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A secretary of Padre Pio remembers the indefatigable Saint

“The greatness of Padre Pio” says Fr. John Aurilia, O.F.M. Cap., “lies in his fidelity to the simple desire of being ‘a poor friar who prays.’”

Fr. John Aurilia, O.F.M. Cap., who once served as the personal secretary to St. Padre Pio. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Most of us know the saints through written accounts of their lives. Many of the saints became saints themselves by reading the lives of saints. In a letter to her aunt, Saint Thérèse wrote: “I love to read the lives of the saints very much. The account of their heroic deeds inflames my courage and spurs me on to imitate them.”

Knowing a saint personally is quite another thing. We have all likely encountered “everyday saints” who, though hidden from the world, nevertheless reach great heights of virtue by faithfully fulfilling the ordinary duties of their state in life. Though their deeds are not famous, they are the Beatitudes come alive which bring us inspiration. Few, however, have the opportunity to personally know those saints who have reached the height of heroic virtue recognized by the Church through canonization.

Padre Pio, who died 53 years ago, is one of the greatest saints of our times. In the midst of our secular-modern age, God raised up this prophet, wonder-worker, and “living Crucifix” through the stigmata to remind us of the supernatural and to show us the way back to Him. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer left who knew Padre Pio personally; there are certainly even fewer who knew him as well as John Aurilia, O.F.M. Cap., who once served as his personal secretary.

I was able to recently spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon with Fr. Aurilia in the rectory of his parish where he happily answered my many questions, stating at the beginning of our conversation, “It is an honor for me to serve as an ambassador of Padre Pio!”

Fr. Aurilia is now 80 years old and has been a priest for 55 years; he is pastor of the Parish of Immaculate Conception in the Bronx, New York. He was born in Montemarano, in the province of Avellino, Italy. When he was 14 years old he entered a newly established minor seminary of the Capuchin Franciscans located in Padre Pio’s hometown of Pietrelcina.

There was a well known story in his time there about how the seminary came to be built. When Padre Pio was a young priest, he spent a lot of time in his hometown recovering from bouts of bad health. During one of these stays he was enjoying a walk with the local pastor, Don Alfredo. When they came to an open field Padre Pio remarked how he noticed a strong smell of incense and that God must have designs for this place. A few years later, a wealthy and generous American convert named Mary Pyle purchased the same field and built a new seminary there for the Capuchins.

The seminarians would make annual trips to San Giovanni Rotondo, which by the 1950s had become a place of pilgrimage. Thousands and thousands would come annually to see the famous stigmatist who resided in its friary. The little town was inundated with pilgrims from all walks of life—peasants, doctors, lawyers, and journalists—who were willing to sleep outdoors in the fields and wait as long as two weeks to make their confession to the Padre. Fr. Aurilia was only 15 years old when he, as a novice, he first met Padre Pio. He gave in to his youthful exuberance when he shook Padre Pio’s hand, holding it firmly and pulling it closer to him so he could see the wound of the stigmata with his own eyes. The Padre was quick to pull his hand away saying, “It hurts! Do you mind?”

Their subsequent meetings would go much better. After his ordination, Fr. Aurilia was assigned as professor of the Capuchin seminary in Vico Del Gargano. During the summer vacation of 1967, he was asked to cover for one of Padre Pio’s secretaries, joining a team of friars who would translate and reply to the hundreds of letters sent to the mystic from each day from all over the world.

Fr. Aurilia spent the summer in close proximity to Padre Pio answering letters on his behalf. There are well known reports that angels would appear to translate letters Padre Pio received in foreign languages that he wished to respond to personally. The saint would also spend up to 16 hours a day hearing confessions and is widely reported to have had the miraculous capability of “reading souls”—that is, of identifying unconfessed sins of his penitents.

Fr. Aurilia witnessed something connected with these two phenomena in his work for Padre Pio. He came to him one day with a letter written by a mother from Milan wondering whether her son would be a doctor or a priest. As Fr. Aurilia approached Padre Pio with the letter in hand he was abruptly met with the words “Tell her the son will be a good doctor.” Fr. Aurilia was in shock. Padre Pio’s answer came before Fr. Aurilia was even able to say a word in posing the concerned mother’s question.

On display in Padre Pio’s friary today is a sample of the countless correspondence that Fr. John Aurelia assisted him with. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Fr. Aurilia had the privilege of praying the Divine Office in choir beside Padre Pio three times a day that summer, and though the Padre kept to a strict schedule, he would always immediately accede to any friar’s request for confession. Fr. Aurilia made use of this a number of times, and told me how Padre Pio’s counsel in the confessional always brought “clarity and peace”.

What impressed Fr. Aurilia the most about Padre Pio was his remarkable stamina, which had no natural explanation. The Padre was an old man in poor health when Fr. Aurilia worked with him. He had borne the wounds of the stigmata for 50 years. Fr. Aurilia personally witnessed how his bandages would have to be changed as many as three times a day on account of the flowing blood. Despite this, he was active from 3:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night. He prayed constantly. Fr. Aurilia would always see him with the Rosary in hand and once asked asked how many he recited each day to which Padre Pio replied, “I can’t keep count.”

Fr. Aurilia is concerned, however, that Padre Pio can become for many a saint only to be admired for the supernatural gifts he received from God, rather than a saint who can also be imitated. “The greatness Padre Pio” says Fr. Aurilia, “lies in his fidelity to the simple desire of being ‘a poor friar who prays.’” He was not famous for his natural abilities. Fr Aurilia doesn’t remember him being a particularly good preacher and though he desired to sing every Mass, he didn’t have a beautiful voice.

What made him a saint according to Fr. Aurilia, was his prayerful fidelity to the three loves of his life: Jesus Crucified, the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Eucharist.

Assisting at Padre Pio’s Masses is a cherished memory for Fr. Aurilia where these three loves of the Padre were most palpable. The pain from the wounds of the stigmata would always increase during the Mass showing Padre Pio’s union with his Crucified Lord. His focused prayer showed his union with Mary as Mother of Sorrows who stood faithfully at the Foot of the Cross. At two specific times during the Mass he would become lost in ecstasy, needing a nudge of a reminder to continue on with the ritual: at the Consecration and at Holy Communion. Fr. Aurilia says that Padre Pio was childlike in his faith, “never losing the joy of the First Holy Communion he made as a little boy.”

Padre Pio died on September 23, 1968. Fr. Aurilia made the trip from the seminary where he was teaching to attend the saint’s requiem Mass with countless others. In 1973, he was called to serve the Italian immigrant population of America and has been stateside ever since. He has served as pastor of Capuchin parishes in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, and currently in the Bronx. Through all these years, the memory of his time with Padre Pio has never left him and serves as a continual source of inspiration.

Fr. Aurilia closed our time together by praying with me the novena prayer Padre Pio would recite everyday for all those who asked his prayers:

I. O my Jesus, You have said, ‘Truly I say to you, ask and it will
be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be
opened to you.’ Behold, I knock, I seek and ask for the grace of…
Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory be to the Father…
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.

II. O my Jesus, You have said, ‘Truly I say to you, if you ask
anything of the Father in my name, He will give it to you.’
Behold, in Your name, I ask the Father for the grace of…
Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory be to the Father…
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.

III. O my Jesus, You have said, ‘Truly I say to you, heaven and
earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.’
Encouraged by Your infallible words, I now ask for the grace of…
Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory be to the Father…
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.
O Sacred Heart of Jesus, for whom it is impossible not to have
compassion on the afflicted, have pity on us poor sinners
and grant us the grace which we ask of You, through the Sorrowful and Immaculate heart of Mary, Your tender mother and ours.

Hail, Holy Queen… St. Joseph, foster father of Jesus, pray for us.


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About Father Seán Connolly 55 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.

4 Comments

  1. WOW..!!! I was only a few hundred miles away from St. Pio when he died ………. long story. Anyway, I plan on making good use of the prayers cited to better understand the state of my soul. Great Article..!!! Thank You.

  2. I just love the story. What a privilege to be so close to Padre Pio. Thank you for the inspiration you have given us. I love that Novena prayer and say it every day. I will make sure I will not forget now. God bless,

  3. Imagine, the Personal Secretary to such a great Saint, is here in the Bronx, one half mile from my house.
    Father Connolly’s interview with Father Aurelia was extremely interesting and extraordinary complete.
    I enjoy reading all his articles and always take away a nugget for future use.
    Your servant in Christ our King

  4. An interesting story, at one time two sisters from Croatia with knowledge of the Italian language came to confession with Padre Pio, and were surprised when he told them, what are you looking for there, return to Croatia to Zagreb and look for the confessor Fr. Ante Antić, and they were delighted with the new confessor.

    Ante Antić, Croatian Catholic priest, Franciscan, confessor, spiritual leader, servant of God, candidate for saint. He was born in Šepurine on the island of Prvić in 1893 in a poor family with nine children. During her pregnancy, his mother was in danger in a stormy sea, praying for the protection of St. Antu. Wikipedia

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