Physician of Body and Soul
It is always difficult, even when talking with good friends, to describe to others the most significant experiences of our lives. That is the case with regard to my long and intense friendship with Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Now that Padre Pio is about to be beatified, however, I wish to recall and recount my spiritual devotion to him, as well as my involvement with the institution he founded, the House for the Relief of Suffering.
A description of the beginnings of Padre Pio's large and modern hospital, with its International Center for Research and Study in the field of bio-medicine, can serve as an example and inspiration, particularly for doctors, nurses, and anyone who assists the ill.
It may seem incomprehensible that a simple and uneducated friar, who had spent his entire life isolated in the monastery of a backward mountain village, could sense the need for such an enterprise. Nevertheless, Padre Pio launched his project without a moment's hesitation.
In fact, the miracle took place in only a few years, a fruit of prayer and of the generosity of Padre Pio's devotees throughout the world. Everything came about just as Padre Pio had "read" in his dialogue with the Lord. For this was a plan conceived for the good of all humanity: the transformation of the pain, anxiety and solitude of illness into not only wellness, but a path of solidarity, hope in God and one's fellow man, and perhaps even joy in life.
Unfortunately, such a project is apt to be misunderstood in our times. Modern hospitals, although equipped with the most advanced facilities, often lack human warmth and personal understanding for the sick and suffering patients. Padre Pio himself often recounted his own depressing experience with a cold and alarmist doctor.
It is natural that the ill should hope for the most advanced scientific response to their situation, a medical cure. Padre Pio understood that, as human beings, they also long for comprehension of their fears and doubts. That was the raison d'etre for his founding of the House for the Relief of Suffering in San Giovanni Rotondo. Today the hospital, now managed directly by the Holy See, still attempts to follow the inspiration of its founder.
My First Meeting
I often try to recall the most important dates and events in my friendship with Padre Pio, and the effect this had on my profession as a doctor in the service of the often terminally ill.
My very first meeting with Padre Pio was in the sacristy of the old "chiesetta" (little church) of San Giovanni Rotondo. That was also the first time I participated in one of his Masses. I had arrived from Bari (where from 1948 to 1962 I served as a university professor) attracted by the reputation of the saintly Capuchin priest.
As soon as we were introduced, Padre Pio fixed me with his intense glance and repeated to me — twice — the New Testament parable of the talents. I acknowledged the message, and since that time I have constantly and anxiously asked myself which talents I have received as gifts from the Lord, whether these have born fruit, and to what end.
That was the first in a long series of meetings. These were always characterized by great intensity and signs of paternal tenderness, followed by a deepening of my faith, and an increase in my medical capacities.
Here is perhaps the place to mention the two-fold path our spiritual father always indicated: prayer, usually in specially organized groups (I founded one such prayer group for doctors in Bari, with Msgr. Lanave, who later became Bishop of Andria, as our beloved spiritual director); and the relief of human suffering, both physical and moral, even when a definitive solution appeared to be hopeless.
Padre Pio's "philosophy" was born of his spirituality, of his opening to all beings pained by the existential certainties of suffering and death. He offered redemption in Christ, who was both physician and patient, as a victory of hope over anxiety.
The House for the Relief of Suffering
As my meetings with Padre Pio became more frequent, I began to comprehend why he wished to call his projected hospital a "house," and why this house should not only offer medical cures, but also practical and spiritual assistance for the suffering "guests."
I also understood certain structural choices Padre Pio made for the hospital buildings. Recalling his own negative hospital experiences, he wished to avoid the cold impersonalism of hospital corridors, the lack of individual hygienic services, and the barracks-like rooms of 20 or more beds.
In Padre Pio's "House," the patients' rooms, each decorated in a different style, were to have 4-6 beds and adequate personal sanitary services. Padre Pio hoped his "guests" would thus feel less longing for their own homes.
The House for the Relief of Suffering was inaugurated on May 5, 1956, along with the opening of an international cardiological conference at San Giovanni Rotondo. This conference was attended by the world's greatest experts in the field, including believers and non-believers. The participants had a private audience with Pope Pius XII. I remember the words spoken at this audience by a certain Dr. White (Christian but not Catholic), General Dwight Eisenhower's personal physician, to the Pope: "Your Holiness, if only every nation could have a Padre Pio!"
A rarely-mentioned aspect of our work was the Santa Maria delle Grazie Institute, founded by Padre Pio as a Third Order of Franciscans, and enjoying the direct support of Pope Pius XII himself. This institute, composed of 50 members from different professions (including the present writer), chosen by Padre Pio from among his closest friends, served as a bridge between the House for the Relief of Suffering in its earliest phase and its transformation into the sophisticated enterprise now supervised directly by the Holy See.
Although I cannot include here all my fond memories of Padre Pio, I must mention one particular episode. At a time when I was fervently hoping to professionally involve myself with the House for the Relief of Suffering, but hindered by certain unavoidable conditions, Padre Pio said to me: "You will indeed serve — at the proper time and place."
That encouragement has resounded in my heart throughout all the years of my academic career, my work as a surgeon in the Spallanzani Hospital in Rome, and other collateral activities. I use that same phrase to inspire others in choosing medical and nursing careers. I urge them to go beyond technique and skill, to the point of recognizing the "human mystery" in each patient.
Mother Teresa and Padre Pio: Refuge of the "Hopeless"
In my life I have had another great grace: the opportunity, to work with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. From 1981 until the year of Mother Teresa's death, my wife and I assisted in many of her different projects, both in Rome and in several advanced and underdeveloped countries. Mother Teresa was also a devoted admirer of Padre Pio.
For all who encountered them, Mother Teresa and Padre Pio represented not only spiritual beacons, but also an evangelical type of medicine. From their unconventional "pulpits" these two saints brought forth hope and love, as witnesses of the God of Love who pardons all, who awaits us all, and who comforts all in peace.
Any comparison of Padre Pio and Mother Teresa (who prayed at his tomb) reveals the similarity of their spiritual choices and their methods of work. These were both true ambassadors of the consecrated life, models of unconditional solidarity with the "poorest of the poor" and of comfort for those upon whom life had ceased to smile, or had perhaps never smiled upon at all.
From the altar and the confessional, Padre Pio treated both moral and physical illness: while Mother Teresa, assisted by her Sisters of Charity, operated her "street clinics." These saints have been called "contemplatives in action" rather than social workers, for they found Christ in the most hopeless and abject of human beings.
Mother Teresa often inspired us, her "medical volunteers," by saying: "Blessed are you who touch the body of Christ 24 hours a day!" In other words, she made a mystical connection between our work and the Eucharistic celebration.
Both of these extraordinary examples of modern Christianity, familiar to millions of TV spectators throughout the world, inspire us to follow in their footsteps. When the Church raises Padre Pio and Mother Teresa to the altars of the blesseds and saints, we will be inspired to a constant and continuing conversion: that of working not only for our own salvation, but for the salvation of all our suffering brothers in Christ, and not only those who are dearest to our hearts.
My remembrances must now come to an end. Now, 30 years after Padre Pio's death, I plead for greater discretion in the mass media in treating this saintly figure and his work. He should not be regarded as a star, the guarantee for selling a great number of gadgets and consumer products. Nothing could be further from the humble character and love of solitude of the Capuchin friar who desired only to live and work as a priest and servant of men in Christ. • © Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.
© Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.
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