The past century was in many ways a turning point for the course of history. Western societies were shattered by the two world wars that engulfed them. Communist errors achieved “super power” status in the Soviet Union and were spread throughout the world. A social and moral revolution transpired and important societal institutions, such as religion, marriage, and the family, were questioned, altered, and in many instances completely rejected. In the midst of this turmoil, as the world began to grow cold toward its Crucified Savior, God renewed the visible bleeding wounds of Christ’s Passion in the hands, feet, and side of a simple priest. The priest was St. Pio of Pietrelcina, affectionately known as Padre Pio.
As this month marks both the 100th anniversary of his reception of the stigmata, on September 20 1918, and the 50th anniversary of his death, September 23, 1968, approaches, we would do well to reflect on the significance of Padre Pio for our times.
He was born Francesco Forgione in the little town of Pietrelcina, in southern Italy, on May 25, 1887. He would become renowned as the greatest mystic of our times. His special qualities began to manifest from childhood; he had both celestial visions and diabolical oppressions from the age of five. He was able to see and speak often with Jesus, Mary, and his guardian angel. Despite terribly poor health, the young Francesco was strong in spirit and offered up these sufferings to be in union with the Suffering Savior. When he came of age, he received the habit of the Capuchin Franciscans and took the name Pio, thus beginning his religious life. He would become an eminently worthy follower of St. Francis of Assisi; indeed, he would come to be called the “Second St. Francis.”
On August 10, 1910, he was ordained a priest. In 1916, he was transferred to the isolated and inaccessible friary of San Giovanni Rotondo—a town of no interest then, but a place of eager pilgrimage now. There, Padre Pio would embrace the Cross in a manner reportedly unlike any saint since Francis of Assisi, the first to receive the stigmata.
To the people of the remote village and the countless pilgrims who came to it, Padre Pio was a victim soul. His physical and spiritual endurance went beyond what could be considered natural. His devotion to prayer, fasting, and penance was superhuman. The life of the friary and the church of Our Lady of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo came to revolve entirely around Padre Pio’s ministry. In 1959, a new church was built to accommodate the large crowds who would wait through the night to attend his customary 5:00 am Mass. The little town was inundated with pilgrims from all walks of life—peasants, doctors, lawyers, and journalists—who would have to sleep outdoors in the fields and wait as long as two weeks to make their confession to the Padre. The saint would spend up to 16 hours a day hearing confessions. His miraculous capability of “reading souls,” that is, of identifying unconfessed sins of his penitents, was widely reported.
Aside from this pastoral work to the many pilgrims, he also raised funds for the building of his cherished Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (Home for Relief of the Suffering), a free hospital for the poor in San Giovanni Rotondo which opened in 1956. His evening hours were spent responding to correspondence that towards the end of his life numbered 5,000 letters a month. Angels were said to appear to translate letters he received in foreign languages. He would not retire until 1:00 am, and would only sleep for an average of two to three hours. Not only did he sleep little, but he ate little. In 1945, the amount of food and drink that Padre Pio consumed daily was measured at 3 1/2 ounces a day, which would not have sustained the life of an infant, and yet he weighed more than 170 pounds.
The Padre was renowned for his sanctity and the countless souls he converted. His fellow friars often heard the sounds of the devil’s attacks on him emanating from his cell at night and the bruises would be evident on his body in the morning. This did not keep Padre Pio from his work in saving souls; a work which mystically extended to diverse parts of the world. He became renowned for his ability to bi-locate, that is, to be in two places at one time, often visiting people across great distances in need of a priest. But the greatest glory of Padre Pio was also his greatest suffering and humiliation—the stigmata. Let us reflect on the significance of this phenomenon on its 100th anniversary.
The stigmata would confirm Padre Pio’s sanctity and his union with the Cross of Christ as a victim soul for the good of the world. The bloody and terribly painful marks of the wounds of the Lord’s Passion on his hands, feet, and side reveal an instance of the sublimest union between a man and his Savior. Like St. Francis before him, Padre Pio was favored with the stigmata because he had submerged his individual self in Christ, so as to become truly an alter Christus, that is, “another Christ.” Padre Pio bore the stigmata for 50 years, until his death on September 23, 1968. His stigmata had been widely witnessed; even one of the doctors sent to examine the Padre by the Holy See, Amico Nignami, who was an outspoken atheist, came to eventually recognize his stigmata as authentic and a gift from God.
What is particularly remarkable is how all this took place in the life of a man who lived in our modern times. As C. Bernard Ruffin notes, Padre Pio was contemporaries with the likes of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a German Lutheran theologian who sought to “demythologize” the Gospels by stripping away such uncomfortable baggage as miracles to make the essential truths of Christianity more palatable to the 20th century worldview. Bultmann writes in Kerygma and Myth: “It is impossible to use electric lights and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.” Bultmann’s historical critical approach colored much of the theological thinking of the 20th century, which is clear in the writings of such figures as Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Karl Barth (1886-1968), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). While these theologians were teaching a generation of students that the “mythological paraphernalia” of the Gospels can be ignored, Padre Pio convinced thousands of pilgrims that he could read souls, cast out demons, and bilocate. C. Bernard Ruffin writes of Padre Pio:
Here was a man living in the time of air travel and astronauts, of moving pictures and mass communication, of computers and communications satellites, who lived the life of a biblical prophet or apostle and is reputed by rational people to have worked miracles similar to those performed through Moses, Elijah, Peter, Paul and John. Here was a man in whom, if hundreds of testimonies can be believed, these words of the Lord seem to have been fulfilled: “He that believeth in me, the works that I do shall he do also” (John 14:12). Hundreds of sane, well-educated, and unbiased men and women have testified of Padre Pio, that, like Moses, “The Lord spoke unto him face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exodus 33:11). (Ruffin, Padre Pio: The True Story, 5)
In the midst of an unbelieving age, a saint, a prophet, a wonder-worker, and a “living Crucifix” was raised up by God to draw us back to the right course that leads to heaven.
He is the greatest saint of our times.