
Naturally, there were times in his life when he was asked not to say Mass in public and hear confessions while these spiritual phenomena associated with him were being investigated by the Order and by Church authorities. This was very hard on him but he accepted it all as a penance and in obedience to the Order and to the Church he loved. He was seldom alone in that over the day, he was with the friars at Mass, at prayer, at meals, and at work and recreation. He had some friars who were close by to assist him and especially when his health was bad and when he suffered. All his life, he was regularly called upon to meet people for confessions and prayers.
I mentioned that the friars used to rise at midnight for the Midnight Office. Padre Pio was often awake during the early hours anticipating his early morning Mass which he offered before an increasing amount of people over the years. Eventually because of the crowds, the friars had to build a bigger church such was the size of the pilgrims coming to his Mass. He heard men’s confessions in the sacristy after his thanksgiving after Mass, and later in the morning he would hear women’s confessions in the public church. As the years went on, people had to book a ticket to go to confession to Padre Pio. Here, he would enter the realm of the supernatural as he heard each confession. His compassion for those who were suffering because of a physical or a moral problem would come through. There were also moments when someone went to confession to Padre Pio for the wrong reasons or just out of curiosity. On these occasions he would have very little patience and would have even refused absolution knowing that then was not the right time.
In the refectory, Padre Pio would join other friars for the midday meal. The dining room in the friary is set up differently in many places these days but in Padre Pio’s time the superiors would sit at the top of the refectory and the other members of the community would sit at tables on each side of the refectory in order of seniority. Padre Pio was never guardian in the friary but was sometimes elected one of the house counsellors. On days of penance meals would be taken in silence and they would often be frugal and without meat. On these days of penance, like in Lent for example, a friar would read a passage of scripture, or a chapter from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, or a part of the constitutions of the Capuchin Order. On other days and feast days, the friars would be allowed to talk and take a little wine with their meal.
One of our Irish Capuchin Friars, the late Fr. Peter Dempsey studied during the war years in Rome. While all the students were unable to travel home that time, they were sent to different friaries in Italy. Fr. Peter found himself in the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo and often sat beside Padre Pio for the main meal and he regularly spoke to Padre Pio in Italian. Fr. Peter told me that he found him very interesting to talk to and one didn’t get the impression of someone who had all these spiritual gifts from God. While he always noticed he wore the brown fingerless mittens, he came across as an ordinary friar among the community. Padre Pio told Fr. Peter he prayed very much for the church in Ireland and for the Irish Capuchin missionaries.
There’s a short movie that has surfaced in the last few years; ‘Padre Pio – Rare Footage’ and its available on YouTube. I believe it was filmed on Cine Camera in black and white and it’s from around the middle of the 1950’s. In it you can see what looks like an excellent account of a day in the life of the friars in San Giovanni Rotondo and how Padre Pio is simply a friar among them. There are also some scenes of people queueing to meet Padre Pio and also queueing to go to confession to him. There is a scene from Padre Pio saying Mass and at the altar. There are also scenes of him interacting with the other friars, even in humour and in good form as he swishes his cord as if to say with a quip ‘get that camera away from me!’ You can see himself and the friars entering the refectory for the midday meal and how they all kneel down and some kissing the floor before they take their seats. Padre Pio makes his way in and kneels too before he takes his seat as the guardian who is not in shot says the grace before meals. We then see the friars tucking in to bowls of spaghetti and the wine bottles on the table in front of them. (https://youtu.be/sQRxYCepS3Q )
Padre Pio was an ordinary friar who did extraordinary things. He seamlessly connected from our world to the next world in prayer and while he suffered greatly, he offered it all up and believed that his sufferings were not a waste of time and could perhaps do some good. He spent many years helping to build the ‘Home for the Relief of the Suffering’ the great hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo which stands today as his legacy of care for those who suffer. All in all, he continued to live his life, day and night, as a ‘poor friar who prays.’