Our so-called “progressive” 1900s may go down in history as the bloodiest of centuries. Nevertheless, this will still rank as a century of great saints.
One of those saints was declared “blessed” on May 2, 1999. He is Father Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin Franciscan friar. Most well-informed Catholics had heard of him when he was alive. Now that the full story of his life is better known, he will become even more deeply appreciated.
Pio’s proper name was Francesco Forgione. His native village, Pietrelcina, is not far from Benevento in south central Italy. His parents, Orazio and Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio Forgione, were subsistence farmers who had to struggle mightily to support their five children.
Although poor, the Forgiones were very devout. One of the daughters became a Brigittine nun. Francesco, born in 1887, was, by the age of five, a gentle, uniquely prayerful child already aspiring towards the religious life. His father positively encouraged him in the vocation. As a matter of fact, Orazio spent two periods in Jamaica, Long Island, earning enough extra money to make his son’s dream come true. As a result, the boy was able to enter the Capuchin friars in 1903, take his first vows as “Fra Pio Forgione” in 1904, and be ordained a priest in 1910.
His road to the priesthood had not been easy thus far. Constant illness had been his companion, and his soul had been a battle ground for good and bad angels. Furthermore, after ordination, he had to recuperate at home for six years before being able to take any fixed assignment. Finally, in 1916, he was sent by his superiors to the Capuchin monastery of San Rotondo, on the rocky slopes of the great Gargano Promontory that juts out into the Adriatic Sea. San Rotondo would remain his residence for life.
In 1918 two unusual events occurred that did much to shape Padre Pio’s future apostolate. On August 5, 1918, by now far advanced in contemplative prayer, Pio had the experience of being pierced by a lance as Christ had been pierced. Then on September 20, 1918, the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, while praying in the church choir, he was stunned by a great pain in his hands and feet. Coming to, he found that he now bore the wounds of Christ crucified. He was the first known priest to receive that puzzling “gift”, and it was to be his longer than any other stigmatist’s: until his death 50 years later. As time passed, he became somewhat accustomed to the stigmata, but they never ceased to bleed (although they never festered), and they were the source of persistent pain and inconvenience.
Thenceforth, Pio embarked on what was to be his characteristic apostolate. Moved by deep concern for all people in need, he aimed at serving all mankind compassionately. The afflicted of body and soul soon began to appeal for his prayers and come to him as pilgrims. His superiors had forbade him to preach or write or correspond, but visitors to San Rotondo could attend his crowded daybreak Masses and talk to him in the confessional. Padre Pio’s Masses lasted 70 minutes. So reverent were they that they were like a retreat in themselves. After Mass, he would hear confessions for 10-12 hours daily. It was estimated that he heard as many as 25,000 confessions per year. With the aid of several secretaries he was able to keep more or less personal contact with his thousands of disciples. He also had them organize into hundreds of prayer groups in their own localities.
God gave the Capuchin stigmatist many charismatic gifts to help him the better to serve his flock. He had the ability to read hearts, for example, and even to foretell specific events. He could heal bodies as well as souls; thanks to a divine privilege, he performed a variety of physical miracles in an off-handed way. One of many, by way of illustration, was his cure in 1947 of the blindness of a little Sicilian girl named Gemma Di Giorgi. Gemma was born blind: there were no pupils in her eyes. When her grandmother asked Forgione to heal her, he said that she must first go to confession and receive her first Holy Communion. Once he had attended to that, he gently rubbed her eyes. A few minutes later she was able to see. The cure remained permanent, although her eyes still had no pupils!
Equally marvelous was the Padre’s ability to bilocate – that is, to remain at Monte Rotondo and yet be elsewhere at the same time. Thanks to this supernatural faculty there were no limits on his emergency travel. One day he might go to Genoa to heal a sick woman. The next day could find him in Milwaukee for the funeral of a fellow Capuchin’s father. Once he went to Hawaii to visit a man in jail, at the urgent request of the prisoner’s wife. At least five times while he was in his monastery, he was observed in St. Peter’s, Rome, praying at the tomb of Pope Pius X. Nor was his full corporal presence necessary. He could, if need be, insert himself into people’s dreams. Likewise, his disembodied voice could give a necessary command. And quite often, he could indicate his presence by a sudden waft of fragrance, usually floral and always refreshing. (Communication by perfume must have been something like communication by radio or television, but broadcast not to ears or eyes but noses!)
Pope John Paul II has commented on the “mysterious fruitfulness” of the apostolate of Pio Forgione. He had undertaken to bear in love, it seems, not only the cross of Christ but the crosses of everybody else. It was an impossible task, of course, but God’s special assistance made it at least partly feasible.
Surely the most distressing of his personal crosses was the “calvary of persecutions” that Father Pio experienced at the hands of fellow churchmen.
It is understandable that he should have become controversial. Called by God to be a sign of contradiction and marked with what seemed to be heavenly credentials, he marched to a different drum within a religious order accustomed to its own way of life. As his undertaking became more wide-ranging, his fellow Capuchins found them more and more unsettling. Fostered by hearsay, the debate about his status spread outside the Capuchin order as well. Father Pio’s own archbishop, for instance, publicly questioned the Friar’s stigmata, (which he was entitled to do); but he also showed, as he should not have, a vicious personal hostility towards him. When the Friar began to lay plans for his splendid 1200-room hospital in the remote countryside, those who found fault with him discovered a new charge to raise: he was mismanaging funds! Eventually, his adversaries even called into question his personal morality.
At length the Vatican’s Holy Office decided that only a thorough investigation could calm a tempest that threatened the Friar’s whole apostolate. During the process, the Padre himself was suspended from his pastoral work. In the end, however, the Vatican department reached the conclusion that the charges had no firm basis. Indeed, the antagonistic archbishop was himself subjected to church discipline.
Basically, Pio Forgione was a man of utter simplicity, completely obedient to his very particular calling. His “faults” were those of his peasant background: a bit gruff at times, (but in voice, not in glance); a bit ironic; but with an enchanting smile and a saving sense of humor. Sheer humanness, in fact, was one of the most appealing traits of this profound mystic.
Father Pio, despite his perennially frail constitution, lived to be 81. When he died on September 23, 1968, there were 100,000 mourners at his funeral. His devotees have increased remarkably ever since. Six to seven millions of pilgrims come to Monte Rotondo yearly. That’s far more than to Assisi, and even more than to Lourdes. The hospital he built for the poor continues its charitable work. The prayer groups he established around the world continue to multiply.
Padre Pio was accepted as a saint even before his death. When another year had passed and no public announcement had been made of a movement for his canonization, the press began to ask if the Church had once again turned against him. This was not at all the case. Church law at that time ruled that no cause for canonization could be opened until three decades after the candidate’s death. The rule was often waived, however. It is significant that his procedure was initiated as early as 1969.
At the same time, no shortcuts were allowed in the investigation, especially because of the controversial aspects of Pio’s life. The process of beatification/canonization for a non-martyr focuses on his or her practice of the Christian virtues to a heroic degree. Such phenomena as stigmata are not entered into in depth. Super natural gifts of this sort do not sanctify the recipient but help him to sanctify others. Between 1969 and 1991 the Vatican Congregation on the Causes of Saints collected and analyzed 106 volumes of relevant documents, which presumably eliminated any lingering doubts About the Capuchin’s real holiness. The Pope proclaimed his heroic virtue by a decree of December 18, 1991, which accorded him the title “venerable”. The miracle required for beatification was accepted as verified on December 21,1998.
The Holy See knew that the beatification of Padre Pio would be a major church event, and planned accordingly. St. Peter’s Square in Rome can accommodate, at best, 200,000 congregants. Provision was therefore also made in the square before St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome’s official cathedral church across the City, for 100,000 more, and huge TV screens were set up so that they could view the whole ceremony. (After the Mass at St. Peter’s, Pope John Paul II would fly to St. John Lateran’s by helicopter and give this second audience a special blessing!) It is likely that attendance that day set an all-time Roman record. While Italians doubtless predominated among the participants, the Padre Pio prayer groups were represented by many delegations from as far away as Japan, Korea and Indonesia.
In his homily, the Pope, a personal friend of the new Beatus, did not hesitate to mention the long-term harassment he had suffered. The important thing, said the Holy Father, was that he had accepted that trial constructively in the spirit of obedience. What the episode demonstrated, said the Pope, was that saints can be “misunderstood” even by their own superiors. The impact of BI. Pio of Pietrelcina, he was sure, would be great: “By his life wholly given to prayer and to listening to his brothers and sisters, this humble Capuchin friar astonished the world.”
Padre Pio was canonized on June 16, 2002. His name was solemnly added to the litany of those holy persons whose many virtues mirror the perfections of the Holy Trinity itself.
-Father Robert F. McNamara