On Thursday, 23rd we celebrated the feast day of the man we still refer to as Padre Pio, but who is of course a saint of the Catholic Church, with the title St Pio of Pietrelcina.
Born in 1887, to peasant farmers in the Campanian Uplands, he later said that by the time he was five he had decided to dedicate his life to God.
In January 1903, then aged 15, he went to Morcone to enter the novitiate of the Friars of the Capuchin Province of Foggia, taking the religious name Pio some weeks afterwards and making simple profession as a friar a year later.
At baptism he had been given the name Francesco, in honour of Italy’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi and the first person we know of to have borne the stigmata – the marks of Christ’s passion. It is an interesting coincidence that the most famous male Christian in living memory to display the marks of Christ’s passion bore the same name as the first Christian to have done so. Stigmata seems unheard of until the 13th Century, when St Francis reportedly received them during a vision in September 1224 while fasting on Mount La Verna.
It was not long after Padre Pio received the stigmata in 1918 that rumours began to spread of cures and other miracles linked with him. There was talk of bilocation, of the blind being able to see and the lame being able to walk, of cancerous tumours disappearing, of the gangrenous foot of a soldier, deemed by doctors beyond treatment, being healed,
Unsurprisingly, the 31 – year old Capuchin became a celebrity, with huge crowds gathering in San Giovanni to hear him say Mass, to have him hear their Confession, to be blessed by him or even just to see him.
Trial and vindication
Between 1916 and 1968, the year he died, Padre Pio was investigated by the Holy Office, the forerunner of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At various points he was forbidden to say Mass in public, from publishing, writing letters, receiving visitors, and from even talking to women alone.
Despite this relentless harrying the eventual judgment of the Church was positive, as Padre Pio was beatified under Pope St John Paul II in 1999 and canonised in 2002.
The present pope proved to be familiar with the Capuchin saint. During Francis’s time as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, prayer groups on Padre Pio began surfacing all over the world, including South America, and a statue and relic of the saint can be found in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.
In March 2018, Frances became the first pope to visit Padre Pio’s birthplace in Pietrelcina, as well as paying a visit to the hospital the saint founded in San Giovanni to provide quality healthcare to the poor of Italy’s impoverished south.
San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio practised his ministry for decades has long been a place of pilgrimage from Catholics from Italy, farther afield including of course Ireland.
It was the package tour revolution of the 1960s that enabled the Irish people to visit en masse. Suddenly, all-in, cut-price pilgrimages were on offer, most of them organised by Joe Walsh Tours. Throughout the decade, the company ferried thousands of Irish people to Rome and onwards to Padre Pio. With employment booming and emigration falling, people had the money to pay for the new form of travel.
They attended Padre Pio’s Masses, witnessed his stigmata and received his blessing. Although the friar was ageing fast, all who met him or saw him were left with indelible memories.
A tour party of 83 Irish pilgrims were also present around the time of Padre Pio’s death. They had been among the last to attend his Masses, receive his blessing and be greeted individually by the friar. They were returning to Rome when his death was announced.
The late Kay Thornton who was with the Irish party, came back to San Giovanni, travelling on the overnight train. “I was determined to go back, although most people stayed in Rome,” Kay reflected. “I kissed him laid out in the coffin. It was unbelievable how many people were there. You couldn’t move with the people. People were queuing night and day to pass the coffin.”
(As quoted in …Irish Encounters with the Saint, by Colm Keane)
On Thursday, September 26, 1968, 60,000 people lined the streets as the body of Padre Pio was borne through San Giovanni. The entire town shut down. Black-bordered flags flew at half-mast.
Hundreds of veiled women, dressed in black, knelt as the open hearse bearing the body passed by. The remains were eventually placed in the crypt of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Dr Giuseppe Gusso, who had been present during the saint’s final moments stated that it was the most gentle and beautiful passing that he had ever witnessed.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan