A Troublesome Saint
by Andrea Monda
A new saint has been born in the Church: Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the humble Capuchin friar who worked miracles, bore the stigmata, and aroused opposition at the highest levels of the Vatican. On the eve of the new millennium, Pope John Paul II — who knew Padre Pio personally and was devoted to him — has decided to set him before the world as a model of courageous holiness. On May 2, 1999, John Paul will beatify Padre Pio in St. Peter's Square in a ceremony as many as I million are expected to attend.
How did this charismatic friar, so loved and yet so controversial, come to the attention of millions of faithful in every corner of the world? Did he travel widely? No — in fact, between his reception of the five wounds of Christ in 1918 and his death in 1968 (a full 50 years), Padre Pio never left the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo on the east coast of Italy. Did Church authorities, then, spread his fame? No — in fact, for many years he was vilified and ordered to live his religious life in silence. Then how, if he did not travel and was not publicized, did he grow so famous?
Obviously, in some way the person and work — in a word, the sanctity — of this Capuchin friar answered the hopes and needs of multitudes, both believers and non-believers, in this tormented century. It has been a paradoxical century, marked at once by a flight from and a yearning for sanctity. The Existentialist philosopher Camus seems to have sensed this paradox, if only partially, when he wrote: "The problem of the 20th century is how to live without grace... Is it possible to be a saint without God? That is the only real problem I recognize today." Camus was speaking in the context of the "war on sanctity" which, beginning with 18th century rationalism (the "Enlightenment") and continuing with the 19th century's positivism, set God and his action in the world ("grace") aside. The result? A thorough-going hedonistic relativism which gives fragile support indeed for acts of moral courage and brotherly love. In a world without God and grace, can there be saints? Or will sin triumph? That, Camus is saying, is the great question facing modernity. And the answer — God seems to be replying in and through Padre Pio — is no, there cannot be saints without God, for God is the source and inspiration of all holiness. Padre Pio's life is, as it were, a "sign of the times," a sign that there is another way, that the problem is not how to live well without God, but how to draw near to Him once again and remain faithful to Him.
Suffering for Others
Throughout the world people thirsting for spiritual answers have responded to the life and suffering of the "unlettered man," Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Of himself Padre Pio said: "I am devoured by the love of God and by the love of my neighbor." Men and women perceived in Padre Pio the true heart and soul of the Gospels expressed in a simple and uncomplicated manner.
Even Padre Pio's infancy was infused with the transcendent. According to his spiritual director. Father Anthony of San Giovanni Rotondo: "Francesco Forgione experienced visions and ecstasies from his 5th year, and even at that early age decided to devote himself to the Lord." The child Francesco found nothing out of the ordinary in this and thought all other children experienced what he did.
Francesco's mother said he was a "calm and serene" boy. His tendencies towards prayer and penitence increased with each passing year. His mother often discovered Francesco's bed undisturbed in the morning — he preferred to sleep on the floor with a stone for a pillow. He sometimes scourged himself with a chain, as Christ was scourged.
Francesco's ever-deeper desire for mortification grew from his love of prayer and solitude. This was a preparation for his later life of "co-redemption," of suffering for his fellow man. That was Padre Pio's vocation, as it had been St. Francis's — to associate himself with the Savior for the redemption of mankind. The stigmata were the outward sign of his sharing in Christ's Passion.
A Fervent Priesthood
Padre Pio was, first and foremost, a Catholic priest. Commenting on the immense post mortem popularity of the Capuchin friar, Pope Paul VI said: "What renown he has! What an international following! And why? Because he was a philosopher? A scholar? A person of means? No, because he said Mass in a humble manner, heard confessions from morning to night. And because he was Our Lord's representative, certified with the stigmata."
"Because he said Mass in a humble manner." Padre Pio celebrated every Mass as if it were his very first, with joy and energy and a burning sense of privilege to share the sacrifice of the Lord.
Padre Pio experienced both Paradise — and Hell. Even in childhood, Francesco suffered diabolical torments, sometimes day and night. The Devil apparently wanted to conquer him at all costs. When Francesco felt himself at the end of his strength, he turned to the Virgin Mary, and hardly knew how to thank her for her numerous graces.
Francesco's struggles with the devil were not the only supernatural signs in his life; he also had the gifts of communion with the spirit worlds, prophecy, the miracle of being in two places at once, the giving off of perfumed odors, and even other capacities. Believers were certainly fascinated by these signs. However, they were only "providential means for showing his ministry of reconciliation with God" — in other words, frills, not substance. Padre Pio's worldwide following, described by Pope Paul VI, was due to the spiritual strength he was able to convey. He communicated this strength through the spiritual direction of his followers, the sacrament of Confession and the celebration of Mass.
The huge bulk of his correspondence is the best proof that Padre Pio took the spiritual guidance of the faithful much to heart. From his many letters we can appreciate Padre Pio's genius for the personalized approach: he had a special type of counsel for different ages, cultures, social conditions, and professions. One of his followers told him: "Father, you are truly everything for everyone." And Padre Pio corrected him. "No, I am everything for each person; each person can say. Father is mine."
This total dedication to each individual among the faithful was rooted in Padre Pio's profound conviction of acting on God's mandate. "I am an instrument in divine hands," he said. "I am useful only when manipulated by the Divine Mover."
One of the best biographies of Padre Pio, written by Alessandro da Ripabottoni, is fittingly entitled A Cyrenean for All. The figure of Simon of Cyrene occupies only one verse in the New Testament; he is described as carrying Christ's cross. Since Simon of Cyrene, all the saints have carried out the same action, bearing the cross in imitation of Christ — from the Good Thief (the first to enter Paradise) to Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.
Padre Pio was among those saintly persons who annihilate themselves to allow the source of their illumination, Jesus Christ, to shine through. The English writer Chesterton once said saints never wish to speak of their own saintliness. And that is because they do not regard holiness as their "own," but rather as a daily gift from the Lord.
Padre Pio, the holy guide of men, profoundly sensed the need to let the true God, and not just God's image, shine through his life and work. He said of his relation to the suffering of others: "I sense as my own your afflictions... I will take on as my own all your sufferings... and offer them for you as a holocaust to the Lord." Every day for 50 years, Padre Pio exercised his redemptive mission in the confessional (except for the period from 1931-1933, when the Vatican's Holy Office suspended him from his priestly ministry). Though it is impossible to state precisely how many confessions he heard in his lifetime, the number must have been about 25,000 per year (an average calculated in 1967).
Padre Pio cared for the physical as well as the spiritual well-being of his fellow men. His House for Relief of Suffering was a true modern hospital and a welcome refuge in the backward area of San Giovanni Rotondo. The uneducated and rough Capuchin friar was surprisingly in touch with the world of his time — for the benefit of others.
A Disturbing Saint
Padre Pio, a saint of profound spirituality and concrete social action, was also a man with a sense of humor — and for that reason a sometimes "troublesome" saint as well. As C.S. Lewis wrote, each saint has a different story and a disturbing presence. Why disturbing? Because such figures force us to look at ourselves, to confront problems, to examine our consciences. In Padre Pio's case, it was his irony which sometimes became irksome. In fact, those who become enmeshed in the world often take themselves too seriously and can sometimes lose their sense of humor.
The words humor and humility come from the same linguistic root, and indeed have much in common. Humility is the basis for all sainthood. Padre Pio was a humble, but those nearest him confirmed his capacity for an ironic remark — quick and good-natured — in almost any situation.
The Capuchin friar was "troublesome" in other ways as well. Volumes have been written on this subject, with many exaggerations and some falsehoods. (Luigi Peroni's interview which follows comments on the "troublesome" aspect of Padre Pio's sainthood.)
"If a priest has no enemies, then he is no true priest," wrote the Italian novelist Nuto Revelli. Padre Pio had many enemies, both supernatural (and diabolical) and human, in the world and even in the Church. Paradoxically, those who perform the most good often provoke the greatest animosity. To live the Gospel signifies to become a light for men to realize themselves as Christians. Assuming such a responsibility is not always an easy task.
When Christ was expiring on the cross he had only his mother, John and a few women to console him. Reactions to saints are almost always hostile in their own lifetimes. That is because the light which shines through the saints from Christ illuminates the fragility, falsity and insignificance of men on earth. And thus it was for the saint from Pietrelcina.
Yet the opposite is also true. Padre Pio's light lighted the path for many. Padre Pio's Postulator, Father Paolino Rossi, has an immense archive of documents pertaining to saints' lives. "Saints make other saints," he told us. That is to say, one's confrontation with the Other helps lead to one's own authentic conversion and redemption. • © 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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