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Thirty years after his death, the famed--and one-time controversial--Italian friar maintains a massive following
BY Martin Penner
ROME—Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar whose famed holiness and supernatural gifts still draw thousands every year to the southern Italian town where he lived, took another step towards sainthood last month, when Pope John Paul II declared him “venerable.”
With the so-called Decree of Heroic Virtues pronounced Dec. 18, the Pope attested that Padre Pio, who died almost 30 years ago, had lived an exemplary life of Christian virtue and was worthy to be venerated by Catholics. Full beatification is expected by the end of 1998.
The news drew an enthusiastic reaction at the friary of Our Lady of Grace, where Padre Pio died in 1968 after 50 years within its walls.
“Our hearts are full of joy because finally Padre Pio has the title venerable,” Father Livio Di Matteo, the friary's superior, said the day of the announcement. “We praise the Lord and hope that within a short time Padre Pio will achieve full beatification.”
For this to happen Vatican experts have to be convinced that a genuine miracle has taken place since the Capuchin's death thanks to his heavenly intercession. This is not expected to be a problem.
“Every day here at San Giovanni we receive reports of prodigious acts of grace,” said Father Gerardo Di Flumeri, vice-postulator of Padre Pio's beatification cause, in a recent interview.
A medical panel working for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is already assessing several cases of miraculous healing that took place after people prayed to the friar for divine assistance in their suffering.
Furthermore, Pope John Paul is believed to be convinced of the friar's saintliness. When Karol Wojtyla was still the bishop of Krakow, before becoming Pope, he asked Padre Pio to intercede for a friend, the Polish psychiatrist Wanda Poltawska, diagnosed with cancer of the throat. The woman was miraculously cured in 11 days. It is also said that Padre Pio foretold Karol Wojtyla's elevation to the See of St. Peter.
No precise date has been set for Padre Pio's beatification but Bishop Riccardo Ruotolo, director of the Opera di Padre Pio (the hospital and other public facilities built by the friar), says he hopes it will be in the autumn.
“What we'd like is for the beatification to fall in the month of September, when we'll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Padre Pio's death.”
Padre Pio, baptized Francesco Forgione, was born in the southern Italian town of Pietrelcina May 25, 1887. He was ordained in 1910, and when he was 31-years-old, he reportedly received the stigma-ta—marks on his hands, feet, and side similar to those suffered by the crucified Christ.
‘Padre Pio exercised all the Christian virtues to a heroic decree. This is why he should be a saint.’
According to Catholic tradition the stigmata is bestowed on especially holy people. A famous case was St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of Padre Pio's order.
Padre Pio retained the wounds for 50 years until his death Sept. 23, 1968.
According to witnesses, within a day of his death the wounds had vanished without trace. This fact, along with the accusations during his lifetime that they were self-inflicted, meant that for a long time the Vatican was skeptical about the friar's authenticity.
Despite past doubts about the stigmata, they're not the reason why Padre Pio is on course for sainthood. Says Bishop Ruotolo: “His holiness isn't in the stigmata, the visions or the miracles. Padre Pio exercised all the Christian virtues to a heroic decree. This is why he should be a saint.
“I believe Padre Pio stands out from other saints in his love for his brothers, the poor and ill, in his poverty and detachment from worldly goods, and above all in his identification with the crucified Christ. Meditating the passion of Christ, Padre Pio identified with him to an extraordinary degree. This is why the stigmata caused him to suffer so much on Fridays when his meditation of cross and Calvary was deeper than on the other days.”
Bishop Ruotolos' words about Padre Pio are hardly controversial these days. But in the 1920s they would have cast him in a dubious light. In 1923 the Sant' Uffizio (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued its first decree against Padre Pio, saying there was nothing supernatural about him and that the faithful should “act accordingly.” He was prohibited from celebrating Mass in public. Padre Pio was condemned again in 1926, and in 1931 he was even forbidden from hearing confessions. He was deprived of all the faculties of priesthood save the right to celebrate Mass alone in the private chapel of the Capuchin friary.
According to Bishop Ruotolo, the 11 years Padre Pio spent deprived of priestly powers were simply the time needed for the Holy See to decide whether he was to be trusted or not.
“Padre Pio caused a certain confusion in Sant' Uffizio because it received letters and files against him from both priests and lay people with serious—and false—accusations. And so the Congregation had to investigate to find out whether the accusations were true or false.”
It's easy to see why Vatican officials were skeptical. If the reports are to be believed, Padre Pio was making the blind see and the lame walk for 30 years before he died. And many other peculiar abilities and qualities are attributed to him as well. Quite apart from the stigmata, his body itself was a mystery. He hardly ate enough to sustain a baby, he hardly slept and he often had fevers so high (120 degrees) that nurses had to use horse thermometers to take his temperature.
Then there was the flowery fragrance that was said to emanate from his body. Some likened it to the smell of violets, others to a mix of roses and cyclamen. It was supposed to signal his presence, be it physical or spiritual, and some say they have smelt it since his death, at moments when they believe his influence was at work. He was also credited with bilocation, or the ability to be in two places at once, and being able to predict the future and read people's minds.
Some of the strangest tales about Padre Pio deal with his apparently frequent encounters with Satan himself. If you go to the friary of Santa Maria della Grazie (Our Lady of Grace), and look into his cell, you can still see the bloodstains on the cushion that was placed under his head after the devil allegedly beat him one night. The story, which was originally told by the friars themselves, has since become part of Padre Pio's legend.
Apparently, one night in July 1964, at about 10:00 p.m., the friars heard a terrible crash coming from his cell. When they opened the door they found him dumped on the floor having been apparently thrown from his bed. His forehead had been split so deeply that a doctor had to be summoned to stitch it. His eyes were blackened and his whole upper body, front and back, was covered with bruises. So badly was he beaten he couldn't say Mass for several days.
Stories such as these, together with the picturesque stigmata, have created such a myth around the figure of Padre Pio that nearly 30 years after his death his name draws more than million people to San Giovanni Rotondo every year. Inevitably a Padre Pio industry has also grown up, and on the piazza just below the friary where he lived, you can buy all manner of artifacts bearing his name and image: Padre Pio calendars, key rings, scarves, and pencil sharpeners. One leading Italian daily recently even offered people “the voice of Padre Pio,” free on cassette with every copy bought.
The Capuchin's fame is also spread by the clutch of Internet web sites devoted to him and by the 2,187 Padre Pio prayer groups that exist around the world, in places as far-flung as Hawaii, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia.
Martin Penner writes from Rome.