A number of weeks ago in my blog about Sri Ramakrishna, I mentioned his words: “There are many doors to God’s house.” Great Saints from all faiths have opened those doors for millions who sought their help and blessings. Today, I bring you on a journey away from India to a little town in Italy, Pietrelcina, to introduce you to Saint Padre Pio, a Divine mystic who lived his life immersed in Christ and his Beloved Mother Mary, an ocean of love, mercy and forgiveness. He shows us that pain and difficulties in life, if accepted with love, brings God’s grace not only to the sufferer but to many.
Saint Pio was born, Francesco Forgione, in Pietrelcina on 25th May 1887. Although his parents were not wealthy in material things, they were rich in their faith and in their love of God. Their devotion was evident in their son also, who, by the age of five had already decided to dedicate his life to God. He prayed continuously, and had a special love for praying the Rosary, which stayed with him throughout his life. From the beginning he could see and communicate with his Guardian Angel, Jesus and Mother Mary. His religious life started when he was admitted as a novitiate of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor in Morcone, Italy, at fifteen years of age, and he was ordained to the priesthood at the age of twenty three. He was drafted into the Italian army during World War 1, but due to his poor health, only served 182 days of military service before he was discharged. This is when he entered the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, a place he never left again during his lifetime.
His life story is a story of prayer and suffering borne with grace and love, even gratitude, that he could offer his suffering to God for the benefit of others. His heart and mind were never distracted from the thought and the feeling of God, whether he was praying alone, hearing the confessions of thousands of pilgrims, offering mass or tending the sick. There are countless stories about miraculous healings; of the thousands who flocked to have their confession heard by this holy man; of his complete absorption in the Passion of Christ as he celebrated Mass, which could go on for several hours; of the thousands who returned to their faith having spent a few moments in his presence; of the visions he experienced; of his gift of bilocation, and, probably most of all he is remembered for bearing the stigmata for the last fifty years of his life.
Saint Pio is one of a small number saints who bore the stigmata, a physical manifestation of the wounds of Christ’s Passion — usually the wounds of the nails that pierced Christ’s hands and feet, and the wound in the side where the spear entered His body. He also suffered a wound on his shoulder caused by the carrying of the Cross, but revealed this to only two people, one a fellow Capuchin, Brother Modestino, and, in 1948, to Father Karl Wojtyla who would later become Pope John Paul II. The stigmata is a sign of mystical union with the suffering of Christ, granted to a few great Souls whose love of the Cross is boundless. In addition to bearing the pain of his wounds he also had to bear the pain of being challenged by elements of his own Church as to their veracity, even being banned from celebrating Mass in public for a number of years. He bore it all with grace, saying once: “Yes, my soul is wounded with love for Jesus. I am sick with love. I continually experience the grievous pain of that fire that burns but does not consume.” He saw his stigmata as wounds of love, as another offering to God for the sake of mankind. Although his wounds bled severely at times, they never became infected and never stopped him from partaking fully in his eighteen-hour days of prayer and work. The open wounds emanated a Divine fragrance of roses and violets.
He was finally relieved of his suffering on 23rd September 1968 when he passed into God’s hands at the age of eighty one, with the words “Gesu, Maria” — Jesus, Mary, on his lips, and his Rosary, as always, in his hands. While still alive he had said more than once: “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” Many miracles have occurred in his name since he left this earth, and he was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul II in June 2002. Devotion to this great Saint continues to grow, with over eight million pilgrims visiting San Giovanni Rotondo every year, where he lived and is buried. Pope Francis has summed his life up in these beautiful words: “The saint spent his time and strength spreading the perfume of the forgiveness of the Lord. In this way, his small drop became a great river of mercy, which irrigated many dry hearts and created an oasis of life in many parts of the world.”