12 Amazing Facts about the Life of the Beloved St. Padre Pio
Every so often, an extraordinary soul graces the world with incredible holiness. Padre Pio was that man for much of the 20th century. He was born Francesco Forgione on May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy. Even at a young age he was called to a deep, unique relationship with God—he later reported having conversed with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and his guardian angel on separate occasions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Francesco was attacked by the devil as a young child. That would continue throughout his entire life. He joined the Capuchins, took the name Pio, and was ordained a priest in 1910. In 1920, he received the stigmata. Soon after, Padre Pio became internationally known for his sanctity. Tens of thousands of people saw him, and a simple internet search turns up story after story of grace-filled encounters with Padre Pio. That happened during his lifetime, and it continues to happen while he’s in eternal life. He died in 1968, was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1999, and canonized in 2002. Here are twelve aspects of Padre Pio’s life and spirituality:
1. Eucharistic devotion
“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)
Any account of Padre Pio’s life must start with Jesus. His offering of the Mass often lasted hours, due to a few reasons. In the early days of his priesthood, “he took so long because he was in ecstasy. He once said that in this absorption in God, especially at the Consecration… he saw everyone who had asked his prayers.” The pain of the stigmata he endured also elongated Mass. Eye witnesses reported seeing Padre Pio struggle to move, in visible agony, and they even saw the crown of thorns on his head.
One of his most famous quotes is: “it would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without the holy Mass.” Taking a step back and looking at that more closely opens the door to a profound mystery. The entire cosmos depends on the Mass as its sustenance. We can learn two very important things about the Mass from Padre Pio. First, the sacrificial nature of it. The Eucharist is a re-presentation and an entering into Our Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary. Mystically, the Mass takes us into the eternal moment of His Passion, death, and resurrection. Second, Padre Pio models for us in how we should approach Mass. The more we approach the altar of the Lord with awe and love, the more we will appreciate it. The more we appreciate it, the more the Eucharist will transform our lives.
2. Devotion to Our Lady
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Padre Pio had a great love for Our Lady. In a letter from 1913, his affection is clearly seen: “here we are at last in the month of our beautiful Mother once again…. This dear Mother continues to lavish her maternal care upon me, especially during the present month. She takes care of me to an exceeding degree…. I am all aflame although there is no fire. I feel myself held fast and bound to the Son by means of this Mother…. I'd like to fly off to invite all creatures to love Jesus and Mary.”
He rarely slept more than a few hours and often spent his nights praying the rosary. He usually offered those rosaries for those that had asked for his prayers. On top of its intercessory powers, the rosary was Padre Pio’s only consolation.
He named the rosary “the weapon for these times.” The reason why the rosary is one of our greatest assets is that “it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety… it is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb.” The rosary is a beautiful prayer that’s meant to unite us to our Heavenly Mother, who in turn brings us to Jesus.
“I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
In the early days of his priestly ministry, Padre Pio often spent lengthy times in the confessional. Once his reputation spread, his confession lines grew until the average waiting time was ten days. It got to the point that the Capuchins implemented a ticketing system starting in 1950. Despite his fame and demand on his time, he had a remarkable way of focusing on each penitent as they came to be healed from sin. We have a testament to the importance of confession by the sheer amount of time he spent hearing confessions. Some days, he spent fifteen to nineteen hours in the confessional.
Confessing to a priest who has the charism of reading souls might seem interesting, maybe attractive—in reality, it was humbling for many. Padre Pio was not afraid to be gruff or confrontational to impenitent souls! He once called a man a pig and told him to get out of his confessional. He knew penitents’ sins better than the penitents themselves, and called out anyone trying to hide something. If you haven’t been to confession in years, go. Ask Padre Pio’s intercession and run to Christ who can give healing and forgiveness!
“The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28)
For those that struggle with pride, try reading any story about Padre Pio and not feeling a sense of conviction. One such story occurred in the earlier days of his ministry at San Giovanni Rotundo. At the time, a priest wrote a libelous pamphlet about Padre Pio. That priest later wound up in prison for other reasons; upon his release, he sought out Padre Pio. The saint ran out to meet the priest, just as the prodigal’s father ran out to meet his son (Luke 15:11-31). Padre Pio withstood countless attacks from inside and outside the Church. Some claimed his stigmata was a clever fake, and associated all sorts of mental illnesses with him. No matter what happened, Padre Pio embraced every hardship in true Christian charity.
Through the grace of God, Padre Pio has effected a tremendous amount of spiritual good. St. John Paul II highlighted Padre Pio’s humility, saying that “difficulties and sorrows, if accepted out of love, are transformed into a privileged way of holiness, which opens onto the horizons of a greater good, known only to the Lord.” Each of our paths to holiness is different, but the means of getting there is the same for everyone: by grace following Christ and taking His will and cross as our own. Look at the astounding things God can do with a soul so devoted to Him!
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matt 6:28-29)
Padre Pio devoted himself to the discipline of poverty; he took it so seriously that he initially refused to have a picture of Our Lady in his cell. Only in obedience to his superiors did he hang the painting above his bed. He refused a more comfortable chair in his confessional, as well as a heater during the winter. The less material possessions he had meant the more room in his heart for Christ.
Don’t think that Padre Pio wouldn’t want us to have a picture of Our Lady in our homes, however. His refusal was based on his vow of poverty. What we can learn from him on this point is the spiritual value of simplicity of life. Simplicity would naturally look different for single people, married couples, parents, etc. than it would for a Capuchin monk. Do you need a kick start to your spiritual life? Try downsizing your possessions, appropriate to your state in life, and give them away/sell them and donate the money to the poor. It’s wise to get the input of a trusted spiritual director, if one is available. That haunting teaching from Our Lord is no less true for us than it was for Padre Pio: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21).
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt 5:6)
While we’re accustomed to fasting primarily during Lent—something seasonal—Padre Pio saw it was mandatory in the spiritual life. He fasted daily, eating sparingly as to offer up additional mortifications to Our Lord:
“As regards the mortification of the flesh, St. Paul warns us that those who belong to ‘Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ (Galatians 5:24) From this holy apostle’s teaching, it is apparent that anyone who wants to be a true Christian, that is to say, who lives according to the true spirit of Jesus Christ, must mortify his flesh for no other reason than devotion to Jesus, who for love of us, mortified his entire body on the cross. The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent and it must last for one’s whole life.”
The key point is “devotion to Jesus.” Fasting shouldn’t come from a hatred of our body! If it does, it won’t do anything to us other than make us hungry. To deny ourselves of a worldly good enables us to better turn away from sin. It’s an opportunity to take up our cross and follow our crucified Lord (see Matt 6:24).
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:10-11)
The final decade of Padre Pio’s life (the 1960s) was marked by protest and dissent in the Catholic world. Sadly, his obedience was counter-cultural. What Padre Pio knew was that the virtue of obedience is essential to following Christ. It’s a message he probably repeated in the confessional over and over: turn away from sin and toward God. That’s easy to say, but when it comes to obeying the will and commandments of God, it quickly turns into an arduous task.
Lest we think that a mere pious platitude, this was a serious challenge for Padre Pio, especially in the early days of his ministry. The Roman Curia was very skeptical of him, going so far as to ban him from offering Mass in public. The Congregation of the Holy Office (previous name of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) repeatedly investigated him and issued multiple decrees from 1923 until 1933 “that there is nothing supernatural in these matters and exhorts the faithful to comply with this accordingly.” The sensationalism surrounding him was difficult to sift through for those in Rome, and it took years for them to see the saint before their eyes. Pope Pius XI finally stepped in and lifted the ban in 1933. He remarked to the local archbishop that “I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed.”
Padre Pio serves as a great example for seeing past the emotional pain and pride that can be obstacles to obedience.
8. Battles with the devil
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)
The devil is very real, and desires the damnation of every human soul. He went after Padre Pio on every front he could. Sometimes he appeared as an ugly animal to frighten him; as a naked woman to tempt him to lust; as one of his superiors to trick him; or as a heavenly figure, like Jesus, Our Lady, or St. Francis. And, like St. John Vianney before him, the devil physically beat Padre Pio more than once.
The reality of spiritual warfare highlights the importance of all the virtues on this list that Padre Pio excelled in: humility, poverty, fasting, and obedience. We should cultivate these virtues so to have them at our side on the day of temptation. The prideful, opulent, selfish soul is easy prey for the devil. In addition, we need to avail ourselves of key intercessors, like Our Lady and our guardian angel. No matter our personal take on spiritual warfare, we should heed the word of one who knows: “The human soul is the battlefield between God and Satan… do not let the infernal beast frighten you. God will fight it with you and for you.”
“But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14)
This is a rare charism of only a handful of saints in the entire history of the Catholic Church. The stigmatist bears the wounds of Christ: nail marks in the hands and feet, and the wound in the side from the spear. Doctors tried to treat Padre Pio’s wounds, but neither the condition nor the pain ever improved. Besides the five wounds of Christ, Padre Pio experienced additional marks of the Passion: the crown of thorns, scourging, and a shoulder wound. Decades after his death, an encounter between Padre Pio and a young Fr. Karol Wojtyla was recounted. Padre Pio said the most painful wound was in his shoulder; that is, the primary shoulder that the cross rested on. As far as we know, the future pope was the only person Padre Pio told about this.
The stigmata is a mark of the glory of Christ, but it’s also a reminder of the intensity of Our Lord’s passion and death. Padre Pio recounted the experience to his spiritual director at the time, Fr. Benedetto:
“The wound of the heart pours out blood profusely, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. My Father, I am dying from suffering, through the pain and the confusion I feel in my inmost soul.”
He suffered excruciating pain willingly for the sake of Jesus. Padre Pio “shared in the Passion with a special intensity: the unique gifts which were given to him, and the interior and mystical sufferings which accompanied them, allowed him constantly to participate in the Lord's agonies.”
10. Love of his spiritual children
“For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:15)
An incredible amount of people had a claim on Padre Pio’s love and affection. He touched thousands of lives while on earth, and continues his work in heaven. He helped preserve people from sin, kept them from harm, saved lives, and interceded for miraculous cures. Members of my own family owe remarkable graces to his intercession. He has a genuine love for all who come to him.
He directed his spiritual children to Jesus in three steps. First, they are to keep the commandments of the Church. The second step is prayer—the basic prayers being a daily rosary and daily Mass. The third and final step was to spend thirty minutes in meditation before the Blessed Sacrament on the truths of the faith. That wouldn’t be the end, however! If his children faithfully undertook that half hour, they would soon see that they needed more.
Do you need special help? Or that extra bit of intercession to persevere in grace? Call upon Padre Pio’s favor and join the myriads of his spiritual children. “I shall stand at the gates of Paradise until all my spiritual children have entered.”
11. Relationship with his guardian angel
“For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” (Ps 91:11-12)
One of the things Padre Pio is known for is his relationship with his guardian angel. He sent his angel on errands! Or, the guardian angels of his spiritual children would serve as couriers of information to Padre Pio. God gave this special grace to Padre Pio, of working with his guardian angel in a special way. In a letter from 1913, he encouraged one of his spiritual children to develop a strong friendship with our guardian angel. “How consoling it is to know that we have a spirit who, from the womb to the tomb, never leaves us even for an instant, not even when we dare to sin. And this heavenly spirit guides and protects us like a friend, a brother.”[xxv]
To another, he wrote: “know that this good angel prays for you; offers to God all the good works you accomplish; your holy and pure desires.” Let us follow Padre Pio’s advice and cultivate our relationship with our guardian angel!
12. Home for the Relief of Suffering
Modern medicine talks of holistic care, accepting the point that there is a need for spiritual healing that comes along with physical healing. In this, Padre Pio was ahead of the times. He successfully raised enough money to build the Home for the Relief of Suffering, which opened in 1956. St. John Paul II noted that “he was quite aware that people who are ill and suffering need not only competent therapeutic care but also, and more importantly, a human and spiritual climate to help them rediscover themselves in an encounter with the love of God and with the kindness of their brothers and sisters.” Padre Pio visited the hospital himself, processing with the Blessed Sacrament on Corpus Christi. The hospital still functions today and is administered by the Vatican.
Padre Pio loved all of his children, and had a special compassion for the sick and suffering. With the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and his own indefatigable spirit, the fruit of the hospital was born. Let us all have such a response to those that suffer!