Tuesday, 23 September 2014

St Pio of Pietrelcina

St Pio is not a saint to whom I take naturally, so it was rather a challenge at the time of his canonisation to engage with the stories of his life and to try and understand that life as a charism and a mission for the Church. Below is part of an article I wrote at that time. It tries to identify exactly what was St Pio's mission in and for the Church. I think the prime source for the account of the pain he experienced during the celebration of Mass is the testimony of American soldiers and airmen who attended his Mass while serving nearby during the Second World War.
Padre Pio is a witness to the reality of a supernatural existence.  Just as he lived in the physical world, he also experienced ecstatic encounters with Jesus and the saints in heaven.  These joyful encounters were matched by an acute sense of his own sinfulness and a despairing experience of temptation; Padre Pio’s spiritual experience was that of an oscillation between heaven and hell.  Whilst this might appear remarkable to us, it is an experience shared by the great mystics St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and expressed in the poetry of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament: “Then I rose to open to my Beloved….but he had turned his back and gone!”.   
There are countless stories of healings in response to intercession by Padre Pio, some better attested than others.  When he was in Rome as a Bishop for the Second Vatican Council, Karol Wojtyla asked Padre Pio to pray for one of his closest friends and collaborators in Krakow.  When he telephoned Krakow the day after major surgery was due, he learned that Wanda Poltawska had returned home healed of her cancer without having undergone the surgery.  The effectiveness of Padre Pio’s intercession arises from his self-offering to God as a victim for others.
The core of Padre Pio’s active apostolate and his spiritual mission in the Church, however, is his being marked with the wounds of Christ, the stigmata.  The visible marks are an outward sign of a lived experience of the crucifixion, both as a willing self-offering on the part of the person involved and as a gift from God of being able to take part in the suffering of Jesus himself.  Padre Pio is distinguished from his contemporary stigmatists (Marthe Robin, Adrienne von Speyr, Therese Neumann) as a man and as a priest.  Where their experience of the Passion is associated with time - from Thursday evening to Sunday morning or the period of the Easter Triduum - Padre Pio’s experience is associated with his celebration of the Eucharist.  Eyewitness accounts describe the intense pain that he experienced in his hands, feet and whole body as he celebrated Mass.  At the words of Consecration, said hesitantly and with frequent repeating of words, “he is literally on the cross with Christ”.  Blood flowed from the wounds in Padre Pio’s hands, feet and side.  After his Mass, Padre Pio would spend many hours celebrating the Sacrament of Penance.  This aspect of his mission in the Church can also be seen in the light of the stigmata.  In this sacrament, the Church bears the burden of sin “for others” and for Padre Pio this was explicit in the way in which he offered himself as a victim for others.  Whilst there are many stories of Padre Pio’s supernatural insight into the lives of those who came to him for confession, he was for the majority of people simply a very good confessor and counsellor.
St Pio would also appear to have had a somewhat wicked sense of humour. My article relates a prank he organised at the expense of some of his fellow Franciscans that involved exaggerating the pain of a cholera inoculation they were all receiving  - to the extent that one fellow priest fainted and another approached the doctor having gone as white as a sheet. My favourite anecdote, however, relates to St Pio's expressed views in favour of the refrigerator and against the television, delivered, if my memory is correct, in the community room of his friary. "The inventor of the refrigerator ..."[pointing upwards]; "... the inventor of the television ..." [pointing downwards].

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