16 September 2022

Saint of the Week – St Pius of Pietrelcina

Name: Francesco Forgione (name in religious profession: Pius) Born: 25th May 1887; Pietrelcina, Provence of Benevento (Italy) Died: 23rd September 1968; San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy Feast Day: 21st August Patron Saint of: First Communicants, catechists.

Although canonised as St Pius of Pietrelcina, this most beloved saint of the 20th Century will probably forever be better known to the world as ‘Padre Pio’ (“Father Pius”). Francesco Forgione (his name at birth) was born into a poor but deeply pious family in Pietrelcina. Throughout his childhood and continuing into adulthood Francesco was plagued with ill-health. Even so, from the age of five Francesco had decided that he would consecrate his life to God. With the minimal education of three years in a state-run school, Francesco’s dream of becoming a Capuchin Friar required more study. His father travelled to the United States to help pay for Francesco’s private tuition, and at the age of fifteen he was able to enter the Capuchin novitiate. Upon making vows he was professed ‘Br Pio.’ Throughout his priestly formation Br Pio had bouts of debilitating ill-health that at one point prompted his return to Pietrelcina.

In spite of these set-backs Br Pio was ordained a priest in 1910, and finally appointed to the Capuchin Friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Padre Pio’s reputation for holiness at San Giovanni Rotondo grew, alongside reports of supernatural phenomena including ecstasies, levitation, bilocation and a growing stream of miraculous cures. But the phenomenon that was to bring him both enduring fame and his greatest suffering was his receiving the same stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) in his hands, feet and side that his spiritual father, St Francis of Assisi, had received some 700 years earlier. In a private letter Padre Pio wrote to his Spiritual Director Fr Benedetto of this experience which occurred on 20th September 1918:

On the morning of the 20th of last month, in the choir, after I had celebrated Mass I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. [...] I saw before me a mysterious person similar to the one I had seen on the evening of 5 August. The only difference was that his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. This sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should have died if the Lord had not intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest. The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel deep in my soul.

Once the word got out Padre Pio became a local sensation drawing huge crowds of both the devout and the curious. The notoriety of the stigmata attracted the suspicion of the Vatican officials charged with investigating the matter, who placed Padre Pio under a virtual house arrest. The ‘gift’ of the stigmata was a profoundly personal sign of Pio’s union with Christ and its manifestation was also a matter of deep embarrassment to him. Consequently, Padre Pio’s reluctance to being ‘scrutinised’ by Vatican bureaucrats provoked their hostility and scepticism. Between 1920-1922 he was unable to celebrate public Mass or any sacraments, unable to reply to letters, to bless people, or to leave the Friary. This he accepted as his share in the cross.

The miraculous nature of Padre Pio’s stigmata is supported by multiple factors. 1) the wounds remained unchanged, being both open and unhealed for the duration of forty years, bleeding continuously; 2) the wounds never became infected or necrotic, but rather emitted a sweet fragrance of violets; 3) At his death all five wounds completely healed, without any trace of scar tissue (in spite of the sores being visibly open for forty years and having been examined by scores of doctors during his life).

The miracles attributed to Padre Pio are beyond counting and almost beyond belief were it not for the testimony of those who experienced them first hand, such as Gemma di Giorgio who was born blind (actually without pupils) yet had her sight given to her through Padre Pio’s intercession, without the restoration of her pupils(!), making her vision medically inexplicable. Padre Pio also attained fame as a confessor, particularly for his charism of reading souls. He could be severe if he sensed insincerity or impenitence on the part of the penitent, and was even known to throw them out of the confessional without absolution on such occasions! He was, however, very tender-hearted and compassionate towards the suffering. He established a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo called the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (House for the Relief of Suffering), which today is among the largest and best-regarded hospitals in Italy.

Padre Pio died in 1968 at the age of 81; His requiem Mass was attended by over 100,000 people. On 2nd September this year a new movie on the life of Padre Pio will be released, showing that the popularity of this extraordinary saint has in no way diminished in our own times.

St Pius of Pietrelcina, pray for us!