Theology of the Heart- the Saints

Our Lady in Padre Pio's life
Brother Francis Mary F.I.

Every canonized Saint bears witness to an important fact: holiness is intimately connected with devotion to Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Ghost who is the Sanctifier. How could it be otherwise considering all graces come to us through the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church. According to St. Louis Mary De Montfort in his classic Marian work, True Devotion to Mary, assaults by Satan will be most fierce and intense in the latter times.

In speaking of the great saints and apostles of the latter times who will eventually triumph over Satan and his followers he gives what seems to be a pen sketch of Padre Pio, "They shall be true disciples of Jesus Christ, walking in the footsteps of His poverty, humility, and contempt of the world. . . . They shall carry on their shoulders the bloody standard of the cross, the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left and the sacred names of Jesus and Mary in their hearts . . . " (these were the last words on the lips of the dying Padre Pio).

Padre Pio’s Marian devotion was a profound part of him from infancy to old age. He related later in life how as a boy he went to the shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, near Naples, without permission, knowing that his mother would not give him the permission. He visited her shrine frequently when he was stationed in Naples as a soldier. Nothing could stand in his way when inspired to give Mary his love. The particular area of Italy where Padre Pio was born, Pietrelcina, had as a special patroness, Our Lady of Liberty. However, his devotion to her was expressed more in action than in words.

Though he wrote a brief meditation on her Immaculate Conception, and there are scattered references to her in his early letters (later on he was forbidden to write letters by the Holy See and as a result his written testimonies on Mary are few), yet, throughout his priestly life the most beautiful and effective "sermon" in her honor, was the Rosary which he prayed constantly. It was this chain of hope that linked him with heaven and the supernatural, that world which is unexplainable to the rationalist, and materialist.

Similar to another great Franciscan Marian Saint of our times, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Our Lady appeared to Padre Pio as well. Upon being asked twenty years later why he had kept this and other supernatural visits a secret he replied in all sincerity that he thought everyone saw our Lady. His spiritual director, Padre Agostino of San Marco, relates: "One day he ingenuously asked me ‘Don’t you see our Lady?’ At my negative reply he answered, ‘You are just saying that out of holy humility!’"

When Francesco chose to join the Franciscans he undoubtedly was largely motivated by the long Marian tradition of the friars going back to St. Francis. It was they who were the great champions of her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven. Today, they will be found among those championing her role as Mediatrix of All Graces. His devotion to Mary was centered in identification with Mary at the foot of the cross of her crucified Son — the Man of Sorrows. From the Queen of Martyrs Padre Pio learned how to bear the painful stigmata and so many other sufferings heroically. In spiritual direction to others he said: "Lean on the Cross like the Virgin Mary and you will not be without comfort. Mary was petrified before the Crucified Christ, but you cannot say that she was abandoned. She was loved better then, when she could not even cry.

The frequent use Padre Pio made of the Rosary, this simple prayer of both the learned and illiterate, rich and poor, young and old, gives us an indication of his awareness of Mary’s presence and protection over her spiritual children through the Rosary. Towards the end of his life it was ever in his hands. It was as if he were telling his devotees: "Here is peace of heart, the victory over evil, the strength to overcome every obstacle on the way to heaven." It was through the Rosary that the whole array of gifts and miracles he received for souls came. His power to draw sinners to an amendment of life and to encourage his sons and daughters to seek personal holiness were the fruit of his prayer life, in particular the Rosary.

When he was asked one day what inheritance he wished to leave his spiritual children, he answered at once, "The Rosary." He pointed out to his followers that if the Holy Virgin has urged the recitation of the Rosary wherever she appeared in recent times, isn’t that an indication that we should pray it every day. How many Rosaries did he recite each day? He responded as many as thirty-five complete Rosaries. Amazed at this seemingly impossible number, he was asked how could he say that many in one day. He responded, "How can you not pray that much?" It is evident from his reply that he was able to do several things at the same time.

Regardless of the number, his example contradicts those who have discarded this devotion as not being Christ-centered enough. Here is a holy person who bore the visible wounds of our Lord’s passion for fifty years who continually prayed the Rosary, holding it up to all men as a perfect means of reviewing the central acts in the great drama of our redemption, through the meditating on the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries in the lives of Christ and his Mother. He spoke of the Rosary as that prayer in which "she triumphs over everything and everyone." Two days before he died he repeated: "Love Our Lady and make her loved. Recite the Rosary and recite it always and as much as you can."

Was this great devotion he had to the Rosary tied in with Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima in 1917, where she identified herself as our "Lady of the Rosary" and requested its recitation daily? It doesn’t seem likely. Yet when acquainted with Fatima, Padre Pio lived its message and Mary’s formula for world peace, through prayer, penance and consecration to her Immaculate Heart, throughout his whole life. These words of Our Lady to the three seers in 1917 were perfectly understood and lived by Padre Pio; "Many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray and make sacrifices for them, . . . I have come to warn the faithful to amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins. . . . They [sinners] must not continue to offend Our Lord who is already deeply offended. . . . Say the Rosary every day, to obtain peace for the world. . . . If people do what I tell you, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. . . . .In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace."

Padre Pio understood the vitally important role and responsibility of all men as coredemptors, "Filling up that which is wanting in the sufferings of Christ." (St. Paul, Col.1: 24). He said once, "Souls are not given as gifts; they are bought. You do not know what they cost Jesus. Now they still have to be bought always with the same coin." How many souls he purchased through his heroic patience in a life of suffering, endured out of love of God and united to Christ’s suffering, will be a surprise to all when revealed on the day of judgement!

Pope Pius XII, the Fatima pope, in 1952, heeding her urgent request for prayer, urged his spiritual children to form prayer groups. When Padre Pio heard about this appeal he immediately encouraged his spiritual children to heed the admonition of the Holy Father. These prayer groups soon came to be known as Padre Pio Prayer Groups and have spread throughout the world.

The Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima sought his approval and help in furthering the message of Fatima. The founder of the Blue Army, the late Msgr. Harold Colgan, asked Padre Pio if he would be the spiritual director of the Blue Army and accept its members as his spiritual children. In accepting the charge, Padre Pio smiled and added gently: "May they only behave well!" He is known to have said on one occasion that Russia would be converted when there are as many members of the Blue Army as there are Communists.

In 1959 the Fatima Pilgrim Virgin statue was touring the major cities in Italy aboard a helicopter. We know from his confreres how much he looked forward to her visit at San Giovanni Rotundo. The day it arrived in Italy, May 5, Padre Pio was struck down with a bad attack of pleurisy. An exceptional change in the schedule was made so that the statue could visit Padre Pio and the large crowd that had gathered there to celebrate the forty years he bore the stigmata. Padre Pio spoke from his sick bed over the loudspeaker, exhorting the people to prepare for its visit with Christian renewal. On the day it arrived in San Giovanni Rotundo, August 5, he announced with deep emotion, "In a few minutes Our Mother will be in our house. . . .Open your hearts." He urged them to give thanks, to commit themselves "enthusiastically. . . . permanently, just as Our Mother’s eye is permanently on us."

During the morning of August 6 he was able to go down to the church where they lowered the statue before his face so he could kiss her. What follows is best described by the mayor of San Giovanni who was a good friend of Padre Pio.

"It would seem that everyone . . . not only from San Giovanni but from the whole region . . . was gathered here to receive her. And poor Padre Pio, whose devotion to our Blessed Mother is one of his most outstanding characteristics, longed in his sick bed to at least pay homage to her in some way. And when the statue was lifted from the helicopter in order to be taken into the Chapel of the hospital, he insisted on getting up to render her homage. In vain all tried to dissuade him. Since the superior did not forbid it and with two of the friars supporting him by the armpits, he went to honor our Lady.

"Despite his great will power, three times he had to stop. But finally, dissolved in tears, he knelt in prayer before the famous image of Our Lady of Fatima . . . who had predicted the present suffering of the world and had promised to convert Russia and bring peace to mankind if her requests were heard. . . .Father Pio was back in his sick bed when the helicopter soared above the great crowds to bear the statue to other waiting throngs, in other parts of the country. As he heard the roar of the motors and crowd, Father Pio exclaimed aloud to our Lady: ‘On April 25th, the day you arrived in Italy, I fell ill. Now you are going to leave me. . . .’ The pilot of the helicopter later reported that for some reason he could not explain, as he was heading away, he suddenly decided to turn around and brought the aircraft back to the monastery, circled a few times, and finally flew away.

"A few moments later Padre Pio said to those around him: ‘I felt myself tremble violently, and now I feel as strong and healthy as never before in my life.’ " Later Padre Pio made a formal declaration of his instantaneous cure by Our Lady of Fatima and in gratitude sent a crucifix to Fatima. A few months later a Blue Army delegation presented him with a hand-carved statue of Our Lady of Fatima which was placed above the vesting table of the sacristy, where he prepared for Mass each morning.

When people asked him how it was that San Giovanni Rotondo was chosen over the nearby city of Foggia, which was much larger, and the most important city in that part of Italy, with childlike candor he replied, "She wanted to come and cure Padre Pio." Like another great Marian saint, St. Louis De Montfort, Padre Pio would cry out to all men, "Of Mary there is never enough!" When pressed to speak about her he showed the depths of his tender love for Mary by shedding tears of joy and emotion. The saying above his door was from the great Marian saint, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Mary is the reason of all my hope." One of his confreres wrote down some of the beautiful epithets spoken by Padre Pio on our Lady: "Abyss of grace and purity; Incomparable Masterpiece of the Creator; Tabernacle of the Most High; Receptacle of divine secrets; Woman bathed in light; Exquisite Dove."

As a true son of St. Francis, and in the Franciscan tradition, he was ever conscious of Mary’s first great prerogative and its importance. "The Immaculate Conception," he said, "is the first step on the path of salvation." He did not hesitate to affirm her universal mediation. "All things revert to her, all grace passes through her hands." In the last years of his life he said only the Mass of the Immaculate Conception. And lest anyone would get the impression that he stopped at Mary and did not have her Son as his final goal he might consider these words he directed at the Immaculata:

"Oh, gentle Mother, make me love him. Fill my heart with the love that burned in thine. . . Purify my heart that I may know how to love my God and thy God! Purify my spirit that I may adore him in spirit and in truth! Purify my body that it may become for him a living tabernacle!"

Even as Jesus frequently appeared in person to Padre Pio, so too did Mary. On one occasion he describes her physical presence as she accompanied him to the altar: "With what care she accompanied me to the altar this morning! It seemed to me as though she had nothing to think about other than me filling my heart completely with saintly affections. I felt a mysterious fire from my heart which I couldn’t understand. I felt the need to put ice on it to extinguish this fire which was consuming me! I should like to have a voice strong enough to invite the sinners of the whole world to love our Lady!"

It is said that at the moment of death one sees in an instant a "flash back" of his whole life. At such a time the dominant direction of one’s life stands out, whether it be toward evil or good ends. As Padre Pio lay dying on the morning of September 23, the dominant direction of his life was vocalized in two words, "Gesu . . . Maria," "Gesu . . . Maria," "Jesus . . . Mary," "Jesus . . . Mary." These were his last words.

The crucified Jesus who had shared his cross with his faithful servant Padre Pio, and Mary who stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, are the spiritual legacy this Franciscan stigmatic would leave to all mankind. If we share in their sufferings, after the example of Our Lady and her Son, and Padre Pio, we are sure to share in their glory.


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