On a hot summer day in 1978, while our family was out for a drive, I “met” a saint who changed my life. Because he has led me closer to the Lord, I have tried to introduce others to him ever since—most recently in my book, Praying with Padre Pio.
My husband was at the wheel of our blue Ford station wagon, talking about “old times” with his mother and brother. I was in the back seat trying to read, as I refereed our three young children.
“Mom, she hit me!”
“Give me my truck!”
I was going through a difficult period then, feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood. That day, though, my attention was not on my struggles but on what I was managing to read amid the children’s noisy interactions. It was a book by a friend, about a Capuchin friar she had worked for in southern Italy. I had never heard of this “Padre Pio” and was riveted by his deep prayer life and the many conversions and healings that had taken place around him.
I learned that in 1918, Padre Pio received the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ crucified. For fifty years, until his death in 1968, he had borne the painful wounds—and the controversy they aroused—with joy and gratitude for the privilege of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus.
As I read Pio’s words that day, one particular truth embraced me as never before: Jesus was alive! He was with me in my daily challenges and would never allow them to conquer me. As the friar put it, “You are suffering, but Jesus is suffering with you and for you, in order to associate you in the salvation of souls.”
Everyone’s Friend. After that car trip, I devoured every book about Padre Pio that I could find. I was especially drawn by his ability to find joy in everything, like his spiritual father, Francis of Assisi. “Never permit your soul to become sad,” Pio advised. “Preserve a spirit of holy joyfulness.”
I desired this perspective but felt unable to adopt it. Trying to juggle my various roles and duties of wife, mom, neighbor, and employee, I felt like a helpless child facing insoluble problems. I knew that Padre Pio was just the loving friend I needed, but a sense of inadequacy kept me from seeking his help.
Then early one morning, I read something that revealed the friar’s great desire to help people on their journey to God. “I am for everyone,” he wrote just before his death. “Everyone can say, ‘Padre Pio is mine.’” My fears vanished, as the simple statement hit home: Everyone . . . that included me! And so, in the way he himself had recommended, I prayed: “Padre, accept me as your spiritual child. Help and guide me always.”
Since that day, thirty years ago, I have felt enveloped in the love of this great man, who was canonized in 2002. Under his guidance, I began learning how to smile with my soul, as well as my lips. It was the beginning of a friendship that has led me ever closer to Jesus.
Love Makes the Difference. My struggles and suffering did not simply disappear, of course. But in every difficulty I encountered, Padre Pio was there, urging me to abandon myself to the embrace of Jesus, the “divine Lover.” He helped me to see that this Lover didn’t want me merely to survive; he wanted to fill me to overflowing with his love, even when I felt unlovable.
In some ways, I was like the apostle Thomas, who needed to see and touch the risen Christ’s wounds in order to believe (John 20:25-28). Whenever my faith wavered, just thinking about those wounds—as manifested in Padre Pio—convinced me once more that I was loved by the living Christ. Gradually, as I surrendered to this love, the joy of the Lord became my strength.
Through St. Pio, Jesus strengthened and guided me as I journeyed with my daughter and supported her through her divorce. He also helped me after my mother died in 1987. As I studied the hundreds of letters he wrote, my faith was nourished, and sadness gave way to joyful hope that Mom was in heaven with Jesus.
Similarly, when cancer and other illnesses brought my dad to the threshold of death, Pio’s words assured me that no matter what happened, God would work everything out for the best (Romans 8:28). In fact, his devotion to Mary inspired me to ask her intercession for Dad’s healing. Today, after multiple surgeries, he is free of cancer and is enjoying renewed health.
God’s Networker. I have come to think of Padre Pio as a heavenly “networker” who helps his spiritual children develop friendships that will lead them to God—above all with Jesus, but also with Mary, the saints, and even the angels.
In a special way, St. Pio opened my eyes to the presence and help of my guardian angel. I see more clearly now how much I owe this invisible angelic companion who “guides and protects us like a friend, a brother, a sister.” For example, I believe it was my angel who protected me from physical harm last year, when I rescued my miniature poodle from an attacking pit bull. My dog required emergency surgery—I didn’t even need a Band-Aid.
Whenever people praised and thanked Padre Pio for his help, he always countered with, “Thank God, not me. I’m just a poor friar who prays.” And so, as I write my books about Padre Pio, I offer them as an expression of thanks to Jesus for giving me such a faithful friend. I want everyone to come to know his friendship—and through him, find unending reasons to rejoice in both good times and bad. n
Eileen Dunn Bertanzetti has written numerous articles and books—including six on Padre Pio. She and her husband live in Pennsylvania and have three grown children.