A Saint of our times | Sunday Observer
Saint Pio of Pietrelcina:

A Saint of our times

20 September, 2020

Padre Pio saw the image of Christ in the poor, the suffering, and the sick and gave himself particularly to them. He once said, “Bring God to all those who are sick. This will help them more than any other remedy.”

The feast of the virtuous Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, popularly known as Padre Pio is celebrated universally on September 23. He was born in 1887, lived 81 years and died in 1968. He was the only priest in the history of the Catholic Church to bear the stigmata – physical wounds like those suffered by Jesus Christ for a full 50 years. He was considered exceptionally holy throughout his lifetime. In one of the largest liturgies in history, Pope John Paul II canonised Padre Pio in 2002. In his homily, Pope John Paul II revealed that as a student, he had the chance to meet Padre Pio personally in 1958 in Rome and thanked God for allowing him to enter Padre Pio’s name in the Book of the Blessed.

Once Padre Pio said thus, “The person who meditates and turns his mind to God, who is the mirror of his soul, seeks to know his faults, tries to correct them, moderates his impulses, and puts his conscience in order.” St. Pio compared weekly confession to dusting a room weekly, and recommended the performance of meditation and self-examination twice daily: once in the morning, as preparation to face the day, and once again in the evening, as retrospection. His advice on the practical application of theology he often summed up in his quote, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry”.

Early life and ordination to priesthood

Francesco Forgione was born to Grazio Mario Forgione (1860–1946) and Maria Giuseppa Di Nunzio (1859–1929) on May 25, 1887, in Pietrelcina, in the Benevento region northeast of Naples. He was baptised in the nearby Santa Anna Chapel, where he later served as an altar boy. He had an older brother, Michele, and three younger sisters, Felicita, Pellegrina, and Grazia. By the time he was five, he had already made the decision to dedicate his entire life to God.

Pietrelcina was a town where feast days of saints were celebrated throughout the year, and the Forgione family was deeply religious. They attended Holy Mass daily, recited the Rosary nightly, and abstained from meat in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Francesco’s parents and grandparents narrated Bible stories to their children. Young Francesco was afflicted with a number of illnesses.

As a youth, Francesco had experienced heavenly visions and ecstasies. In 1897, after he had completed three years at the public school, Francesco was said to have been drawn to the life of a friar after listening to a young Capuchin.

When Francesco expressed his desire to his parents, they made a trip to Morconeto find out if their son was eligible to enter the Capuchin Order and the friars there accepted him.

Francesco’s father went to the United States in search of work to pay for private tutoring for his son. It was in this period that Francesco received the Sacrament of Confirmation on September 27, 1899. At 15, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchin friars and took the Franciscan habit and the name of Fra (Friar) Pio. He took the simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Fra Pio travelled to the friary of Saint Francis of Assisi in Umbria to commence his study for the priesthood. At 17, he fell ill, complaining of loss of appetite, insomnia, exhaustion, fainting spells and migraines. He could digest only milk and cheese. Religious devotees point to this time as when inexplicable phenomena allegedly began to occur. During prayers for example, Pio appeared to others as he was in a stupor, as if he was absent. One of Pio’s fellow friars later claimed to have seen him in ecstasy, and allegedly levitating above the ground.

In 1905, Pio’s health worsened to such an extent that his superiors decided to send him to a mountain convent, in the hope that the change of air would do him good. This had little impact, however, and doctors advised that he return home. Even there his health failed to improve. Yet, in 1907, he still made his solemn profession. In 1910, Pio was ordained a priest and four days later, he offered his first Holy Mass at the parish church.

In a 1911 letter, he wrote to his Spiritual Advisor, Padre Benedetto describing something he had been apparently experiencing for a year: “Then, last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also, under my feet I can feel some pain.”

Stigmata, First World War and military service

In another letter in 1912, to his spiritual companion and confessor, Father Agostino, Fr. Pio wrote of his devotion to the mystical body of Christ and the intuition that he himself would bear the stigmata of Christ. In 1915, Fr. Pio clarified that he had been favoured with visions since his novitiate period (1903 to 1904). Although he had been granted the stigmata, he had been so terrified by the phenomenon that he begged the Lord to withdraw them. He wrote that he did not wish the pain to be removed, only the visible wounds, since he considered them an indescribable and almost unbearable humiliation.

During the World War I, on November 15, 1915, he was drafted and on December 6, assigned to the 10th Medical Corps in Naples. His health being precarious, he was permitted to remain with his family. In 1916, he returned to his community life. He moved to an agricultural community in San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia where he remained until his death in 1968. In the priesthood, Padre Pio was known tohave performed a number of successful conversions to Catholicism.

Due to poor health, he was declared unfit for war service and discharged on March 16, 1918. People who had started rebuilding their lives after the war began to see in him a symbol of hope.

Those close to him attest that he began to manifest several spiritual gifts, including the gifts of healing, bilocation, levitation, prophecy, miracles, extraordinary abstinence from both sleep and nourishment, ability to read hearts, gift of tongues, gift of conversions, and pleasant-smelling wounds.

On September 20, 1918, while hearing confessions, Padre Pio claimed to have had a reappearance of the physical occurrence of the stigmata. The blood flowing from the stigmata purportedly smelled of perfume or flowers. He reported that the pain was more acute on specific days and under certain circumstances. He also said that he was suffering the pain of the crown of thorns and the scourging. Though he preferred to suffer in secret, by early 1919, news had begun to spread. Padre Pio often wore red mittens or black coverings on his hands and feet.

The Vatican initially imposed severe sanctions on Padre Pio in the 1920s and it forbade him from saying Holy Mass in public, blessing people, answering letters, showing his stigmata publicly, and communicating with his Spiritual Director.

The Bishop of Volterra, Raffaele Rossi, Carmelite, was formally commissioned on June 11, 1921 to make a canonical inquiry. After eight days of investigation, he completed a benevolent report, “Fr. Pio was a good religious and the San Giovanni Rotondo convent was a good community. Whatever is extraordinary about what Fr. Pio does cannot be explained, but certainly not by the intervention of the devil, or by deception or dizziness.” Rossi saw these stigmata of then 34-year-old Fr. Pio as a ‘real fact’.

World War I continued and in July 1918, Pope Benedict XV, who had termed the World War “the suicide of Europe,” appealed to all Christians urging them to pray for an end. On July 27 of the same year, Padre Pio offered himself as a victim for the end of the war. Days passed and between August 5 and 7, Padre Pio had a vision in which Christ appeared and pierced his side.

Physical wound

As a result, Padre Pio claimed to have received a physical wound in his side. This occurrence is considered as a transverberation, indicating the union of love with God within Christian mysticism. In a letter to Padre Benedetto, dated August 21, 1918, Padre Pio wrote: “While I was hearing confessions on the evening of

August 5, I was suddenly terrorised by the sight of a celestial person who presented himself to my mind’s eye. He had in his hand a sort of weapon like a very long sharp-pointed steel blade, which seemed to emit fire. At the very instant that I saw all this, I saw that person hurl the weapon into my soul with all his might. I cried out with difficulty and felt I was dying. This agony lasted uninterruptedly until the morning of the seventh I cannot tell you how much I suffered during this period of anguish”.

On September 20, 1918, accounts state that the pains of the transverberation had ceased and Pio was in “profound peace.” On that day, as he was engaged in prayer in the Church of Our Lady of Grace, he received another celestial vision, which led to religious ecstasy. When the ecstasy ended, Padre Pio claimed to have received the visible stigmata. This time, it allegedly stayed visible for the next 50 years of his life, only disappearing in the last moment of his life, leaving no trace on his skin.

By 1925, Pio had converted an old convent building into a 20-bed hospital intended primarily for people in extreme need. In 1940, Padre Pio began plans to open a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, to be named the ‘Home to Relieve Suffering.’ The hospital opened in 1956, and is considered one of the most efficient hospitals in Europe. In order that Padre Pio might directly supervise this project, Pope Pius XII, in 1957 granted him dispensation from his vow of poverty.

In 1933, Pope Pius XI ordered a reversal of the ban on Padre Pio’s public celebration of Mass, arguing, “I have been badly informed.” In 1934, the friar was allowed to hear confessions and also to preach. Pope Pius XII, who assumed the papacy in 1939, even encouraged devotees to visit Padre Pio. Finally, in the mid-1960s Pope Paul VI dismissed all accusations against Padre Pio.

PrIn 1947, Father Karol Jozef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) visited Padre Pio, who heard his confession. During this meeting, Padre Pio told him he would one day ascend to “the highest post in the church.” Wojtyła believed that the prophecy was fulfilled when he became a cardinal. According to tradition, Bishop Wojtyła wrote to Padre Pio in 1962 to ask him to pray for Wanda Poltawska, a friend in Poland who was suffering from cancer and the cancer was apparently found to be in spontaneous remission.

In the 1999 book, Padre Pio: The Wonder Worker, an Irish priest Malachy Gerard Carroll describes the story of Gemma de Giorgi, a Sicilian girl whose blindness was believed to have been cured during a visit to Padre Pio. She was brought to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1947 by her grandmother and she was born without pupils. During her trip to see Padre Pio, the little girl began to see objects, including a steamboat and the sea. Gemma’s grandmother did not believe. Padre Pio told her, “The child must not weep and neither must you for the child sees.”

On September 21, 1968, the day after the fiftieth anniversary of his receiving the stigmata, Padre Pio felt great fatigue. The next day, on September 22, he was supposed to offer a Solemn Mass, but feeling weak, he asked his superior if he might say a Low Mass instead.

Due to the large number of pilgrims, Padre Pio’s superior decided the Solemn Mass must proceed. Padre Pio carried out his duties but appeared extremely weak and fragile. This was his last celebration of the Mass. Early in the morning of September 23, PadrePio made his last confession and renewed his Franciscan vows. As was customary, he had his rosary in his hands, though he did not have the strength to say the Hail Marys aloud. Till the end, he repeated the words Gesu, Maria (Jesus, Mary). Just before 2:30 a.m., he said, “I see two mothers” (taken to mean his mother and Mary). At 2:30 a.m. he died in his cell in San Giovanni Rotondo. With his last breath he whispered, “Maria!”

On the day of Padre Pio’s death, mystical and the Servant of God, Maria Esperanza de Bianchini from Venezuela reported that he appeared to her in a vision and said, “I have come to say good-bye. My time has come. It is your turn.” Her husband saw his wife’s face transfigured into that of Padre Pio. On the following day, they learned that Padre Pio had died. Witnesses say they later saw Esperanza levitating during Mass and engaging in bilocation. Padre Domenico da Cese, a fellow Capuchin stigmatist, reported that on September 22, 1968, he saw Padre Pio kneeling in prayer before the Holy Face of Manoppello, although it was known that Padre Pio had not left his room.

His body was buried on September 26 in a crypt in the Church of Our Lady of Grace. His Requiem Mass was attended by over 100,000. He had often said, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” The accounts of those who stayed with Padre Pio till the end state that the stigmata had completely disappeared without a scar. Only a red mark “as if drawn by a red pencil” remained on his side but it disappeared.

In 1982, the Holy See authorised to open an investigation to determine whether Padre Pio should be canonised which continued for seven years. In 1990, Padre Piowas declared a Servant of God, the first step in the process of canonisation.

A discussion of the effects of his life on others followed and cases such as a reported cure of an Italian woman, Consiglia de Martino, associated with Padre Pio’s intercession was focused on. In 1999, John Paul II declared Padre Pio blessed. After further consideration of Padre Pio’s virtues and ability to do good even after his death, including discussion of another healing attributed to his intercession, John Paul II declared Padre Pio a saint on June 16, 2002.


Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, built in the village of San Giovanni Rotondo to the memory of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. On March 3, 2008, the body of Padre Pio was exhumed from his crypt, forty years after his death, so that his remains could be prepared for display. A church statement described the body as being in ‘fair condition’. On April 24 the body went on display in a crystal, marble, and silver sepulcher in the crypt of the monastery. Padre Pio has become one of the world’s most popular saints.

The construction of the first church in honour of St. Pio in Sri Lanka started in 2004 in Athurugiriya and was completed in 2008. The renowned church builder and my beloved uncle, Rev. Fr. Bertram Dabrera in his capacity as the Project Director spearheaded the Herculean task at the request of the Archbishop of Colombo, the Most Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando.

He was ably supported by Rev. Fr. Kingsley Jayamanne as the Director of Finance with Gamini Kannangara as the Director Coordinating. During the four year construction, I helped the project in numerous ways.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcinais known as the Patron Saint of Civil Defence volunteers, after a group of 160 petitioned the Italian Bishops’ Conference for this designation. I firmly believe that St. Pio miraculously intervened in my life by providing a three-year stint with the Civil Defence Force in Sri Lanka at a crucial juncture in my life.

(The author holds a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses a variety of topics; he is a recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic pursuits.)