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A Living Sign of the Mercy of God

The Story of Padre Pio

By: Louise Perrotta

A Living Sign of the Mercy of God: The Story of Padre Pio by Louise Perrotta

For a man who always aimed to relate to church authorities with “firm, constant, and iron” obedience, he certainly was in trouble a lot. Critics charged him with sexual improprieties and mishandling donations. 

An archbishop called him demon-possessed, a “dangerous hoax,” and a “corrupter of morals.” Catholics were forbidden to read the eight books about him. By the time he died, the Holy Office (forerunner of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) had disciplined him five times and had a dossier on him that filled twenty-three boxes. Toward the end of his life, the restrictions on him were so severe that concerned friends formed an international association for his defense and prepared a report for the United Nations, charging that his civil liberties were being violated.

A dissident theologian? A renegade cleric? Yet another popular religious personality with a hidden weakness for sex and the good life? No, the object of all this attention was a Capuchin priest whose central ambition in life was to be “a poor friar who prays”— Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. And in a development that laid to rest any lingering questions about his sanctity, he was beatified by one of his admirers on May 2, 1999. In his homily for that occasion, John Paul II said that God had allowed the misunderstandings to serve as a “crucible of purification.” An Italian bishop who helped prepare the 1997 declaration of Padre Pio’s heroic virtue observed, “He was an authentic saint whom the devil tried to cover with mud.”

A Man with Unusual Gifts. It was Pio’s unusual gifts that polarized people, arousing admiration in some and suspicion in others. He himself was warm and approachable—if sometimes blunt—but the supernatural activity around him was so electrifying that even now it can distract from his example of practical holiness.

Padre Pio had his first vision at age five and experienced his guardian angel as “the playmate of my youth.” For years he assumed that others had these experiences too. “You’re saying that out of humility,” he once responded when a confessor assured him that he himself had never seen the Blessed Mother. Pio also saw demons and suffered satanic attacks so violent and noisy that they often left him bruised and sent neighbors running terrified from their homes. He could read minds, foretell events, and be in two places at once. Dramatic conversions and physical healings happened around him almost routinely. A mysterious fragrance announced his presence and clung to whatever he touched. And he had the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s passion.

Pio never fully understood these astonishing gifts. “They are a mystery for me,” he told a puzzled friend. But neither fixating on them nor denying them to pursue the hidden life he would have preferred, he allowed God to equip him for fruitful service as a messenger of divine love.

An Early Formation in Humility. Padre Pio was born on May 25, 1887, in Pietrelcina, a southern Italian mountain village. Baptized Francesco, he was the fourth child of Orazio and Maria Giuseppa Forgione, an illiterate couple whose deep faith saw them through hard times. Three of their children died very young. Another daughter rebelled against her religious upbringing and lived so wild a life that people called her a “devil.” Money and work were also scarce, so Orazio traveled to America twice to work long stints as a menial laborer. In short, although the Forgiones were so pious that they were known as “the family for whom God is everything,” they were ordinary people with normal problems.

Francesco was deeply attached to his family and his town. He said that when he left home at fifteen to enter the Capuchin friary, he almost passed out from sorrow. “Son, I can feel my heart breaking within me,” his mother told him as he left. “But St. Francis is calling you, and you must go.” Francesco knew that he was choosing a life of suffering and spiritual combat, for in a vision, he had seen himself invited to win a heavenly crown by fighting a monstrous being again and again.

An Ongoing Spiritual Battle. During his sixty-plus years as a Franciscan friar, this battle took many forms. From 1905 to 1916 he was plagued by mysterious illnesses that sometimes caused body temperatures so high they broke medical thermometers. He experienced prolonged trials of faith— blasphemies, temptations to infidelity and unbelief, darkness. “It kills me,” Pio wrote his spiritual director. “My faith is upheld only by a constant effort of my will.”

Once he confided to a friend that he felt he had made “miserable use” of the gifts God had given him and that “the lowest scoundrel in the world would have employed them better.” Padre Pio also suffered intensely from knowing he couldn’t reach everyone for Christ, though he wrote thousands of letters of spiritual counsel and spent up to nineteen hours a day in the confessional.

Nevertheless, countless conversions took place through his efforts. One was Italia Betti, a communist mathematics professor known throughout Italy for her flamboyant propagandizing. People were stunned when, after meeting Padre Pio, Italia dropped everything and moved near the friary to take up a life of prayer. Another well-known atheist had ridiculed Padre Pio in the secular press and accused him of duping the gullible. But when his grandson was healed of an incurable illness through Pio’s intercession, the skeptic met the friar and was instantly and permanently converted. Then there was the jaded cosmopolitan heiress who was kept waiting, annoyed, outside Padre Pio’s confessional. Tongue-tied when she finally got in, she listened amazed as the priest recounted her life story—all except for one sin. “That’s the one I was waiting for!” he exulted when she finally got it out. “Don’t be discouraged! You’ve won the victory!”

Sign of Mercy, Sign of Contradiction.

Of all the ways in which Padre Pio shared in Christ’s Passion, none was more obvious—or caused him more hardship—than the stigmata.

These marks of the crucifixion appeared on Pio’s hands while he was praying in September 1910, a month after his ordination. “Ask Jesus to take away these confusing things,” the young priest begged his spiritual director. “I want to suffer . . . but in secret.” The pain remained, but the marks disappeared. But then, in September 1918, in the course of a vision, the bleeding wounds returned to his hands, feet, and side. Despite his embarrassed pleadings, they remained.

Padre Pio’s superiors had him examined by doctors. “Medically inexplicable” several said about the painful wounds, which bled profusely and never became infected. One doctor, an atheist, suggested that the lesions would disappear if Padre Pio stopped treating them with iodine; that was quickly disproved. Some people wrote them off as psychologically induced. One doctor supposed that the wounds came from “thinking so much about Jesus on the cross.” Informed of this opinion, Padre Pio offered a suggestion: “Tell him to think intensely about being an ox. Let’s see if he grows horns.”

Impossible to hide, Padre Pio’s stigmata put him in the public eye and made him a center of controversy. The pious and the curious flocked to his Masses and lined up at his confessional. The remarkable healings and conversions that took place through his ministry drew national and international attention.

Suspicion and Accusations. Not everyone was pleased. Anonymous accusations circulated and found their way to the Vatican. From 1924 to 1933 and then for the last fifteen years of his life, Pio endured a breath-taking variety of censures. At various points, he was forbidden to hear confessions, say Mass in public, exchange letters, or even look out the window. During one period, the room where he met with visitors was bugged; there were rumors that his confessional was bugged as well.

Considering them as a way of participating in Jesus’ passion, Padre Pio endured these sufferings and complied with his superiors’ demands. In 1925, he even refused anesthesia for a hernia operation so that the surgeon would have no opportunity to examine his wounds, which Padre Pio had been ordered to conceal.

But Padre Pio was no grim martyr personality. He found comfort and strength in prayer, especially in the Eucharist. He never lost his sense of humor and fondness for puns and ironic observations. He had a large stock of funny stories which he liked to share with his friends. One favorite concerned a practical joke he had played on another boy while both were training to be Franciscans. One night, Pio had spotted his fellow student walking through a dark room where, as in many monasteries of the day, a human skull lay on a table as a sober reminder of mortality. Crouching stealthily behind the table, Pio waited till the boy was passing by, then flapped a towel around in ghostly fashion and groaned a “mysterious lament.” No one who heard Padre Pio tell this story could doubt that he had been gratified by the result!

Later in life, as well, Pio was good for a practical joke. In 1945, when all the friars were getting cholera vaccinations, Pio convinced another friar to join him in pretending that the shots were excruciatingly painful. Their act—complete with the other friar’s feigned shriek of fright—was so convincing that one of the priests waiting to be vaccinated actually fainted!

Bread Broken for the Hungry. Long before he died, Padre Pio had become known and loved throughout the world. After his death on September 23, 1968, a hundred thousand people thronged to his funeral in San Giovanni Rotondo. Today, six million pilgrims a year travel there to pray at his tomb.

It is Padre Pio’s love, not his supernatural gifts, that explain such drawing power, Pope John Paul II has observed. Padre Pio “was bread broken for men and women starving for God the Father’s forgiveness.” His wounds—“the work and sign of divine mercy, which redeemed the world by the cross of Jesus Christ”—speak of God’s love and issue an appeal to all of us: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II on June 16, 2002.