Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France

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April 24, 2000
Easter Week


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Jean Guitton, one of only a few lay persons allowed to participate in the Second Vatican Council, said in October 1968, «It will be a long and complex process to reach a decision concerning Padre Pio. But thousands of witnesses will come forth to say that he had increased their belief in the Divine Presence and the truth of the Gospel.» Indeed, in a century prominently marked by atheism in theory and practice, God deigned to give an obvious sign of His presence. This Capuchin Friar, in whom Jesus Christ wished to renew the mystery of His Passion for a half century, is an exceptional witness. Beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 2, 1999, Padre Pio reminds Christians and all of humanity that Jesus Christ is the unique Saviour of the world.

Francesco Forgione was born in 1887 in Pietrelcina, a village in southern Italy. From the earliest age, he received the grace of frequent visions of the Most Blessed Virgin. The devil also appeared to him often in the night in terrifying forms. Starting at the age of nine, he began, so to speak, a series of serious illnesses which would only end with his death. Nevertheless at the age of sixteen, he entered the Capuchin Order in which he took his vows under the name of Fra (Brother) Pio. But the young Brother's health did not improve. He had serious problems with his left lung; his bouts of fever broke the thermometers! In the hope that a more favorable climate would help to cure this inexplicable illness, he was moved to different monasteries several times. Then, from 1910 to 1916 he returned to his family in Pietrelcina. In spite of many obstacles, he was ordained a priest on August 10, 1910. He said, «How happy I was on that day. My heart was burning with love for Jesus… I had begun to taste Paradise.» He finally succeeded in settling into the monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo, near Foggia, in the province of Puglia.

Miracles in the twentieth century

On September 20, 1918, at the age of 31, he received the grace of the stigmata: bloody wounds in the hands, the feet, and the side, reproducing those of Jesus crucified. From that time on, he would lose the equivalent of a glass of blood every day for the next fifty years. One of his fellow Capuchins said, «There were not just stains on him, but real wounds going through the hands and the feet. I was able to observe the one on his side—a real opening that bled continually.» These wounds caused him continual spells of weakness, which, even though they were mild, were no less troublesome. In the face of such a grace, Padre Pio felt very unworthy, but he was happy to be like Christ. His superiors called in reputable doctors to examine the stigmata. These specialists confirmed the reality of the wounds. Some people attributed them to magnetic forces, others to autosuggestion, others to «psycho-physiological-pathological interactions»; but several realized that the cause of these wounds was beyond the realm of medical science. Cardinal Journet wrote, «The purpose of these stigmata is to remind us in a stunning way of the sufferings of God martyred for us and of the necessity for the entire Church to suffer and die before entering into glory… The stigmata are a bloody sermon, at the same time tragic and splendid. They will not allow us to forget what the true signs of the sincerity of love are.» At the beginning of the month of May, 1919, a little girl was suddenly cured after having a vision of Padre Pio. On May 28, a young soldier wounded during the war and declared incurable by the doctors, asked to be transported to see Padre Pio, who blessed him: he was totally cured immediately. These two miracles, reported in the newspapers, drew crowds. Beginning in 1919, three to five hundred pilgrims or curiosity seekers appeared each day at San Giovanni Rotondo. The rumor spread that Padre Pio was able to look into one's soul. In fact, it occurred quite often. The beautiful and very rich Luisa V., drawn to San Giovanni Rotondo by sheer curiosity, was struck with such sorrow for her sins shortly after her arrival that she ended up sobbing in the middle of the church. Father came up to her and said: «Calm yourself, my child, mercy is boundless and the Blood of Christ washes away all the crimes of the world.» She answered, «I wish to confess, Padre.» He told her, «First calm down. You will come back tomorrow.» Not having been to confession since childhood, Signora V. spent the night remembering all of her sins. The next day, in the presence of the Padre, she was suddenly incapable of remembering her faults. Padre Pio helped her make a list of them, then he added, «Can't you remember anything else?» Luisa trembled at the thought of a serious sin that she dared not own up to. Padre Pio waited, silently moving his lips… Finally, she got a hold of herself: «There is still that one remaining, Padre.» He answered, «Praise God! I give you absolution, my daughter…»

A clinic for souls

Padre Pio liked to say, «I am a confessor.» Indeed, it happened that he would spend fifteen to seventeen hours a day receiving penitents. More than a tribunal or a pulpit, his confessional was a clinic for souls. He welcomed penitents with different styles, depending on the needs of each one. To one, he would extend his arms in the exuberance of his joy, telling him where he came from even before the person opened his mouth. On others he heaped reproach. He admonished them, he even shoved them. Sometimes he was more demanding of a «good Christian» who had not fulfilled his duties than he was of a great sinner who was more or less ignorant of the divine laws. He severely condemned sins against purity and against the laws of the procreation of life. He did not forgive these sins without being assured of an absolutely firm intention, and certain penitents would have to undergo months of probation before being absolved. Padre Pio thus showed the importance of contrition and firm intention in order to receive the sacrament of Penance. But where he found sincerity, he was gentle with a gentleness that filled the heart.

From the first words that he addressed to the penitent: «When was your last confession?» it was understood that Padre expected a confession that was clear, brief, complete and sincere. Five or six minutes was all he needed to completely transform someone's existence and to focus a dissolute life on God. There were instances when Padre would send away the penitent before he was finished: «Out! Go away! I don't want to see you before such and such a day…» His tone became imperious and severe. He knew that this «sending away» was a saving measure that would shake up the sinner, make him weep, push him to make an effort towards a change of heart. This way of doing things, which could be a bit surprising, fit within the framework of Padre Pio's pedagogical method. The method can be understood by his personal charisma and the enlightenment that he received from the Holy Spirit on the state of consciences. Souls subjected to this special energy only found peace when, sincerely penitent, they had returned to the feet of the confessor, who then revealed himself to be a father full of tenderness. However, Padre's suffering when he had to use these methods was immeasurable. One day he told another friar after having sent away a penitent with a bad disposition, «If you knew what arrows had first pierced my heart... But if I don't do it that way, there would be so many who would not be converted to God!»

Taking part himself in such an exceptional manner in body and in soul in the sufferings of the Redemption, he realized with particular acuity the seriousness of sin. An older gentleman, who had not been to confession since the age of seven, knelt one day in the confessional of Padre Pio and, little by little, as his conscience unburdened itself, he saw Padre begin to grow pale and to sweat. Some penitents affirmed that they saw drops of blood come from his forehead while they described their infidelities. «Souls, souls! How costly is your salvation!» Padre cried out one day.

Nowadays, sin no longer horrifies people. Pope Paul VI said, «According to today's standards, one no longer considers men as sinners; they are catalogued according to whether they are healthy, sick, honest, good, strong, weak, rich, poor, educated, ignorant; but the word 'sin' is never encountered» (September 20, 1964). Nevertheless, there are men like Padre Pio who do not compromise with evil and who are stunned when they encounter sin and the misfortune of those who live in a state of mortal sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that «Sin is an offense against God: 'Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Your sight.' (Ps 50 [51]:6) Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it… Sin is thus 'love of oneself even to contempt of God.' (Saint Augustine).» (CCC 1850). Its eternal consequence for those who do not have a change of heart before death is frightening: Hell. «The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell, where they suffer the punishments of Hell, 'eternal fire.' (CCC 1035). Padre Pio wept and sobbed when, while reading the Visits to the Most Blessed Virgin by Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, he uttered these words: «I thank you for everything you have done for me, in particular for having saved me from Hell, which I have so many times deserved.»

What is essential

It was in prayer that Padre Pio found the supernatural force to combat evil. Despite the suffering caused by his five wounds, he prayed much. Every day he meditated for four hours. He prayed with sighs of the heart, with ejaculatory prayers (short prayers shot towards Heaven like arrows), but above all with his Rosary. One often heard him say: «Go to the Madonna. Love her! Always say the Rosary. Say it well. Say it as often as you can! Be souls of prayer. Never tire of praying, it is what is essential. Prayer shakes the Heart of God, it obtains necessary graces!»

The pinnacle of the day and of prayer for Padre Pio was the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. «In this Divine Sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody way on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner» (Council of Trent; cf. CCC 1367). In the image of Christ with his stigmata, Padre Pio lived the Mass in intimate union with the Passion of Jesus: «The Mass is a type of sacred union between Jesus and me. Even though I am quite unworthy, I suffer all that He suffered, He who deigned to unite me with the mystery of the Redemption.» Padre often wept during the celebration of the Sacrifice, and as he explained to one person who was surprised about that: «Does it appear to you to be such a small thing that a God talks with His creatures? And that He be contradicted by them? And that He be continually wounded by their ingratitude and their disbelief?» Padre Pio's Mass could last and hour and a half or two hours. A French ambassador to the Holy See, having received the grace to participate in one of them, wrote: «I had never in my life attended such a stunning Mass. The Mass became—what in reality it is—an absolutely supernatural act. When the bells rang at the elevation of the Host, then of the Chalice, Padre Pio was immobilized in contemplation. How long?… Ten, twelve minutes, maybe longer. The only thing one heard in the crowd was the whisperings of prayer.»

In addition to praying so much, Padre Pio also brought others to prayer, and to respond to the wish expressed by Pope Pius XII, he organized prayer groups among the laity. Every evening he himself presided over the ceremony that brought the faithful together in the little church of the monastery. There was recitation of the Rosary, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the «irresistible Novena» to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the «Visit to the Madonna.» The prayer groups that he supported spread throughout the entire world. To celebrate his eightieth birthday, more than a thousand of these groups sent representatives to San Giovanni Rotondo.

A troublesome presence

Thus, little by little, religious fervor was reborn at San Giovanni Rotondo, where spiritual conditions had been deplorable before the arrival of Padre Pio. But the apostolic fervor of the young Capuchin aroused contradictions. Several neighboring canons (priests), used to leading a corrupt life and neglecting the duties of their ministry, found his presence quite troublesome. In addition, the sudden celebrity of the stigmatic, the influx of pilgrims and of contributions to his monastery did not please part of the local clergy. The local bishop, whose reputation was quite bad, had some priests and parishioners sign an accusation of supposed scandal at the monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo, which led to long legal proceedings at the Court in Rome. As a consequence of serious calumnies, severe measures were taken against Padre Pio, by the abused ecclesiastical authority, starting in June 1922. He was forbidden all spiritual correspondence, even with his spiritual directors; he was forbidden to celebrate Mass in public; he was to be transferred to another monastery. In fact, the last two measures could not be enforced due to the outcry of the local population. But in 1931, this persecution led to his being forbidden to exercise any public ministry, except for the celebration of Mass in private. Padre Pio was to live as a recluse in his monastery. This painful situation lasted for two years, after which Padre Pio had all his priestly powers restored (July 1933). In the meantime, an investigation of the scandalous behavior of certain priests opposed to the Padre ended with the condemnation of the guilty parties.

Padre Pio said, «After the original fall, suffering became the helper of creation; it is the most powerful leverage to put the world right; it is the right hand of the Love that desires to obtain our rebirth.» Nevertheless, knowing suffering and illness through his own experiences, he was very concerned about alleviating them, in imitation of the Saviour who healed those who were in need and who sent His Apostles to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform cures (Lk 9:11 and 2). To this end he envisaged the construction of a hospital at San Giovanni Rotondo: the sick, especially the poor, would receive care and qualified medical assistance, in worthy and comfortable surroundings, but one would also care for their souls, so that «worn out spirits and bodies could come to the Lord and find comfort in Him.» Construction of the «Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza» (House for the Relief of Suffering) began in 1947, and it would become one of the most modern hospitals in Italy, able to accept up to a thousand patients.

A coveted property

But this work gave rise to a new persecution against the Padre who, through an express dispensation from his vow of poverty granted by Pope Pius XII, was the owner of the hospital. Indeed, in spite of warnings from the Holy See, several diocesan administrations and religious institutes in Italy had become imprudently involved in financial dealings in which they had lost all of their assets. Faced with huge financial losses, some Capuchin priests and other clerics would attempt to get their hands on the financial reserves held by Padre Pio, who had wisely not become involved in the affair. Debates, threats and campaigns in the press were aimed at discrediting the Padre and the administrators that he had chosen for the management of the Casa. In April, 1960, certain priests became bold enough to place microphones in different places in order to record the conversations of the faithful with Padre Pio. This maneuver was of a sacrilegious character since it consisted of listening to counsel given in confession in order to find fault with the confessor. These recordings went on for four months; then a rapid investigation revealed the names of the guilty and their accomplices, all of whom were sanctioned. In 1961, in order to shelter the work of the hospital from this covetousness, the Holy See asked the Padre to bequeath it to the Holy See, which he did with exemplary obedience. Nevertheless, he was still treated like a suspect under surveillance, until Pope Paul VI, at the beginning of 1964, gave him complete liberty to exercise his priestly ministry.

Through all of these difficulties, Padre Pio practiced heroic and constant obedience. He said over and over, «To obey Superiors is to obey God.» He never debated the orders of his Superiors, no matter how unjust they might be. He wrote to one of them: «I only act to obey you, since the Good Lord has made me realize that that is the only thing that pleases Him, and for me the only way to hope for salvation and to sing victory.» During the Mass of the beatification of Padre Pio, Pope John Paul II said: «In the history of saintliness, it sometimes happens that the chosen one, with God's special permission, be the object of misunderstanding. When that is borne out, it becomes for him the crucible of purification, a way to progressively become more like Christ, a strengthening of authentic holiness.» But becoming like Christ can only be done through and in the Church. For Padre Pio, love of Christ and love for the Church were inseparable. He wrote to one of his spiritual sons who wanted to come to his defense in an unacceptable way, since it humiliated the Church: «If you were near to me, I would hug you to my heart, I would throw myself at your feet to beg you, and I would say to you: 'Let the Lord judge human wretchedness and return to your emptiness. Let me accomplish the will of the Lord, to which I have totally given myself. Place at the feet of our holy Mother the Church everything that can cause her damage and sadness.' » He saw in the Church a Mother to be always loved, in spite of the weakness of her children. His heart resonated with love for the Vicar of Christ, as witnessed by a letter that he sent on September 12, 1968, shortly before his death, to Pope Paul VI: «I know that your heart is suffering much in the present time on account of the fate of the Church, for the peace of the world, for the numerous needs of peoples, but above all on account of the lack of obedience of certain Catholics concerning the great teaching that you give to us, aided by the Holy Spirit and in the name of God. I offer you my prayers and my daily suffering… so that the Lord may comfort you by His grace, in order to continue to follow the narrow and difficult way, defending the eternal truth… I also thank you for the clear and decisive words that you have uttered, particularly in the last encyclical, Humanæ vitæ, and I reaffirm my faith as well as my unconditional obedience to your enlightened directives.»

Willingly embracing the cross

Right up to the end, Padre Pio continued to fulfill his mission of confessor and victim. During the year 1967, he heard about 70 confessions every day. Miracles, prophecies, conversions and religious vocations multiplied within his realm. But his spiritual life unfolded in the «night of faith.»—«I do not know if I am doing right or wrong,» he confided. «And that is true everywhere, in everything, at the altar, in the confessional, everywhere. I go forward almost miraculously, but I understand nothing. Living like that is quite painful… I have resigned myself to it, but my 'fiat' seems to me to be so cold, so vain!… I let Jesus Christ take care of it all.» Saint John of the Cross wrote: «There are dry spells that permit the soul to move forward on the way to the pure love of God. From then on it does not indulge in acting under the influence of the taste and flavor that it found in its deeds; it only acts to please God.» We find the same teachings in Padre Pio's letters: «I tell you to love your nothingness. That means to remain humble, calm, meek, hopeful in times of darkness and powerlessness; that means not to worry, but to embrace your crosses and your darkness willingly—I do not say gladly, but resolutely and steadfastly.» Through his troubles of every sort, Padre Pio was profoundly content, happy and joyful; such is the Christian mystery.

Padre Pio passed away peacefully on September 23, 1968, in his monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo. He wrote: «When our final hour is come, when the heartbeats are stifled, everything is over for us, the time to win or lose merit is gone… It is difficult to become a saint; difficult, but not impossible. The road to perfection is long, just as long as the life of each of us. Let us not stop in the middle of the way and the Lord will not fail to send us the comfort of His grace; He will help us and will crown us with eternal triumph.»

Blessed Padre Pio, teach us «through patience to share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in His kingdom» (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue).

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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