The tomb of Father Pio was opened
A sensational event or special grace on the 40th anniversary of his death?
Fr Gracjan Majka, OFMCap
On the Feast of Epiphany, 6 January 2008, Archbishop Domenico D’Ambrosio who had been the president of the Work of Father Pio, the Padre Pio Foundation ‘Home for the Relief of Suffering’ since 8 March 2003, i.e. for five years, and Director of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups, celebrated an evening Mass in the Capuchin Church of St Mary of Grace in San Giovanni. At the end of the Mass he informed the faithful, ‘Now when the solemn Eucharist liturgy of the Lord’s Epiphany is ending, in this sanctuary, I want to give you who are present here and all worshippers of Father Pio the joyous news that I have received a decree from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the consent of the appropriate authorities to exhume the body of Saint Father Pio in order to examine its condition, to preserve it so that it could be displayed for Veneration.’ That joyous news evoked enthusiasm and applause of the gathered. Archbishop D’Ambrosio added that the fact of opening the tomb ‘is to help us discover the beauty of sanctity, which the Lord reveals in his servants and friends, to evoke energy necessary to be more faithful to Jesus Christ and to transform ourselves in the likeness of Jesus Christ who was crucified for our salvation.’
Francesco Forgione, who became Father Pio, was born in Pietrelcina, near Benewento, on 25 May 1887. He was the fourth child of Maria Giuseppa Di Nunzio and Grazio Forgione. At the age of 16 he entered the Capuchin Order in the province of Foggia. On 10 August 1910 he received the Holy Orders in the cathedral in Benevento. He was ill and weak from the beginning. In 1916, Father Pio arrived to the 16th century old friary in San Giovanni Rotondo for a short stay – as people used to say then. On 20 September 1918, during his prayer before the Crucified Lord he received the stigmata of the Lord’s Passion. Both the friary and the Capuchin church in San Giovanni Rotondo became the site of countless pilgrimages of penitents, who having heard of that extraordinary and charismatic friar wanted him to solve their problems. They also wanted to see the Capuchin’s stigmata, participated in the Masses he celebrated and to confess their sins to him. Several months before his death, to general astonishment, the wounds of his stigmata began healing and finally disappeared. After his death, which happened on the night of 23 September 1968, the movement of pilgrimages increased.
San Giovanni Rotondo
Today San Giovanni Rotondo is a special site on the map of pilgrimages in the Church. This charming place in southern Italy draws more and more pious pilgrims every year. Here, in the small Capuchin church, we find the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace whose picture received papal crowns on 1 July 1959 and the place of the cult of Father Pio. It is here where the extraordinary friar and priest Father Pio of Pietrelcina spent most of his life, praying, suffering and working. He experienced the sufferings of the Lord’s Passion in a visible way for exactly fifty years. His body was laid in the crypt under the sacristy and presbytery on 26 September 1968. People regarded him a saint when he was alive. His life, full of signs and miracles, was spent and formed in the Capuchin monastery for 52 years. Numerous books were written about him. They were published in Poland, too. His writings have been constantly published and since the year 2000 the bimonthly ‘Glos Ojca Pio’ [The Voice of Father Pio] has appeared in the Polish publishing market.
His way to the altars
The cult of Father Pio has been spread by his monumental works, which are proper to his charisma, namely the huge hospital whom he called home for the relief of suffering, hospital where the sick feel like at home and where they are treated wholly, and the Prayer Groups (over 3,000 groups have been already registered). There are about 200 groups in Poland (the biggest number is in Italy). New social initiatives originate to bring relief to the sick and suffering in the spirit of Father Pio. The cause for the beautification of Father Pio, which had began soon after his death, was completed soon and his beautification took place on 2 May 1999, and his canonisation was held on 16 June 2002. Both celebrations drew countless, record-breaking crowns of believers. This year, on 23 September, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his death. Fr Pio died in the opinion of sanctity. He passed away to receive his eternal reward. The ecclesiastical authorities allowed verifying the condition of the relics of the Saint and ensuring its future preservation in order to display it for public veneration.
Opening of the tomb
The news concerning the opening of the tomb and displaying the body of Father Pio evoked discussions and tensions. Some were delighted to have the opportunity to see Father Pio’s mortal body (the number of those who saw him during his life is decreasing), whereas others expressed their firm protests since they feared that the body of Father Pio would be taken to another place, for example to the huge modern basilica named after him in San Giovani Rotondo. They used the argument that Fr Pio had provided himself, ‘I want to be buried in the earth like every Christian.’ When he learnt several months before his death that his brother had began preparing a crypt under the church he was to say, ‘What for? Bury me in the earth! I want to be buried in the earth!’ But he humbly agreed to be buried in the crypt. The recognition of the saints’ relics, i.e. examining their condition and displaying them for public veneration is not anything extraordinary in the history of the Church. Doing that the Church wants to express her praise of God Who is Holy and Who reveals himself in people. How many experiences have those who visit the graves of the Apostles in Rome, who pray in the catacombs or in the Coliseum, participate in the ceremony of the liquefaction of the blood of St Januarius in Naples reliquary, visit Assisi with St Francis and St Clare, St Rita in Cascia, St Anthony and St Leopold in Padua. The communiqué of the commission for the verification of the relics of Father Pio, issued on 3 March 2008, said that on 28 February 2008 (on Thursday), late evening, in the presence of the members of the above mentioned commission, five witnesses of Father Pio’s funeral (26 September 1968), the postulator-general of the Capuchin Order, some Capuchin friars together with their Superior General, their Provincial and their Guardian, the authorities of the municipality and invited guests, including Consiglia De Martino and Matteo Colelli, who had been healed through the intercession of Fr Pio (the miracles of their healings were acknowledged in the process of beatification and canonization), the marble tablet was removed and the coffin with the body of Father Pio was taken out. On the evening of 2 March 2008 the coffin was opened. The body was preserved very well after 40 years from the burial. The cover of the coffin was removed and the commission could see the mortal remains of Father Pio through the glass that had been installed in the coffin. The crypt where Father Pio was buried in 1968 will be closed till 24 April 2008. Currently, the relics are being verified, preserved and prepared to be displayed. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is to open the crypt and begin the public veneration of the relics in the crypt on 24 April. Archbishop D’Ambrosio said that it might be possible that the Holy Father Benedict XVI would visit the shrine during the period of the veneration of the relics. During the audience for the pilgrimage of the Prayer Groups to Rome and on the 50th anniversary of the Hospital for the Relief of Suffering, on 14 October 2006, the Pope himself told Archbishop D’Ambrosio about his desire to visit the tomb of Father Pio.
Exposition of the relics
This year the worshippers of the Holy Stigmatic of San Giovanni Rotondo, thanks to the act of the verification and exposition of his relics, will have the chance to venerate the relics and thank Good God, as the Servant of God John Paul II said, that ‘he Lord gave us such a dear Father; he gave him to our tormented age, to our generation (23 May 1987). Today, during Lent and Easter, through the sign of the exposition of the relics of Father Pio the Lord challenges us to make the effort to new lives in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. In his homily during the beautification the Holy Father John Paul II said, ‘May Father Pio astonish the world by his Christian life and faith’ and the pious pilgrims as well as those who doubt and live as if God did not exist see ‘a living image of Christ suffering and risen.’ Is it not meaningful that during his life Father Pio was ‘sealed with suffering’ and on the night of his death his body, his face, as the witnesses said, was radiant? That sign was noticed by the Holy Father in his homily in the beautification ceremony, ‘His body, marked by the “stigmata”, showed forth the intimate bond between death and resurrection which characterizes the paschal mystery.’
Father Pio, gifted with extraordinary stigmata, experiencing great physical and spiritual sufferings, proclaims that one should accept them in the spirit of faith; that one should treat them as ‘a crucible of purification, a path of gradual assimilation to Christ, a strengthening of true holiness’ since ‘Calvary is the hill of the Saints’, as he said himself (2 May 1999).
On 25 April – 4 May 2008 we are making a pilgrimage from Krakow to Rome to visit the Roman basilicas, the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul, to visit Pompeii, Pieltrelcina, the grave of the Servant of God John Paul II and San Giovanni Rotondo. According to the programme of the pilgrimage we will visit Father Pio’s sanctuary on 2 May, the ninth anniversary of his beautification. Because of the ceremonies of the exposition of the relics we have been asked to reserve the dates of Mass in the local church and of the visit to the crypt to venerate the relics. Our Mass has been booked for 9.30 in the Church of Our Lady of Grace, and the veneration of the relics at 11.00. Is it not meaningful that these are the exact hours of the anniversary and the beautification of Father Pio?