by Pia Henrietta (A tribute to Padre Pio on his 134th birthday on May 25th, 2021 and on his feast day this year on September 23, 2021. This article was first posted on May 24th, 2017).
Padre Pio, or Francesco Forgione was born on May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, a small town and commune 15 kilometers from the province of Benevento, in the Campania region of Southern Italy. At the time of his birth, there were only about 4,000 inhabitants in Benevento.
Born to farmer parents, Grazio Mario Forgione and Maria Giuseppa Di Nunzio, Padre Pio was the fourth of eight children, three of whom died at a very young age. He was baptized at Castle Church the day after his birth and was given the name Francesco, the same name given to his brother who died as an infant. He grew up with an older brother, Michele, and three younger sisters, Felicita, Pellegrina, and Grazia. He was given the nickname “il bel Francesco” which means “beautiful Francesco” because of his beautiful light brown eyes.
The Forgione household attended daily mass, prayed the rosary every night, and abstained from eating meat three days a week in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Both his grandparents could not read and write but they knew the Sacred Scripture by heart and told Padre Pio and his siblings stories from the bible. His grandmother accompanied him to church every night to serve and introduced him to devotions and popular church beliefs.
As a child, Padre Pio already showed profound piety. At age 5, he had a vision of the Sacred Heart, after which, he offered himself to Jesus. He then felt on his head a hand which he described as God’s, and received a message that his offering was accepted. As a young boy, he preferred to be by himself so that he could sing hymns to God, play church, read and pray. When he became an adult, he stated that he had spoken to Jesus, the Madonna, and his guardian angel. He also mentioned that he had suffered attacks by the devil.
In 1897, Padre Pio advised his parents that he wanted to become a priest – his exact words were: “I want to be a friar with a beard.” Upon hearing this, his mother said, “If my son wants to become a priest, then he will become a priest.” However, joining the priesthood meant that he would need more than three years of public schooling. To finance Padre Pio’s further education, his father went to America to work.
While his father was away, Father Pio had his confirmation on September 27, 1899, carried on his schooling and completed the requirements to enter the Capuchin order. On his investiture on January 22, 1903, Padre Pio donned the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He took the name of “Pio” in honor of Pietrelcina’s patron saint, Saint Pius V and was called Fra Pio (Brother Pio) until his priestly ordination. He was 15 years old.
On August 10, 1910, the 23-year old Fra Pio was ordained as a priest by Archbishop Paolo Schinosi at the Cathedral of Benevento. He celebrated his first Mass at the parish church of Our Lady of the Angels four days later. He was now called Padre Pio (Father Pio).
Padre Pio’s priesthood was met with a lot of challenges. On September 7, 1910, only days shy of his first month as a priest, Jesus and Mary appeared to him and gave him the wounds of Jesus Christ (the Stigmata). These wounds baffled his doctors. Referring to his Stigmata as “an annoyance,” he told Jesus that he wanted to suffer, even to give up his life suffering but he wanted to do all these in secret. For a while, the wounds disappeared and he lived his supernatural life privately.
On November 28, 1911, Padre Agostino, a friend and confidant, was informed that Padre Pio was ill. Padre Agostino immediately went to his friend’s room to attend to him. Padre Pio was so ill that Padre Agostino thought he was dying. Padre Agostino ran to the chapel to pray and when he finished praying, he returned to Padre Pio’s room and found him alert and cheerful. This was the beginning of Padre Pio’s recorded ecstasies: edifying, theologically unerring, and expressing a profound love for and submission to God.
Padre Pio’s affliction continued. He experienced high fevers, tremendous headaches, saw visions, and often fell into trances. He experienced extremely high body temperatures, so high that they broke thermometers. Padre Pio’s symptoms alarmed his superiors so he was asked to go back home to recover.
Returning home separated him from his religious community during the later part of 1911 through 1916. At the time, the Capuchin Constitution ordered that any friar who was sent home due to illness would have to continue his friar life to the fullest, if at all possible. In compliance with this requirement, Padre Pio celebrated Mass and taught school.
On September 4, 1916, Padre Pio was asked to return to his religious community life. He was assigned to Our Lady of Grace Capuchin Friary, located in San Giovanni Rotondo, which is an agricultural community in the Gargano Mountains. The friary was about a mile from the town and was difficult to reach. The Capuchins were known for their holiness and simplicity. There were only seven friars at Our Lady of Grace when Padre Pio joined their community.
During the outbreak of war, only three friars remained at Our Lady of Grace since all the others were drafted for military service. At first, Padre Pio’s responsibilities included teaching at the seminary and acting as the spiritual director of the students. During his free time, Padre Pio read the Bible and handled correspondence. When another friar was selected for the military service, Padre Pio assumed overall responsibility for the college.
Padre Pio did not escape military service. In August 1917, he was conscripted into military service and assigned to the 4th Platoon of the 100th Company of the Italian Medical Corps. He was very unhappy. In mid-October, he was brought to the hospital but was not discharged from the service. In March of 1918, he was finally dismissed and he then returned to San Giovanni Rotondo.
Padre Pio became a spiritual director when he returned to San Giovanni Rotondo. He had many spiritual sons and daughters and told them his five rules for spiritual growth: weekly confession, daily Communion, spiritual reading, meditation, and examination of conscience. (He compared weekly confession to dusting a room – cleaning a room whether it is used or unused, dirty or not.) He recommended daily meditation and self-examination: one in the morning to “prepare for battle” and another in the evening to “purify the soul.” According to Padre Pio, Christians must recognize God in everything and offer Him everything by telling Him, “Thy will be done.” All must aspire to go to heaven and to put their trust in God, and not to worry about their deeds as long as they are done to please God. Padre Pio is known for his motto: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry.
In September 1910, Padre Pio experienced excruciating pain in his hands and the following year, he wrote to Friar Benedetto, his superior at the time, advising him of the pain he experienced. In his letter, Padre Pio wrote, “Yesterday evening, something happened which I cannot explain and understand. [At] the center of [each of my] hands, a red patch appeared accompanied by a sharp pain. I also feel some pain in the soles of my feet.” Padre Pio knew well what these pains prophesied and he begged God to spare him the embarrassment.
His Stigmata fully appeared on September 20, 1918, just after Padre Pio celebrated Mass at San Giovanni Rotondo. Padre Pio stated that while he was praying alone inside the church, he yielded into “a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep.” During this time, he had a vision of a mysterious person whose hands, side, and feet were dripping with blood. “This sight terrified me,” he said. This vision slowly disappeared and he became aware that his own hands, side, and feet were also dripping with blood. He described what he saw as “seeing the crucifix alive.” Padre Pio was 31 years old.
When news about Padre Pio’s stigmata spread, the people of San Giovanni began visiting him in large numbers, hoping to catch a glimpse of his Stigmata and to attend his Mass. The news about Padre Pio’s Stigmata was treated by the other friars and superiors with reservation and there was a talk of transferring Padre Pio to another parish. When the people of San Giovanni Rotondo learned about the possible transfer, they begged Padre Pio’s superiors to let him stay but there were also some threats of violence from other parishioners.
In 1923, Rome intervened and did not acknowledge Padre Pio’s Stigmata. They prohibited Padre Pio to celebrate Mass and to write correspondence. When the order of the Vatican was read to Padre Pio, he just said, “God’s will be done.”
This decree caused Padre Pio’s years of seclusion. He became a priest without a congregation, a confessor without a right to absolve, and a spiritual leader without a spiritual directorship. He immersed himself in writing and wrote the words “Resta con Me” (Stay with Me).
“Stay with me, Lord, thou know’st how thee I cannot forget. Stay with me, Lord, thou know’st without thy strength, I fall. Stay with me, Lord, for without thee, my fervor fails. Thou art my light, thou art my life.” – Padre Pio
It took a while before the ban was lifted. After extensive examination of the facts and events surrounding Padre Pio, he was finally allowed to continue his ministry. A larger church had to be built to allow the already large and still growing number of followers from all parts of the world who wished to see, hear, and be absolved by this mystical man.
Padre Pio followed a strict schedule. He rose at 2:30 a.m., went to the sacristy at 4:00 a.m., and celebrated Mass at 5:00 a.m. The rest of the day was spent in the confessional box and reading/answering correspondence. The amount of mail he received was astounding. He usually only had less than two hours of sleep.
Padre Pio spent 12-18 hours a day hearing confessions. A waiting period of 2 to 3 weeks to finally get into the confessional box with Padre Pio was not unusual. He knew when people were wasting his time and when they came to confession for the wrong reason. He was known to terminate a confession abruptly with the word “Basta!” (Enough!) When God gave him the light, he could read a person’s soul and mind. He could read their sins and if they came to confession unprepared, he would send them away. He was very direct and would say, “Change your ways.” When asked about the existence of hell, he answered, “You will believe it when you see it.”
Padre Pio’s Stigmata stayed with him for 50 years. The doctors documented that his wounds were genuine and they never showed signs of healing and festering. This medical evidence was impeccable. Padre Pio suffered scourging almost every week. He was in pain for 50 years. Despite the pain, high fevers, trances, and arthritis that confined him to the wheelchair, he remained a very joyous person. He told a contemporary, “In the depths of my heart, I am the happiest man on earth.” Padre Pio also had a great sense of humor. Once, a churchgoer came running to him and stated that a bomb fell on one of the buildings in Foggia but it did not go off because the people started praying to his photograph, Padre Pio joked, “Well, I better get a copy of Padre Pio’s photograph for myself then.”
It was Padre Pio’s wish to have a hospital in San Giovanni since his arrival at the convent in 1916. The convent was surrounded with many poverty and disease stricken people suffering from typhoid fever, tuberculosis, pellagra, meningitis, Spanish flu, and infantile paralysis. He wanted to alleviate the pain and suffering of those who were physically ill, as well as those afflicted with psychological illness.
Through the help and cooperation of many, The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (Home for the Relief of Suffering) was born on May 5, 1956. The building is situated in the highest part of the city.
“La clinica deve essere fatta qui, deve avere le porte aperte verso la nostra chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, perche quando finisce la parola della scienza, Dio possa continuare a curare e confortare con la sua Misericordia.” – Padre Pio
(“The clinic must be done here, it must have the doors open to our church of Santa Maria of the Graces, because when the word of science ends, God can continue to cure and comfort with His mercy.”) – Padre Pio
Padre Pio was God’s instrument to give people hope as they started to rebuild their lives after the war. God gave him the spiritual gifts of the Stigmata, perfume, bilocation, prophecy, and languages. An American tourist who went to San Giovanni Rotondo to visit Padre Pio stayed to become a priest (his name is Father Pius). “But first, you need to learn Italian,” Padre Pio told him. Father Pius recalled that there were two occasions when Padre Pio spoke perfect English, a language that he never knew. The first time was in 1927, when an English man came for confession and the second time was with Father Pius himself, about two months before Padre Pio died. Padre Pio was also heard to have spoken perfect French, again, another language that Padre Pio never studied. Padre Pio foretold future events and many people also witnessed him being in different places at the same time, even after his death. There were also reports of people smelling certain perfumes or scents when they prayed to Padre Pio.
His devotion to the Virgin Mother was immeasurable. He gained his strength from Her. He lived with a rosary in his hands. He often said, “The rosary is [a] weapon against evil. Our Lady treats me as if I was her only son on the face of the earth. She comes to me whenever I need Her.” On the night before his death, he insisted, “Love the Blessed Virgin. Make Her loved.” His last word on earth was “Maria.”
The day before Padre Pio celebrated his last Mass, he was very sick and his doctor suggested that he be hospitalized. Despite his frailty, he still celebrated Mass, the Mass that would prove to be his last. During his last Mass on September 22, 1968, Padre Pio struggled. He had difficulty breathing and reaching the altar, and when he turned, he almost fell.
In the evening, he requested to be taken to his bedroom window so he could greet the visitors of San Giovanni once more. He waived his white handkerchief for some moments, and then his window shutters closed forever.
Padre Pellegrino recalls:
“I came to Padre Pio’s room around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. that evening. I stayed with him for the rest of his time on earth. Occasionally, I wiped away his tears. Around midnight, he said, ‘Sit down beside me please.’ And he began to tremble like a child. He continually asked for the time as if he had an appointment to keep. At 1:00 a.m., he asked to make his confession and renewed his vows, which end with ‘If you abide by this on behalf of God, I promise you eternal life.’ At this, he seemed a little better. He got up, washed his face and went to the window asking if the sky was studded with stars. He looked 20 years younger all of a sudden. After 5 minutes, he returned to his wheelchair, started to perspire very heavily in a cold sweat and his lips turned blue. He asked for the wheelchair to be removed as though he had no further use for it and began to say continuously, ‘Gesù Maria.’ Looking straight ahead, he asked, ‘What is that?’ A photo of your mother, I replied. ‘But I see two mothers,’ he said. Thinking his sight was failing, I explained that there were other photos too including his American friend, Mary, who recently died. ‘I see those clearly,’ he said. ‘Yet I still see two mothers.’ Again, he started to repeat, ‘Gesù Maria.’ As I [take my] leave [from] his cell for assistance, he called me back saying, ‘Do not trouble anyone else.’ I insisted however. I went to find Father Joseph Pius and asked him to find his doctor, Dr. Sala. Dr. Sala and his colleagues arrived and I went to bring [in] the other friars. Padre Pio continued to repeat ‘Gesù Maria’ right after his last breath. At 2:30 a.m., he gently bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
Padre Pio died at 2:30 a.m. on September 23, 1968.
Few months before he died, Padre Pio’s wounds started to heal and during his last Mass, the healing was complete. His dead body did not show a single scar or mark.
Padre Pio’s Sandals
When asked what he would do after his death, he replied, “I can do so much more for all of you in heaven [than what] I can do on earth. My real work begins after my death. I will not rest until all of my spiritual children are in heaven.”
“Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Anxiety does not help at all. The Good Lord will listen to your prayers.” – Padre Pio/Santo Pio (May 25, 1887 – September 23, 1968)
Published on the We the Italians Magazine “PADRE PIO: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry“