This week we celebrate the feast of a man officially known as St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known to most people as Padre Pio. He only died the year before I was born. He was a Capuchin Franciscan who lived in an obscure monastery in the East of Italy. If you have doubts about the reality of the spiritual world, read a book on his life.
For fifty years of his life he had the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side, which bled continually. They were examined by doctors and scientists many times, but they couldn’t explain them. The Holy Souls often appeared to him asking him to pray for them to help them through the last part of their journey to heaven. He was physically attacked by Satan on multiple occasions and had to be hospitalised various times because he was so badly beaten. He also had the gift of being able to read people’s hearts in confession, which meant that if someone made a simple confession keeping some things back he would be able to remind them about the things they needed to confess.
However, perhaps what was most striking for people who saw him was that he suffered the passion of Christ every time he celebrated the mass. You can still get DVDs of him celebrating the mass and it is quite something to watch. He was forbidden from preaching, because the Vatican were suspicious of the mystical gifts that he had, but he didn’t need to because just watching him celebrate the mass was enough. Thousands of people came to be present as he celebrated the mass. During his life he was one of the most photographed people in the world.
Why were people drawn to this priest who lived in an obscure village in Italy? It had to be more than just because he had these strange experiences and gifts. The reason why people were drawn to him, is the same reason why people were drawn to people like Mother Teresa, a poor wrinkled old woman, or to John Paul II and many others. It is because people experienced God through them in an extraordinary way. God is attractive and that’s why people who are close to God, or holy, are attractive. People want to be close to them, because we are drawn to God’s presence. We often confuse holiness (being close to God) with piety, which is showing great devotion to holy things, or certain prayers. People who are pious are not necessarily holy and people who are holy are not necessarily pious. Padre Pio could apparently be quite gruff, but people were drawn to him all the same.
I remember reading a story about one woman who went to Pietrelcina to go to him for confession. She had to wait several days to be heard, because there were so many people going to him at that time. When she finally went to confession and confessed, he just closed the little door on her without saying anything. She was furious and went back in a rage to the house where she was staying. The owner of the house told her not to worry, but just to think for a few days and then go back. As she began to calm down and reflect on what she had said, she realised that she had been quite insincere and had really only been going out of curiosity. She then went back a few days later, made a more sincere confession and she related that he couldn’t have been kinder. He had recognised that she was insincere the first time and this apparent rejection that she experienced was really what she needed. It shocked her into reality.
One of the sayings that is often associated with Padre Pio is this: ‘Pray, hope and don’t worry.’ It is so simple and yet so wise. Often the advice that holy people like Padre Pio gave was so simple and I think that is the key to growing in faith. We cannot figure it out, and we will get ourselves in knots if we try, because what we believe in is totally beyond our understanding.
In the Old Testament there is the story of Naaman the leper who came from Damascus and went to the prophet Elisha in Israel to be healed. Elisha told him to go and bathe in the Jordan seven times. When he heard this he was furious because he thought that was so stupid. He said, ‘Aren’t the waters in my own country better than here?’ But then his servants pushed him and said, ‘If the prophet had told you to do something really difficult wouldn’t you have done it? So why not do this, even though it seems so simple?’ (See 2 kings 5). So eventually he gave in and went to the river and he was healed.
The mystical gifts that Padre Pio had were quite amazing, and in spite of numerous scientific studies, no one could explain them. No doubt many will argue that it was a hoax, just as many will say that the mass is a fraud. We cannot explain it, but we don’t have to. We are just asked to believe it.
In the Gospel the Lord presents us with an interesting model. When the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, he presents them with a child. What’s so special about a child? Perhaps two things in particular: trust and simplicity. Children show total trust, and children keep things simple, often in a very disarming way, as you know. The more we respond to this draw that God plants inside of us, the more we begin to realise that it is very simple. You might argue, ‘Father it is not so simple, it is really very complicated’, but it’s not. We make it complicated. If God has given us a way to follow him it must be possible for everyone without exception. And if it is possible for everyone without exception, then it must be very simple. That is why several times, the Lord presented the disciples with the model of a child. ‘Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ He is saying, ‘Trust me, your God, as a child trusts its parents.’ The path is a simple one. God has told us everything we need to know and has given us everything we need to complete the journey. We don’t understand most of it, but we don’t have to. ‘Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’