by Fr. François-Marie Chautard on St. Padre Pio, the only stigmatized priest
One of Padre Pio’s missions was to “make the cross of Jesus Christ visible”. Christ took on the human form in order to make the invisible visible. This revelation of God did not end with His Ascension, for upon His return to His Father, Our Lord sent the Spirit of Holiness. Since then, every century has had its share of saints whose perfect lives in imitation of Christ seem to renew His Incarnation. The exterior life of some saints sometimes espouses that of Christ so perfectly that they relive His Passion in their own flesh.
St. Francis of Assisi is the most well-known of them all, and many an artist has illustrated the Poverello receiving the stigmata. Other saints also experienced this extraordinary phenomenon: St. Catherine of Sienna, or Madame Acarie (Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation), whose stigmata were invisible.
But until September 20, 1918, not a single priest, despite their sacramental union with Christ the High Priest, had ever yet been chosen to renew in his own flesh the mystery of the Sacrifice of the Cross.
On September 20, 1918, as he was praying before a crucifix hung before the monks’ choir, rays of light from the crucifix pierced his hands, feet and side like arrows. The young 31-year-old Capuchin did not know it yet, but for the next fifty years, until September 20, 1958, he would bear the visible marks of the Passion of Christ that he relived every day.
One of Padre Pio’s missions had begun: that of making the cross of Jesus Christ visible, of enlightening souls as to the reality of the sacrifice renewed on the altar and reminding priests and faithful of the priest’s vocation as a victim: “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it will not bear fruit.” “Do as you have seen Me do.”
Born on May 25, 1887, into a peasant family, little Francesco Forgione was the fourth of seven children. His parents had a very simple life and lived in a poor home in Pietrelcina. They were solid Christians and hard workers.
The parish church is dedicated to St. Pius I, pope and martyr, and it was in his honor that the young Capuchin chose the name of Fra Pio.
As a young boy, Francesco was already favored with visions and extraordinary phenomena. From his earliest years until the end of his life, Padre Pio was used to receiving visits from angels, Marian apparitions and…. being subjected to diabolical violence. At first, the child thought all other boys his age experienced the same things.
Beware, dear reader, for this is where devotion to Padre Pio could go astray. As the spiritual authors explain, extraordinary phenomena are not sanctity; they sometimes, and even often, go hand in hand; they can occur without sanctity, but they must be carefully distinguished from it. If Padre Pio is a saint, it is not because of his bilocation and other exceptional phenomena, but because of his heroic virtues.
And little Francesco practiced heroic virtue from the very start. Did his mother not find him sleeping on the ground, with his head on a rock? His piety was solid, his obedience absolute, his diligence in his studies and duties more than admirable, and his friendship exemplary.
At the age of fifteen, a strange vision implicitly revealed his future to him: an angel invited him to fight against a giant much stronger than him. Reluctantly, the young teenager fought and won. With this divine commemoration of David and Goliath, Providence announced to Francesco the violence of the battles to come.
A few weeks later, on January 22, 1903, at the age of fifteen, he entered the Capuchin novitiate of Morcone, and took the name Fra Pio da Pietrelcina.
His mother was there, but his father was in the United States, working to pay for his children’s studies. For seven years in all (3 and then 4), this admirable father was separated from his no less admirable wife and his dear children in order to provide for them all.
The young novice’s studies continued until 1909. The young monk proved serious, studious and satisfactory, but not brilliant. Towards the end of his studies, he rapidly ascended the sanctuary steps; after receiving the first minor orders in 1908, he was ordained a deacon the following year in July 1909.
But health troubles came to try the young monk. He had to interrupt his studies and even the convent life and was ordered to go rest at his family’s home in Pietrelcina. This temporary rest would last…seven years. Despite this difficulty, he was ordained a priest in the cathedral of Benevento on August 10, 1910, and celebrated his first Mass in Pietrelcina on August 14.
Separated from the other Capuchins, and a prey to terrible interior trials, he corresponded regularly during this period with Fr. Agostino, his spiritual director, who told him to write down his interior combat and the extraordinary graces he received.
One superior planned to send him away to live as a secular priest, but he was told to return to the convent in 1911. The devil was furious, and he attacked and beat the young mystic so violently that the guardian of the convent, moved by a very Franciscan inspiration, ordered Padre Pio to ask for the grace to be tormented… in silence from then on. This grace was granted that very evening, to the great joy of the Capuchins who were a bit tired of the noise and the villagers who were beginning to be a bit worried.
But Padre Pio’s weak health soon forced him to return to Pietrelcina. The doctors had a hard time finding a diagnosis. One of them even announced he would not last more than a week.
He left Pietrelcina again to go to Foggia, where the air did not suit him at all. On July 28, 1916, he was advised to go to San Giovanni Rotondo to rest for a few weeks. He would remain there until his death…
Half-alive, he was still enlisted, until they took a closer look. There is a photo from this time of the Capuchin friar as a conscript, wearing a uniform and holding a gun; he had never shot a firearm and looks a bit out of place in the picture. It was during this period that he bilocated for the first time. The Italians had just been severely defeated in Caporetto on October 24, 1917, and the commander-in-chief, General Cardonna, decided to commit suicide; as he was raising his gun, a Capuchin entered his office and persuaded him to change his mind. The general did so, then thanked the good priest and showed him out. He immediately asked his subordinates who the priest they had let in was. No one had seen him go in or out. The general only recognized him in a photograph many years later.
Upon returning to his convent after his time in the military, he received the grace of a wound of love on May 30, 1918. On August 5, he received a transverberation, and on the 20th, the stigmata, with intense pain. But do not be mistaken. As he wrote to Fr. Agostino, his spiritual director, “in comparison with what I suffer in my flesh, the spiritual combats I am undergoing are far worse (…); I am living in a perpetual night… Everything troubles me, and I do not know if I am doing good or evil. I can see that these are not scruples, but the doubt I feel about whether I am pleasing God or not crushes me.”
At first, Padre Pio tried to heal his wounds. It was useless. To hide them. In vain. The pilgrimages to San Giovanni Rotondo began.
From 1918 to 1921, the priest’s apostolate grew and the doctors who observed his wounds were convinced of their inexplicable nature. Pope Benedict XV even went so far as to say that “Padre Pio is one of those men God sends to the earth once in a while to convert nations.”
The year 1921 changed the course of events. An ecclesiastical conspiracy of corrupt priests living with women and presided over by a bishop who practiced simony was influential in Rome. The bishop of Manfredonia, the diocese the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo belongs to, even claimed he had seen Padre Pio put on perfume and powder and pour nitric acid on his wounds to deepen the stigmata! And the canons of San Giovanni Rotondo, at least some of them, gossiped about the juicy profits the Capuchins were making off their “stigmatist”. The worst is that they were taken seriously.
Worried by these episcopal claims and canonical revelations, Rome was wary… of the Capuchins. A difficult period followed for Padre Pio, as the apostolate entrusted to him was little by little taken away. There was even talk of transferring him to another convent. This was enough to stir up the locals, who were determined to keep and defend their “santo”. A rebellion was not far off. Thinking he was going to leave this little village perched on the headland of Gargano, Padre Pio wrote this touching letter, whose final words are now engraved in the crypt where he used to be buried.
“I will always remember this generous people in my poor and assiduous prayer, imploring for them peace and prosperity; and as a sign of my affection, being able to do nothing else, I express the desire that as long as my superiors do not object, my bones will be laid to rest in a tranquil corner of this ground.”
A Capuchin superior even considered sneaking Padre Pio out in a large barrel on a cart. Obedient, but neither servile nor stupid, the Father Guardian refused this masquerade.
Punishments continued to rain down upon the poor priest. On March 23, 1931, the Holy Office forbade him all ministry, any public celebration of Mass and any contact with any Capuchins outside of his convent. After remaining stoic when he discovered in the refectory the letter that his brothers had put off revealing to him out of discretion, he burst into tears upon reaching his cell. A good brother who witnessed the scene felt sorry for him, but Padre Pio gave him an answer worthy of that given to the holy women of Jerusalem: he was weeping not for himself but for all the souls that were going to be deprived of graces of conversion.
As a recluse, Padre Pio was able to spend time reading. The History of the Church by Rorhbacher and in a single day, the Divine Comedy – paradoxically suffering from headaches upon reaching Paradise.
In 1933, the sanctions began to be lifted. Padre Pio resumed his ministry, especially in the confessional, where he regularly spent up to 10 hours a day.
The peaceful years passed. In 1940, a sick man if ever there was one, Padre Pio launched the project for what would become the Casa Sollievo della Sofferanza, a large hospital with modern material and eminent doctors. As in all providential undertakings, there was no lack of obstacles, but the hospital was inaugurated in May 1956. It still exists today.
At the same time, Padre Pio created prayer groups throughout the entire world mainly thanks to his spiritual sons and daughters that included Freemasons, swindlers, a famous tenor (Gigli) and women of little virtue.
Pius XII confided prayer intentions to him, but his death in 1957 opened a new and painful chapter in the life of the Capuchin. Some of his high-ranking brothers showed an anything but religious interest for the enormous sums that passed through his hands. They wanted them for themselves. A “brotherly” conspiracy supported by the authorities of the Order was formed; they even went so far as to put microphones in the Padre’s cell and confessional. The affair was discovered – the priest complained to some of his friends – and the brothers guilty of this far from evangelical surveillance were relieved of their functions and sent to other convents.
The end of his life was more peaceful, though still spent in the all-absorbing ministry to souls.
Two events in the last few months of his life are worth mentioning. The New Mass promulgated in 1968 was preceded by normative Masses. Padre Pio asked to be allowed to keep the Mass of all time and this permission was granted to him.
During the same year, 1968, Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control was promulgated. Padre Pio, with only two months left to live and at the summit of his mystical life, sent a letter to the pope thanking him for this encyclical that caused so much controversy.
This second Curé d’Ars felt the end approaching. On the night of September 20 to 21, 1968, fifty years to the day after they appeared, his stigmata disappeared: the skin on his hands became smooth and clean without the mark of a scar. His jubilee of blood was complete. Eternity was approaching, and on the night of September 22 to 23, Padre Pio went to be with his Maker.
Epilogue: Archbishop Lefebvre and Padre Pio
At the end of the summer in 1967, Archbishop Lefebvre was in Italy and traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo. The meeting was short. Archbishop Lefebvre asked the Padre’s blessing for the upcoming chapter of the Holy Ghost Fathers. The humble Capuchin declined, responding that Archbishop Lefebvre should be the one to bless him. Politeness between saints.
These two great men of the Church were very different. One was a priest, the other a bishop; one experienced many extraordinary phenomena, the other left only the enigmatic memory of a mysterious dream in Dakar.
And yet both offer important similarities.
Both suffered for the Church through the Church.
Both were victims of true persecutions at the hands of the authority, even though this persecution was for very different reasons and they reacted to it very differently.
Padre Pio’s persecutions were personal, inspired by the jealousy of dissolute secular priests and the greed of certain Capuchins. These persecutions led to unjust punishments that Padre Pio accepted with heroic obedience.
Archbishop Lefebvre’s case was different. The persecutions came from his determination to keep the Faith and the Mass of all time and his refusal of the conciliar errors and the new liturgy. Motives of Faith presided over these persecutions, that were far more than a matter of discipline or his own person. Archbishop Lefebvre therefore resolved to disobey these injunctions for a higher motive than purely formal obedience. His Faith was heroic, whereas his obedience would have been nothing but comfortable servility and earthly prudence.
Another resemblance is their profound understanding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Both, one by his very mystical way of celebrating Mass as the road to Calvary, the other by his spirituality centered on the Holy Sacrifice, ceaselessly recalled the sacrificial and expiatory nature of the Mass that the new liturgy hid under a bushel. Both, one by a literally crucified life, the other by his apostolate for the priesthood, recalled the central role of the priest in the work of Redemption.
Fr. François-Marie Chautard
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