Padre Pio and Our Bloody Mess

Pilgrims wave in front of Santa Maria delle Grazie church in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, during the ceremony of canonization of Padre Pio in 2002. (Mario Laporta/Reuters)
On the feast day of this relatively modern saint, recall his example of self-sacrifice and his message of peace.

‘The wound in my heart spurts out blood regularly, especially from Thursday night to Saturday. My father, I am moving around in pain from the torture and for the subsequent confusion that I feel in the depth of my soul. I am afraid of dying from loss of blood if the Lord does not hear the groans of my poor heart and does not rescue me out of this predicament. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace?”

That’s a quote from Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, more familiarly known as Padre Pio, whose feast day is September 23. He was a holy priest, and a revered confessor and spiritual director. In this case, he was writing to his own spiritual director, Father Benedetto of San Marco in Lamis, on October 22, 1918. It’s one of the letters of spiritual direction — he is on both the giving and the receiving end — translated in a devotional book, Padre Pio’s Spiritual Direction for Every Day by two professors. One of the authors is, like Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest; the other is a woman, points to the complementarity between men and women as well as that among people of all vocations in the Church, a collaboration necessary for its good health.

Padre Pio was writing about his stigmata, the physical manifestation, on his body, of Christ’s crucifixion. He wouldn’t normally be talking about it so openly — he typically kept a glove on to keep it from being on display — but here he was being transparent with a spiritual adviser about his walk with God.

The stigmata, of course, isn’t the most relatable of realities, on the surface. And yet you might find that his words resonate. Isn’t there something in it that speaks to our miserable politics? Isn’t there something there about the pain so many hold within — until it manifests itself in ways that only add to the pain, to oneself and others? Isn’t there something there that explains the utter confusion of daily life and the way that our understanding of the fundamentals is so out of whack as to seem irrevocably lost? (Simply put: A bloody mess comes to mind. John Podhoretz saw a second Flood coming this week.)

Padre Pio went on to write: “Will He at least take way my confusion about these external signs? I will lift up my voice to Him loudly, and I will not desist in begging that by His mercy He would take away not the torment or the pain from me . . . but these external signs, which cause me an indescribable and unbearable confusion and embarrassment.”

How many of us are embarrassed — and confused — not only about our own shortcomings but about the things that go on around us that we can’t seem to help? Nebraska senator Ben Sasse wants Schoolhouse Rock back. It might teach a few things in a simple and non-threatening way, pointing to the possibilities that are in front of us if we would only stop doing the things that increase the feeling of being overwhelmed. But what we really need — and the senator talks about this, too — is virtue. Success isn’t the thing we need so much as virtue. Even if we fail, at least we will be good. And good not in the sense of “Jesus is nice; you should be too.” No, Jesus was radically self-sacrificing. Padre Pio had that strange physical reminder of that self-sacrifice, so that people might better know that it is true. As we all face the consequences of evil in our world — including our own succumbing to it, in ways small and grave — this relatively contemporary saint, who was canonized by John Paul II in 2002, is a helpful reminder.

Corresponding with another Capuchin, Father Agostino of San Marco in Lamis, on July 10, 1915, he said:

Jesus likes to communicate with simple souls. Let us try to acquire this good virtue, and let us hold it in great esteem. Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 18:3]. Before teaching us this through His words, however, He practiced it by His actions. He made himself a baby and gave us an example of the simplicity that he later taught through his words. Let us keep our hearts on the alert to stay far away from all worldly wisdom. Let us strive at all times to have pure thoughts, righteous ideas, and holy intentions in our minds.

Let us always keep our wills seeking nothing but God and His glory. If we attempt to advance in this lovely virtue, the one who taught it to us will always enrich us with new insights and greater heavenly favors.

Let us always keep before the eyes of our minds our status as priests, until we can join St. Paul in sincerely saying to every kind of person, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” [Corinthians 11: 1]. Let us not stop moving forward in this lovely virtue of simplicity.

However, we will not move one step forward in this virtue if we do not make every effort to live in holy and immutable peace.

That’s not just a reflection for priests. Priests need holy laypeople and consecrated brothers and sisters, too. We’re all in this together.

One last excerpt from Padre Pio’s letters. This one is from that same letter from Father Agostino (and these three come from September 21, 22, and 23 in the devotional, as it happens). It’s about peace, which, as you may have heard, begins with me (and you). There’s so much that disturbs the peace. There are so many times when we let our peace be disturbed and make things worse.

Peace is simplicity of spirit, serenity of mind, quietness of soul, and the bond of love. Peace is the order, the harmony within us. It is the continuous contentment that comes from the testimony of a clear conscience. It is the holy joy of a heart in which God reigns. Peace is the road to perfection—or rather, perfection is found in peace. The devil, who knows all of this quite well, applies all his efforts to make us lose our peace.

Let us be on high alert against the least sign of turmoil, and as soon as we notice we have fallen into discouragement, let us have recourse to God with filial confidence and complete abandonment of ourselves to him.

Every instance of turmoil in us is very displeasing to Jesus, because it is always connected to some imperfection in us that has its origin in egotism or self-love.

When Pope John Paul II canonized Padre Pio in 2002, he said:

Is it not, precisely, the “glory of the Cross” that shines above all in Padre Pio? How timely is the spirituality of the Cross lived by the humble Capuchin of Pietrelcina. Our time needs to rediscover the value of the Cross in order to open the heart to hope.

Throughout his life, he always sought greater conformity with the Crucified, since he was very conscious of having been called to collaborate in a special way in the work of redemption. His holiness cannot be understood without this constant reference to the Cross.

In God’s plan, the Cross constitutes the true instrument of salvation for the whole of humanity and the way clearly offered by the Lord to those who wish to follow him. The Holy Franciscan of the Gargano understood this well, when on the Feast of the Assumption in 1914, he wrote: “In order to succeed in reaching our ultimate end we must follow the divine Head, who does not wish to lead the chosen soul on any way other than the one he followed; by that, I say, of abnegation and the Cross.”

Things aren’t going to get better in politics or the Church or life if we shut up or give up in dismay. And while righteous anger is in season right now, radical self-giving is always important. Humility always is. Love always is required, in the Christian life, for those who annoy us, for those whose words we find idiotic, for those who do us harm and for those we harm, for those whose pain we might be indifferent to were it not for our knowledge that they, too, are created by God.

Padre Pio may have been a consecrated priest with the stigmata, but he had that stigmata probably because God wanted to emphasize to us that there was something about the man we should pick up on; he understood the “Follow me” point of the Gospel. His example and intercession could help us to understand it and live it, too.


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