[A vilified saint]
One of the most famous and astounding saints of the twentieth century,
Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, was born Francesco Forgione in 1887 to a
destitute but pious couple in southern Italy. He was named in honor
of St. Francis of Assisi and even as a small boy wanted to become a
Franciscan friar. He was so sensitive that, in spite of his own playful
and humorous nature, he refused to play with other boys when they used
Of the many books about Pio, I especially recommend two: Padre
Pio: The True Story, Bernard Ruffin’s matchless biography, and Padre
Pio: Man of Hope, Renzo Allegri’s shorter portrait. Even if the
word “hagiography” tends to scare you off, these books
will draw you in and fill you with warmth, reminding you that sanctity
means love and joy as well as sacrifice. It may also mean enduring
At the age of 16, Francesco entered a Franciscan (Capuchin, to be
exact) monastery as a novice, where he was given the name Pio. The
monastery’s regimen was, to put it mildly, severe: much prayer,
difficult studies, physical labor carried out in silence, skimpy meals,
little recreation (half an hour daily), strict rules, rough and ill-fitting
clothing (a monk’s habit over a coarse wool undershirt, with
only sandals for the feet), no heating or air conditioning.
The novices sometimes had to eat their meals while kneeling, with
frequent fasts as well. They were made to sleep flat on their backs
(on wooden beds with “mattresses” filled with corn husks),
their arms crossed over their chests. They were required to sleep motionless,
and at midnight were awakened for more than an hour of religious exercises,
after which it was often hard to get back to sleep.
This first-year regimen made basic training in the U.S. Marine Corps
seem a life of comparative ease and luxury. And this sketch omits some
features of that daunting regimen, which weeded out many young men
whose commitment to the religious life was less than total. But Pio,
in his zeal, never complained, and in fact often imposed further rigors
on himself. He embraced suffering. And he received it in abundance.
As a young priest, Pio was the recipient of a rare and miraculous,
but painful, gift: the stigmata, or the five wounds of Christ. He bore
them for the next 50 years, losing a cup of blood every day. They finally
vanished, leaving no scars, when his death was imminent in 1968. In
the meantime, he exercised many other spiritual gifts: prophecy, the
odor of sanctity (a fragrance of roses and violets), the power of bilocation
(appearing in two or even three places at once), the ability to read
souls, and visions of Jesus and Mary as he celebrated his morning Mass.
I once spoke to an old Italian woman in Rome who told me, in broken
English, that she and her sister had on one occasion gone to Pio for
confession; he was able to remind them of sins they had forgotten to
mention! Many others have recounted similar experiences of his supernatural
gifts. Though such miraculous acts seemed almost routine for him, his
demeanor was unassuming, and in most respects he impressed others as
an ordinary humble friar with an impish streak.
Pio was also subject to “hyperthermia” — fevers reaching
as high as 120 degrees, the highest in medical history. A temperature
of 109 degrees usually means certain death, but Pio seemed to suffer
no ill effects and he recovered quickly.
He performed countless acts of healing. One of the most remarkable
was that of Gemma di Giorgio, a little girl who was born blind, with
no pupils in her eyes. Pio cured her, giving her perfect vision for
the remainder of her life. Doctors were stupefied to find her eyesight
flawless by every test — though she still had no pupils.
And yet Pio had bitter enemies inside the Church. He was foully slandered
and even officially condemned for most of his life. He bore it all
patiently and never complained or recriminated.
Among Pio’s admirers was a young Polish priest, Karol Wotyla.
Legend has it that when they met in the 1960s, Pio recognized him as
a future pope. Be that as it may, John Paul II later had the joy of
proclaiming Pio a canonized saint of the Catholic Church. And when,
a few years ago, Pio’s body was exhumed, it was found to be miraculously
preserved from corruption.
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