During World War II, many Allied pilots failed to complete their missions over the Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo. It seemed a Franciscan friar flying through the sky was staying their hands, preventing them from dropping their bombs. One aviator after the other testified to this otherworldly phenomenon, corroborating one another’s incredible tale of supernatural intervention in the midst of battle.
The friar, of course, was Padre Pio of Pietrelcina — now St. Pio, whose feast the Church celebrates on Sept. 23. And the story, of course, is private revelation; Catholics are free to believe or disbelieve its veracity according to their own prudential judgment.
Either way, its widespread acceptance throughout the Church is itself testimony to the great love and respect many have for St. Pio.
Along with bilocation (being able to be in two places at once, including the sky), the humble friar’s extraordinary spiritual gifts, it is said, included the ability to read souls. In the confessional, where he often spent upwards of 15 hours a day, he often told people their sins — accurately — before they had a chance to tell them for themselves.
And, most famously of all, for 50 years he bore the stigmata — the nail wounds of Christ — on his hands.
Although he spent nearly his entire 60 years of religious life at San Giovanni Rotondo, he became a household name around the world during his own lifetime. Before he died in 1968, and before John Paul II canonized him St. Pio of Pietrelcina in 2002, pilgrims came in droves to San Giovanni Rotondo.
“People felt they could really experience Christ through him,” says Frank Rega, author of Padre Pio and America (Tan, 2009).
St. Pio’s example and spiritual guidance are beams of light for individuals and families striving to live out the Catholic faith in a sin-darkened world. Of the Mass, he said: “It is easier for the earth to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!” To many who came to him with every manner of trouble, he said simply: “Pray, hope and don’t worry.”
“Look at all the people from all over the world he gathered around him! Why?” said Pope Paul VI in 1971. “Because he said Mass humbly, heard confessions from dawn to dusk and was — it is not easy to say it — one who bore the wounds of Our Lord. He was a man of prayer and suffering.”
Despite his suffering, he was unfailingly compassionate and jovial. Rega (who is online at San PadrePio.com) points out that Padre Pio was kind and loving toward children and always gave them special blessings. “Many couples not able to have children asked for his prayers,” he adds. “He would tell them, ‘You will have a son in a year’ or ‘May you have eight children.’ He believed in large families.”
Eternal Word Television Network host and author Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal identifies one reason Padre Pio is a great saint and so important for families today: because his life reflects the character-forming influence of his own close-knit family.
“We can see in his life how the nurturing of faith plus the human qualities, the love and concern for one another, became very evident,” says Father Apostoli. For instance, his mother taught each of her children to have a special devotion to their baptismal patron saint. Pio’s was St. Francis.
Father Apostoli also finds in Padre Pio “a certain charm” to which many can be drawn, from grandparents to young children. The saint gave and continues to give spiritual and even physical assistance to families, including many healings, he adds.
“He had that concern, knowing the family is ‘the first school and the first church,’” says Father Apostoli, “because that’s where the children learn to pray, learn about God, and learn the things they need for the rest of their life, by words and example.”
The saint’s intercession and help can come at any time. Sometimes it comes at unlikely times and in unforeseeable ways.
“Padre Pio is the reason we are in the Catholic Church,” says Californian Diane Allen. She converted to the Catholic faith in 1995; her husband, Ron, followed two years later. Raised as Protestants, then members of what she calls a “self-realization fellowship,” Diane had heard a brief mention of Padre Pio. Until then, she’d had no contact with Catholics, but she couldn’t get that story out of her mind. “I thought about it hundreds and hundreds of times over the next 20 years,” she says.
Upon waking one morning, she decided to find out who Padre Pio was. Once she read his biography, she quit her fellowship and began walking the road to becoming a Catholic. First, though, she spent two years studying about the Church, listening to tapes 40 hours per week. Discouraged by a significant roadblock hindering her progress, she found none other than Padre Pio dispelling her doubts and leading her on into Holy Mother Church.
Today, along with Ron — a deacon who heads the religious-education program at their parish, Our Lady of Grace in El Cajon, Calif. — she leads the booming Padre Pio Prayer Group at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in San Diego.
“Padre Pio gave five steps for spiritual growth,” Diane says. “One is daily Communion; another is daily Rosary.” She and Ron are faithful to these, joining others for daily Mass followed by the Rosary.
“This is what makes us tick,” she says. “We’re a Padre Pio family.” Indeed, her daughter converted to the Catholic faith after college. So did her son-in-law — and her mother, at age 84.
Today, Diane writes extensively on Padre Pio and edits the monthly online newsletter Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry (online at SaintPio.org), which has received well over one million hits.
Let God Be God
In everything, St. Pio constantly counseled people, by word and example, to “pray, hope and don’t worry.” Could there be a more fitting message for our time of stress and uncertainty — or a more effective means to spiritual growth? Father Apostoli thinks not.
“Once you make known your needs, fears, hopes, concerns, doubts and struggles to God in prayer, and have asked for his help,” explains the Franciscan priest, “you have to now trust the Lord to listen because of his great compassion.”
Padre Pio asked his spiritual charges to show the sincerity of their trust by working hard at not worrying. As Father Apostoli explains, “It’s a big order. We tend to push the panic button, to look at the things that can go wrong. We worry like mad.”
And worry may signal that we’re trying to take control of matters that belong to God. “If I really believe God does love me and will truly take care of me, I should not worry,” concludes Father Apostoli.
As St. Pio himself put it: “The Lord is a father, the most tender and best of fathers. He cannot fail to be moved when his children appeal to him.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.