This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Friday, September 23, 2011

September 23 -- Feast of Padre Pio

The twentieth century was not a good time for miracles.  Sure, folks spotted images of Jesus and the BVM in overpasses, tree trunks, and breakfast foods, but it was also an age when science had unleashed to power to peek into the genetic sequencing, to look back hundreds of millions of years at the births and deaths of stars, and to build enough nuclear weapons to destroy all humanity (and most other species of flora and fauna).  Stigmata, levitation, and faith-healing were the tricks of mountebanks who preyed on the gullible, right? 

3-stamp set showing stigmata
And yet, American soldiers who fought in Italy came home with stories of a remarkable priest.  Born in 1887 to farm-working parents, baptized as Franscesco Forgione, Padre Pio was a man out of another time.  By the time was ordained, taking the name Pius (Pio) in 1910, he had already begun to suffer invisible stigmata, i.e. the pains of Jesus, especially in hands, feet, and abdomen.  Pio also suffered the pain of the crown of thorns and the scourging, though there were no visible marks on his body. 

Overactive imagination?  Maybe.  Shirker? Doubtful, though he did spend most of World War One on convalescent leave with double pneumonia.  In 1918, he moved to the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo and remained there for the rest of his life. 

Soon after, Jesus' spear wound appeared in Pio's side and bled for the rest of his life.  Stigmata in his hands and feet also started bleeding and remained open wounds for fifty years.  The local Capuchins didn't mind folks knowing about their bloody little saint -- the pilgrim traffic was astounding! Ah, you see? I share that same cynical twentieth century spirit.  But so did the Vatican officials, who did not want fraud to further erode faith, nor did they want to be duped by charlatans themselves.   Padre Pio offered no explanation, saying only that he was a "mystery to himself." 

Vatican officials wanted to have him say Mass in private, but the ever-growing flood of pilgrims wanted to hear public services from him.  Vatican officials wanted him transferred to another convent, but the faithful weren't having that either.  After he opened a hospital in an empty, old convent, they tried again to shut him down, forbidding him to hear confession and offer any other sacraments except Mass, which had to be said in private.  Protests led the Vatican to reverse itself again, though his detractors continued to spread malicious gossip about him.  His care for dying women led to vicious rumors (later debunked) of sexual impropriety, fueled by a wealthy American woman's bequest of a new hospital for the region.  The project was delayed, but finally begun after WWII and completed in 1957.

Reports of levitation, bilocation, and faith-healing grew, but the pressure from the Vatican disappeared when Pope Pius XII succeeded His Antagonistic Holiness Pope Pius XI.  [That's probably a cheap shot.  Imagine being the head of a spiritual empire during the rise of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia.  I figure he had other things on his mind.] 

Pio's informal congregation swelled worldwide.  His health failed slowly, but he broadcast his Masses and homilies.  Pilgrims never stopped visiting.  He celebrated Mass before huge crowds for the fiftieth anniversary of his stigmata, but when he raised his hands, they had vanished and left no scars behind.  He died the next day. 

When beatifying and canonizing Padre Pio, Pope John Paul II emphasized that it was not the "gifts" -- i.e. the stigmata, levitation, and bilocation -- but his charitable works which distinguish him and qualify him for sainthood.   Even then, the Vatican was hesitant to embrace miracles, but it hardly mattered.  The people proclaimed him a saint long before the Vatican ratified the designation, just as they have with Mother Teresa and even Pope John Paul II. 

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