In Italy he is known as “San Pio Pietrelcina.” In English he is called “Saint Pius,” or more commonly, “Saint Padre Pio,” venerated by the Catholic Church with his feast on September 23rd each year.
Born on May 25th, 1887 in the town of Pietrelcina in the southern Italy region of Campania, Francesco Forgione, later to be known as Padre Pio, was the second son of fairly poor farmers. In addition to an older brother, Francesco’s mother eventually had three daughters.
Belonging to a simple but devout Catholic family, Francesco Forgione became a Capuchin Franciscan friar at the age of fifteen and given the name “Pio,” in honor of Pope Saint Pius I. Mading solemn vows at age twenty, Friar Pio was ordained a priest at age twenty-three and lived to be 81 years old, dying on September 23rd, 1968. He is perhaps best known as being a stigmatist, that is, one who bears the crucifixion wounds of Christ on his body. Saint Francis of Assisi was also a stigmatist.
Friar Pio suffered poor health during most of his adult life and was eventually sent to the Franciscan friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie at San Giovanni Rotondo, in the Puglia region of Italy, neat Foggia, in 1916, when he was twenty-eight, in hopes of improving his health. He remained there until his death, though he was called up for military service at the beginning of World War I, shortly after his arrival at San Giovanni Rotondo. Declared unfit for service because of his health, Pio was in the military for only 182 days.
In 1918, in his early thirties, Padre Pio experienced bleeding in his hands, feet and side, the places where Jesus had been nailed to the Cross and pierced with a lance. The stigmata continued for fifty years, until the end of Pio’s life. By 1919 news of the extraordinary occurrence began to spread outside the friary and Padre Pio gradually became known as a holy person and a mystic. People began to be drawn to visit or try to visit him at the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Padre Pio’s stigmata was studied by his superiors and physicians, who could neither explain nor dismiss the unusual wounds, which didn’t heal nor become infected. Padre Pio was embarrassed by the notoriety and usually wore red mittens or gloves or black coverings on his hands and feet. He even prayed the stigmata would be removed, but it wasn’t. At his death in 1968, his body appeared unwounded with no signs of scars.
In 1999 Padre Pio was beatified by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II and canonized by the same pope in 2002. Both ceremonies took place in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Much more can be said about Saint Pio and his tremendous popularity worldwide, but I leave that up to those who read this who wish to learn more about Saint Pius of Pietrelcina to explore and read about him on their own.
Growing up Catholic in the 1950s and 60s, I was very aware of the existence of Padre Pio of “far away” Italy. Perhaps the nuns who taught us spoke of him or Catholic periodicals we would see carried articles about him. I don’t completely remember. I belonged to a Catholic parish in Portland, Oregon, called Saint Charles Borromeo, and there were many people of Italian descent, who also probably spoke of Padre Pio with pride. For us children, Padre Pio was someone we admired and I recall wanting to be a Franciscan. Padre Pio died when I was fifteen years old and I remember hearing about his death at that time.
Part of the Franciscan attraction for me as a youngster was the California missions that I saw each summer vacation when my family drove down the west coast to Disneyland in Anaheim. The two or three day trip in the middle of summer, before the existence of air-conditioned cars, was always a challenge, not to mention two parents and four children crammed into a Chevy sedan. Stops along the way to Disneyland at the California missions were always a welcome and inspirational break for me.
As a youngster I was also very taken by the syndicated cartoon character, “Brother Juniper,” a whimsical Franciscan friar, created by a Franciscan friar and artist, Father Justin McCarthy. The Brother Juniper single-panel cartoons appeared weekly or daily in over one hundred newspapers around the country and overseas from 1958 until 1989. Collections of the cartoons were published in paperback editions. This was the only religious-themed comic ever syndicated in newspapers internationally.
My dear grandparents whom we regularly visited outside of Portland, in Oregon City, always bought the paperbacks of Brother Juniper cartoons. Between Padre Pio and Brother Juniper I was pretty sure by later grade school that I also wanted to be a Franciscan friar, but not a priest. As it turned out, I didn’t, but became a Benedictine monk and priest, with no regrets, but always will have a place in my heart for Franciscans as well.
I bring all this up because it became possible recently to make a pilgrimage, by train, bus and a little on foot, to the Sanctuary of Saint Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. Three of us monks left early on a Tuesday morning in late November this year, arriving at San Giovanni Rotondo around midday and we returned to Rome the next evening at about 10:30 pm. We were tired from the trip but enriched by the two-day pilgrimage.
We spent the night at a hotel, called “Casa San Giuseppe,” run by Italian Franciscan Sisters of Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe) who were asked by Padre, now Saint, Pio, to come to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1952 (the year I was born!), to offer hospitality to pilgrims and those coming for care or visiting patients at the huge hospital, called the “House for Relief of the Suffering,” also in San Giovanni Rotondo and founded by Padre Pio. It is right next to the Padre Pio sanctuary. It remains an important Italian hospital.
The sisters’ hotel where we monks stayed is just a few hundred yards from the entrance to the Sanctuary of Saint Pio, which includes two large churches, a chapel, the crypt tomb of Saint Pio and a museum for seeing where the saint lived and worked. Capuchin Franciscan friars are still there and the section of the friary where Saint Pio had his cell and where he prayed can be visited. The hospital is on the way to the Sancturay.
For me this first pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo was very moving. There I shed tears of gratitude and offered prayers of thanks for Padre Pio’s influence in my life, as well as my departed parents and grandparents and many others who exerted inspiration in my life, sometimes silently, simply by example, but real nonetheless.
“Catholic culture,” as it is sometimes called, and so evident in Italy, is a strong force for good and growth in nearness to God. I have yet to find anything comparable or better. I trust that will be the case until my final breath. Saint Padre Pio, pray for us!