The first attribute of Padre Pio that leaps to mind is that of special faculties of discernment in the confessional. Before I knew anything else about him, I had heard of account after account of the friar telling penitents of sins they had not confessed or forgotten. The reports were legendary, but believeable to me. The age seemed to be crying out for such a priest in this Sacrament of mercy. Man seemed to have rejected his God-given conscience for that of the predicates of a man-made social gospel straight from the left-wing of the Democratic party and its counterpart throughout the world. Pope John Paul II had said that the sin of the times was a loss of the sense of sin. If St. Joseph Cupertino could know the sins against impurity by the smell of the penitent, could not such a holy, humble priest read the hearts of men also?
He once said to a young woman, "If you have had the courage to imitate Mary Magdalen in her sins, have the courage to imitate her penance!"
And a woman who had blasphemed, and did not confess her sin, was reminded by him of the circumstances of her transgression.
Mary Ingoldsby provides us with the most documentation for our unique Saint's spiritual discernment as a confessor:
She tells us that he was sought out as a confessor even before he was thirty; Padre Pio, having been ill in the first year of his ordination longed for the ministry of the confessional even then. This longing was to be unsatisfied for three long years because he could not obtain faculties for hearing Confessions as his superiors considered the time it took to be too arduous for one in such precarious health.
"Padre Pio's sight was failing at this time and he had received a dispensation to say the Mass of Our Lady every day, while for him the obligation of the Divine Office was commuted to recitation of the Rosary. After a further year Padre Pio appealed to Padre Agostino to obtain for him from the Provincial the faculties to hear Confessions and on this occasion he wrote: 'I cannot suffocate this mysterious voice within me.' This time, although the Provincial still refused the permission both for health reasons and because he considered Padre Pio insufficiently grounded in moral theology, he promised to grant the faculties if the young friar succeeded in passing an examination at the diocesan headquarters in Benevento. . . . in a letter to Padre Pio he added: 'If Jesus were to give the Provincial a sure sign of your infused knowledge (and nothing is impossible with God!) the matter would be settled.' Obviously Padre Agostino was already convinced that the ailing young friar possessed infused knowledge, although at that time he was only twenty-six.
"After 1913 there is no further reference in his letters to faculties to hear Confessions, but presumably his request was granted not long afterwards. During 1914 and 1915, while he continued to give an account of his spiritual state to Padre Benedetto, his Provincial and spiritual director, his correspondence with Padre Agostino became more frequent. The latter, busily engaged in pastoral activity, wrote to Padre Pio from various friaries and began to have recourse to the young friar more and more frequently for advice as regards the spiritual guidance of souls in his care. Padre Pio, himself immersed more and more deeply in spiritual trials, attacked by Satan, plunged in desolation of soul, unable to understand his own spiritual state and clinging to obedience for guidance in all that concerned his soul, displayed astonishing gifts of discernment where other people's problems were concerned, as his replies to Padre Agostino clearly show." [Padre Pio: His Life and Mission, p. 69.]
Our Saint, who was completely submissive to the authority and teaching of his spiritual guides, was increasingly seen as their master in spiritual matters, in effect it was he who was teacher. Thus, they went to him more and more frequently for counsel because they realized his knowledge of the eternal verities did not arise from ordinary experience, but was infused from on high. Padre Pio, while still in his late twenties was in an unusual position: advising two priests who enjoyed great prestige in the ecclesiastical order of the entire region: Padre Benedetto, who exercised the authority, of Provincial Minister and Padre Agostino who was held in undisputed esteem as a professor. Both were better schooled than the young friar who had been unable to manage but a minimum of studies required for the priesthood since he had been ill so much of the time. Padre Agostino was seven years older and Padre Benedetto fifteen years older than the 'Father Forgione' to whom they now turned to. In the beginning Padre Pio underwent an inner turmoil because of the reversal of the natural order of things. Yet, he never failed to send them counsel, encouragement and on occasion, reproof. All of this only at their request, still with reluctance and filial fear. For example, he wrote to Padre Benedetto in July of 1917:
"I have read and re-read with attention what you say on the subject of your interior sufferings and I feel a keen sense of humiliation at being obliged to decide with regard to you, my father, my guide, my superior. I should have liked to free myself from this obligation but I cannot . . . So let us exchange roles for the moment and I will speak with all frankness and sincerity. Called upon to pronounce judgment on what you have told me, I declare before God and my own conscience that it is entirely the effect of temptation." [Ibid., pp. 70-71.]
Padre Pio was known to be a strict confessor and spiritual director, especially when his counsel involved that of older friars; however severe he may have been considered, he was always humble and temperate in his approach with his superiors, making it ever clear that he was prepared to obey them.
But it was not his superiors, who were in admiration of the young friar, who would be the impetus for his return to full community life in 1916. As our Heavenly Father would have it, there was a pious woman of Foggia, Raffaelina Cerase, whom Padre Pio had advised by correspondence for about two years, and whom he had never met. She became quite ill, so Padre Pio was sent to Foggia in order to be able to be of help to her. "For over a month he went each day to visit her and the deep spiritual relationship which already existed between himself and this really holy soul grew deeper. They had long spiritual conversations and he sometimes said Mass in the private chapel in her home." He was with her when she died in March of that year. Padre Pio remained in Foggia at the Friary of St. Ann until September, when he was sent to San Giovanni Rotondo, where his renown as a confessor would spread and which was to be his lifelong home from then on, for fifty-two years. He had been transferred because the heat in the region of St. Ann's was detrimental to his health. The mountain air of San Giovanni was more than just the proverbial "breath of fresh air." There he could recuperate, but not for long was he left to himself for his reputation as a confessor followed him to San Giovanni.
Padre Pio had the gift of arousing a sense of sin in a generation from which a horror of sin was fast fading. Saint Pio knew the enormous evil that sin was, often saying that he "was the biggest sinner in the world," going to Confession himself often, sometimes every day, according to Padre Agostino. The last month of his life he would avail himself of the Sacrament of Penance before saying Mass.
"It is an undisputed fact that several million people converged on San Giovanni Rotondo with one end in view, to reach Padre Pio's confessional. What was it that drew people from all over Italy and from many other countries to kneel at that confessional? What did Confession to Padre Pio mean? What was there to distinguish it from the Sacrament of pardon received elsewhere? An attempt may be made here to list the characteristics which made it so different. In the first place, quite a large number of his penitents were sent away without absolution. Secondly, Confession to this friar gave people such a sense of sin that they literally trembled and shed the bitterest tears of their lives over their sins. In most cases the result was a radical change of ideas and of conscience. In many souls the seed of a religious vocation was sown at the confessional. In all cases there was a leap forward in the soul's relations with God. In a word, Padre Pio demanded a Confession that was also a conversion. Finally, the confessor quite often mentioned the sins committed without having heard them from the penitent! The unique atmosphere of his confessional was evident even at the very beginning of his activity as a confessor, for it was not the result of experience nor did it depend on a set of rules. As he explained to his own confessor as early as November 1921, it 'came down from above.' Padre Pio never wasted time with his penitents. A Confession lasted two or three minutes at most. He ordinarily heard about thirty persons in less than two hours, including some who had been absent for fifty years or more. This was possible because of his charism of discernment. The one condition he required in every penitent was repentance and a firm purpose of amendment. It was this demand that led him to expel some from the box with raised voice and rough words. All of this, his kind words and his rebuffs, explains a close friend of his (a lawyer named Zitto from Palermo) came from the same great heart, for he loved all those who came to him as he loved God himself. Those who were summarily dismissed sometimes rebelled interiorly against this treatment, but they were made to understand the enormity of sin and all superficiality vanished from their spiritual attitude. They got a clear view of good and evil, of God's law, His truth and justice and goodness. They went through a kind of hell, but in almost every case they returned to Padre Pio in a different frame of mind and then received absolution. It can be said that the majority of his penitents went through this experience, even people who had been practising their religion regularly before coming to him. He often detected superficiality in these and shook them out of their easygoing state by his brusque treatment. How many Confessions did Padre Pio hear? Some statistics have been attempted, based on established facts. In the beginning he used to hear Confessions for fifteen to nineteen hours a day. After 1923, when limits were set to his activity, and up to the end of his life, he habitually heard for several hours each day. It has been estimated that he heard at least two million . . ." [Ibid., pp. 72-74.]
The same author tells us that Padre Pio endured an agony for his penitents, in that he made voluntary penances in order to purify himself more and more so as to better serve them, to have the grace he needed to convince them of the evil of sin and the need for conversion. It is thought that he experienced the transverberation of the heart, or a piercing, as happened to St. Teresa of Avila. Through long hours, way into the night, wherever and whatever he was about, our Saint was always in the presence of God, engaged in what is often depicted in Catholic fine art, as "a sacred conversation" with God, which rendered him able to discern the state of a penitent's soul. "In those long hours he bargained with God for the salvation of his penitents and prepared himself for a fruitful meeting with them and successful combat with Satan whose attacks he endured all his life." [Ibid., p 75.]
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