Padre Pio: The Man, the Mystic, the Legend
I was once told that in order to find a good spiritual director, you should find the holiest person that you know - and ask them who their spiritual director is.
If this applied to people who are no longer alive, I would choose St. Padre Pio as a spiritual director, in part because he gave spiritual advice to and was deeply admired by Pope St. John Paul II, who would eventually canonize the Capuchin friar from Italy.
The man who would become known as Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione on May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy, a small town some 50 miles north and east of Naples, to poor but devout Catholic parents. He was one of seven children, including an older brother, three younger sisters, and two siblings who died as infants.
The young Francesco came from a family known in their area as “the God-is-everything-people," according to his biography on EWTN.1 Their devotions included daily Mass, the rosary, fasting multiple days a week, and the memorization of Scripture, among other things.
Devoted to Christ From an Early Age
It seems likely that this pious atmosphere fostered Francesco’s vocation as a Capuchin priest and friar from a young age. At the age of 5, he consecrated himself to Jesus and took on extra penances for himself. His family remembered him as a quiet, religious child who loved going to church and praying. He would later recall that he often spoke with Jesus, Mary and his guardian angel as a child, and was already experiencing attacks from the devil at a young age.
By the age of 10, Francesco told his parents that he wanted to be a priest, and after seeing a Capuchin friar, he said he wanted to “be a friar...with a beard.”
After catching up to the level of education required to join the firary, Francesco joined the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Morcone, Italy, on January 22, 1903, at the age of 15 and took the name “Pio”, in honor of St. Pius V, the patron saint of his hometown. Seven years later, at the age of 23, Brother Pio became Padre Pio when he was ordained a priest on August 10, 1910.
During his time as a friar and a priest, Padre Pio was known throughout his order for being particularly pious and prayerful. His Masses were reportedly hours long, because he would often pause for long periods in contemplative prayer before continuing. Despite being asked to say shorter Masses, Pio replied that he wished he could, but that he simply could not shorten his Masses even if he tried.
Despite generally poor health, Padre Pio would forgo sleep and food to the point that his brothers said it was impossible he was being sustained by anything other than God himself. While he experienced intense physical and spiritual sufferings, he considered them a gift and offered them to God in prayer.
Spiritual Gifts Come at a Great Cost
The priest and friar became renowned for his supernatural spiritual gifts, including bilocation, spiritual ecstasies, prophecy, the ability to read hearts and the gift of tongues. He was also known as a great confessor and spiritual director, and over the years, growing scores of pilgrims would seek out his confession and his counsel.
He encouraged these spiritual children to frequent the sacraments, including weekly confession, which he compared to a “dusting out” of one’s soul, as one would do with a room. He also encouraged them to pray, especially the rosary, and would reportedly say to them: “It seems to me as if Jesus has no other concern but the sanctification of your soul.” The motto that he used that summed up his life of faith was: “Pray, hope and don’t worry.”
In September of 1918, Padre Pio received the stigmata - the five wounds of Christ that he experienced during His Passion. At first he was reluctant about the stigmata, and particularly the attention he feared that the wounds would draw. At one point he wrote that he hoped Jesus would “at least relieve me of the embarrassment which these outward signs cause me.” But the stigmata would remain with him for the rest of his life, and the Capuchin eventually came to accept these wounds and sufferings too as a gift from God.
Bearing His Cross Patiently
As his popularity grew, so did skepticism about his extraordinary gifts and holiness. Between the years of 1922-1933, various restrictions were placed on the friar’s ministry in order to limit his interaction with pilgrims. His Mass times varied every day so that the crowds could not predict when Padre Pio would be celebrating, and he was ordered to stop accepting new spiritual directees. By 1931, Padre Pio was ordered to stop all of his ministry, and he was allowed only to celebrate Mass in private.
During his beatification Mass, Pope John Paul II recalled how Padre Pio bore these misunderstandings with the utmost obedience and humility: “No less painful, and perhaps even more distressing from a human point of view (than the stigmata), were the trials which he had to endure as a result, it might be said, of his incomparable charisms,” the Pope said.
“It happens at times in the history of holiness that, by God's special permission, the one chosen is misunderstood. In that case, obedience becomes for him a crucible of purification, a path of gradual assimilation to Christ, a strengthening of true holiness. In this regard, Bl. Pio wrote to one of his superiors: ‘I strive only to obey you, the good God having made known to me the one thing most acceptable to him and the one way for me to hope for salvation and to sing of victory,’” he added.
During Padre Pio’s canonization Mass, also celebrated by Pope John Paul II, the Holy Father said that the sufferings that Padre Pio endured were born patiently as the “yoke” of Christ, and that it would be impossible to understand Padre Pio without his love for and obedience to the cross.
“The life and mission of Padre Pio prove 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,” Pope John Paul II said.
“Is it not, precisely, the ‘glory of the Cross’ that shines above all in Padre Pio?” he added. “ His holiness cannot be understood without this constant reference to the Cross.
In 1933, Pope Pius XI reversed the ban on Padre Pio’s ministry, saying: "I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed." All of the priest’s faculties were eventually restored.
Meeting with a Future Pope
Among the pilgrims drawn to Padre Pio during his lifetime was Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, who heard of the holy friar living in rural Italy. While studying in Rome as a young priest during World War II, Fr. Wojtyla visited Padre Pio at his friary, and spent a week there receiving spiritual counsel from the holy Capuchin, an order Wojtyla had once considered joining.
Despite rumors, Pope John Paul II later confirmed that Padre Pio had not foretold to him that he would become the pope. The friar did, however, reveal to the priest that the most painful wound of his stigmata was a wound on his shoulder.2
Seeing the Completion of His Life's Work
In January of 1940, Padre Pio announced his plans for what he would come to consider the greatest work of his life - the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (a Home for the Relief of Suffering).3 In May of 1956, the facility finally opened, with 300 beds and sustained by special “Prayer Groups” established by Padre Pio, as well as by the donations of his fervent devotees. The hospital in San Giovanni Rotundo, Italy, remains open today, and has more than tripled its capacity for patients.
By the mid-1960s, Padre Pio was in his 70s and his already fragile health began to decline even further. He continued his ministry until his last days, hearing confessions, seeing pilgrims, and celebrating what would be his final Mass on Sept. 22. Early in the morning on Sept. 23, around 2:30 a.m., Padre Pio died.
Three days later, more than 100,000 of pilgrims attended his funeral. His body was laid to rest in the crypt of Our Lady of Grace Church in San Giovanni Rotundo.
Just two months after his death, the preliminary process of the cause of Padre Pio’s canonization began. In December 1998, Pope John Paul II approved a miracle that occurred through Padre Pio’s intercession, clearing the way for his beatification on May 2, 1999 in Rome. The beatification Mass was the largest event that had ever been held at the Vatican at the time. On June 16, 2002, Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Padre Pio’s legacy of holiness remains in the minds of Catholics today, and his popularity now rivals that when he was alive. An estimated seven million pilgrims come annually to visit and pray at his tomb.