Francesco Forgione, more popularly known as Padre Pio, was born on 25 May 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy and would one day capture the attention of the Christian world as the priest with stigmata.
As a young child, he already felt closeness to God. He would sleep on a stone floor and use a stone pillow as one of the many forms of penances on himself. His mother claimed that he was able to communicate with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and his guardian angel. He would also experience occasional heavenly visions that would lead him to a sense of ecstasy. To Francesco, this was absolutely normal and he believed all people did the same thing.
He was never in good health, always succumbing to one illness or another. Those close to him reported strange sounds coming from his room at night…described as screams and roars. When Francesco prayed, he seemed to be in a trance like state and oblivious to his surroundings.
By 1910, Francesco was ordained a priest and became known to the world as Padre (Father) Pio. It was around this time that Padre Pio began to experience his first stigmata. He later wrote:
Then last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain.Padre Pio
Padre Pio always felt that suffering was the way for the soul to reach God. But he felt humiliated by the visible wounds that the stigmata caused. He would often pray that he welcomed the pain, but for the “unbearable humiliation” of the visible wounds to go away. This reflects why he would routinely be seen wearing mittens to avoid his wounds from being displayed.
The stigmata of Padre Pio would come and go, but on 20 September 1918, the stigmata returned and would stay for the last 50 years of his life.
Padre Pio’s stigmata would become the center of discussion between believers and critics alike. He was seen by many physicians, but none could diagnose the cause. Word began to spread that Padre Pio was seen taking Eucharist for 20 days without any other food as nourishment. His stigmata wounds were characterized as emitting a fragrance and that Padre Pio had the unique ability to read a person’s soul. As his fame increased, so did the scrutinizers.
He was accused of insanity, having sexual relations with women, misuse of funds and claims that his stigmata was self induced with carbolic acid…only to obtain fame. Even the Holy See claimed that the events occurring in Padre Pio’s life were not of divine origin.
The Vatican began to shun Padre Pio, but his following continued to grow. It wasn’t until after 1934 that the Vatican decided to take a second look at Padre Pio as perhaps having special qualities of a divine nature.
In fact, Padre Pio heard the confession of Father Karol Jozef Wojtyla when he went to visit Padre Pio in 1947. Wojtyla would eventually become the future Pope John Paul II.
In 1947, Gemma de Giorgi was escorted by her grandmother to see Padre Pio. Gemma was born without pupils. The grandmother begged Padre Pio to have God restore her eyesight. Padre Pio informed her “The child must not weep and neither must you for the child sees and you know she sees.” Doctors were unable to identify how Gemma gained her vision.
In 1962, the now Bishop Wojtyla asked Padre Pio to pray for his friend, Dr. Wanda Poltawska, who was thought to be suffering from cancer. Soon after, Poltawska’s cancer regressed, leaving doctor’s baffled.
As the 1960′s were drawing to an end, Padre Pio’s health began to deteriorate. On September 23, 1968, Padre Pio died. Interestingly, just prior to his death, he kept repeating “Gesu, Maria” (Jesus, Mary). He claimed he could see 2 mothers (believed to be his mother and Mary). Finally, at 2:30 AM, his last breath was used whispering “Maria!”
Pio has continued to be credited for conducting miracles long after his death. In October 1996, Consiglia De Martino was diagnosed with a rare illness that caused her neck to become swollen. A large orange sized welt was also visible on her collarbone. After consulting with her doctors, it was determined that her left lymphatic duct was fractured and leaking fluids into her body. The doctors ordered surgery to be scheduled for 2 November to repair the damage or she would die. Following the diagnosis, Consiglia prayed to Padre Pio – whom she always felt a kinship to. She stated she felt his strong presence along with the smell of perfume. She recalled that when she fell asleep she dreamed of Padre Pio putting his stigmatized hands on her while stating “Don’t worry, I’ll operate on you”. The following morning, she awoke cured. Doctors immediately conducted tests only to be baffled at the miraculous change in her condition. It was as if she was never ill.
After an intensive investigation conducted by the Vatican, it was deemed a miracle. And it was this event that triggered the now Pope John Paul II to authorize the beautification of Padre Pio.
On 16 June 2002, Pope John Paul II declared Pio a saint. Over 300,000 people attended the ceremony.
Critics continue to claim that Padre Pio was a fraud. However, multiple examinations by doctors failed to identify a cause of the stigmata. If it was self induced, could he truly continue the deception for 50 years without the truth eventually coming out? And what of the unexplained healings that are seen as miracles attributed to Padre Pio. Was it divine intervention through Padre Pio or just the strength of one’s faith? Through all the controversies and mysteries surrounding this priest, Padre Pio continues to be one of the most popular saints of Catholicism.