On the morning of the 20th September 1918, after having celebrated Holy Mass, the priest Padre Pio retired to the choir stalls for his usual thanksgiving. The place was S. Giovanni Rotondo and the church, Our Lady of Grace.
Padre Pio stigmata – How it started
Outside in the small piazza the morning was similar to most other mornings on the Gargano. The friary, lying at the foot of the mountain, high above the village, seemed isolated and remote, altogether cut off from the world. Peace and quiet hung heavy in the mountain air filling the huge spaces with indescribable serenity and calm.
Chirpings of birds, muted and subdued, coming as if from far off and the monotonous drone of myriad flying insects were sounds to accentuate the silence of the place. They adorned but did not disturb it. Already the clear lines of morning were fading and merging into the heat of midday. High up, a blazing sun seared the massive gargantuan granite, sending all creatures hurrying to the cool oasis of shuttered rooms.
Entering the church
Only a few old folk long accustomed to this midday furnace moved slowly about, entering the small church to say their devotions, then emerging and making their way across to the ancient yew-tree dominating the middle of the piazza to rest silently in its shadow. A day like other September days with little hint that it could be any different from those which had preceded it or from those which must assuredly follow it.
A different morning
For the young priest, however, just then kneeling in the chapel of the church, this morning was to be very different, a fateful morning like no other, containing within it a destiny, a summons whose imperious and exalted demands he would attempt to fulfil to the end. Here inside the church the silence was very great. Not a sound penetrated the thick walls from outside as P. Pio, oblivious to everything except the memory of his recent Mass, slowly prostrated in loving adoration before the outspread, bloodied figure on the crucifix.
With that marvelous facility possessed by the mystics by which all external objects are abandoned he withdrew into himself, his spirit yielding to the peacefulness which invaded his whole being, a peacefulness, he later wrote, “similar to a sweet sleep”. In this absolute silence he prayed, mind and heart totally wrapped in the burning love which consumed him like some incurable fever. A sweet calm heralding the forthcoming storm.
Padre Pio stigmata – The message
What happened next can best be told in the simple, unadorned words of padre Pio writing to P. Benedetto little more than a month afterwards: “It all happened in a flash. While all this was taking place, I saw before me a mysterious Person, similar to the one I had seen on August 5th, differing only because His hands, feet and side were dripping blood. The sight of Him frightened me: what I felt at that moment is indescribable. ‘I thought I would die, and would have died if the Lord hadn’t intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest. The Person disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were pierced and were dripping with blood” (Ep., V. 1, no. 5 10, p. 1094). P. Pio had just received the visible stigmata. There was nobody about. Silence settled once more round the brown robed figure now lying huddled on the floor.
A long Calvary had just begun and with it the answer to a prayer: the prayer of his profound desire to identify with Christ crucified not only by participation in the priestly apostolate but in some mysterious way in that supreme immolation of Our Lord on Calvary (cf. Le Stimmate di P. Pio, G. Cruchon, SJ, Colana “Spiritualità”, No. 1, p. 102).
He had not desired this physical conformity and when he had recovered somewhat from the immediate experience his embarrassment was extreme: “I am dying of pain because of the wound 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 cause me” (Ep., V. 1, p. 1904). Not the wound, not the pain did he wish removed but only the visible signs which at the time he considered to be an indescribable and almost unbearable humiliation.
Later, much later, however, he would come to love and cherish these divine marks of predilection, drawing from them that rich source of superhuman energy which from then on marked his apostolate of love and suffering. With Catherine of Siena he could truly say: “My wounds not only do not afflict my body, but they sustain and fortify it. I feel that what formerly depressed me, now invigorates me.” His wounds, hitherto invisible but now manifested exteriorly, mark a definitive stage of his soul’s transformation into the object loved, namely, the Lord who suffered and was crucified.
For the next fifty years they would confound impartial science; their continuous and profuse effusion of blood, accompanied often by the sweetest fragrance, came to be regarded as a prolonged miracle, because, as the experts correctly state, blood for its production requires nourishment while this friar’s extraordinary frugality was such as hardly to maintain the life of a small child.
The remarkable nature of this miraculous gift becomes more apparent when it is considered how such loss of blood was simply inconsonant with and disproportionate to the stamina and energy with which P. Pio with ever greater activity and zeal conducted his life in all matters relating to the service of God.
Such are the bald facts of P. Pio’s stigmata. From his correspondence it is clear that very early in his priestly life there were, at least, indications of what eventually came to pass. Writing to P. Benedetto as early as 1911, only a year after ordination, P. Pio described a phenomenon which he had been experiencing for almost a year: “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 feet it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain” (Ep., V. 1, p. 234).
This is his first mention of the phenomenon to his spiritual father because, as he says, he was overwhelmed with shame. He simply did not want to talk about it, hoping no doubt that it was a passing thing which would soon clear up and then be forgotten.
Four years later, in 1915, his beloved P. Agostino demands certain information in the name of Jesus: When did Jesus first favour him with celestial visions ? Has Jesus made him a gift of his stigmata even though invisible? How often does he feel the crown of thorns and the scourging? P. Agostino asks these questions not out of curiosity but for the glory of God and the salvation of souls (Ep., V. 1, p. 659).
In his reply to this letter P. Pio recognizes the express will of God and willingly answers all three questions. To the first he replies that Jesus began to favor “his poor creature” not very long after his novitiate (Jan. 1903 to Jan. 1904); to the second, whether Jesus made him a gift of the stigmata, the reply is affirmative and we learn that from the start the wounds were visible, especially in one hand, but that P. Pio was so terrified in the face of this phenomenon that he begged the Lord to withdraw them.
From then on they did not appear again until September 1918 although their pain remained and were felt more acutely under certain circumstances and on determined days. The final question he also answers affirmatively. He experiences the pain of the crown of thorns and the scourging. How often he cannot say except that at the time of writing he has been suffering from them almost once a week for some years (cf. Ep., V. 1, p. 669).
The rest is history. News of the event spread like wildfire and by the following year there began that afflux of pilgrims to the tiny friary which has not ceased since. At first in a tiny stream they came, later in the tens of thousands, flocking to glimpse this priest with the wounds of Christ, to assist at his Mass, to kiss those mittened hands and for those who could speak Italian the privilege of confessing to him.
In all this, of course, there were dangers. The danger of a “personality cult”; of the possibility of self-induced wounds produced by a morbid, impressionable, temperament; the danger of fraud and deception, deliberate or otherwise, with the intent of leading a credulous faithful astray; that the stigmata was nothing more than an effect of natural causes rather than a supernatural gift; and finally, there was the dangerous possibility of preternatural and diabolic activity.
In the light of this, and in retrospect, it is understandable why the Church authorities took a course of action that at the time seemed harsh and cruel but which today can be seen, at least in part, as the anvil on which P. Pio’s sanctity was hammered out, put to the test and purified to become the luminous and diaphanous veil through which men glimpsed God.