Columnist, screenwriter and now author Susan De Bartoli recently wrote “Welcoming the Christ Child with Padre Pio.” The title from Ave Maria Press takes readers on an advent journey to Jesus’ birth in proximity to the Capuchin priest. The daily guide intertwines personal accounts of Padre Pio with prayer, seasonal scripture, reflection and a short quote from the Franciscan Friar.
De Bartoli serves as secretary for the Padre Pio Foundation of America Board of Directors in Connecticut. At a board colleague’s suggestion, she wrote her debut title. Since its publication last December, the devotional has sold more than 10,000 copies.
“The simple faith of Padre Pio is at the heart of this book,” she says. “Because of his great faith, many miracles happened. As we follow Padre Pio to Bethlehem, we anticipate receiving Jesus on Christmas day. We are preparing to feel his presence. Padre Pio carried baby Jesus in his arms and what we are doing is preparing to carry him in our hearts and feel his presence.”
The 29 personal accounts focus on Padre Pio’s miracles and touch on his spiritual gifts of healing, bilocation, and stigmata. Stories of the priest’s miracles are told by a variety of witnesses from his capuchin brothers in the monastery to parents of a 2-year-old with severe head injuries in San Antonio, Texas.
The stories containing miracles attributed to Padre Pio range from a Baghdad Catholic church remaining standing amid roadside bombs and lives saved in Bari, Italy during World War II to a grandchild named Gemma born without pupils who received vision and a seven-year-old boy named Matteo who was diagnosed with meningitis and declared clinically dead before recovering. Some of the witnesses wrote of the scent of sweet tobacco or fresh flowers accompanying the miracles which Pope John Paul II later attributed to Padre Pio’, calling it the “aroma of sanctity.”
“The book itself is about different miracles and we learn a lot from these miracles. It’s the story behind these miracles,” De Bartoli says. “My feeling is that the reason why so many miracles happened was because of Padre Pio’s great faith and the people who received these miracles were people who were humble people. He knew this and he would pray for these people. If he felt these people had faith, he would choose these people to pray for.”
In the “Carry Jesus in your Heart” chapter, De Bartoli writes of an advent miracle stemming from Padre Pio’s love for Christmas which grew out of his love for Jesus as the Christ Child.
She introduces reader to Fr Raffaele da Sant’Elia who lived in the room neighboring Padre Pio’s room for 35 years. In 1924, shortly before the Christmas Midnight Mass at the church within San Giovanni Rotondo, the Father notes he fell to his knees when seeing baby Jesus cradled in Padre Pio’s arms. Of the occasion he writes, ‘I could see that Padre Pio, too, was making his way slowly along the corridor. I realized he was swathed in a band of light. I took a better look and saw that he had the baby Jesus in his arms. I just stood there transfixed…Padre Pio passed by, all aglow. He didn’t even notice I was there.”
Many of the other residing capuchins also share stories of the sight of baby Jesus in the arms of a praying Padre Pio.
De Bartoli writes of the Franciscan friar beingknown as a mystic. From a young age it was said that he could see and communicate with Jesus, St. Joseph, St. Mary and his guardian angel.
“From when he was a young child, Jesus was always with Padre Pio and Jesus would come to him with Mary,” says De Bartoli. “Jesus would be a little boy and he would play with him and at one time his spiritual director said, ‘how come you never said anything about this,’ and he said, ‘I thought this is what every child had in his life.’ His love for the Christ Child is because he grew with the Christ Child. He was his best friend. He was always there.”
During advent as a young boy, Padre Pio walked into the fields. Among the sheep, he gathered pieces of clay to form a full nativity of the Holy Family and the grotto’s residing animals.
“When it came to the Christ Child he shaped and reshaped and reshaped the clay and my thought is he did that because he knew what the Christ Child looked like and he wanted to make sure it was perfect,” says De Bartoli.
In addition to personal accounts of Padre Pio, readers can meditate daily on closing reflections of various themes from faith and guardian angels to prayer as the answer.
Each chapter contains a quote by Padre Pio illuminating his faith. A few quotes convey the capuchin’s great love for Christmas including the quote from Chapter 1: “All of the feasts of the Church are beautiful…but Christmas has a tenderness, a childlike sweetness that captivates my entire heart.”
De Bartoli’s favorite quote of the Franciscan monk is “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”
Growing up in an Italian American family and attending Mass and school at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, De Bartoli first learned of Padre Pio as a child.
“My family is Italian. If you’re Italian you know who Padre Pio is,” she says, smiling.
Her love for Padre Pio grew after De Bartoli embarked on a holy pilgrimage and befriended a pilgrimage promoter from Cape Cod named Arden Barnes who encouraged her to change careers from a travel agent to a pilgrimage owner and operator.
“Arden said to me ‘You love pilgrimages. Why don’t you start your own pilgrimage business.’ She said next summer you and I are going to Europe together and I am going to tell you everything that you need to know about pilgrimages,” says Bartoli.
That summer, in 1989, the two traveled to France, Italy and throughout Europe. Her friend introduced De Bartoli to tour guides, bus companies and hotels managers in various cities and towns and villages including Assisi, La Salette, Lourdes, Rome and Lanciano.
“The following year I did my first pilgrimage, and it was because of Arden. She was my mentor,” she says.
De Bartoli’s first led pilgrimage included a trip to the San Giovanni Rotundo. Inside the monastery, the group visited Padre Pio’s sparse cell composed of a bed, nightstand, water basin, chair, small writing table and a picture of Jesus being laid in the tomb. Her pilgrims viewed Padre Pio’s clothing and gloves through glass cases.
A few years later De Bartoli met Ray Ewen who was a US soldier stationed in the town of Cerignola near San Giovanni Rotundo during World War 2. Ewen served Mass as an altar boy with Padre Pio seven times during the war and attended both the beatification and canonization of Padre Pio alongside De Bartoli.
“Truly, I have to truly say my love for Padre Pio came from Ray” says De Bartoli. “He was very devoted to Padre Pio. Ray returned home from the war and spent the rest of his life spreading devotion to Padre Pio. His love for Padre Pio impressed me so much that I started to read more about him and that is how my devotion became so strong.”
Now 33 years in the pilgrimage business, De Bartoli owns and manages Little Flower Pilgrimages. Each September she and the Padre Pio Foundation of America organize an eleven-day “Padre Pio Pilgrimage” to Italy. Trip highlights include visits to the tomb of Padre Pio, the chapel inside Padre Pio’s founded hospital named Casa Sollievo della Soffernza, the quaint village Pietrelcina – hometown of Padre Pio and Piana Romana where pilgrims can visit the chapel built around the tree that Padre Pio was praying under when he first received the stigmata.
Through De Bartoli’s devotional, readers will also learn about these sacred sites while preparing for advent.
“It’s a wonderful journey,” said De Bartoli. “Some readers have spoken with me and said the book helped them through advent. It’s a good way to understand what advent is about.”
This month De Bartoli plans to use her book as a guide and to arrange her nativities in her Staten Island home. Like Padre Pio, De Bartoli has an affinity for nativities.
“I have a great love for nativities and have numerous nativities around the house,” she says. “On Christmas Eve, I place the child in the manger.”
Welcoming the Christ Child with Padre Pio is available from Ave Maria Press.