Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), an Italian priest and mystic, was consumed by a desire to suffer for the transgressions of mankind. For the last 50 years of his life he bore the marks of stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) on his hands, feet, side, and chest.
Padre Pio was a member of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor and a mystic of the Catholic Church. He lived his entire life in the rocky foothills of southern Italy. His mystic tendencies were well known throughout the region, and he was respected as a confessor and spiritual advisor to many of the inhabitants of the area. Some witnesses reported instances of bilocation (the ability to be in two places at one time) in connection with Padre Pio as well. Following his death in 1968 his followers took steps to canonize the friar as an official saint of the Catholic Church.
Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25, 1887. He was the fourth of eight children of Grazio Maria Forgione and his wife, Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio. Three of the Forgione siblings died in infancy, and Padre Pio was only the second child to survive after Michele, the oldest. Padre Pio had three younger sisters: Felicita, Pellegrina, and Graziella. The youngest of the Forgione siblings, a boy named Mario, also died in infancy. As a child Padre Pio received the nickname il bello Francesco (beautiful Frances) because of his light brown eyes and attractive blonde hair that darkened gradually to auburn as he matured.
The Forgione family was descended from "possedenti" or upper-class peasantry, although given the excessive poverty of the region, they were at best tenant farmers in the southern Italian province of Campania. In his youth, Padre Pio tended a handful of sheep. At the age of ten he contracted typhoid fever and nearly died. After his recovery he wished to become a Capuchin friar, and his father thereafter spent several years in sailing back and forth to America (a common practice at that time) in order to finance more schooling for Padre Pio, in preparation for the priesthood.
In childhood Padre Pio experienced paranormal visions with such frequency that he took the episodes for granted and assumed that others experienced similar phenomena. He confided this information only later in life to a priest and was surprised to learn that such occurrence is rare. Padre Pio also suffered from a desire to be a "victim of divine love," a religious concept whereby a person wishes intensely to endure constant and severe suffering, to atone for the failings of mankind.
Headed to Morcone
On January 6, 1903 at the age of 16 he departed to the town of Morcone to join the friary of Saints Philip and James of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor, a "mendicant" order. (Capuchins live in poverty by design; they own nothing and live essentially as beggars in the world.) To symbolize their poverty Capuchins never shave their faces and never wear shoes—only open leather sandals. They never wear hats but attach brown woolen hoods to their garments. They spend a significant portion of each day in prayer, maintain long periods of silence, and always travel in pairs. At the friary Padre Pio lived in a cell furnished with a table, chair, washstand, and water jug; he slept on a cornhusk mattress. He received the Capuchin garments in a ceremony on January 22, 1903. On that day the former Francesco Forgione adopted the name of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. As a symbol of austerity, Capuchin friars never used surnames, thus for legal purposes Padre Pio signed his name as "Padre Pio of Pietrelcina al secolo Francesco Forgione."
Padre Pio traveled to Foggia to live a life of fasting and prayer. On January 22, 1904 he moved to Sant'Elia a Pianisi for more schooling. The following year he went to San Marco la Catola, not far from Sant'Elia, to study philosophy. He returned to Sant'Elia in 1906 and, in 1907 took a solemn vow to live as a Capuchin. He then spent time at Capuchin friaries at Serracapriola and Montefusco where he became so immersed in prayer and study, that he failed to attend the wedding of his older brother.
Throughout his lifetime Padre Pio suffered from a severe but undiagnosed stomach disorder that caused persistent pain and vomiting. Beginning in December of 1908 his superiors sent him home on numerous occasions. Inexplicably the symptoms disappeared each time he departed the friary; transfers to friaries at other locations failed to alleviate the symptoms. At the age of 23 he traveled from his hometown of Pietrelcina to the cathedral of Benevento in Morcone. There Archbishop Paolo Schinosi ordained Padre Pio as a Roman Catholic priest on August 10, 1910.
The visions and voices that plagued Padre Pio in his youth persisted during his early years as a priest. He developed a close confidentiality with Salvatore Maria Pannullo who, in 1901, became the Archpriest of Pietrelcina. In 1905 and 1906 Padre Pio consulted with Padre Benedetto Nardella of San Marco, an expert on mysticism; and in 1911 Padre Pio confided in Padre Agostino of San Marco as well. Thus Padres Benedetto and Agostino, along with Pannullo, were privy to the true extent of Padre Pio's paranormal experiences.
Padre Pio developed marks of stigmata initially in 1910 at San Nicandro. He showed the puncture wounds on his hands to Pannullo on September 7 of that year. A doctor examined Padre Pio and diagnosed tuberculosis of the skin. Following the medical diagnosis Padre Pio returned to his hometown for a time. On October 28, 1911, he moved to the friary of San Nicandro at Venafro, where Padre Agostino was vicar. Padre Pio was personally humiliated by the painful markings and kept his hands hidden at all times. The wounds disappeared for a time, only to reappear more acutely nearly a decade later. His superiors ordered him to Pietrelcina repeatedly after 1911. There he performed works of charity and served as a spiritual director. He was well known, loved, and respected for his saintly bearing.
Padre Pio experienced numerous ecstasies over a period of many years. According to documentation by Padre Agostino, Padre Pio was tormented by poltergeist aberrations accompanied by furious, audible thrashing noises that left him sweating, bruised, and sometimes bleeding. On other occasions he received visitations from the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and angels. In addition to the visitations and stigmata, Padre Pio was reportedly prone to bi-location phenomena, appearing in two locations simultaneously. The most remarkable of these reported incidents occurred on January 18, 1905 shortly before midnight. Padre Pio was in the choir at the friary when, according to his description, his mind traveled to a location in Udine where a child was being born prematurely just moments before the death of her father. In 1923 he met the girl and "recognized" her. The girl's mother recalled very clearly the death of her husband and the vision of a Capuchin monk in Udine on the night when the girl was born.
Private Francesco Forgione
With the outbreak of World War I in November 1914, many Capuchins were drafted into the Italian army. Padre Pio was drafted into the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps in Naples, under the name of Private Francesco Forgione. His stomach discomfort continued, and army doctors diagnosed chronic bronchitis. They granted him a medical leave of absence, and he returned to Pietrelcina. In February 1916 he moved to the friary of St. Anne at Foggia and, in July of that year, he accepted an invitation from Padre Paolino to live at the friary of Our Lady of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Gargano Mountains near the Adriatic coast. Padre Pio taught seminary students and prayed with the townswomen. Many Capuchins were at war, and only seven friars remained at the residence when he arrived.
In August 1917 the army recalled Padre Pio to active duty and assigned him to the 4th Platoon of the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps. He took a leave of absence again on November 6 and received a permanent discharge on March 16, 1918. Padre Pio then visited his hometown for the last time in his life and returned to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo. He remained at the remote friary in the spur of the Italian boot for the rest of his life.
Stigmata for Life
Beginning in August 1918 and over the course of several weeks, Padre Pio developed permanent, painful stigmata that bled intermittently for the next 50 years and disappeared only a few days before his death. The experience began on August 5 when he claimed to observe a vision of a fiery spear being hurled at his chest. He suffered excruciating pain for two days, resulting in a chest laceration. A few weeks later, in September, a similar incident left him with permanent wounds on his hands and feet. A series of doctors examined the wounds of Padre Pio and verified the existence of the condition, but left no written comment or explanation. Luigi Romanelli, chief physician of the City Hospital of Barletta, examined the priest's wounds five times over the course of one year. Dr. Giorgio Festa, a private practitioner, viewed them in 1920 and again in 1925. Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV agreed that the wounds indeed existed but made no other comment. Angelo Maria Merla of San Giovanni Rotondo noted that the wounds were not tubercular in origin, but made no diagnosis; nor did pathologist, Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome. The wounds bled severely at times, although medical examiners reported no fever, nor anemia or change of blood pressure associated with the condition. According to witnesses the wounds of Padre Pio emitted a distinctively fragrant odor, and all other abrasions to Padre Pio's body healed normally during those years, including an incision to repair a hernia.
As with the earlier incident, Padre Pio felt humiliation at the visible stigmata, but stated nevertheless that he welcomed the pain for all mankind; his greatest wish was to die. Pilgrims visited him at the friary and attested to miraculous occurrences associated with his presence. The friary at San Giovanni Rotondo became a target of pilgrims, much like the shrine at Lourdes, France to which many miracles are also attributed.
Road to Sainthood
Padre Pio died of an apparent heart attack at the friary of Our Lady of Grace in the Italian village of San Giovanni Rotondo on the morning of September 23, 1968. After his death, the friars and other associates were eager to begin the lengthy process of canonization, whereby the mystic might be named a saint of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II beatified the memory of Padre Pio at a Mass on May 2, 1999 in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, as a final step in preparation for sainthood.
Padre Pio never traveled far from the region of his birth. The farthest that he went in his lifetime was to Rome, in May 1917. Yet for years after his death millions of pilgrims visited the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo where he lived. A permanent shrine designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano was planned in 1993 for the site, designed to hold crowds as large as 10,000 people. The proposal for the church of Padre Pio featured a huge amphitheater with 167-foot stone arches, larger than those at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
Further Reading on Padre Pio
Ruffin, C. Bernard, Padre Pio: The True Story, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991.
National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999.
Newsweek, January 11, 1993.
Time, May 10, 1999.