A living image of Christ’s passion

Fr Steve Rodrigues, OFM Cap

The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium affirmed what the Church has always taught, that every Christian is called to holiness. Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect (Mt 5:48), said Jesus, yet few seem to know how to go about that. However, Padre Pio succeeded in this, becoming one of the holiest saints of the 20th century. The Capuchin Friar was a priest, stigmatist, miracle-worker and mystic. He also had the gifts of spiritual clairvoyance, conversion, discernment of spirits, visions, bilocation, healing and prophecy.

Considered to be the first Catholic priest to bear the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, corresponding to Christ’s crucifixion wounds, lasted until the end of his life. They didn’t deteriorate nor did they heal, and the blood from them was said to smell of perfume and was often referred to in hagiography as the odour of sanctity. Padre Pio had wounds on his hands and feet, on the left side of his chest and on his right shoulder corresponding to where Jesus carried the cross. He also had a transverberation, wounds from scourging and an invisible crown of thorns.

St Pio described his mystical crucifixion that took place on September 20, 1918, in a letter written about one month later to a spiritual director. After he had celebrated mass in the friary church of San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio went to pray at the foot of the crucifix in the choir loft. He was overcome by drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep and in a flash there took place what he described – ‘I saw before me a mysterious person…Whose hands, feet and side were dripping blood…The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood…’.

Padre Pio never let anybody look at the wounds, except under holy obedience. With and through the stigmata, Padre Pio fulfilled the mission entrusted to him by Christ.

The stigmata bestowed upon him came with a price. His miracles, visions, and other divinely gifts were always looked upon with doubt and scepticism, and led to harsh consequences.

The Capuchin friar’s stigmata were studied by modern science. The Vatican repeatedly investigated him and physicians were sent to examine his wounds. Although these doctors did not agree as to the precise nature of the wounds, none doubted their authenticity. Irrespective of all the obstacles and temptations in his way, St Pio overcame all and became an epitome of sainthood. In 1921 Pope Benedict XV called Padre Pio ‘an extraordinary man, the like of whom God sends to Earth from time to time for the purpose of converting men’.  In some form we too bear the stigmata in our crosses, sufferings, failures and lapses. But from that comes the good, both spiritual and temporal.

The Eucharist is a representation and an entering into the Lord’s sacrifice in Calvary. When Padre Pio moved towards the altar to celebrate mass it looked as if he climbed Calvary. Many claimed his face transfigured into that of Christ’s, especially during the consecration. At times, he held the hzost up for more than ten minutes, seeing a reality others could not see  The saint was motionless for long moments at the offering of bread and wine, as if nailed by a mysterious force, with his eyes moist and staring at the Crucifix. During the consecration, St Pio’s hands sometimes jerked back with pain and after, he seemed exhausted from the suffering, leaning over the altar for minutes to commune with the Lord. Throughout mass he seemed to be peering into another dimension.

In his homily for the beatification of Padre Pio on May 2, 1999, Pope John Paul II said: “Those who went to San Giovanni Rotondo to attend his mass, to seek his counsel or to confess to him, saw in him a living image of Christ, suffering and risen. The face of Padre Pio reflected the light of the resurrection. His body, marked by the stigmata showed forth the intimate bond between death and resurrection which characterises the paschal mystery. Padre Pio shared in the passion with a special intensity: the unique gifts which were given to him, and the interior and mystical sufferings which accompanied them, allowed him constantly to participate in the Lord’s agonies, never wavering in the sense that ‘Calvary is the hill of the saints’.”

Easter links suffering directly to life’s fullness. Christ’s passion and death is followed by resurrection. There is no resurrection without the cross. That is not to say that Christians should enjoy suffering or go hunting for it. But Easter’s message is that suffering need not pave the way to hopelessness, unhappiness and despair. No situation is hopeless. We know the worst things in this life are not the last things. Easter gives us victory and significance to our present suffering.