I am going to be honest. The saint whose feast day the Church celebrates today both fascinates and intimidates me. St. Pio of Pietrelcina, also known as Padre Pio, was born the son of two peasant farmers on May 25, 1887. His given name was Francesco after St. Francis of Assisi and at the age of five years old he made the decision to dedicate his life to God. His family was devout. They prayed the Rosary nightly, attended daily Mass, and abstained from meat three days a week in dedication to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Even though his parents could not read, they made a point of memorizing Scriptures and shared them with Pio and his siblings. His mother reported that he could see and speak with Jesus, Our Lady, and his Guardian Angel from a young age. This was so common in his life that he assumed that everyone could do the same. He was reported to have experienced heavenly visions and experience ecstasies in his youth, as well as throughout the rest of his life.
At a young age Pio expressed a desire to be a friar. He had great interest in the Capuchin Order, but discovered that he needed more education before they would accept him. His father arranged for him to have private tutoring so the he could meet the academic requirements of the Order. In 1903, at the age of 15, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchin friars at Morcone and on January 22 he took the Franciscan habit and the name Friar Pio, in honor of Pope St. Pius I, whose relic was in the Santa Anna Chapel at Pietrelcina. It was then that he took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and committed to living the evangelical counsels.
After seven years of study and a period of severe illness, Pio was ordained to the Priesthood in 1910. A few years later World War I broke out and he was drafted into military service. He assigned to the 10th Medical Corps in Naples. His service did not last long, however, due to his poor health. It took a few years for the Italian military to figure out that Pio was too sick to serve and he was finally declared unfit for service in 1918.
It is clear that Pio spent much of his life experiencing the supernatural. On September 20, 1918 while listening to Confession, he received the stigmata for the first time. He had bodily marks, pain, and bleeding in the locations corresponding to the crucifixion of Our Lord. He would experience the stigmata for fifty years, until he neared his death. The blood flowing from his wounds gave off a perfume smell that was similar to flowers. He tried to live with it in secret, but eventually described the experience to his superior and spiritual director:
On the morning of the 20th of last month, in the choir, after I had celebrated Mass I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. I saw before me a mysterious person similar to the one I had seen on the evening of 5 August. The only difference was that his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. This sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should have died if the Lord had not intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest. The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel deep in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs? I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away, not the wound or the pain, which is impossible since I wish to be inebriated with pain, but these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation….the pain was so intense that I began to feel as if I were dying on the cross
Fr. Michael Fortin, Padre Pio, A Priest, The Angelus Online (taken from Catholic Online, St. Padre Pio)
Pio experienced periods of intense persecution within the Church. Many did not believe his stigmata to be genuine and accused him of keeping his wounds open with carbolic acid. The Magisterium dismissed these claims, but controversy over the years resulted in periods when Pio could not celebrate Mass publicly. The Church tried to limit the publicity Pio had generated, but found that they could not control the great love people had for him. He spent much of his life in poor health, but lived until the age of 81 when he died on September 23, 1968. St. Padre Pio was canonized by St. John Paul II who went to Pio for Confession and was told he would ascend to the highest office of the Church.
Pio’s story is one of great struggle, perseverance, suffering, love, and profound supernatural experience. He received great graces that most of us will never experience on this side of the veil. It is some of those experiences that I find intimidating at times. He is said to have not only experienced the stigmata, which is incredible in-and-of-itself, but also bilocation and transverberation. He is not the only saint to experience the latter. It is to be pierced with the Divine Love. It is to be wounded deeply by the love of God. St. John of the Cross described transverberation as:
The soul being inflamed with the love of God which is interiorly attacked by a Seraph, who pierces it through with a fiery dart. This leaves the soul wounded, which causes it to suffer from the overflowing of divine love.
For those of us who have never had such an experience the response is one of profound awe and fear, or what C.S. Lewis often called the Numinous. He could see into the supernatural and sense it tangibly. This progressed to a life that was united to the sufferings of Christ through the stigmata, as well as his own bodily illnesses. He also spent periods in great persecution because of these gifts bestowed upon him.
Like many priest-saints, Pio was greatly devoted to the Sacraments. He spent hours listening to Confessions and had the gift of reading souls. Many people experience stern rebukes from Pio in the Confessional only to return in true contrition and a desire to change their lives. His love of sinners in the Confessional serves as an example to the faithful that while we must be honest and humble before God in our sins, it is the Divine Love who comes to meet us and heal us.
St. Padre Pio’s life was one that God touched in intense and stunning ways. The results were a deeply holy and devoted man who persevered in bearing the Crosses that were given to him. He stands as a reminder to us that we must devote our lives to God and unite our own sufferings to Christ. It is in unification that great graces pour out and we are made more like Our Lord. It is clear from Pio’s experiences that suffering is always met with an even more abundant experience of love.
St. Padre Pio’s life was filled with many experiences which I cannot cover in so short an article. Many books have been written and devotions begun to this holy saint. He is also a contemporary saint, which means that the story of his life is readily available. On his feast day, let us ask for his intercession, that Our Lord may give us the grace and strength to unite our lives to the Most Holy Trinity. St. Padre Pio, ora pro nobis.