Father Pio, controversial during his lifetime and after his death

Pawel Teperski, OFM Cap

Saints are tough nuts to crack for their contemporaries. A saint is always a direction given by Lord God to a given generation, showing that there is God and that there is eternal life. Therefore, saints, following God in an uncompromising way, are often pricks of conscience for others; they evoke controversies by their behaviours and attitudes. But saints are also big ‘problems’ for the Church. Father Pio, a Capuchin and stigmatic, was such a problem in his lifetime. But even after his death he evokes many controversies, and what is interesting, he has fervent adherents, worshippers and those who even today try to undermine the authenticity of the events of his life.

Francesco Forgione, future Father Pio, was born in 1887, in Italy, in Pietrelcina, a small village near Benevento, to a poor family. From the beginning he had poor health. He was a quiet and pious child; he willingly went to the nearby church and he prayed a lot.

Friar and priest

In 1903, he joined the Order of the Friars Minor Capuchins and like all brothers, he completed novitiate and then began studying to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. However, his poor health disturbed him so much that his superiors had doubts whether he should become a priest. Because of his health condition he many a time returned to his village of Pietrelcina to continue his studies and formation there. He received the Sacrament of Holy Orders in Benevento in 1910 and for some time he stayed in his home village of Pietrelcina, ministering in the local parish. It was there that God gave him stigmata for the first time. However, he had them for a short time and after many supplications of the Capuchin they disappeared. However, the pain remained. During the next several years the superiors assigned Father Pio to different monasteries but after each transfer he had serious health problems, which mysteriously disappeared only in his local village. In 1916, Father Pio was moved to San Giovanni Rotondo. Today, one is tempted to say that it was a monastery of exile: a small, very humble monastery located at the edge of a poor village, on the slope of the Gargano Mountains. As later history shows he never left this place, until his death in 1968.

Stigmatic and confessor

Let us return to the earlier events, just after his arrival at San Giovanni Rotondo. Father Pio received stigmata again on 20 September 1918, while praying in front of the cross in the choir loft in the Church of Our Lady of Grace. The stigmata remained for 50 years. They disappeared three days before his death. The news about the stigmata was quickly spread in the vicinity and all over Italy. Father Pio was known as a man of deep prayer and as a patient confessor. However, the stigmata caused his name appear in the Italian papers. Father Pio’s stigmata were examined several times by special commissions appointed by the Apostolic See, consisting of believing and non-believing medical doctors. Soon the person of the Stigmatic became controversial to the Apostolic See itself and to the local hierarchs. Since there were crowds of people who worshipped Father Pio to the extent equal to the worship that was due to God alone. The Church wondered what to do with this man who drew thousands of believers who reserved their meetings with him a month in advance and who could queue for the whole night so that he would hear their confessions and gave them the blessing with his bleeding hand. Saints are not only pricks of conscience for non-believers. Sometimes they are a ‘problem’ for the Church. How to treat a man for whom the local people are ready to give their lives when the right Church’s authorities wanted to move him to another monastery? Moreover, the man over whom the doctors wrung their hands, unable to explain his strange deceases, which sometimes lasted two days and the temperature reached almost 50 degrees Celsius, the man with the wounds on his hands, side and feet that did not heal? What to think about the man who was beaten by Satan every day, who spoke with his Guardian Angel, with the Mother of God and saints; who read in people’s consciences and told them the sins, which they had not confessed during the confession and which they should have confessed? How to react in the situations when people said that they had seen Father Pio in various places in Italy and even in the world and it was known that he did not leave the monastery in San Giovanni? Furthermore, this man did not seek to be famous and popular, on the contrary, he shunned this world; he was always obedient to the Church’s authorities and to his superiors. His whole life was devoted to prayer, service in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and celebrating the Eucharist. Common sense was not good enough in such a case and yet we speak about a real man who lived such a life. Such was the life of Father Pio. Thousands of people from all over the world came to confess their sins and he humbly listened to them. Although he spoke only Italian (and it was a dialect of Italian) the Divine Providence made him confess the English, the Dutch, the French and others without any interpreters. The phenomenon that disturbed the Church’s authorities was the people who came from various parts of the globe and settled in San Giovanni to be close to the Stigmatic, to go regularly to his confessional and to take part in the Mass he celebrated. One of the priests, directed more by curiosity than piety, said after having visited San Giovanni, ‘I thought I would see one of the miracles made by Father Pio. Generally, I was disappointed because nothing happened. But I experienced a miracle. I saw how this priest celebrated Holy Mass.’

Following the footsteps of Father Pio

When I had the chance to minister in San Giovanni Rotondo for a year as a confessor and guide for groups who came to the sanctuary I used to pray before the cross, the place where my holy fellow brother had received his stigmata – the signs of God’s love for man. I reflected a lot on the phenomenon of this man who ‘did nothing’ but heard confessions and celebrated the Eucharist. The mystery of suffering interwoven with prayer and ordinary life. The power of God that was manifested in this man of poor health, man who had no special characteristics. What has astonished and fascinated me in the person of Father Pio was his limitless confidence in God’s leading in his life and his confidence in the holy Mother – the Church. Once the Apostolic See imposed punishments on him and he could not celebrate Mass in public and he could not hear confessions; in brief, his wings were clipped, his mission was cancelled, the mission which – today we can say it peacefully – was given to him by God as a service for people’s salvation. And he quietly, although with suffering heart, accepted that. He gave a testimony to faith – there is God! That Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, that it is God and not people that directed his life.

Chosen by God

Thousands of conversions during his lifetime, millions of pilgrims and hundreds of thousands of conversions after his death. Currently, San Giovanni Rotondo is the biggest European sanctuary where over eight million pilgrims come every year. God, who is living and who acts, wants to continue drawing people to himself and revealing them his love through this personality of the ordinary Capuchin brother, who was controversial to numerous people. God is alive and acts in his Church. As sovereign and independent God, he acts as he wills. He chooses for his mission whom he wants. He chose the Holy Father John Paul II to lead the Church for 28 years. He chose the ordinary simple Capuchin to be a sign of his love and forgiveness in a way that, we would say, was spectacular and extraordinary. The number of unique gifts that the Divine Providence showered on Saint Father Pio would suffice for at least 20 other saints, but God decided to give them to this simple Capuchin.

Discovering Father Pio today

At first, I was fascinated by Father Pio’s extraordinary gifts, which Lord God gave him. But with time, when I began reading the texts of the Stigmatic, his letters, and not only books about him; when I began reflecting on his words and message he left to his spiritual children, I began getting to know a different face of Father Pio. At first, he was a wonderful saint for me, but he was a distant saint. I have not got a gift of bilocation (being present at two places at the same time), my hands and feet do not bleed, while I hear confessions I do not read in people’s thoughts but I patiently wait for the penitent to confess his/her sins. But as I was reading his texts I discovered a different face of Father Pio, a fragile and weak Man. Full of sense of humour and simplicity, which emanated from his Franciscan temperament. A Man who every day, like me, struggled with his weakness and sometimes, as he confessed himself, he did not want to pray at all. I got to know my fellow brother who was an ordinary man. However, he opened himself very much to the action of God’s grace in his life and thanks to that Lord God showed through him how much he loves man. I began reading his spiritual guidelines, which this man of prayer recommended to his penitents. The guidelines that emerged from his personal experience of weaknesses, struggling with temptations and difficulties of life. I got to know the ordinary face of Father Pio who charmed me much more than this extraordinary, as if inhuman, face. Reading the decree on the heroicity of the Stigmatic’s virtues I did not find any mention about wonders in his life, about the gift of bilocation, reading in people’s consciences as the basis of his canonisation. What made the Church announce him a saint was the fact that this man lived by faith, hope and love. He lived by what each of us can live. And I fell in love with such a face of Father Pio, an ordinary man who madly fell in love with God. He fell in love with God because he discovered that God is love and it is worth living for this love.

"Niedziela" 38/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl