Just about everyone has heard of Padre Pio, the Italian stigmatic whose death at age eighty-one on September 23, 1968, was even reported by the New York Times. The biographies that sell steadily year after year, including one by the author written with help from Pio’s friary, are crammed with accounts from people whose medically inexplicable healings came to them from God, they believe, through the gloved, bleeding hands of this Capuchin Franciscan priest. This article discusses takes up just one extraordinary healing: the saint’s own.
The father of the boy born Francesco Forgione on May 25, 1887, was one of those Italian peasants locked in profitless farm labor on the lands of the lower Italian Peninsula. Not just a day laborer like the majority, he actually owned a few acres, but there was no way to profit to the point of educating Franci, as the future Pio was called. Heroically, Papa Forgione became one of those workers who so pulled at the heartstrings of Francesca Cabrini as they let themselves be packed like sardines—often seasick and heartsick for the families left behind—in the comfortless steerage decks of ships lurching toward an unknown fate in the United States. The hope of many like Forgione was not permanent emigration; rather, enduring years of separation, discrimination, and labor far from the beloved homeland, they sought better lives for those left behind and a decent old age for themselves. By Papa Forgione’s labors in places like Mahoningtown, Pennsylvania, and the community of Jamaica, Long Island, in New York, he achieved his dream: Francesco was freed from the fields for the education that made him Pio, a Capuchin friar.
What Papa’s sacrifice, the entire family’s and fellow Capuchins’ worries and prayers, and least of all the medical profession’s efforts could not do after 1908, it appeared, was make the young Capuchin well enough to actually live in a friary. No matter to which friary his superiors assigned him—and they chose those with the most healthful climates—one foot in the door and Pio’s stomach began to cramp and his temperature to rise. (He may have set the human record here, with verified levels of 120 and 125 degrees at times—107 being considered generally lethal according to medical authorities.) Each try soon resulted in a weak, emaciated, often bedridden figure vomiting, suffering “unbearable headaches,” and scaring people away, if he were taken out, by tuberculosis-like symptoms, including, at times, atrocious pains in his chest.
For almost a decade this went on. After months of recuperation at home, Pio would report to a new monastery only to begin vomiting the day he arrived. A number of physicians over the years diagnosed tuberculosis. Others disagreed. Some thought the problem chronic bronchitis, but that left the stomach symptom unaccounted for. One Naples physician, without giving any name to Pio’s condition, simply said it was hopeless and terminal. But whenever the stocky, reddish-haired young friar returned to his native village, he began to improve at once. If his physical condition improved at home, his confusion, fear, and guilt did not. Counseled by letter to try again to return to a friary, he writes back very humanly, “It seems to me that I have the right and duty of not depriving myself of life at the age of twenty-four! It seems to me that God does not want this to happen.” Then the young man who is already believed a saint in his hometown immediately adds in his letter to his superior, “Consider that I am more dead than alive and then do as you believe best, for I am disposed to make any sacrifice if it is a case of obedience.”
Chided by return mail, in his next answer Pio eats humble pie. “With reddened eyes and trembling hand I .. . beg your forgiveness …” In effect, as he says in another letter, he is grappling with the temptation to despair. Year after year the prayers for his healing are not answered, in spite of the fact that he wants a cure so he can answer what he is sure is a genuine call from God to follow the friary life of self-denial and prayer on behalf of the wounded members of the human family. And he can see, as can his spiritual director, a man wise in the ways of mysticism, that the root of all his life-threatening illness is not something like a TB bacillus, but something spiritual. In other words the very area that is the site of all his hopes and dreams appears to be the source of their failure. If his superiors agree that this young friar is a very rare person already capable of loving God and his fellow human beings beyond what most of us achieve in a lifetime, Pio can also be looked at as, if not a downright malingerer—no one believes that—at least as someone who may be sinning against his vocation by resisting it with every ounce of bodily strength. While they love the young mystic and try to encourage him to see God’s loving hand in his strange situation, at other times his spiritual advisers become downright annoyed and badger him that it is hardly edifying for “everyone to know that a priest remains at home because of his health.” Or they chide, “It is being said all over . . . that you are being deceived by the devil, who is taking advantage of your affection for your native soil.”
Some days the confused Pio longs to die to be with God, as it seems he is going to do; on other days, he clamors to live. He broods that perhaps his illness is a punishment for his sins. He panics when it seems he may be dismissed from the Capuchin Order. Yet through all the confusion and varying emotions, he remains in love with God, whom he sees as “both the one who smites me and the one who consoles me.”
Since devils, he said, were at this time appearing to Pio, buffeting and taunting him, his inability to remain in a Capuchin house may be seen as just one more manifestation of their work, the Hinderer knowing the enormous good Pio would do once he could live in a friary. Others will judge Pio as a young man struggling with purely interior “devils.” A third possibility is that both an inner struggle and a cosmic one were involved, as is suggested by the content of some of Pio’s visions. And finally some will see Pio, as he himself puts it in a letter, as “toyed with by Love,” God playing with the mystic, molding him, as He has done with many saints, through “senseless suffering” into one who has hoped against hope, clung to faith in despair, and continued to love God even when He seemed to treat one most unlovingly, and so become ready, in Pio’s case, to be the first priest known to have borne the visible marks of the crucified Christ in his body.
The war for which Pio’s entire being is the battleground goes into a new phase around 1916. After years of being pressed by his miseries as well as love to go deeper and deeper into God, Pio is about to receive health in the particular way God wants Pio healthy. Shackled to his native village, Pio has been giving spiritual direction by letter to a number of people “introduced” to him by his directors. One of these whom he meets only upon her deathbed is saintly Raffaelina Cervase. She tells Pio’s spiritual director to order him to a friary as soon as she dies, assuring the director this time Pio will be able to stay. Raffaelina dies March 25 in 1916, the director follows her counsel, and Pio never goes home to live again.
At first he spends much time in bed. Then like St. Paul, who prayed for healing from “a thorn in the flesh,” was not healed, and eventually found that God willed His servant’s strength be made perfect in this weakness, Pio gets well—cured of his mystics’ fevers, his vomiting, and the other physical ills doctors say doom him. In fact he will enjoy quite incredible—even physically inexplicable117—health, in spite of some normal ups and downs until old age. There is, however, one exception to his health. In 1918 about the time his gradual healing from death’s door reaches real vitality, he experiences a sudden wounding during an ecstatic vision of “a man” he is too modest to say is Christ. (He will admit that only forty-seven years later.) From this time on, the stigmata he has had intermittently, sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly, are clearly visible and permanent.
He has begged God for years, with permission of his spiritual guides, for the rarest of human vocations, that of the “victim” who participates in a mystical and /or physical way in the Passion of Christ for the salvation of the world. Now Pio has his answer. Not that Jesus needs anyone. He alone is the Redeemer. But the Lord affirms in this visible way that He will let his servant suffer redemptively. Pio, whose compassionate heart has always made him want to carry others’ loads, in the rarest of vocations, will partake, by grace, in sufferings somehow joined to Christ’s. In some mysterious way, allied to the Redeemer, the Franciscan priest will carry God’s healing to others. With the stigmata, he will be a wounded healer in the sense of Christ’s bearing our sins as Isaiah 53:5 puts it: “We were healed by his stripes.” Perhaps Pio’s nine-year illness, his recovery, and this ongoing wound have been necessary to together protect him from psychospiritual imbalance at such a lofty call. Perhaps, humanly, they also enrich him to become God’s instrument to heal others, a wounded healer who has known what it is to be desperately ill with all the body-mind-soul ramifications of severe, even seemingly hopeless, illness. Pio is much too humble to think of himself as like his favorite saint,119 and echo Paul: “I make up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24). Instead the bodily sign of a much more all-encompassing suffering is, he writes a spiritual director, an “embarrassment and unbearable humiliation” to the thirty-one-year-old friar. He sees himself “a wretched creature,” unworthy of his burning and deeply painful, bleeding hands and feet and the deep heart wound of the Crucified One.
On top of this, in divine protection from pride, the rest of his life he will be more and more unsure of his standing with the God he adores. He also, humanly, worries for some time he will bleed to death. To his chagrin his stigmata became known locally, then nationally, and eventually, in the 1920s, internationally. Starting then and still going strong decades later, thousands of words analyzing Pio’s wounds are produced by experts of various kinds and journalists. The main theory, among non-Catholic, as well as “up-to-date” Catholic writers anxious to avoid association with “medieval ideas,” is that Pio is a neurotic whose fixation on Christ’s Passion produced the stigmata. More religiously inclined analysts deny neurosis but believe Pio has contemplated Christ’s sufferings with such ardent love and compassion that the signs of the Passion have reproduced themselves on his flesh. To both groups, Pio, whose sense of humor is robust and who is much more a feeling person than an analytical one, snorts, “Right! Now you go meditate like that on a bull and see if you grow horns.”
Surprising some, possible neurosis is looked at carefully by the Church wherever there are unusual phenomena. Causes may be set aside on this question. When Pio’s Cause is opened some years after his death, the vision of Christ during which Padre Pio received the stigmata was seen not as proof the stigmata was a supernatural event—visions even in saints may have origins in the self or from devils—but acknowledged as corroborative evidence in light of factors speaking against neurosis. Perhaps the most important of these was how Pio was seen by those who knew him best, the friars who lived with him. They described a well-balanced man who was lovable, down to earth, and full of humor, including being quick to make fun of himself. All who knew him, laypeople as well as friars, testified to Pio’s heroic virtue in a life spent serving others through love of God.
Too, there were the physical mysteries. The stigmata blood, even when it was old and should have putrefied, was sweetly perfumed. Any non-stigmata wounds Pio suffered healed normally; the stigmata, even when bandaged, treated, and kept under close watch in ordered studies to make sure they were not self-induced or tampered with, did not heal. Because of the daily ongoing blood loss from the five wounds (both hands, feet, and the deep side wound like Christ’s piercing by the centurion’s lance), Pio’s condition should have demanded careful attention to nutrition and rest. In fact his daily intake of three hundred to four hundred calories, and sometimes less, and his two to four—more often two—hours of sleep at night do not provide a physiological rationale for how for fifty years Pio carried on a most demanding all-day, everyday ministry to the huge numbers whose confessions and pleas he heard one by one in his airless wooden confessional—so many lining up that tickets had to be issued and the wait could be days. Losing blood—estimated at a cup a day—and eating primarily a few spoonfuls of vegetables or pasta, and the occasional egg, he is not even anemic. Add incidents like the time his stomach is bothering him, so he fasts eight days. Weighed at the end, he has gained weight. A visiting medical doctor’s verdict: Pio is a “dead man,” since living on so little while working so hard is clearly impossible for a live one.
The whole event of this extraordinary healing, encompassing an ongoing wounding, becomes explicable only if inserted into any analysis of body-mind-soul complexity, is the phrase “God acts as He wills.” With that it becomes possible for me to suggest I have just put before you a bare outline of the first, and arguably the mostinexplicable miracle of God’s healings associated with the adult Pio.
Whether he was engaged in telling one of the simple jokes that made his friends smile, changing destinies by hearing confessions, or re- living the Passion as he said Mass before awed onlookers, one could say of Padre Pio during his life that his ministry was rich and fruitful in spite of his psychospiritual ups and downs or human foibles. These included a peasant kind of roughness and at times (perhaps feigned) irritability and brusqueness. If his spiritual sensitivity to the things of God was beyond the ordinary, so was his emotional and bodily sensitivity: when each of his parents died his sureness of their spiritual destiny did not prevent great grief expressed in prolonged sobbing, fainting, and having to take to his bed for days. He did not, however, like to be ill. In sickness Pio was always open to healing. He did not turn down a transfer to a climate that agreed better with his particular bodily makeup; he vented his frustrations when ill to his mentor and begged other friars and lay friends to pray for him—sometimes urgently. In the period of his spiritual greatness, he did not hesitate to cry out aloud, “What! You’re going away without healing me?” to the Virgin Mary—and with that plea happily accepted and talked about joyously the end of an illness. (A statue of Mary from Fatima had come to the friary for veneration by helicopter, but he was too ill to go down to the church. He yelled toward the leaving helicopter.)
As said, after his stigmata God let him live in the dark about his spiritual state. “Am I pleasing to God?” he worried, even while assuring his spiritual children of God’s love for them. In old age a number of conditions caused him serious breathing problems. The inability to breathe freely can trigger feelings of panic or depression. Pio experienced depression. Part of this was also normal concern about the burden he became to the other friars as his body slowly failed. With all this was interwoven a hugely compassionate heart and great human sweetness.
In summation, I think it is fair to say Pio’s life assures us that even “far-out” saints with rare gifts are not cardboard figures, but flesh-and-blood people with emotions and troubled times. A saint’s life journey, as Pio’s shows well, is a human journey: with its rocky patches of misery, it may at times be as clouded and frustrating to the saint as yours to you or mine to me.
Editor’s note: The above excerpt was adapted from Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, available now from Sophia Institute Press.