It was exactly ten years ago today that I visited San Giovanni Rotondo in Southern Italy, to pay homage to the simple friar responsible for my conversion of life and reversion to the Catholic faith. As I knelt beside his grave, adorned with overwhelmingly fragrant flowers, I felt as moved as if I were standing before him in person. The shrine of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina is the second-most visited Catholic shrine in the world, and it is no surprise why.
Surely this man, who bore the stigmata (all five wounds) of Christ for fifty years has something profound to share with us of the suffering and love of Christ. His gifts included reading souls before words were spoken, bilocating, regular visits by Jesus, Mary, and his guardian angel. He also suffered visible spiritual attacks, performed miraculous healing and exorcisms, and possessed the spiritual gift of prophesy among many other gifts. The beloved padre continues to have a profound effect on those seeking the face of Christ, as much in his death as in his lifetime.
My soul is no different than these many. I was touched by the mystical friar in a way that is so personal, I feel I know him.
I was given a book once that changed my life called “Padre Pio: The True Story” by C. Bernard Ruffin. I like to tell people that when I opened the box containing this well-loved book, Padre Pio reached his hands out of that box and shook me! Needless to say, I needed a good shaking at the time and anyone familiar with good Italian priests knows that shaking (or slapping for that matter) is as much a reproach as it is a symbol of affection.
As I flipped through the pages, I was astounded. I had never really learned anything about an authentic person bearing the stigmata of Christ. And yet as I became more familiar with Pio’s love of Christ, the stigmata seemed a small grace in the life of this spiritual giant. As I continued reading, there were far too many incredible accounts to take in, and at the same time a strong sense of humility poured forth from the man who knew he wanted to be a Capuchin friar from an early age.
Pride was an enemy St. Pio never seemed the need to fight, as he was given constant opportunities for mortification and humility through repeated physical and spiritual attacks, betrayal, doubt, and testing by the devil as well as the Church he so dearly loved.
One incident that has always stuck with me occurred on August 25, 1895, when Pio was just a boy. He and his father set out on a pilgrimage to the religious shrine of St. Pellegrino the Martyr. The church ceremony was interrupted by a disheveled woman who ran shrieking up to the statue of St. Pellegrino, holding her deformed and paralyzed hydrocephalic child in her arms. The woman screamed at the stone statue of the saint, demanding him to heal her child. Padre Pio’s father wanted to leave, but Pio insisted they stay and pray for this boy. The woman then shocked the crowd by hurling her child at the statue and telling St. Pellegrino to keep the child if he would not heal him. As the child hit the statue and fell to the floor, he was miraculously healed and ran to his mother crying out for her.
Why did this stick with me? Because as everyone in the church cheered for the miracle of St. Pellegrino, the small saint in their midst slipped out the door with his father, unnoticed. I do believe it was Padre Pio’s prayer that day, which found favor with God, who extended His healing hand to the poor child. This theme would reoccur many times throughout the life of the saint, slipping by unnoticed. Just as an artist’s work is not celebrated until after his death, the spiritual gifts of Padre Pio were also not largely recognized until years after his passing.
I was not yet born in 1968 when the priest known as Padre Pio died, but it still amazes me that such a saint lived so near to my lifetime. When I studied abroad in college, my one and only promise to myself was that I would visit the holy shrine of San Giovanni Rotondo. I cannot begin to tell you all the mystical experiences my three friends (one of whom is now a nun) and I encountered on that trip. Let’s just say that no one in their right mind could have come back from that trip an atheist.
For a few short years after college I taught High School religion, and my poor students had to suffer through the movie “Padre Pio Miracle Man” (in Italian) each semester. I watched that movie so many times that I actually begun learning the Italian! It seemed the best gift to share with these young and curious Christians, searching for God’s miraculous work in their own lives. Knowing that God works amazing miracles through those devoted to him, right here and now in our lifetime is “a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.”
The famous words of the holy smiling man whose finger-less gloves covered his wounds, “Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry,” catch up with me often. They slow me down and turn my eyes to the cross, exactly where Padre Pio would want my gaze.
“In all the events of life, you must recognize the Divine will. Adore and bless it, especially in the things which are the hardest for you. Imagine Jesus crucified in your arms and on your chest, and say a hundred times as you kiss His chest, “This is my hope, the living source of my happiness; this is the heart of my soul; nothing will ever separate me from His love.”