First Priest to Bear Stigmata
"Prayer is the best weapon we possess, the key that opens the heart of God." These are the words of Padre Pio (now known as Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina) and they adequately encapsulate his approach to faith as well as his overall spiritual practice. Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione on May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy (a province of Benevento), into a southern peasant family. Today he is mainly known for being the first priest ever to bear the marks of the stigmata. That is, on his hands, side, and feet were the five wounds Jesus Christ received during the Crucifixion. Padre Pio was stricken with the stigmata in 1918 and bore the marks for over 50 years.
Life of Padre Pio
As a child, Francesco's devotion to God was intense. He preferred spending time alone so he could read the Bible and pray, and also "avoid boys who blaspheme." Religion was such a strong part of the entire Forgione family's way of life that friends and neighbors referred to them as the "God-Is-Everything-People." The family attended Mass every day, fasted from meat at least three days a week, memorized scriptures, and constantly recited Bible stories. Of course this environment greatly influenced young Francesco and his piety grew and grew. He once said that at times in his youth he had conversed with the Madonna, with Jesus, and his own guardian angel; he also stated that he suffered attacks from Satan.
Francesco's spirituality increased until he soon decided to become a priest. At the age of 15 he took the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Then seven years later he was ordained in the Archbishop of Benevento Chapel on August 10th, 1910.
While praying in front of a large crucifix one day on September 20th, 1918, Padre Pio received the stigmata. Here are his own words on the matter, which he wrote to Padre Benedetto, his spiritual advisor: "I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. All the internal and external senses and even the very faculties of my soul were immersed in indescribable stillness... I was suddenly filled with great peace and abandonment which effaced everything else and caused a lull in the turmoil... While this was taking place, 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 with blood. The sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should die and really 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 with blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday."
Padre Pio also suffered from great embarrassment concerning his wounds and even asked Jesus to relieve him from the condition. There are many pictures documenting his stigmata, and the blood coming from them was reported to have the scent of flowers and perfume. He lost at least a cup of blood every day, and Doctors never found any natural reason for his injuries. Padre Pio also stated that before he died he knew his wounds would disappear without showing any scars; and at his funeral there was no evidence he ever bore the stigmata.
Word of Padre Pio's stigmata spread to other countries, especially when American soldiers returned from WWII. After the soldiers told their friends and family about him, some of them took up pilgrimages to visit the great man; and pilgrimages to his crypt still continue to this day.
Padre Pio also had other mystical qualities attributed to him. It is said he could levitate, bilocate, read the hearts of people confessing to him, and heal people simply with his touch. He would listen to confessions for up to twelve hours a day, giving advice and wisdom to penitents seeking spiritual fulfillment, all the while showing much mercy, but during confessions he could also see directly into the hearts of anyone who was holding back. He would also provide just the right word or phrases to help people solve their problems. Bilocation is the appearance of the same person in two different locations simultaneously. Padre Pio was known to appear on different continents at the same time. Eye witness reports of this phenomena as well as people smelling his scent (the rose and perfume smell from his stigmata wounds) proved to some that he had the gift of bilocation. Also one incident (which shows his levitation practices as well) runs that he was seen hovering in the air over San Giovanni Rotondo, holding out his hands to stop American planes from dropping bombs on then Nazi-occupied southern Italy.
A favorite saying of Padre Pio's was: "Love is the first ingredient in the relief of suffering," and to emphasize this point he built an institution with the sole purpose of ending people's suffering. His hospital called "The Home for the Relief of Suffering" was opened in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1956 and to this day it provides services to more than 60,000 people every year.
The canonization of Padre Pio
Pope John Paul II gave Padre Pio Sainthood on June 16, 2002. It took over seven years for the canonization process to be complete, but when it was finished more than half a million followers of Padre Pio gathered in Rome to witness the ceremony and resulting celebration. To be canonized a saint, the person must have performed a miracle. Pio's miracle was his healing of a seven year old boy by the name of Matteo Pio Colella, who was brought into the House for Relief of Suffering barely alive from a severe case of meningitis. Padre Pio and his staff prayed all night for him and at one point the boy had a vision of a man coming to him saying, "Don't worry, you will soon be cured." Pope John Paul II later approved the miracle and hence gave Pio sainthood.
Padre Pio spent many hours daily in prayer. One of his favorite phrases to repeat during prayer was "I am a poor Franciscan who prays, I am a poor Franciscan who prays." He of course knew the importance of prayer to the common people and started many prayer groups, which he said were "nurseries of faith and wellsprings of love." His prayer groups have continued to blossom and they now have a combined membership of more than 500,000 members world wide.
St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina died on September 23rd 1968. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral.
The Pilgrimage Church
After 10 years of works, in 2004 was inaugurated the Sanctuary of Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, a Pilgrimage Church. It's a colossal complex, almost completely financed by the pilgrims' offers.
The building of this church has been often criticized: the huge amount of money invested in the construction crushes with the poverty policy of the Franciscans; the structure and many parts of the church have a massonic meaning, starting from the map of the church, that is a spiral, not a cross, and the altar, an overturned pyramid. Despite the criticism, the church attracts thousands of pilgrims every day.
The remains of the saint now rest here but are occasionally moved, like in 2016 to Rome, for the Jubilee.
By Jason Earls