by Jim Dunning
(This article was originally published in "Irelands Own" magazine. The webmaster would like to gratefully thank the author, Mr. Jim Dunning, for his kind permission in reprinting it here.)
There is a little church in the centre of Menaggio, on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, which contains an unusual statue. Near the entrance, behind illuminated rows of electric candles, stands the plaster figure of a monk. He is wearing mittens. The statue is a lifelike image of Padre Pio.
Francesco Forgione, better known to the world as Padre Pio, was born on the 25th May, 1887, at the small village of Pietrelcina, near Benevento in Italy. The family was poor, but his father, seeing how quiet and religious his son was, determined that he would not end up labouring in the fields and travelled to New York to earn sufficient money to send Francesco to a seminary. As a result, Francesco entered the Capuchin Monastery at Morcone in 1902 to begin his year of novitiate. He was fifteen years of age.
Francesco was ordained to the priesthood in August, 1910, but bouts of ill health resulted in his frequently having to go home to rest. While there, apart from a brief spell in the army which concluded with his discharge on the grounds of a tubercular condition, he spent most of his time helping the parish priest and living an ascetic and prayerful life. When his health improved he moved to an isolated monastery known as San Giovanni Rotondo, where he was to spend the rest of his life.
On the 20th September, 1918, Padre Pio collapsed in the chapel and was found to be bleeding profusely from five deep wounds in his hands, feet and side. When he regained consciousness he begged his fellow monks to keep the event secret, but word soon spread and people flocked to the monastery from all over the country to see the stigmata for themselves, and to confess their sins to this ‘living saint’. During the next few years Padre Pio was forced to endure a series of medical investigations and attempted cures, none of which changed the character of the wounds. He never talked about himself or complained, but when someone foolishly asked him if his wounds hurt, he replied: ‘Do you think that the Lord gave them to me for a decoration?’
Remarkably, the wounds of the stigmata lasted for the remainder of Padre Pio’s life, that is to say, for fifty years. They caused him considerable pain, so much so that he was unable to close his hands into a fist, and when descending from the altar to distribute Holy Communion, he was obliged to walk backwards to relieve the pressure on his feet.
In spite of such afflictions this humble monk lived an extremely busy life. Rising at 3.30 every morning, he said Mass at 5 a.m., had no more than a glass of water for breakfast, and spent long hours hearing confessions. At noon he took the only meal of the day. Although he never left the monastery in a physical sense, he was observed at different places many miles away on numerous occasions. Thus he possessed a gift shared by very few saints, that of bilocation. Sometimes he appeared beside someone he wished to help; at other times he made his presence felt by the perception of a singular fragrance. This was noticed by everyone in the vicinity at the time.
An unusual aspect of this latter gift is that Padre Pio held it while still alive.
Saint Teresa of Avila was reported to have emitted heavenly scents immediately after her death. A similar account was given of Saint Therese of Lisieux (the Little Flower), whose body at death was said to have produced a strong scent of roses. There are numerous accounts of saints’ bodies possessing a distinctive fragrance years after their burial, but few in modern times were so honoured during their lifetime.
Padre Pio possessed another gift, that of reading minds. When hearing confessions he was quite liable to remind those before him of sins they had forgotten or neglected to disclose. The insincere, who came to him merely out of curiosity, or with the wrong motives, were dismissed without absolution. He was also able to prophesy the outcome of medical conditions, particularly when those concerned had been recommended to his care and protection.
In his comprehensive volume entitled: “Padre Pio – The Stigmatist”, Fr. Charles Mortimer Carty devotes a long chapter to the numerous cures effected through the saint’s intercession during his lifetime. Whereas at Lourdes all cures are scrutinised by a Medical Commission, none of the cures attributed to the intervention of Padre Pio benefited from such formal recognition, but time and again the medical authorities involved confessed to being unable to explain the cures of patients they fully expected to die. There was no rivalry between the two disciplines, the good Padre always advising people to consult their doctors before seeking his help. An exception to this was when a young married woman admitted that following her doctor’s advice would leave her sterile. Putting her trust in God instead, as instructed by Padre Pio, she later gave birth to a perfectly healthy child.
Some of the cures obtained through Padre Pio were completely inexplicable from a medical point of view. Photographs exist of a young labourer whose right eye was completely blown out by an explosion. Feeling that he had been visited by Padre Pio in hospital during the night several weeks later, he recalled receiving a light tap on his right cheek. A few days afterwards, when the bandages were removed, it was found that he had a new eye in what had been an empty socket.
Significantly, when the relatives and friends of those who obtained cures sought to thank him, he declined to accept any personal credit, insisting that he was only an intermediary and that it was God they should be thanking. Many sceptics visited the monastery with a view to challenging or debunking the monk, only to be completely disarmed, or even converted, after witnessing him saying Mass, or hearing confessions for long hours, and by speaking directly to him. He was extremely tolerant of such individuals and even enjoyed teasing them, particularly if they were Masons. Many conversions resulted among the most unlikely people.
In case it should be thought that Padre Pio’s concerns were mainly spiritual, one has only to look at Casa Sollievo, the magnificent six-storey hospital he had built near the monastery. As a man of suffering himself, he felt tremendous sympathy for those in poor health. But he was not living in the clouds. He did something about it, and from within the confines of the monastery he kept a close eye on the building work. As with so many others, the engineer and contractor was a former hater of priests before becoming a favourite spiritual son.
If in view of his many achievements this Italian friar appears as something of a formidable character, it should be mentioned that he had a vigorous sense of humour and was most popular with his religious colleagues and friends. He did not consider himself superior to anyone else, and indeed showed considerable humility. When people sought to thank him for some special favour, he humbly asked them to pray for him.
Padre Pio died on the 23rd September, 1968. His funeral, held three days later, was attended by more than 100,000 people. Pope John Paul II took particular interest in his cause and he was beatified on the 2nd May, 1999. Three years later, on the 16th June, 2002, Padre Pio was canonized. He became - officially - a saint.
Mr. Jim Dunning currently lives in the United Kingdom. His hobbies include watching rugby and writing short stories and religious articles.
St. Padre Pio quotes:
"In my greatest sufferings, it seems to me that I no longer have a mother on this earth, but a very compassionate one in Heaven."
"Prayer is the best weapon we possess. It is the key that opens the heart of God."
"Hold on tightly to the Rosary. Be very grateful to the Madonna because it was She who gave us Jesus."
"Pray, hope, and don't worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer."
"Always keep close to God. In Him I am with you more than you can know."
"If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice, we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass."
"Place your heart gently in Our Lord's wounds. Have great confidence in His mercy for He will never abandon you."
-Words of St Padre Pio (1887-1968)
For those interested, I am offering a beautiful St Padre Pio relic locket rosary in the Gift Store here.