On September 23, Catholics celebrate the memory of Saint Pius of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), the Capuchin Franciscan friar still best known simply as "Padre Pio," who has become one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church.
He was born of poor but devout parents, Grazio and Maria Forgione, in the town of Pietrelcina, province of Benevento, in southern Italy, and baptized Francesco. At an early age, he was fascinated by a barefoot Capuchin who came around seeking alms, and Francesco grew up wanting to become a friar but lacked the educational background. His father, Grazio, came to the United States to find work in order to pay for the necessary schooling, and so Francesco entered the novitiate in 1903 and was given the name Pio.
Street scene in Pietrelcina, birthplace of Padre Pio
Brother Pio was ordained to the priesthood in 1910. He was plagued with ill health, leading his superiors to send him home with his family for some years. In 1916 he was able to return to community and assigned to the small friary of Our Lady of Grace in the town of San Giovanni Rotondo in Apulia where he spent almost all the rest of his life.
Padre Pio as a younger friar
Shortly afterward, Padre Pio began experiencing paranormal phenomena, especially the stigmata that first appeared on his body in September 1918. These caused considerable notoriety and suspicion, and Padre Pio underwent a long series of investigations by church authorities that ended only in the early 1960s.
Gradually the tide turned, however, and Padre Pio’s deep spirituality and ability to "read hearts" brought thousands to his friary for counsel and confession. At times he had 18-hour workdays.
Padre Pio's room in the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo
The friars built a new church in the 1950s to accommodate the large crowds coming to San Giovanni Rotondo. Pio died just days after marking the 50th anniversary of the stigmata. At his final Mass, the stigmata had disappeared.
The Capuchin friary and church in San Giovanni Rotondo in the early 1920s
Padre Pio's life demonstrates again that beneath all the publicity, the heart of Franciscan spirituality lies in a radical response to the in-break of God's love in one's life that leads us to empty ourselves and follow in the footsteps of Christ in humble service. Pio's great confidence in the love of God is typified in his oft-quoted advice to penitents: "Pray, Hope, Don't Worry."
As Pope Paul VI told the Capuchin friars not long after Padre Pio's death:
Look what fame he had, what a worldwide following gathered around him! But why? Because he was a philosopher? Because he was wise? Because he had resources at his disposal? No—because he said Mass humbly, heard confessions from dawn to dusk, and was—it is not easy to say it—one who bore the wounds of our Lord. He was a man of prayer and suffering.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.