Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina: The Cross, Persecution and Glory

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The sufferings caused from bearing the marks of the stigmata upon his body; the almost superhuman efforts expended in his most fruitful pastoral work; and the calumnies against him combined with persecutions have made Padre Pio one of the most venerated Saints of our day.

Newsroom (23/09/2021 23:50, )Gaudium Press In the heart of Campania, a few kilometres from Benevento, is the small agricultural town of Pietrelcina. There, in a simple house with just a few rooms, lived the family of Grazio Forgione and Maria Giuseppa Di Nunzio, to whom was born a boy destined for Sainthood.

Religious vocation from the earliest age

The Saint, as a little boy, loved to pray and often served at the altar of the church in his parish. At an early age he expressed to his parents, who never opposed his wish, the desire to become a Capuchin friar.

At the age of five, the boy began to experience mystical phenomena, such as ecstasies and apparitions, but he did not reveal them until adulthood, mostly because he considered them an ordinary occurrence that could happen to anyone.

In January 1903, before his sixteenth birthday, he entered the convent of Morcone as a novice, taking the name of Friar Pio of Pietrelcina.

“The devil wants me for himself”

His solemn profession took place on 27 January 1907. However, a mysterious illness forced him to return to Pietrelcina in May, the doctors believing that the air in his homeland would cure him.

This illness, during which he suffered terrible spiritual torments, was to continue for almost seven years. The devil wanted to snatch him out of Jesus’ hands, while he burned with the desire to become a priest.

On 10 August, 1910, he was ordained in Benevento Cathedral. Because of his state of health, however, he continued to live with his family for much of the time and helped the parish priest in his pastoral work in the town. Throughout this time he suffered tremendous diabolical attacks, regarding which he said: “The devil wants me for himself at all costs”.

A confessor with extraordinary charisms

In 1916 he was finally able to return to community life, this time in the convent of San Giovanni Rotundo. It was not long before countless souls in need of spiritual guidance began to seek out the new friar, whose main advice was clear and simple: partake of frequent Communion and Confession.

The heavenly visions of his childhood returned on a regular basis. He himself would tell the spiritual directors, in all simplicity: “Our Lord appeared to me…” or “Jesus came and told me…”.

Favoured with the gift of the discernment of spirits, he was able to see the activity occurring inside souls and consciences. For this reason, the queues for his confessional became so long that it was necessary to distribute numbers to regulate the penitents.

He also possessed the infused knowledge of foreign languages and the gift of bilocation, among many other extraordinary charisms.

His daily routine consisted of praying, reading and, above all, hearing Confessions. When penitents received the Sacrament of Reconciliation through him, they regained peace, and his Masses had such a power to draw people that some said: “Whoever has seen him celebrate once will never forget it“.

The beginning of a painful ordeal

In 1918, like St. Teresa of Jesus, he received the grace of the piercing of the heart, as though a spear or arrow had been driven through it. On August 5, Padre Pio relates in a letter that he saw before him, “with the eyes of his intelligence,” a heavenly personage who “had in his hand a sort of tool like a very long iron blade with a very sharp point, from which fire seemed to come.” When this personage pierced his soul with the blade, he felt himself die and later declared that “he was physically wounded in the side“.

Some years before, in 1911, he had seen on the palms of his hands “something red like the figure of a coin, accompanied by a strong pain in the centre of that reddish circle”.

A similar phenomenon occurred on the soles of his feet. Once the signs disappeared, the suffering continued: “It seems to me that my heart, my hands and my feet are pierced by a sword, such is the pain I feel“.

After the celebration of Holy Mass on 20 September 1918, while he was in the choir, the mysterious figure appeared to him again, this time with his hands, feet, and side bleeding.

When he left, Padre Pio noticed that his own “hands, feet and side were pierced and gushing blood”. From that moment, the Capuchin’s stigmata began to bleed regularly, without healing or causing any infection.

Although he begged Divine Providence to remove those signs, which caused him so much suffering and misunderstanding, he never asked to be rid of the pain they caused him. It pleased Our Lord that His faithful servant should imitate him, in an ordeal that lasted fifty years, to his “indescribable and unbearable confusion and humiliation“.

Crowds besieged him in the convent

From all parts of the world came requests for prayers and “often thanksgiving for graces received”.

The Friary of San Giovanni Rotundo was besieged by crowds who wanted to have their Confession heard by the stigmatized Capuchin, or to see him celebrate Holy Mass.

Padre Pio spent up to sixteen hours in the confessional daily. In a letter to his spiritual director he confided: “I don’t have a free minute: all the time is used to get the brothers out of Satan’s snares. Blessed be God“.

But it was not only spiritual sufferings that worried Saint Pio. As proof of this, seeing years later the need for a good hospital in the city, he set about building the House of Relief from Suffering, which, according to Pius XII, became “one of the best-equipped hospitals in Italy”.

Envy and misunderstanding unleash persecution

As the celebrity of the Saint grew to the point of reaching the most famous newspapers of the time, envy, misunderstanding, and calumny arose against him and the friars around him.

Benedict XV, the then reigning Pontiff, considered him a “truly extraordinary man, one of those whom God sends to earth from time to time for the conversion of men”.

However, this did not prevent members of the secular clergy from sending the Pope reports asking for measures to be taken against this “strange” religious man.

In 1919 Monsignor Pasquale Gagliardi, Archbishop of Manfredonia, in whose jurisdiction the convent of San Giovanni Rotundo is located, began to gather documents and testimonies against the Capuchin Saint. He sent a complaint to the Holy Office, begging the Supreme Pontiff to “put a stop to the idolatry being practiced in the convent by the actions of Padre Pio and by the Brothers who are with him”.

It should be noted that at this time Bishop Gagliardi was accused by some of the faithful of practicing simony and having depraved customs; facts which were later confirmed during an Apostolic Visit. During his governance, the Archdiocese of Manfredonia was in ruins.

The complaints of the prelate and of some priests unleashed a veritable persecution against Padre Pio. They were joined by Fr. Augustine Gemelli, a doctor and Franciscan religious man who, although he had never examined the stigmata of Padre Pio, claimed that they came from “a morbid state, a psychopathic condition, or were the effect of a simulation”. One of St. Pio’s biographers even called Fr. Gemelli a “philosopher of persecution”.

A decade of interventions by the Holy Office

Prompted by the hatred of his detractors, suspicions against Padre Pio continued to grow. In June 1922, less than six months after the death of Benedict XV, the Holy Office issued provisions aimed at isolating him from his devotees.

It was forbidden for him to show his wounds, to speak of them, or to allow them to be touched. His spiritual director was removed, with whom all epistolary communication was now suspended. He was forbidden to answer any letters or give advice to anyone, and his superiors were ordered to remove him from San Giovanni Rotundo “when the popular climate permitted”, when the people would allow it, which did not happen.

In the following years, Bishop Gagliardi and the disgruntled priests continued to bombard the Holy Office with accusations. The transfer of the Padre Pio to another convent was still impracticable, for fear of riots.

In 1931, the Holy Office forbade him to celebrate Mass in public and withdrew his permission to hear Confessions. This was not an official condemnation, but “restrictions imposed for prudence’s sake”.

The incessant accusations and calumnies of Bishop Gagliardi and his agents had achieved their objective, at least in part.

The holy friar’s reaction, on learning of each prohibition, was to raise his eyes to Heaven and abandon himself to God’s will. He accepted everything with humility and resignation, even though he knew the punishments to be unjust.

Almost thirty years of fruitful apostolate

On 14 July 1933, the Holy Office relaxed the prohibitions. A letter from its Secretary, Cardinal Donato Sbarretti, authorized Padre Pio to celebrate Mass in the convent church and to hear Confessions of religious members outside the church.

On the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the crowds of devotees who filled the church to see him again found him unrecognizable: aged, his hair thinning, his shoulders heavy, his step uncertain. “He was a man of sorrows who was returning to be with his faithful.”

Gradually the faculty of hearing Confessions was restored to him and, although the reservations of the Holy Office were not withdrawn – nor confirmed by a trial and sentence- “a happy period began for Padre Pio, which was to last until 1960.”

It was a happy period in the sense of a free and fruitful apostolate. For nearly thirty years hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocked to San Giovanni Rotundo, during which the conversions, healings and graces received multiplied“.

On October 3, 1960, an unfortunate Vatican press release reported the return to Rome of Msgr. Carlo Maccari, who had been at San Giovanni Rotundo as Apostolic Visitor.

The unfortunate wording of the report set off an avalanche of publicity: within one month more than 800 notices against St. Pio were circulated throughout Italy!

This time the calumnies not only affected him personally, but affected also the financial and administrative affairs of the House of Relief from Suffering. One article went so far as to call him “the richest Capuchin in the world”.

The triumph of Padre Pio

Numerous books have been written about the persecutions suffered by Padre Pio, refuting the accusations levelled against him, revealing the bad faith of his detractors, and relating the facts in all their detail. It is not our intention, therefore, to use the short space of this article to exhaust the subject, but rather to highlight how much light is reached through the Cross!

The physical sufferings caused by the stigmata, the almost superhuman efforts of his most fruitful pastoral work, and the calumnies and persecutions that crucified his soul, all turned to glory on this earth.

By 1962, dozens of Bishops and Archbishops participating in the Second Vatican Council visited him. Among them was Bishop Karol Wojtyla, then Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, later Pope John Paul II.

Two years later, the Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, informed him that it was the wish of Pope Paul VI that “Padre Pio return to his ministry in full freedom“.

The crowds again flocked to San Giovanni Rotundo, eager to see him and touch the wounds on his hands or to at least touch his habit.

On 20 September 1968, the fiftieth anniversary of his stigmatization, Padre Pio realized that his end was near. On the 22nd, after his morning Mass, the people applauded him.

At about half past ten o’clock, already pale and trembling, he barely had the strength to raise his cold hands and bless a large crowd from the window of the old church. It is difficult to describe the joy and applause, the waving of hands and handkerchiefs, in response to his greetings.

In the afternoon, however, after the final blessing of the faithful who had attended Mass, he retired to his room. The Guardian tells us that at that moment “the window of Padre Pio’s cell closed forever, closing behind it the memory of a man whom all who had approached him learned to call Father!”

At two o’clock in the morning of the 23rd, after receiving the Anointing of the Sick, with the Rosary in his hands and on his lips the names of Jesus and Mary, his soul flew to Heaven. He was 81 years old.

The life of one of the most venerated Saints in Italy and throughout the world opened into Eternity that day.

Text extracted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 213, September 2019.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

 

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