Padre Pio, The Polarizing Priest

Derided as a fraud but elevated to sainthood by the Church. What is the legacy of Padre Pio, one of Italy's still most polarizing priests?

Padre Pio
The statue of Padre Pio, Taormina, Sicily. Photo by gnuckx via Flickr.

The funeral of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina in San Giovanni Rotondo, on September 26, 1968, caused an outpouring of grief across Italy. And, over fifty years later, the Padre Pio phenomenon continues to amaze.

“For the believer, no explanation is needed, for the nonbeliever no explanation will suffice.” When referring to Padre Pio, St Thomas Aquinas’s adage is very true. Many people scoff at the inexplicable phenomena that surround him — the stigmata, the miracles, the episodes of bilocation, the perfumes. Yet, there are many too whose belief in the supernatural powers of the Friar leaves no room for doubt.

Padre Pio encapsulated many of the contradictions of the Church in the modern world. And while his legacy for the world has been mixed, it was for the Church itself that this polarizing priest posed the most problems. 

Who was Padre Pio?

Francesco Forgione was born into extreme poverty in Pietrelcina, Campania in 1887. He was a difficult child and, at 6 years of age, his father sent him to graze sheep with an older boy, who would tell of Francesco spending hours in the fields prostrate in prayer.

He was later sent to school and was considered an average pupil, mainly because of ill-health. He joined the enclosed Capuchin Order at age 15 and lived as a recluse in prayer while his health continued to deteriorate. The next years were spent in prayer and study in preparation for the big step: he was ordained a priest of the Order of the Capuchin Friars Minor in 1910.

But then, something strange happened. During the celebration of his first mass, he claimed to feel severe pain in his hands and feet. A year later, wounds similar to those of Christ on the Cross appeared — or so he claimed — and then disappeared a few days later. This phenomenon — the stigmata — would manifest itself repeatedly for the next seven years.

Despite orders of silence on the matter from his superiors, details of further manifestations of the stigmata — and of visions and healings — began to leak out. He also spoke to his confessors of visits from the devil, or ‘Barbablù’, as Francesco called him. Biographies of Padre Pio — the name Francesco took on entering the Capuchin order — mention innumerable miracles, episodes of bilocation, conversions of non-believers and inexplicable healings. Some are documented, others fruit of word of mouth. But, true or not, they have captivated audiences across the world.

Playing by God’s rules only

But while Padre Pio’s miracles and stories did not convince everyone. Nor, indeed, were audiences across the world always very comfortable with the adoration that he received. And that included the highest echelons of the Catholic Church.

From 1925 to 1933, for example, Francesco was silenced by the archbishop of Manfredonia and forbidden to say Mass or hear confessions. The same thing happened between 1960 and 1964, at the height of his fame. And, while Pio hoped to realize a dream of constructing a huge hospital and research complex — the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza in San Giovanni Rotondo, the town in Puglia where he was based — opposition to the project within the Church was immediate and strong.

The problem for the Church was that Padre Pio didn’t necessarily need the Church to realize his dreams. The enormous center was instead built thanks to the offerings of the throngs of visitors who made long journeys to San Giovanni Rotondo in the hope of seeing him. Meanwhile, in the 1950s, Padre Pio Prayer Groups were formed in Italy and as far away as Ireland, the USA, and Australia, from which enormous donations flowed into the small agricultural town in Puglia.

By many both inside and outside the Church, this was seen as the exploitation of people’s desperation and of their unquestioning faith — as people were willing to go into debt in order to continue offering money to the more than 3,000 Padre Pio Foundations and Prayer Groups worldwide. These groups, by the way, still exist, boasting about 3 million members to this day. 

A problem for the Church

Despite the silences that had been imposed upon him, Padre Pio was rehabilitated by the newly elected Pope Paul VI. What changed, and why? How did a priest, who Church authorities at times hadn’t permitted to celebrate mass, suddenly become a saint? How did the Church hierarchy impose the greatest humiliation, suffering and injustice on Padre Pio — and then reward him the greatest honour the Church can bestow? In this story, you have to wonder at the contradictions.

Some observers suggested that his canonization in 2002 was perhaps proclaimed in the hope that it would revive declining religious practices. It happened during the pontificate of the Polish Pope John Paul II, a devotee of Padre Pio, and in a time of crisis within the Catholic Church — and the event raised eyebrows inside and outside the Church. 

Later on, in 2008, his body was exhumed and declared in ‘fair condition’. It was then touched up and put on exhibition in a gold casket, with the friar’s habit was stitched with gold thread. Offerings flooded in to help fund this enterprise. Another major international gathering at San Giovanni Rotondo in 2018 on the 50th anniversary of the Saint’s death brought many generous contributions to the Capuchin cause.

The many contradictions of Padre Pio

The life of the Saint is one of extremes. From total poverty to millions made in his name. A belief that Good and Evil, Christ and Barbablù possessed him. Physically and psychologically frail, and yet steadfast in his faith. 

But what would Padre Pio make of his posthumous existence? Was he the architect of the strange circumstances that surrounded him? Or was it all, like his claim that God and Satan were using his body as an arena for their duels, a way to escape his weakness?

Further, one can’t help wondering what Padre Pio would make of the stalls in San Giovanni Rotondo selling cheap merchandise and fake relics like snippets of cloth from his tunic and the rosary beads “used by the Saint himself.” Does the Church give its approval of a Capuchin website with links for deposits and offerings for ‘virtual flowers’? Or is there some long-term Divine Plan for Padre Pio in place that eludes our understanding and that it is presumptuous to even question?

Whatever the answers, those who have faith draw comfort from the knowledge that in times of suffering we can intercede with Christ through saints like Padre Pio and hope for a miracle. Those who haven’t this faith can draw solace from recognizing the existence of an inexplicable font of goodness and generosity that is the defining characteristic, maybe even the miracle, of a select number of human beings who live their existence exclusively insofar as it can be of help to others.

And what of San Giovanni Rotondo today?

Beside the relics and Padre Pio merchandise, suffice it to say that it is often cited as the world’s most visited Christian shrine after only the Marian Shrine at Lourdes. In the 52 years since the death of Padre Pio, Puglia caters well to the incessant demand. Prior to COVID, celebrations were organised to coincide with the major events in the Saint’s life and in the Catholic Church calendar. These have kept religious tourism constant and are included in the marketing of Puglia and of renowned religious tourism destinations by the big tour operators.

The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza offers assistance in the treatment of all major pathologies, high quality research facilities and nursing homes for the elderly and the needy. This wonderful structure is, in Padre Pio’s own words, “a Temple both to Science and to Faith.” Perhaps it’s his greatest miracle.

Bibliography

Toninelli A., Il Segreto di Padre Pio e Karol Vojtyla, Asti, EDIZIONI PIEMME Spa, www.edizpiemme.it

Cinelli M. Gulli L., Padre Pio Giovanni XXIII www.eri.rai.it

Infusino G., Padre Pio L’uomo e la Fede, Roma, RAI ERI, www.eri.rai.it

Pandiscia A., Padre Pio, Torino, Nuova Eri Edizioni

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