The Severity of His Direction
In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, of October 20, 1939, Pope Pius XII urged:
Pray then, Venerable Brethren, pray without ceasing; pray especially when you offer the Divine Sacrifice of Love. Do you, too, pray, you whose courageous profession of the Faith entails today hard, painful and not rarely, heroic sacrifices; pray you, suffering and agonizing members of the Church, when Jesus comes to console and to heal your pains, and do not forget with the aid of a true spirit of mortification and worthy practice of penance to make your prayers more acceptable in the eyes of Him Who "lifteth up all that fall: and setteth up all that are cast down" (Psalm cxiv. 14), that He in His mercy may shorten the days of trial and that thus the word of the Psalmist may be verified: "Then they cried to the Lord in their affliction: and he delivered them out of their distresses" (Psalm cvi. 13).
It was the "early morning hour" of world war and the pontiff was making a fervent appeal for prayer in those dark days. As the war spread like a plague the former Eugenio Pacelli would return to the need for unceasing prayer in one address after another. This was Padre Pio's burning appeal to others also, exhorting all who came to him to pray earnestly for the pope's intentions and the needs of those caught up in the cataclysm of war.
Padre Pio prayer groups arose, nurtured by his constant call to prayer in a church, and today they still exist worldwide. Moved by Padre Pio's urging, these pious ones met at least once a month, with the consent of their bishop and under the guidance of a priest. Sometimes Mass was said and then the Rosary. When the Saint died in 1968, there were more than seven hundred prayer cells consisting of 70,000 members and since then their numbers grow.
Many members of these cells had continual recourse to Padre Pio for guidance, thus they came to be known as "his spiritual children". He was their "father" and a stern one at that. he expected them to be in prayer constantly, and to practice mortification and meditation, meek and humble and steadfast without complaint in carrying their crosses. All this in the milieu of dedication to the practice of the seven corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. It was to them that he would turn for Catholic works of mercy when the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza began to be realized as more than a dream: "the first doctors, engineers and professional men in various fields who enabled Padre Pio's hospital to function were all spiritual sons of the humble Capuchin friar, some of them converts from a very different way of life." [Padre Pio: His Life and Mission, p. 78.]
"An engineer named Bianchi, from Northern Italy, is a typical example. I met him not far from the friary in a little shop owned by another man from the same part of Italy. The two men were deep in conversation when I entered the shop and I soon found myself involved. I had seen Mr. Bianchi quite often on the altar, serving Mass or Benediction with great devotion, but had not spoken to him before. Now he introduced himself and after a little encouragement began to tell me how he had come to settle in San Giovanni Rotondo. With great frankness he explained:
'I am one of Padre Pio's converts, not in the sense that I wasn't a Baptised Catholic before I met him, but because he changed my whole life and made me a fervent Catholic. I was very fond of the other sex and lived a sinful life with one woman after another. For years I kept away from the Sacraments. Then I met a woman who attracted me more than all the others, a very good Catholic, whom I married shortly afterwards, giving up my sinful attachments. Although I accompanied my wife to Mass from time to time I never approached the Sacraments. My wife was very devoted to Padre Pio and not long after our marriage I travelled with her to San Giovanni Rotondo. She went to Confession to Padre Pio but I myself took care to keep out of his way. Then the war intervened and it was 1947 before we returned to Mount Gargano. On the little bus which climbed the mountain from Foggia I had a disconcerting experience. Another passenger told us the dramatic story of how his little boy had been cured by Padre Pio of total deafness. The man was now taking the boy, a teenager, for the umpteenth time to Padre Pio in thanksgiving for this favour. As he told us the story I began to feel extremely uncomfortable in my sinful state. My wife went to Confession as usual, but I myself couldn't face this extraordinary friar. I made up my mind, though, to approach the Sacraments when I got back to my own city and this I did on several occasions. On our next visit to San Giovanni, I felt anxious to obtain Padre Pio's help to live a better life.
'I won't easily forget my first Confession to him. As I told him the sort of life I had lived for years, his face contracted and he grimaced as if in great pain. In the end, when I asked him if I might become a spiritual son, he agreed, but he added a warning: "If you dare to do any of those things again . . ." and he raised his hand in a threatening gesture. As I left the sacristy after Confession I felt as if I were literally walking on air, a distinct physical sensation as though a huge weight had been removed from my body, as if I were floating rather than walking. . . .
'I turned my back ,definitely on my sinful habits [continued the engineer] and by God's grace, with Padre Pio's help, I became a daily communicant. When my wife died a few years later I felt irresistibly drawn to San Giovanni Rotondo, so I sold my home in the north and came to live here. I had suffered for years from my spine and was wearing an orthopaedic appliance when I came here, but Padre Pio ordered me to take it off and made me do my share of the heavy manual work of which there was plenty at that stage on
the building of the hospital. I obeyed him without question and worked hard for many hours a day. I have never had any further trouble with my back, except for an occasional twinge when the weather changes!' " [Ibid., pp. 78-79.]
The author, Mary Ingoldsby, heard a number of such stories of those who had been so converted by Padre Pio and she writes that a pattern emerged from them:
"When he found a person possessed of the fundamental qualities for a holy life, he took over and goaded that person on to sanctity. It was only after a number of years that such people realised what he had done, the revolution he had effected in their spiritual life. Margherita C. is just one example to illustrate what God's grace, through Padre Pio's firm direction, achieved in people of this kind. She is a sensible, matter-of-fact person whose behaviour and conversation on the few occasions on which we met suggested to me a deep spirituality and probably an interesting story, which she told me at a later stage.
'I lived in a small town in Bari province about eighty miles from here. I first heard of Padre Pio in 1948. I was nearly forty when my dear father to whom I was very attached fell ill and died. I had several brothers and sisters but I was my dad's favourite and when he was gone I was desperately unhappy. At that time we all lived together in our rural home. I withdrew from the others and nursed my grief in silence. I had very little in common with the rest of the family. They were mainly occupied with material matters, while I used to spend a lot of my time in church and in the Catholic associations of our parish. One day, seeing me so desolate, a woman whom I hardly knew spoke to me about a "holy friar" up on Mount Gargano and asked me why I didn't go there to get his help and counsel as so many others did. I thought about it for a while, then followed her advice. It was in the month of March. I won't go into details of the journey which was anything but easy. I arrived towards evening and obtained rather miserable accommodation near the friary, where I was told I could go to Confession to Padre Pio the following day. Now, I was a member of several pious associations in my own town, I had been going to daily Mass and communion and considered myself quite a good Catholic. I made my brief Confession to Padre Pio and then poured out my grief at the death of my father, saying how desperate I was and confident that he would help and console me. To my surprise and indignation he just closed the shutter in my face and turned to the penitent at the other side without giving me absolution. I was very angry as I left the church, thinking to myself that this was no Saint and that I had been a great fool to go there at all. I was still fuming when I returned to my lodging, but the people there took me very calmly and said I must wait a few days and then go back to him. My chief feeling for several days was deep resentment towards this friar, but I was afraid to receive Communion as he hadn't absolved me, so I just waited. In those days he never received anyone until at least a week had elapsed from their previous Confession. As the days went by my state of mind seemed to undergo a change and my resentment vanished. On the eighth day I took my place once more at his confessional. This time he seemed quite different. I told him again about the death of my father, then he continued to question me, until I suddenly said: "The Lord took him from me." "Ah!" said Padre Pio, as if he had been waiting for just that phrase which indicated acceptance of God's will. Then he spoke to me very kindly and gave me absolution.' [Ibid., pp. 80-81.]
This lady went on to work at the hospital, serving on night duty, living in a poor hovel and earning just enough to survive. Padre Pio told her that he was interested in "her wretched soul" and not her material want. She was to have the good blessing to have Padre Pio as her director until he died. At the time that Mary Ingoldsby wrote the biography of Padre Pio, this woman was still there living on a small pension and doing her best to live as the Saint expected her to. She said" He opened my eyes to a completely new spiritual dimension. His direction went right down to the roots and he didn't spare me. He stripped me of pride and self-love and he taught me what our religion is all about. I can never be sufficiently grateful to God and to him for all I have received." [Ibid., p. 83.]
She provides more incidences as the above, including some of the friars who were directed by Padre Pio. They can be summed up like this and we use her words on page 85:
"Padre Pio as confessor and spiritual guide frequently administered bitter medicine, but once the dose had been accepted he was always ready to reward the patient with something more palatable. A word of encouragement was never far from his lips."