Rome's largest crowd in memory — several hundred thousand pilgrims — jammed into St. Peter's Square on May 2 for the beatification of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, while another 200,000 or so followed the proceedings from the piazza in front of St. John Lateran.
It was altogether fitting, for the Capuchin friar drew millions of pilgrims during his life, including the current Holy Father, who went to confess to him as a young priest. Today his tomb at his friary in San Giovanni Rotondo attracts more pilgrims that any other shrine in the world, save for Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
In this series, we have looked these last few weeks at eruptions of the supernatural in this secularized century as evidence that God still works. The story of Fatima and the life of Brother André show that miracles might be more plentiful in our time than in the early Church.
Padre Pio demonstrates the more exotic supernatural gifts are not the product of imaginative medieval hagiographers, but evidence that God still chooses to work in extraordinary ways.
Like his spiritual father St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, Padre Pio had the stigmata, bearing the wounds of Christ in his own body. Like St. Philip Neri in the 16th century, he had the gift of bilocation; and like St. John Vianney in the 19th century, he could read souls in the confessional.
“Those open, bleeding wounds speak to us of the love of God for all, especially for those who are sick in body and spirit,” said Pope John Paul II the day after the beatification. “His testimony is a powerful call to the supernatural dimension, which must not be confused with the appetite for miracles, which is a deviation he always shunned.”
The Church is always reluctant to encourage the ‘seeking after miracles’, and so Padre Pio suffered during his life, even from his own superiors, who questioned the authenticity of his stigmata and other gifts. But the people believed, and came by the thousands, lining up for days at a time, to attend his Mass, to go to his confessional, to besiege him for counsel wherever they could find him.
The Peasant Priest
Padre Pio could always be found at his friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, which he entered in 1916 and which he never left thereafter. He was born Francis Forgione on May 25, 1887, was ordained in 1910, and spent the first six years of his priesthood with his peasant family due to ill health. His had grown used to suffering from an early age. In 1918, after celebrating Mass, he received the stigmata that afflicted him until shortly before his death in 1968. his passion lasted 50 years.
“I was sitting in the choir stall, giving thanks for the Holy Mass when a mysterious celestial figure appeared before me,” wrote Padre Pio to his confessor. “When the mysterious figure left, I realized that my hands, feet and side had been pierced and were flowing with blood. You can imagine the torment I felt and continue to feel every day. The wound in my side pumps out blood constantly, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. I fear that I am going to die from loss of blood.”
‘I Belong to Everyone’
Padre Pio never tried to call attention to his extraordinary gifts, but poured himself out in the administration of the sacraments, even as the sacramental life of the Church flows from the pierced side of the crucified Christ. He celebrated the Mass with the greatest possible devotion and spent day after day in his confessional. His only external work was the hospital he directed to be built with the support of the pilgrims who sought him out, the House for the Relief of Suffering, opened in 1956. This hospital is renowned today for its high level of care, both medical and spiritual, and lives on as a particular expression of Padre Pio's care for the weak and suffering.
“I belong to everyone,” said Padre Pio. “Everyone can say, ‘Padre Pio is mine.’ I love my spiritual children as much as I love my own life. I have regenerated them in Jesus in sorrow and in love. I do not cease to implore for them God's blessings, praying for them to be internally transformed in Him.
My beloved ones, how beautiful is His face, and how sweet His eyes, and how good it is to be close to Him on the mountain of glory.” Padre Pio knew that Calvary is the mountain of glory.
The Victim Priest
It is noteworthy that Padre Pio is the first priest to be a recognized stigmatist — St. Francis was a deacon, and there have been women religious stigmatists.
Why no priest would be given this gift until the 20th century bears consideration.
Perhaps in a time of great confusion over the identity of the priest, Padre Pio bore in his body the most vivid reminder that the priest is called to be another Christ, and to act in the person of Christ.
And he did nothing other than what a priest is called to do: to celebrate Mass, to hear confessions, to counsel souls, to pray constantly, to offer his mortifications, to care for the sick and the poor.
He preached Christ crucified in his body in an extraordinary way, and also in the ordinary duties of a priest, to which he gave himself with heroic sacrifice for nearly sixty years.
When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself — John 12:32. The cross of the Christ, imprinted in the flesh, the soul and the priesthood of Padre Pio, continues to draw men from all nations. Among other places, they were at St. Peter's last May. By the hundreds of thousands.