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Nothing shows how foolish it is to divide the Church into Left and Right, progressive and conservative, as if it were a political movement, than the curious case of Padre Pio – St Pio of Pietrelcina as he is now. His day falls on Thursday September 23.
Stereotypically, this ascetical Franciscan priest, reputed to have borne the stigmata of Christ’s wounds on his hands, feet and side, appeals to the sort of people with a keen interest in Our Lady of Fatima, which is to say the Virgin Mary as she appeared to three young shepherds in Portugal in 1917, prophesying the evils of Soviet communism and perhaps the shooting on her feast day in 1981 of Pope John Paul II.
That is another story, but devotees of Fatima or Padre Pio naturally oppose atheistic communism. In opposition, aggressive secularists fling the worst crimes they can imagine: collusion with Fascism or, in St Pio’s case, supposed affairs with women followers. A profile in Time reported claims of financial misappropriation, even though Padre Pio ate little and seldom left his friary. “It is said that when money talks even the angels listen,” the magazine averred, though I’ve never heard anyone say that. Angels, not having pockets, have even less need for money than Padre Pio.
Born in 1887 into a poor, pious peasant family at Pietrelcina, in the ankle of Italy, Padre Pio was baptised Francesco. The name Pio came when he joined a friary of Franciscans aged 15. His health was weak and he was sent back for a time to his family, but was made a priest in 1916 and sent to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo on the spur of Italy. He lived died there aged 81 in 1968.
Those strange stigmata might have appeared as early as 1911, and certainly by 1918. Such marks had been suffered by St Francis of Assisi. Although people who know about crucifixion say that, in fact, nails would be driven through the wrists, Francis’s stigmata and undoubtedly Padre Pio’s were in the palms. That does not mean they were false, But nor did they qualify anyone for sainthood.
Padre Pio felt great pain from his wounds and always hid them. He offered his sufferings in solidarity with Jesus, but notably didn’t seek suffering for others. He called the hospital for poor people that he founded the House for the Relief of Suffering. Higher church authorities were suspicious of his mystical phenomena and of his popularity from a reputation for being able to discern the state of the souls of the people who crowded to have him hear their confessions.
In the 1920s, restrictions were put on Padre Pio in case he was a fraud. He was at times prohibited from saying Mass in public, hearing confessions or even writing to his spiritual director.
Yet he was widely thought a holy man. Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, studying in Rome in 1947 travelled to San Giovanni Rotondo to seek the friar’s counsel.
It was John Paul II who canonised him, in 2002. In his sermon, the Pope noted that he had been able to benefit from the friar’s availability to penitents, as “a generous dispenser of divine mercy”.
In 2016, Pope Francis (elected in 2013), declared a Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. Padre Pio was made co-patron of the year, with the newly canonised Mother Teresa. The friar’s relics went to Rome for a week of veneration. The present Pope had after all chosen the name Francis on his election. He shares St Pio’s sacramental spirituality and has always valued popular devotions such as processions and pilgrimages. He may be labelled “progressive” but he is a fan of Padre Pio.