Many of the saints that Catholics focus on aren't unique to Catholicism at all. Figures like St. Paul or St. Patrick are celebrated throughout Christianity, and lived during the early days of the Church. On September 23rd, however, we celebrate a saint that's about as Roman Catholic as it gets. Today (Sept. 23, 2013) marks the 45th anniversary of Padre Pio's death. Since 2002, he has been known as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, and is an increasingly beloved and universally known saint in the Catholic Church.
It may surprise some of my readers that Padre Pio isn't really named Pio at all. He was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy, and became known as “Padre Pio” only after his ordination. He took the name Pius (in Italian, “Pio”) when he joined the Capuchins.
To those even remotely familiar with Padre Pio, he is probably best known for experiencing the stigmata. This is a unique phenomenon in Catholicism where a holy person miraculously experiences the same wounds and bleeding in his hands and/or feet that Jesus had during the crucifixion. In those cases, there is no sign that the person was injured beforehand, or signs of them being scarred from the experience afterward. There are many examples of Catholic saints and other holy people who reported receiving the stigmata, but Padre Pio is perhaps one of the most documented and well known cases, and a rare example in modern times.
St. Pio's stigmata is certainly an important element to remember about the saint, but there's much more to his life that Catholics should be aware of. Indeed, it may also surprise Catholics to learn that Padre Pio's stigmata was not even used as evidence for his sainthood when the Vatican examined his life. Among other things, Padre Pio was said to have had the gift of reading souls (being able to tell what sins a person had committed before they confessed them to him), the ability to bilocate (appear in two places at once), experience mystical visions during Mass, emit an “odor of sanctity” (his blood was said to have the smell of perfume or flowers) to see the future, and to effect miraculous cures. Naturally, at the time all this was reported, even the Vatican was very skeptical of the claims of Padre Pio's followers. The local Catholic clergy didn't believe it either, and accused Padre Pio’s friary of putting him on display in order to make money. They expressed skepticism about his purported gifts and suggested his stigmata was faked.
In 1947, a young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyła (who would later go on to become Pope John Paul II), visited Padre Pio and received the sacrament of confession from him. Padre Pio told him at this meeting that he would one day ascend to "the highest post in the Church” Wojtyła felt this prophecy was fulfilled when he became a Cardinal, and was shocked years later when he was unexpectedly elected Pope in 1978. Wojtyła personally experienced other examples of miraculous events centered around Padre Pio. For example, he wrote Pio in 1962 to ask him to pray for Dr. Wanda Poltawska, a friend in Poland who was suffering from cancer. Later, Dr. Poltawska's cancer was found to be in spontaneous remission; and medical professionals were unable to offer an explanation for the phenomenon.
Dating back to at least 1918, observers witnessed Padre Pio experiencing the stigmata: bodily marks, pain, and bleeding in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. This phenomenon continued for fifty years, until the end of his life. Padre Pio didn't publicly bring attention to the matter, and the condition is said to have caused him great embarrassment. Most photographs of Padre Pio celebrating Mass show him with red mittens or black coverings on his hands and feet where the bleeding occurred. The bleeding would sometimes last for hours, the observations were unexplainable and the wounds never became infected. Several physicians examined the wounds but could not explain their source. For example, Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV, agreed that the wounds existed but made no other comment. Pathologist Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome also observed the wounds but could make no diagnosis. Both Bignami and Dr. Giuseppe Sala commented on the unusually smooth edges of the wounds and lack of edema. Dr. Alberto Caserta took X-rays of Padre Pio's hands in 1954 and found no abnormality in the bone structure. At the time of Padre Pio's death in 1968, his body appeared unwounded, and there was no sign of scarring. Yet the doctors who examined his body found it empty of all blood, yet another unexplainable phenomenon.
In 1982, an investigation was opened to determine whether Padre Pio should be considered a saint. This investigation went on for seven years, and in 1990 Padre Pio was declared a Servant of God, the first step in the progression to canonization. By 1997, Pope John Paul II declared him Venerable, and more examples of miracles through Padre Pio's intercession were reported. In 1999, on the advice of the Congregation, John Paul II declared Padre Pio Blessed. Finally, Padre Pio was declared a Saint on June 16, 2002. An estimated 300,000 people attended the canonization ceremony.
On March 3, 2008, the body of Saint Pio was exhumed from his crypt, 40 years after his death, so that his remains could be prepared for display. Yet another surprise was in store for the witnesses. Pio's hands were not only free from any type of scarring or blood, but witnesses reported that St. Pio's hands were in perfect condition, and "looked like they had just undergone a manicure".
As of 2013, Padre Pio is one of only two saints who were priests living after Vatican II (the other being St. Josemaria Escriva). Padre Pio has become one of the most beloved Roman Catholic saints, and there are more than 3,000 "Padre Pio Prayer Groups" worldwide, with around three million members. A statue of Padre Pio is currently in the planning stages, and it will be be built on a hill close to the town in Italy where he is commemorated. The project will cost several million pounds, with the money to be raised from his devotees around the world. The statue will be coated in a special photovoltaic paint which will enable it to trap the sun's heat and produce solar energy, making it the world's first "ecological" religious icon.
St. Padre Pio is truly a remarkable saint that all Catholics should be inspired by and learn about. The fact he worked and preached within the lifetime of many contemporary Catholics make his stories even more remarkable and relevant to modern times. On his feast day, let us all remember the life of Francesco Forgione, who preached to his followers to “Pray, Hope, and Don't Worry”. Those are great words to live by.