San Giovanni Rotondo used to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but today it is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in Italy. This is all thanks to one miracle-working Franciscan friar known to all as “Padre Pio.” Since his canonization in 2002 he is also now known to the Church as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. St. Pio spent almost his entire life as a priest in this little friary in San Giovani Rotondo. We could almost say that he never left, except he was known to have the gift of bilocation whereby he was physically present in some other place while still having never left the friary. I could certainly use this gift!
While not bilocating, St. Pio spent his day celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. These two simple tasks seem so simple and yet are at the heart of what the priesthood is all about. He began his Mass each day at 5am and it would often take 3 hours for him to finish. He was so moved by the passion of our Lord made present in the holy Mass that he would go into ecstasy at the consecration of the Eucharist. One might think that a 3 hour morning Mass at 5am would not be very popular with the laity, yet St. Pio’s Masses were filled to overflowing. Everyone wanted to be near this holy priest, as if to see more clearly the reality of the Mass as St. Pio saw it.
After celebrating Mass, St. Pio spent most of the rest of his day hearing the confessions of the hundreds of faithful who would come to receive sacramental absolution from him. In those days when spiritual direction for the laity was rare, people flocked to the saint for his advice. One of the main reasons for his popularity as a confessor is that he had the miraculous ability the “read souls,” often reminding people of the sins they were hiding and failing to confess. He was known to tell people to leave the confessional and come back later when they were truly sorry. I don’t think it would go so well if I tried to imitate him in this respect. There would more likely be a line at the archbishop’s office than outside my confessional. Yet, St. Pio had this amazing gift to know if a soul was not yet sincere in confession and to help them to confess well.
While there are many miraculous stories attributed to St. Pio, the gift that drew the most attention was that he bore the five wounds of Christ, the stigmata, on his hands, feet, and side. He would lose almost two cups of blood each day from his wounds, inexplicable by modern medicine. He was actually quite embarrassed by this gift and wore gloves which he only removed to celebrate Mass. When a man is ordained a priest he is told to “imitate what you celebrate and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” I can think of no better example than St. Pio in living out this command, both in life and even physically in his body.
By the later years of his life, so many people were coming to see St. Pio that a new church had to be built next to the original friary church. Some thought it unwise to build such a large church, thinking that Padre Pio would soon be forgotten after his death. The future saint commented that the new church would not be big enough!
St. Pio died in his cell on September 23, 1968 having just finished celebrating his final Mass a few hours before. He was buried in the crypt of the new church where millions, including myself, came to pray at his tomb, imploring his continued intercession from heaven.
Seeing the great devotion of the faithful, and after careful examination of several continuing miracles after his death, the Church proclaimed Padre Pio “blessed” in 1999 and canonized him a “St. Pio of Pietrelcina” in 2002. The saint’s prediction that the “new” church would not be large enough was proved true by the time of his canonization. The new shrine of St. Pio was completed in 2010 and is now able to seat over 6000 for Mass. With millions of pilgrims steaming to San Giovanni Rotondo each year, even this church can only hold a fraction of those who wish to come pray at the tomb of St. Pio.
As a part of the canonization process, St. Pio’s body was exhumed from the tomb where his remains had rested since his death in 1968. When the tomb was opened, it was discovered that a lot off moisture had been trapped inside, potentially due to the cement not being completely dry before his burial. The moisture had caused St. Pio’s skin to become blackened, although his body was intact. Since there was a desire to display the saint’s body in a glass casket for venation of the faithful, a wax mask was created to accurately depicted his face at the time of death. One can still see the natural state of his body in his exposed hands.
Twelve years ago I came to pray at the tomb of this great saint, asking for his intercession in discerning God’s call for my life. It was a great joy to return in thanksgiving today, this time asking for his continuing intercession in living out the priestly vocation which we now share. I pray that, following his example, I too may better each day conform my life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.