Monday 19 March 2018

Padre Pio and the Irish

It was said he had gifts of prophecy, bilocation and performing miracles, but Padre Pio is probably best known for having the stigmata on his hands and feet and side that he was banned from showing in public for most of his life. Colm Keane, author of a new book on the saint, examines here Irish people's special relationship with Padre Pio

Padre Pio
Padre Pio

On his travels through Italy, shortly after the end of World War II, the eminent Irish author Sean O Faolain witnessed a startling event. The Cork-born writer had just arrived in San Giovanni Rotondo, near Foggia, in the sun-baked boot-heel of Italy, hoping to encounter a Capuchin friar named Padre Pio. Since 1918, the friar had not only borne the five wounds of Christ, but had cured the sick, appeared simultaneously in multiple locations, and demonstrated an astonishing ability to read people's minds.

As O Faolain waited at the old weather-worn chapel, the bearded Capuchin, then aged 62, brown-robed and brown-eyed, suddenly appeared, beating a path through the surging crowd on his way to hear confessions and say Mass. Directly in front of him, and blocking his way, was a sallow-skinned youth. Without pausing, Padre Pio cried out in Italian: "Begone, Satan!" The youth, as O Faolain put it, wavered, paled and slunk back into the mob.

Later that day, O Faolain met the young man and asked him for an explanation of the event. He said that he was a clerk from Milan, an agnostic, a non-believer, who had undergone a serious operation the previous year and had only come to San Giovanni to appease his mother. Curious to see what the friar was like, he was standing there, looking, saying nothing as Padre Pio approached. "I can tell you he frightened me when he said, 'Begone, Satan!'" he remarked. "I do not know how he knew that I am an agnostic."

There were many mysterious things about Francesco Forgione, or Padre Pio as he was more commonly known, that puzzled and energised the public, clergy and medical profession, following his rise to prominence in 1918. His ability to see into people's souls was just one of them. Further attributes, including the gifts of prophecy and bilocation (being in two places simultaneously), and causing miracles to happen, were also identified in initial newspaper reports, the first of which appeared in Ireland in 1920. A flood of press coverage followed.

The Irish took to him from the beginning. Irish priests, with their Rome connections, were among the first to visit. They were followed by Irish soldiers and airmen who met him as they advanced through Italy with the Allied forces during World War II. By the 1950s, Irish pilgrims, especially women, were making the long journey by prop planes or by land and sea, arriving up the final stretch of dirt track to the friary at San Giovanni, tired and hungry. The package tours of the 1960s opened the floodgates even further.

Somehow, Irish people seemed inexorably drawn to this mystical mountain outcrop where a strange Capuchin friar was residing. Many were driven by their intense spiritual convictions. Others saw in the wonder-working friar a contrast to the austere Catholicism that pertained in Ireland at the time. More arrived with a simple mission: to restore their health or the health of their loved ones. Those who couldn't travel, wrote instead. All believed him to be a saint. Time would prove them right.

The extraordinary story of Padre Pio began on Friday, September 20, 1918. On that day, he sat in the choir loft of the friary chapel at San Giovanni Rotondo, saying prayers of thanksgiving after Mass. It was between nine and ten o'clock in the morning. He was alone. The normal darkness of the chapel seemed even duskier in the early autumn light. Everything was deathly quiet. He was, he later said, overcome by a sense of peacefulness "similar to a deep sleep".

Mayhem suddenly broke loose. The crucifix in the choir loft transformed itself into an "exalted being" whose hands, feet and side dripped blood. The friar was terrified. Beams of light and shafts of flame burst forth from the being, wounding Padre Pio in the hands and feet. "What I felt at that moment is indescribable," he later recalled. "I thought I would die." The being then disappeared, not a word having been said, leaving Padre Pio lying on the floor, his hands and feet oozing blood. A wound in his side, which had appeared at an earlier date, was also bleeding.

Padre Pio was aged 31 when the stigmata appeared on his body. He was both pained and ashamed. "I am dying of pain because of the wounds," he wrote, "and because of the resulting embarrassment which I feel deep within my soul. Will Jesus who is so good grant me this grace? Will he at least relieve me of the embarrassment which these outward signs cost me?" Despite his plea, the wounds - and the pain - would remain with Padre Pio for the next 50 years.

Soon, there were rumblings about miracles and cures. A blind man was said to have recovered his sight after being blessed by Padre Pio. A soldier's gangrenous foot was healed, even though doctors declared it to be untreatable. The lame cast off their crutches and walked. Tumours disappeared from those with cancer.

Strange, sweet perfumes emanated from the blood of his wounds. He appeared at the bedsides of the sick in their homes while simultaneously being witnessed by his colleagues back at the friary. Those attending his confessions were shocked when he read their souls, recounting sins only they could have known.

People flocked to the friary at San Giovanni to get a glimpse of this extraordinary man. They crammed into his Masses, queued for interminable hours to attend his confessions, and waited by doors or in corridors to receive his blessing or to touch his robes. Women, in particular, were drawn to him, arriving each morning to seek his absolution at confession or to beg his intercession over family concerns.

Dublin-born Dr Paschal Robinson, who was a Vatican diplomat and later the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, joined the long queue of visitors, becoming almost certainly the first Irish person to meet him. He did so in the early 1920s, having been asked by the Vatican to investigate the padre's wounds. He concluded that the wounds were real, and the reported bleeding actually occurred. This alone was significant, as allegations had surfaced that the phenomenon was a hoax. His conclusion mirrored those of many other investigators who reported coin-sized lesions, covered in a wide film of crusted blood, which would break into shards and dig into the friar's flesh, causing severe pain.

Unfortunately for Padre Pio, Dr Robinson also concluded that he should not appear in public as long as the stigmata were present. This recommendation had significant consequences in subsequent years. At various times, the friar was banned from saying public Masses, hearing lay confessions, meeting with devotees, answering letters or revealing his stigmata in public. It wasn't until 1963 - while in his mid-70s - that all restrictions were finally lifted by Pope Paul VI.

In the following years, Padre Pio worked prodigiously, undertaking tasks his fellow friars would never contemplate, never mind complete. Rising at 3.30am, he would prepare for his daily Mass, which he celebrated at 5am. When permitted, he spent up to eight hours hearing confessions each day. Again, when permitted, he engaged with his visitors and devotees, dealt with sacks of letters, and still had time to oversee the building of a state-of-the-art hospital in San Giovanni. The rest of the day he spent in contemplation and prayer.

His wounds continually caused pain and discomfort. They never became infected and never healed, even though other scratches and everyday lacerations healed quickly. He lost a cupful of blood through the wounds each day, adding to the pressure on his body. His body temperature was startling, registering up to 47-degrees Celsius, even when well (37-degrees Celsius is normal). This latter phenomenon he shared with other stigmatics.

Increasingly, his Irish devotees travelled to meet him, or witness his morning Mass. They were a disparate group of people, including an Irish organiser of 'The Great Escape' in World War II, who lived in Donegal; a former wartime spymaster also living in Donegal; two adulterous authors; many journalists; and Patricia McLaughlin, whose voice became well-known on Irish radio in the 1970s and 1980s for her work on behalf of Wireless for the Blind.

Mary O'Connor, from Cork, visited in the 1950s and was overcome by the intensity of the event. "He gave me his hands to kiss, he put his hands on my head and he put his hands on my boy," she recollected. "I looked into his face and I got an awful fright. He looked supernatural. He was different from any other living being I have ever seen. He literally shone, and his eyes were remarkable. He was pale-featured, but he had a glowing expression.

"The whole thing had a huge effect on me. I was so startled that I handed over the child to my husband and I ran out of the church. I ran down the hill and I was hysterical. I worried that I had offended God all my life. I felt, 'If God is anything like Padre Pio, how could I have ever offended him?'"

Another Irish woman, Dublin lecturer Mairead Doyle, became Padre Pio's personal friend. She sought a cure from the friar when her niece was dying.

"When my sister Deirdre, who was the youngest in the family, was born, she had three cerebral haemorrhages," Mary Briody remembers. "The doctors didn't give her any hope. Daddy was told to order the white coffin. He came home and told us that the baby wasn't going to live. We said the rosary at home. Mairead had this relic of Padre Pio at the time and she put the relic on my sister and sent a telegram to San Giovanni. Of course, Deirdre did get better. So Mairead wrote to, or sent a telegram to, Padre Pio and said she would bring my sister over when she was four. Padre Pio's reply was, 'I've already been with Deirdre!'"

Yet another Irish miracle was reported by Mona Hanafin, from Thurles. In 1964, she travelled to San Giovanni Rotondo with one aim in mind: to save her life. She was seriously ill, having just been diagnosed with cancer. A long series of hospital stays and medical interventions had failed to resolve her problem, and time was running out. With a major operation pending, Mona decided to place her life in the hands of Padre Pio.

"We were all lined up on either side of the pews and I was at the altar rails," she recalled of her meeting with the future saint. "Padre Pio was going to pass up through us all. The custom was that he would give you his hand and you would kiss it. I was looking at him and saying in my mind, 'If you think I'm good enough, would you put your hand on my head and bless me'. He did."

Although there was no instant cure, contrary to all expectations Mona not only recovered but, once back in Ireland, her doctor discovered that her cancer was gone. He was baffled and could offer no explanation. An operation, he said, was no longer necessary. At the time of writing, it is well over half a century later, and the cancer has never come back.

Just as the Irish loved Padre Pio, the future saint also loved them. He admired the depth of their faith, once remarking how "Ireland is a country beloved by God." His face would light up when introduced to people who had travelled so far to meet him. "Ah, the Irish!" he would exclaim in Italian when discovering where they were from. He also took an interest in Irish church affairs, supporting the building of a new basilica at Knock.

The Capuchin friars who assisted Padre Pio also loved Ireland, with many travelling to Dublin, Cork and Donegal to learn to speak English. They brought with them intimate stories about their stigmatised fellow friar. Fr Alessio described how he had once seen the stigmata: "They were horrible to look at. I had always wished to see them, but once I saw them, I prayed, 'God, don't ever let me see them again'. His hands were like those of a leper, they were so corroded."

Fr Alessio also said he knew if sick people who came seeking cures would live or die. "I know from experience," he remarked, "that when Padre Pio said to the sick person, 'I'll pray for you' or 'Let's pray to God', the sick person was going to be healed. On the other hand, if he said, 'Let's resign ourselves to the will of God' or said nothing at all, the grace of healing was not to be."

On September 23, 1968, at the age of 81, Padre Pio lost his own will to live and died in the arms of his fellow friars at the monastery in San Giovanni. He was weak and unwell by that stage of his life. Since 1967, the stigmata had already started fading. The first to go were those on the feet, followed by the wound on the side. Next the stigmata on the hands began to fade and, by summer, only dried crusts and a pink redness remained. Padre Pio was beginning his journey home to heaven, and he knew it.

"He was very old and very frail," said County Dublin woman Kay Thornton, who witnessed him in his final days. "He was hardly able to move. He had to be helped on to the altar. He was sitting down during the Mass. He stumbled on the way back into the vestry and someone had to catch him."

On the evening of September 22, Padre Pio reported seeing "two mothers," most likely referring to the two women who had dominated his life and whom he had loved dearly: the Blessed Virgin and his own late mother, Mamma Peppa. A friar heard his last confession and he renewed his priestly vows. Then, at 2.30 on the morning of September 23, he uttered his last words, "Jesus, Mary, Jesus, Mary," closed his eyes, took his last breath and died.

The challenge, he had once said, was not death but eternal salvation. Holiness meant "living humbly, being disinterested, prudent, just, patient, kind, chaste, meek, diligent, carrying out one's duties for no other reason than that of pleasing God, and receiving from Him alone the reward one deserves." Even by those exacting standards, Padre Pio was far away, in the company of the two mothers he had hoped to meet in heaven.


'Padre Pio: Irish Encounters with the Saint', by Colm Keane, is published by Capel Island Press and retails for €14.99. Proceeds from the book will be donated to the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People

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