Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on the September 23, 2020, the liturgical memorial of St. Pius of Pietrelcina, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Today the Church honors the memory of Francesco Forgione, born on 25 May 1887, better known as Padre Pio. He was recognized as an extraordinary confessor, reader of souls, and worker of miracles. Like many holy men and women in the history of the Church, he had a checkered relationship with ecclesiastical authorities, both within his Capuchin Order and in Rome. In the 1920s, his faculties to celebrate the sacraments publicly were revoked due to a variety of accusations made against him. The Holy See further declared that nothing divine could be found in his experiences. Only in 1933 did he see some light at the end of the tunnel as Pope Pius XI said that his actions against Pio were not because he was “badly disposed but badly informed.” Pius XII was rather favorable to him, while John XXIII was not. It was only Paul VI who dismissed all the allegations against him.
Father Karol Wojtyla visited him in 1947 and, according to one story, Padre Pio told him that he would be Pope and that he saw blood on his pontificate. That anecdote was never confirmed or denied by Pope John Paul II.
Padre Pio died on 23 September 1968. His Requiem Mass on 26 September was attended by over 100,000 people, with his burial in a crypt in the Church of Our Lady of Grace in San Giovanni Rotundo. Like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, he had often said, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” He was beatified by John Paul II in 1999 and canonized by the same Pope in 2002. Many years before either his beatification or canonization, I celebrated Holy Mass on his tomb.
Of course, Padre Pio is most famous for being a stigmatist. The accounts of those who stayed with Padre Pio until his final hours stated that the stigmata had completely disappeared without a scar. Only a red mark “as if drawn by a red pencil” remained on his side but, it too disappeared. Needless to say, many people questioned the reality of those “wounds” of his. The Italian actor, singer, and comedian Carlo Campanini told his doctor that he was going to see Padre Pio; the skeptical doctor replied that Padre Pio got the stigmata because he thought too much about the wounds of Christ. When Campanini saw Padre Pio the next day and shared his physician’s assessment, Pio told him, “When you see your doctor, tell him to think intensely about being an ox. Let’s see if he grows horns.” Good, old-fashioned Italian peasant wisdom and common sense!
Let’s reflect a bit on the phenomenon of stigmata. First, the pronunciation: Most Anglophone speakers say “stigmáta” but that is incorrect. The Latin singular is stigma (meaning, a mark or brand) and plural, stígmata. The one who bears the mark or brand is called a “stigmatist.” In Christianity, we are talking about someone who bears the wounds of Christ on one’s hands, wrists, feet, forehead or side – in other words, the marks of the Lord’s Passion. Interestingly, the vast majority of stigmatists (as much as 80%) are women.
In Galatians 6:17, St. Paul admonishes: “Henceforth let no man trouble me.” Why? “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” That has led not a few commentators to conclude that perhaps Paul is the first stigmatist in Christian history although St. Francis of Assisi is the first recorded case. He has been followed by numerous others, for instance: Rita of Cascia, Anne Catherine Emmerich, Marie of the Incarnation, Theresa Neumann, Catherine de Ricci, Catherine of Siena.
What all these stigmatists have in common is an intense devotion to the Passion of Christ, giving rise to a compassion (literally, “suffering with”) for our Suffering Lord. That spiritual or psychological compassion then manifests itself physically. Those individuals stand forth as holy witnesses to what should be the response of each of us if we are truly aware of the price of our redemption. Gazing upon the Cross of our Savior should cause us to marvel at the depths of human depravity (that should cause such suffering) and the heights of divine love (which so freely underwent such an abasement for our salvation).
Angelico Press has recently announced its intention to publish a fascinating book called The Vulnerary of Christ. Vulnus is the Latin word for “wound”; thus, this book deals with the wounds of Our Lord, originally published in French. The publisher informs us:
A book about the history of emblematic depictions of the Five Wounds that Jesus Christ suffered at the Crucifixion: their symbolism and representation in religious art, liturgical objects, heraldry, even household items. Evidence is provided of extensive devotion to the Heart of Christ centuries prior to official recognition of devotion to the Sacred Heart by the Catholic Church in 1765. Fascinating evidence also connects these themes to the legend of the Holy Grail.
We learn further:
The manuscript upon which this book is based was completed in 1946 by the French scholar Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (1871-1946) shortly before his death. After his death, the manuscript was stolen by someone claiming to be a publisher, and has never surfaced again. Some have speculated that, since certain chapters in the book deal with carefully guarded materials known only from a 15th-century manuscript associated with a mysterious Christian society called the Estoile Internelle (Inner Star), a contemporary member of this organization may have carried it off to maintain secrecy.
Fortunately, in 2016, through a remarkable series of circumstances, a French researcher in symbolism acquired the original and very extensive archives of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, and was able to reconstitute the content of the Vulnerary of Christ by reference to thousands of files, sketches, and woodcuts preserved in the archives. In 2018 the book was finally published in French (75 years after its intended publication).
Devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, however, should not be a matter of idle curiosity; it should inspire us to live like those who have been “purchased at a great price” (1 Cor 6:20). This month we have had several liturgical reminders of this fact: September 14, The Exaltation of the Holy Cross; September 15, Our Lady of Sorrows; September 17, The Stigmata of St. Francis; and today, Padre Pio. In The Agony of Jesus, our saint of the day, prays:
My Jesus, how can we obtain strength from Thee, if we see Thee so weak and crushed? Yes, I understand. Thou hast taken all our weakness upon Thyself. And to give us Thy strength, Thou hast become the scapegoat. It is to teach us that we must place our trust only in Thee in the struggles of life, even when it seems as if Heaven were closed to us.
Every Friday, in this church, we venerate the Lord’s Five Wounds with very moving prayers of heartfelt devotion:
O God, who by the Passion of Thine Only Begotten Son, and by the shedding of His Precious Blood through His Five Wounds, didst restore human nature when it was lost by sin; grant we beseech Thee, that we who venerate on earth the Wounds suffered by Him, may be found worthy to obtain in Heaven the fruits of that same Most Precious Blood.
Grant, Lord Jesus Christ, that we who devoutly worship Thy Most Precious Wounds, may keep them deeply impressed upon our hearts both in our life and in our deeds. Amen.
Last but not least, it is important to recall that each of us has been marked by the Cross. On the day of our baptism, we were claimed for Christ, precisely by being signed with His Cross. And every day since then, we begin every significant act by tracing on our bodies that saving sign. It is no exaggeration, then, to declare that we Christians are all stigmatists!
The First Epistle of St. Peter teaches us: “By his wounds you have been healed” (2:24). The witness of the stigmatists gives us palpable reminders of that fact and challenges us to live accordingly, stigmatists that we are.
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