Life of Padre Pio: Early Years
Cradled in the embrace of the Campania mountains, which make up the vestige of the Apennines [in Italian, Appennino], is the agriculturally blessed town of Pietrelcina just six miles from the province center of Benevento. If Ukraine is the "breadbasket" of the Slavic people, the Campania region can be said to be the "fruit and vegetable bowl" of Italy because of its plentiful and varied produce. Amongst the vegetables, the best known is the San Marzano tomato, unmistakable for its long shape and bright color, one of the major resources of Campania: its cultivation covers as much as fifty thousand acres alone.
A specialty is the lemon from Massa Lubrense, most likely brought to Italy by the Arabs. Its success comes from the fact that, in the seventeenth century, people were convinced that its juice was an excellent remedy for scurvy. Its cultivation became intensive in the most propitious areas: the Amalfi Coast and the Peninsula of Sorrento. The Jesuit fathers founded such an efficient production in the Guarrazzano valley, close to Massa Lubrense, that one of the most prized varieties is still today called the "lemon of Massa".
Another well known fruit from this region is the annurca apple, aromatic and fragrant and especially rich in nutrients that contribute to the health of the people; ninety per cent of the production [approximately, ninety thousand tons annually] comes from the provinces of Naples, Caserta, Avellino and Benevento wherein is sheltered Pietrelcina, which produces artichokes and asparagus. Pietrelcina is but a small town, yet large enough to have two parish churches, one of which was erected under the guidance of Padre Pio in 1926.
The Forgiones worked from the rising of the sun to its setting raising crops on land belonging to a relative. The children helped also, with little Francesco toting water for the laborers with which to quench their thirst.
Thus is is most fitting that this abundant region of Italy, homeland of thousands of Saints, should bring forth from its verdant bounty, the fruit of the grace of God in its humble padre, Pio of Pietrelcina. The year is 1887, the time, Our Lady's month, May, the date, the 25th; let us go down the Vico Storto Valle before the setting of the sun at the fifth hour of late afternoon, to a two room house [pictured above], but let us stop just short of the doorway of Orazio [also known as Grazio and Uncle Orazio in the village] and Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio Forgione who are poor peasants but most rich according to the ways of the ordinance of God and pause at the third step with reverence, for those who have been given the grace to understand how much God prefers the humble and the poor to worldly grandeur, know that like at Lourdes and Fatima, little quiet, unassuming, unknown rural places are the scene of His manifestation through His Saints and His Holy Mother. The home is little more than a rectangular cave, carved out of stone and roofed with rustic tile, like its neighbors. Inside this lowly, yet lovely home of piety, Maria is about to give birth to her last son, her eighth child, two of whom had died in infancy and a daughter entering eternity in her twenties. The future Saint did not cry much as he was meant to be a silent sentinel, as if in adoration of Almighty God always and ever, even from the first. There is no coincidence with God, so we pointedly remark: the newborn son is given the name of Francesco, after St. Francis of Assisi, and Baptized the very next day in the main church in Assumption Square, at the time affectionately called "Castle" church, but which is actually the Church of Mary of the Angels, a Queen, the Queen, so any church in her honor can be said to be a "Castle" church. And again it should be of no surprise, yet ever a delight for us to recall that at the time of his birth, one of the patrons of Pietrelcina was none other than Our Lady, under the title of Madonna della Libera, for the Mother of God was ever in the heart of little Francesco Forgione. The other was Pope St. Pius V, from whom the future Saint took his religious name. Now, Pietrelcina can be said to have two patrons with the same name!
In her book, Padre Pio, Mary Ingoldsby writes: "According to his mother, Francesco was 'a quiet and tranquil baby'. She also tells us that he was never troublesome as a little boy, that he always obeyed his parents and went morning and evening to the church to pay a visit to Jesus and Mary. During the day he didn't go out to join in the noisy games of his companions. Sometimes his mother would urge him to go out to play with the others, but he used to refuse and say: 'I don't want to play with them because they use bad language.' " [p. 1]
This is confirmed by Father Charles Carty [Padre Pio the Stigamist, p. 1]: "Francesco was a quiet and deeply religious boy; he could never tolerate blasphemy and when he heard the name of God, Our Lord or the Blessed Virgin taken in vain he would run off and hide weeping, and kneel down in some corner to pray. As he grew older he avoided games and arguments with his classmates and was shy and retiring. He says of himself that from childhood he was 'Un macherone senza sale,' or a noodle without salt----in other words, a colorless character."
One day while Francesco and his brother Michele were out in the field with their father, Orazio told his youngest son that he was going to send him to be monk, surely an inspiration from the Holy Ghost; young Francesco had already promised at the age of five his special devotion to his patron Saint, Francis; Orazio's declaration was more than a pious thought or intention. For in 1902, when the boy was 15 years old he was entered in the Franciscan monastery of Morcone. Some sources give the date as 1903, a minor discrepancy. His novitiate, as is the way with God often, had already commenced years before when as a young boy Francesco would sleep on the stone floor as an act of mortification; he always seemed to be in prayer, whatever he was about. When he was only nine, he said that he wanted to be a priest.
This meant that Francesco's education took on new importance and scope. His father recognized this so keenly and passionately, that when the future Padre said the family did not have enough money, Orazio responded, that we he would go to New York and work in a trade there to earn the money. Now, that's a father who is co-operating with the will of God!
The first instructor selected was a dismissed priest who had violated his vows and resented Francesco's daily attendance at Holy Mass and his service as an acolyte. There was a clash of wills, the student who sought God's will in all things and the "former" priest who wielded his own will. The teacher thus saw his pupil as a poor student, "with no head". When our Saint heard this he was said to have replied: "My head is no good? You mean that his head is no good! He is living in sin in his own house!" [Carty, p. 2]
Meanwhile Signor Forgione was toiling as a day laborer in the United States. Although he was not able to engage in long correspondence he was able to convince his wife to find another tutor, a layman, Maestro Caccavo who saw his charge advance fast in his studies. And what about the scandalous priest? He later repented of his sins and received the last rites, Extreme Unction, from Padre Pio himself. Such is the mercy of God for sinners who either ask for His grace or those who pray for those who either do not pray for themselves, having given up, or who have no one else to pray for them, but these unnamed, unknown sinners themselves, who pray steadfastly for sinners and make sacrifices for them.
Because of his progress young Francesco passed the rigorous exams to enter the Capuchin school where he was beloved by pupil and teacher alike.