Padre Pio was born May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy, a small country town located in southern Italy. His parents were Grazio Mario Forgione (1860-1946) and Maria Guiseppa de Nunzio Forgione (1859-1929). He was baptized the next day, in the nearby Castle Church, with the name of his brother, Francesco, who died in early infancy. Other children in the family were an older brother, Michele; three younger sisters: Felicita, Pellegrina and Grazia; and two children who died as infants. Pietrelcina, Italy
Religion was the center of life for both Pietrelcina and the Forgione family. The town had many celebrations throughout the year in honor of different saints and the bell in the Castle Church was used not for ringing the hour, but for daily devotional time. Friends have described the Forgione family as "the God-is-everything-people" because they attended Daily Mass, prayed the Rosary nightly and fasted three days a week from meat in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Although Padre Pio’s grandparents and parents could not read and write, they memorized Sacred Scripture and told the children Bible stories. It was in this lovely family setting that the seeds of Faith were nurtured within Padre Pio.
From his early childhood, it was evident that Padre Pio had a deep piety. When he was five years old, he solemnly consecrated himself to Jesus. He liked to sing hymns, play church and preferred to be by himself where he could read and pray. As an adult, Padre Pio commented that in his younger years he had conversed with Jesus, the Madonna, his guardian angel, and had suffered attacks by the devil.
Padre Pio’s parents first learned of his desire to become a priest in 1897. A young Capuchin friar was canvassing the countryside seeking donations. Padre Pio was drawn to this spiritual man and told his parents, "I want to be a friar… with a beard." His parents traveled to Morcone, a community thirteen miles north of Pietrelcina, to investigate if the friars would be interested in having their son. The Capuchins were interested, but Padre Pio would need more education than his three years of public schooling.
Padre Pio at Age 14 In order to finance the private tutor needed to educate Padre Pio, his father went to America to find work. During this time, he was confirmed (September 27, 1899), studied with tutors and completed the requirements for entrance into the Capuchin order. At age 15, he took the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin on January 22, 1903. On the day of his investiture, he took the name of Pio in honor of Saint Pius V, the patron saint of Pietrelcina, and was called Fra, for brother, until his priestly ordination.
A year later, on January 22, 1904, Fra Pio knelt before the altar and made his First Profession of the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Then, he traveled by oxcart to the seventeenth-century friary of St. Francis of Assisi and began six years of study for the priesthood and continued his development in community life toward the profession of his solemn vows. After three years of temporary profession, Padre Pio took his final vows in 1907.
Then on August 10, 1910, the much-anticipated day finally arrived. The twenty-three year old Fra Pio was ordained a priest by Archbishop Paolo Schinosi at the Cathedral of Benevento. Four days later, he celebrated his first Mass at the parish church of Our Lady of the Angels.
Within a month of his ordination, (September 7, 1910), as Padre Pio was praying in the Piana Romana, Jesus and Mary appeared to him and gave him the wounds of Christ, the Stigmata. For Padre Pio’s doctors, the wounds created much confusion. He asked Jesus to take away "the annoyance," adding, " I do want to suffer, even to die of suffering, but all in secret." The wounds went away and the supernatural life of Padre Pio remained a secret...for a while.
On November 28, 1911, Padre Agostino, who was a contemporary, friend, and confidant, was advised that Padre Pio was ill. He rushed into Padre Pio’s room to care for him. Padre Agostino observed what he thought was a dying man and rushed to the chapel to pray. When he finished praying, he returned to Padre Pio’s room and found his friend alert and full of joy.
This was the beginning of Padre Pio’s documented ecstasies – all of which were "edifying, theologically correct and expressed a deep love for God."
Due to Padre Pio’s on-going ill health, he was sent home to recuperate and was separated from his religious community from the end of 1911 – 1916. During this time, the Capuchin Constitution required a friar who was sent home because of illness had to maintain his friar life as much as possible. Padre Pio did this. He said Mass and taught school.
On September 4, 1916, Padre Pio was ordered to return to his community life and was assigned to San Giovanni Rotondo, an agricultural community, located in the Gargano Mountains. Our Lady Of Grace Capuchin Friary was approximately a mile from town and was not easy to reach. The Capuchins had a reputation for their holiness and simple life. When Padre Pio became a part of the community at Our Lady of Grace, there were seven friars.
With the outbreak of the war, only three friars stayed at Our Lady of Grace; the others were selected for military service. At the beginning, his responsibilities included teaching at the seminary and being the spiritual director of the students. He spent his free time reading the Bible and handling correspondence. When another friar was called into service, Padre Pio became in charge of the college.
On the morning of the 20th September 1918, after having celebrated Holy Mass, the priest Padre Pio retired to the choir stalls for his usual thanksgiving. The place was S. Giovanni Rotondo and the church, Our Lady of Grace.
Outside in the small piazza the morning was similar to most other mornings on the Gargano. The friary, lying at the foot of the mountain, high above the village, seemed isolated and remote, altogether cut off from the world. Peace and quiet hung heavy in the mountain air filling the huge spaces with indescribable serenity and calm.
Chirpings of birds, muted and subdued, coming as if from far off and the monotonous drone of myriad flying insects were sounds to accentuate the silence of the place. They adorned but did not disturb it. Already the clear lines of morning were fading and merging into the heat of midday. High up, a blazing sun seared the massive garganic granite, sending all creatures hurrying to the cool oasis of shuttered rooms.
Only a few old folk long accustomed to this midday furnace moved slowly about, entering the small church to say their devotions, then emerging and making their way across to the ancient yew-tree dominating the middle of the piazza to rest silently in its shadow. A day like other September days with little hint that it could be any different from those which had preceded it or from those which must assuredly follow it.
For the young priest, however, just then kneeling in the chapel of the church, this morning was to be very different, a fateful morning like no other, containing within it a destiny, a summons whose imperious and exalted demands he would attempt to fulfill to the end. Here inside the church the silence was very great. Not a sound penetrated the thick walls from outside as P. Pio, oblivious to everything except the memory of his recent Mass, slowly prostrated in loving adoration before the outspread, bloodied figure on the crucifix.
With that marvelous facility possessed by the mystics by which all external objects are abandoned he withdrew into himself, his spirit yielding to the peacefulness which invaded his whole being, a peacefulness, he later wrote, "similar to a sweet sleep". In this absolute silence he prayed, mind and heart totally wrapped in the burning love which consumed him like some incurable fever. A sweet calm heralding the forthcoming storm.
What happened next can best be told in the simple, unadorned words of P. Pio writing to P. Benedetto little more than a month afterwards: "It all happened in a flash. While all this was taking place, I saw before me a mysterious Person, similar to the one I had seen on August 5th, differing only because His hands, feet and side were dripping blood. The sight of Him frightened me: what I felt at that moment is indescribable. 'I thought I would die, and would have died if the Lord hadn't intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest. The Person disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were pierced and were dripping with blood" (Ep., V. 1, no. 5 10, p. 1094). P. Pio had just received the visible stigmata. There was nobody about. Silence settled once more round the brown robed figure now lying huddled on the floor.
A long Calvary had just begun and with it the answer to a prayer: the prayer of his profound desire to identify with Christ crucified not only by participation in the priestly apostolate but in some mysterious way in that supreme immolation of Our Lord on Calvary (cf. Le Stimmate di P. Pio, G. Cruchon, SJ, Colana "Spiritualità", No. 1, p. 102).
He had not desired this physical conformity and when he had recovered somewhat from the immediate experience his embarrassment was extreme: "I am dying of pain because of the wound and because of the resulting embarrassment which I feel deep within my soul. . . Will Jesus who is so good grant me this grace ? Will he at least relieve me of the embarrassment which these outward signs cause me" (Ep., V. 1, p. 1904). Not the wound, not the pain did he wish removed but only the visible signs which at the time he considered to be an indescribable and almost unbearable humiliation.
Later, much later, however, he would come to love and cherish these divine marks of predilection, drawing from them that rich source of superhuman energy which from then on marked his apostolate of love and suffering. With Catherine of Siena he could truly say: "My wounds not only do not afflict my body, but they sustain and fortify it. I feel that what formerly depressed me, now invigorates me." His wounds, hitherto invisible but now manifested exteriorly, mark a definitive stage of his soul's transformation into the object loved, namely, the Lord who suffered and was crucified.
For the next fifty years they would confound impartial science; their continuous and profuse effusion of blood, accompanied often by the sweetest fragrance, came to be regarded as a prolonged miracle, because, as the experts correctly state, blood for its production requires nourishment while this friar's extraordinary frugality was such as hardly to maintain the life of a small child.
The remarkable nature of this miraculous gift becomes more apparent when it is considered how such loss of blood was simply inconsonant with and disproportionate to the stamina and energy with which P. Pio with ever greater activity and zeal conducted his life in all matters relating to the service of God.
Such are the bald facts of P. Pio's stigmata. From his correspondence it is clear that very early in his priestly life there were, at least, indications of what eventually came to pass. Writing to P. Benedetto as early as 1911, only a year after ordination, P. Pio described a phenomenon which he had been experiencing for almost a year: "Then last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feet it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain" (Ep., V. 1, p. 234).
This is his first mention of the phenomenon to his spiritual father because, as he says, he was overwhelmed with shame. He simply did not want to talk about it, hoping no doubt that it was a passing thing which would soon clear up and then be forgotten.
Four years later, in 1915, his beloved P. Agostino demands certain information in the name of Jesus: When did Jesus first favour him with celestial visions ? Has Jesus made him a gift of his stigmata even though invisible? How often does he feel the crown of thorns and the scourging? P. Agostino asks these questions not out of curiosity but for the glory of God and the salvation of souls (Ep., V. 1, p. 659).
In his reply to this letter P. Pio recognizes the express will of God and willingly answers all three questions. To the first he replies that Jesus began to favour "his poor creature" not very long after his novitiate (Jan. 1903 to Jan. 1904); to the second, whether Jesus made him a gift of the stigmata, the reply is affirmative and we learn that from the start the wounds were visible, especially in one hand, but that P. Pio was so terrified in the face of this phenomenon that he begged the Lord to withdraw them.
From then on they did not appear again until September 1918 although their pain remained and were felt more acutely under certain circumstances and on determined days. The final question he also answers affirmatively. He experiences the pain of the crown of thorns and the scourging. How often he cannot say except that at the time of writing he has been suffering from them almost once a week for some years (cf. Ep., V. 1, p. 669).
The rest is history. News of the event spread like wildfire and by the following year there began that afflux of pilgrims to the tiny friary which has not ceased since. At first in a tiny stream they came, later in the tens of thousands, flocking to glimpse this priest with the wounds of Christ, to assist at his Mass, to kiss those mittened hands and for those who could speak Italian the privilege of confessing to him.
In all this, of course, there were dangers. The danger of a "personality cult"; of the possibility of self-induced wounds produced by a morbid, impressionable, temperament; the danger of fraud and deception, deliberate or otherwise, with the intent of leading a credulous faithful astray; that the stigmata was nothing more than an effect of natural causes rather than a supernatural gift; and finally, there was the dangerous possibility of preternatural and diabolic activity.
In the light of this, and in retrospect, it is understandable why the Church authorities took a course of action that at the time seemed harsh and cruel but which today can be seen, at least in part, as the anvil on which P. Pio's sanctity was hammered out, put to the test and purified to become the luminous and diaphanous veil through which men glimpsed God.
The Personality of Padre Pio by Gennaro Preziuso
Padre Pio had an extraordinarily rich personality and many pages would be necessary to give justice to its diversity and exceptionality. Because of limits imposed I must restrict my consideration to only three aspects: the human, the spiritual and the social.
|The Human Aspect of Padre Pio|
The human aspect of Padre Pio embraces many elements: his personality, his character, his natural disposition, his receptiveness, his intelligence, his will, his great capacity to love, work and suffer, his need for affection and sincerity.
Padre Pio's moral rectitude and goodness impressed all those who met him. He combined an open and spontaneous nature with a strong and resolute will. A solid determination that was reflected in the severe landscape of his childhood and youth: nature in its essence, its humblest and poorest. An agricultural land of bare rock, barren soil, harsh climate, tied to traditions, to hard work, sacrifice, prayer and holy fear of God. This all influenced Padre Pio so that he was naturally drawn to reflection. And his inquiring mind combined with his uncommon receptiveness determined in him a precocious maturity.
When as a boy he saw his mother blow out the lamp on the mantelpiece, after the evening prayer and the frugal meal, he would stare into the dark of his little room and see again the peasants bent double over their work in the fields, his father who had crossed the ocean in search of fortune, his friends, his teacher, the parish priest and Bro. Camillo.
His desire for solitude was not from misanthropy, but from an impelling need to nourish with prayer a strong religious calling that he felt growing always more within himself. All this made him brisk. He did not want to waste time!
Then there came God's call!
The interior torment "lived," before his final answer, his separation from his mother and those persons dear to him, his noviciate year, his time of formation and self-mortification to assimilate himself to Jesus, worked in him and definitively formed his character and personality. And here is the man Padre Pio!
The man who was predisposed and was always ready to obey, who underlined his right to life to the Father Provincial when the latter, despite his state of health, invited him to leave his hometown and re-enter definitively the friary.
The man whose reserve prevailed over everything so that he did not reveal to anyone the reason why our Lord wanted him to remain in Pietrelcina, because if he did so, "he would lack in charity."
The man disposed to sacrifice, but who did not renounce what was owed to him. In fact, called up to do his military service, he did not hesitate to ask the intervention even of persons of authority to obtain for him, in recognition of the illness he suffered, the exoneration owed him.
The man who in a law suit on his behalf, spoke in defense of the opposition and surprised the judges by asking for clemency and absolution for the opposition, only because it was a priest, a minister of God.
Padre Pio, was gifted with a remarkable intelligence, and able to discern immediately the thoughts and feelings of others and assumed a position that revealed in every circumstance his moral soundness and unexceptionable behaviour.
He did not know how to adapt himself to what went on around him and he was afraid of the anonymous crowds. He was saddened by the display of idolatry and paganism at which he had to often assist. Only out of self defense did he use gestures and manners that appeared rough, that kept the prying, the fanatics and the novelty seekers at a distance.
Padre Pio was no ordinary friar who lived however in the most complete ordinariness. He bore in his body the stigmata of our Lord, but these wounds were for him a source of confusion and embarrassment.
He lived immersed in the supernatural and did not permit himself to be seen in ascetic postures or in mystical stances. "But these people, what do they want from me?" he asked a friend at his side, with such unaffected and child-like simplicity, while trying to keep the crowds from pressing against his painful wounds.
He understood the art of kindness and was capable of most sensitive considerations, he knew how to ask for forgiveness, if by accident tactlessly, in an excess of haste and ardour, he offended the feelings of a fellow friar.
He was touched by a gesture of courtesy or if he came to know that someone was praying for him. He cherished every kindness and enjoyed the pleasure of conversation and friendship.
He required a little company. When Pietruccio was forbidden to go up to his cell, he remarked "Even a poor blind man they take from me! Not one friend have they left me!"
He was a true son of St Francis and refused a heater in his cell even though he was so cold. Covered in large scarves and mantle, he would often and willingly be drawn by the warmth of the communal hearth.
In the evening, he happily participated in the time of "communal life" and recounted short tales and yams with the impersonation of a great actor. He was pleased when a joke of his provoked smiles and hilarity from those who were listening.
He was kind, obliging and fatherly with the boys who were preparing for the religious life and who at college suffered from the separation from their family, the solitude and sometimes hunger, but at the same time was severe and never lowered himself to compromise with sin, even if venial.
He cried without reserve, to the point of fainting, when he saw his mother die!
He preserved his baptismal innocence, as his spiritual director would affirm, and yet he felt himself to be "the greatest sinner in the world" and did not know why the habit of St Francis did not run away from him.
He lived by the heart and noted that this way of life was a nasty thing, because "it means living at every moment a death that never kills, or experiencing a living death and a dying life" (Letters I).
Even if he loved suffering for the spiritual fruit it brought, he could also say, "I can take no more!" especially when he realized that he had been betrayed by everyone.
He saw and knew everything and despite everything he was able to embrace his Judas, he was still able to call him "my son!"
Padre Pio, with his mind and heart centred on heaven, regarded attentively and with concern the happenings of the world. He observed the world of politics and when necessary made his strong voice heard by those in the political world, appealing always and specifically to the message of the Gospel.
Here is the man Padre Pio!
A man who when he realized that his spiritual children, full of a new found fervour with their eyes focused only on heaven, also knew how to remind them to keep their eyes on the ground.
A man who had the gift of counsel for others, but who required counsel for himself so as to proceed briskly in the ways of the spirit; who suffered isolation and abandonment; who felt the need to demonstrate with tears his suffering in order to have a word of comfort, a little understanding.
"Look, they have even done this!" he told a fellow friar as he showed him the wires, by his bedside, of a tape recorder that he had just severed with a knife.
A man who was unfailing in the fulfillment of his priestly ministry, in the practice of virtue, in doing good even in difficult and trying circumstances.
In this human dimension there is space and fertile ground for the spiritual dimension of Padre Pio.
The steps taken in the process of Padre Pio's beatification are the following:
- March 20, 1983, the Diocesan Process was begun
- January 21, 1990, the aforesaid process was closed
- December 18, 1997, the reading of the decree on the herocity of the virtues
- December 21, 1998, the publication of the decree on the miracle
- Sunday, May 2, 1999, Pope John Paul II declared Padre Pio Blessed.
The Beatification ceremonies in Rome, Italy were host to more than one million pilgrims. Here in the USA, Our Lady of Grace Chapel and Padre Pio Spirituality Centre (National Centre for Padre Pio) was host to over 20,000 pilgrims from as far as California, Canada and Guam.
Pope John Paul II canonized Padre Pio of Pietrelcina a Saint on June 16, 2002 in one of the largest attended liturgies ever in the Vatican's history. The Pope remarked that Padre Pio's spirituality and suffering are a valuable model for modern times. The Pope re-emphasized his message at the end of the canonization liturgy by announcing Padre Pio's feast day, September 23rd, is an "obligatory memorial" in the church's general liturgical calendar.
The ranking of obligatory memorial accorded to Padre Pio means the celebration must be observed in Masses and the Liturgy of the Hours on the day it occurs unless an observance that takes precedence - a solemnity or feast - falls on the same day. St. Maximillian Kolbe, also in the Franciscan tradition, is the only other 20th century saint whose memorial is obligatory.