When I was a young boy discerning a priestly vocation, I belonged to a Padre Pio Prayer Group. In our meetings we would pray the Holy Rosary for the intention of Padre Pio’s beatification. I recall the excitement of making summer pilgrimages via a long bus ride from New York City to the rural Shrine in Washington, New Jersey. There I would volunteer to serve the solemn outdoor Masses and enjoyed participating in the outdoor Eucharistic processions and Stations of the Cross. Little did I know back then, in the mid-1980s, that in God’s Providence I would one day find myself living as a graduate priest in Rome on a rainy day in 1999 for Padre Pio’s beatification.
More recently, on September 23, 2016, the feast day of Padre Pio, I participated in a beautiful procession through the streets of Rome. It started at the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro (near Castel Sant’Angelo), which is where several of Padre Pio’s relics are venerated, and made its way through one of my favorite streets in Rome, the Via dei Coronari. It had rained before the start of the procession, but then the bright Roman sun warmed things as we prayed the Rosary and made our way into Piazza Navona and back to San Salvatore in Lauro by the same route. The procession culminated in a beautiful outdoor Mass attended by hundreds of the faithful and which I was privileged to concelebrate and distribute Holy Communion.
It was a wonderful devotional event in the heart of a secular city. It served as a witness to Christ and His Church in the public square. While many a tourist may have gawked at the procession out of curiosity, others prayed fervently and even joined the procession while shopkeepers and restauranteurs quietly made the sign of the cross and added their subtle voices to our litany of Paters, Aves and Gloria Patris.
It was particular moving to know that the Italian “Protezione Civile” (“Civilian Protection”) were intimately involved in the organization of the procession and that in the Piazza Navona the presiding Bishop, newly consecrated, would bless the vehicles and instruments they use to help people in times of crisis and natural disaster. Only a month earlier, in the wee hours between September 23 and September 24, Central Italy was struck by a 6.2 earthquake that leveled several towns, among which the most famous being Amatrice (hence, the famous pasta dish “Buccatini all’Amatriciana”).
In Rome, there is a wonderful restaurant in Piazza della Pigna (not far from the Pantheon), which I have frequented for years since I was a seminarian studying in the Eternal City in the early 1990s. Recently, I happened to stop by for “cena” (“dinner”) and greeted my friend, Massimo, who has helped run the restaurant for quite some time, which until recently was directly owned by his family. Massimo proceeded to tell me that his family originally came from Amatrice and that on that fateful day of the recent earthquake he lost several relatives and friends, including his brother, his brother’s wife and their young daughter. May God have mercy on their souls and grant them eternal rest in His Kingdom!
I was very touched and moved by Massimo’s account and I held back tears as the weight of his gentle words sunk in as I sat alone at my table. It wasn’t exactly the kind of news that stimulates one’s appetite. However, it was important that God led me to that restaurant that evening and that I was able to provide Massimo with some consolation, human and divine. While sitting at my table, an Italian man came over to me and asked if I could offer him some priestly advice on how to fix up his marriage of many years that was on the brink of falling apart. Once again, I realized that it was a special blessing for me to be in that particular restaurant on that particular evening. These kinds of things happen for priests very often when they respond to the Church’s desire that we always be identifiable.
Back to Padre Pio. Anyone who has ever visited Italy, especially Central and Southern Italy, knows that Padre Pio is arguably the most popular saint after the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. There is a veritable, indeed palpable fascination with St. Pio of Pietralclina, perhaps more with him than with most other saints ancient or contemporary. Like St. Philip Neri and St. John Bosco, to name but a few, Padre Pio was misunderstood and even maligned and considered suspect by authorities in the Vatican during his lifetime. Nevertheless, as the Italians say, “le vie del Signore sono infinite” (“the ways of the Lord are infinite”), and so, ultimately it was Padre Pio’s authentic sanctity and heroic virtue that prevailed over any forms of cynicism and skepticism in his regard.
Padre Pio was blessed with extraordinary sanctity, so much so that it was transparent in his pure, dark Mediterranean eyes. Not many saints can, for lack of a better term, boast (and Padre Pio never did!) of being able to read souls, telling people their sins when they tried to hide them from him in the confessional. Not many saints have borne in their bodies the visible and mysterious imprints of the sacred wounds of Christ Crucified known as the stigmata. Not many saints levitate and bi-locate (that is, appear in two places at once). Not many saints are physically thrashed around their rooms at night by demons. Not many saints have celebrated Mass with the intensity of a Padre Pio so as to be lost in contemplation of the elevated Species, the consecrated Host of the Lord’s Body and the precious chalice of His saving Blood. And, to my knowledge, Padre Pio is the only saint to have predicted the election of and assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II—reportedly telling the future Pontiff and fellow Saint this startling prophesy in a face-to-face encounter during the latter’s visit to San Giovanni Rotondo when Karol Woytyla was a young student priest.
But what above all else makes Padre Pio a fitting icon of the Holy Year of Mercy we are currently celebrating? I would say that it was his untiring devotion to the Sacrament of Penance where he (like St. John Vianney) could spend up to seventeen hours on any given day hearing confessions.
God’s mercy only makes sense if He has something to be “merciful” about. Indeed, all of us, in varying degrees, give God a reason to be merciful for we are weak, fallen sinners, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Padre Pio was a holy priest who understood in a most profound way the nature of sin and, moreover, the nature of God’s infinite grace and mercy that reconciles, heals and elevates us. Padre Pio’s mercy also extended to spiritual direction for his more serious penitents and to the corporal works of mercy manifested in his decision to found “La Casa di Sollievo,” (“House of Comfort”), which is still flourishing as one of the most effective and famous hospitals in Italy.
Along with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was canonized on September 4, Pope Francis has given us two powerful icons of mercy. It is now up to us—to our free will in cooperation with God’s sovereign grace—to put mercy into action in our daily lives. Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. Jesus, our Lord, was Divine Mercy Incarnate—Divine Mercy crucified, buried, risen from the dead and ascended into glory. It is this Incarnate and Paschal Mercy that He extends to us not merely now during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy but each and every day of our lives. We can and should have recourse to God’s mercy in private prayer, but that must find its ultimate encounter with God’s mercy in the sacraments, above all, in the Sacrament of Confession.
St. Paul tells us: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.” This Jubilee Year, our twin devotion to Mother Teresa and Padre Pio, should act as a clarion call to us and to all sinners, especially fallen away Catholics, to take refuge in the merciful hearts of Jesus and Mary. There is no time for procrastination when it comes to the life of grace. We cannot afford to hesitate, lest we become lost in our sinfulness and potentially lose out on the salvation promised us in Christ Jesus and sealed for us on the day of redemption by the Holy Spirit.
May Mother Teresa and Padre Pio intercede for us and, by following their example of mercy, may we come to know mercy both now and on the Day of Judgment—that is, at the moment of death and on the last day when Christ, the “Ruler over all” (“Pantocrator” in Greek) and yet the “Good Shepherd” (“Pastor Bonus” in Latin) will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Until that final procession occurs when our souls will appear before the awesome Judgment Seat of Christ, let us ask Mother Teresa and Padre Pio to accompany us at each and every Mass, which is the self-same sacrifice of Calvary, as we pray: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”).