Wednesday, September 19, 2012

“I Am a Mystery to Myself.” The Last Days of Padre Pio by FR. GORDON J. MACRAE

If you are concerned for the treatment of good and self-sacrificing priests like Father Benedict Groeschel, then the story of Padre Pio has many lessons for us and for the Church and priesthood in our time.  If you love your Church and faith, you may want to share this post as These Stone Walls presents: "I am a Mystery to Myself." The Last Days of Padre Pio




For half the 20th Century, Saint Padre Pio suffered the wounds of Christ. All of them, including the cynicism of doubt and the tyranny of false witness.

In the August-September issue of Inside the Vatican magazine, Australian journalist Paul MacLeod has a fascinating article reviewing two books by Paul Badde, The Face of God(Ignatius Press 2010) and The True Icon (Ignatius Press 2012). The two books “read like detective stories,” MacLeod wrote, as they examine in great depth two of the Church’s most revered treasures, the Shroud of Turin and the “Volto Santo,” the image of the Holy Face hidden for 400 years and believed to be the second burial cloth of Jesus, the sudarium.

The origin of the veil can be one of two sources, or a combination of both. Though the story never appears in Sacred Scripture, there is an ancient legend that a woman offered her head-cloth to wipe the face of Jesus on the way to Golgotha. When he gave it back to her, as the story has it, an impression of his face remained on the veil. What is now the Sixth Station of the Cross was legendary in Rome since the 8th Century. The name tradition has given to that woman is Veronica, a name that appears nowhere in the Gospel narrative of the Passion of Christ. The name comes from “Vera Icon,” Latin for “True Image,” a great treasure of the Church now preserved at the n in the Abruzzi region of Italy.

The veil is believed to be one of two burial cloths of Jesus, though it’s possible that both accounts are behind this treasure. On the morning of the resurrection, the Gospel of John (20:7) reports, the smaller burial cloth of Jesus – the veil covering his face – was rolled up in a place by itself as witnessed by Saint Peter and Saint John. In Jewish custom in the time of Jesus, such a veil covered the faces of dignitaries, such as the high priest, in death before being entombed. It is this veil that many now believe is enshrined at Manoppello. In contrast to that other, larger burial cloth – believed by many to be the Shroud of Turin – the image on the veil is not that of a dead man, however, but of a man very much alive, his eyes wide open. It is Jesus the Christ, having conquered death. In Inside the Vatican, Paul MacLeod described the Veil of Manoppello as:

“. . . a delicate, transparent piece of expensive material, measuring just 28 cm by 17 cm,   in which the face of Jesus seems to float in light, even to store light.”

Paul MacLeod reported in the article that Capuchin priest, Father Domenico de Cese, formerly custodian of the shrine, was killed in an accident while visiting the Shroud of Turin in 1978. A decade earlier, however, Father Domenico wrote of a rather strange occurrence. On the morning of September 22, 1968, Father Domenico opened the doors of the shrine, and was startled to find Padre Pio kneeling in prayer before the image of the Holy Face. Padre Pio was at the same time 200 kilometers away at San Giovanni Rotondo, gravely ill, and near death.


It was his last known occurrence of bilocation, a phenomenon that, like his visible wounds, became a source of skepticism about Padre Pio both in and outside of the Church. At 2:30 AM on the next morning – September 23, 1968 – Padre Pio died.

Holy FaceThe two stories placed together – Padre Pio’s death and his prayer before the Veil of Manoppello – make perfect sense to me. In the hours before his death, Padre Pio contemplated the burial cloth of Christ. After fifty years of bearing the visible wounds of Christ, Padre Pio’s own soul sought out this visible link to Jesus beyond death; not Jesus crucified – a reality Padre Pio himself had lived for fifty years – but the image of the face of the risen Christ.

Padre Pio seemed most hesitant to discuss either his wounds or the reported incidents of bilocation. He seemed hesitant because in life he did not understand them at all. In fact, a Vatican investigator learned that all the events of bilocation were reported by others, and never by Padre Pio himself. It wasn’t until he was directly asked by the investigator that he described bilocation:

“I don’t know how it is or the nature of this phenomenon – and I certainly don’t give it much thought – but it did happen to me to be in the presence of this or that person, to be in this or that place; but I do not know whether I was there with my body or without it . . . Usually it has happened while I was praying . . . This is the first time I talk about this.” (Padre Pio Under Investigation, Ignatius Press, 2008, p. 208).

Those September days preceding Padre Pio’s death in 1968 must have been the strangest of his life. The visible wounds became so central to his sense of self for a half century that I imagine he had difficulty even remembering a time when the wounds were not present. Even a great burden carried for years upon years – I have learned the hard way – can become a part of who and what we are. We cannot imagine Padre Pio without these wounds. We would have never even heard of Padre Pio without these wounds. So in that sense, the wounds were not for him. They were for us.

But in the days before Padre Pio died, the wounds on his hands and feet and in his side began to close. He received those wounds on the morning of September 20, 1918. Fifty years later, on September 20, 1968, after a few days of the wounds slowly diminishing, all traces of them were gone. The wounds were then only within Padre Pio. Visible or not, they were a part of his very self.

Two years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote of the day those wounds were given to Padre Pio. “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata: Sanctity on Trial” told the story of how this saint among us struggled with what had happened to him, and the lifelong trials that were set in motion by those visible wounds. I hope you will read it to honor him this week. That post includes a moving account of the Stigmata in Padre Pio’s own words in a letter to his spiritual director a month after receiving the wounds.

But it was the stories of bilocation that caused so much skeptical doubt. In May of 1921, the Vatican commenced its first of several investigations into Padre Pio’s life. The investigator, Monsignor Raffaelo Carlo Rossi, tried to refuse the assignment because he admittedly went into it with a “prejudice against Padre Pio.” After months of interrogations, depositions,  interviews with other friars, and testimony by many laypeople, Bishop Rossi’s file was ordered sealed, and it remained sealed as a secret Vatican file for decades. The investigator concluded his file: “The future will reveal what today cannot be read in the life of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.”

That investigator, we now know, left San Giovanni Rotondo with no doubt whatsoever about the true nature of Padre Pio, but it wasn’t enough to curtail years of further suspicion and persecution from within the Church. I described much of that in “A Priest and His Wounds: Padre Pio Under Investigation.” The story of Padre Pio’s treatment is best summed up by Father Paolo Rossi, former Postulator General of the Capuchin Order, and it seems a bit familiar:

“People would better understand the virtue of the man if they knew the degree of hostility he experienced from the Church… The Order itself was told to act in a certain way toward Padre Pio. So the hostility went all the way up to the Holy Office and the Vatican Secretariat of State. Faulty information was being given to Church authorities, and they acted on that information.” (Making Saints, Simon and Schuster, 1990 p. 188).


If you look at the “About” page on These Stone Walls, you may notice that I placed this site under the patronage of Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, known affectionately by many as simply “Saint Padre Pio.” The impact of Saint Maximilian on these prison walls is easy to see. How Saint Padre Pio insinuated himself here is a bit more mysterious.

MirrorIt started with an awareness that we share an important date. The day I was convicted and taken to prison was September 23, Saint Padre Pio’s feast day and the last day of his earthly life. Only 26 years passed between those two events. I described the rest of this story in “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata.” Padre Pio just showed up here again, but that story needs a little background.

Despite its small size, the typical prison cell can seem a barren place. Like every prison this one has rows upon rows of cells, tiers upon tiers of them, all perfectly uniform, none with any evidence of human individualism. The whole point of prison is that its inhabitants are forced to view themselves as humans in degraded form, living a day to day existence that is entirely uniform, and devoid of any sense of the self.

The inside of these 8-by-12-foot walled and barred cells is composed of nothing but concrete. The four walls, the floor and the ceiling are bare concrete. The two stumps for sitting are concrete (and they hurt if I sit too long), and so is the small counter upon which this prisoner is writing at this moment. Prison cells are distinguishable from other prison cells solely by the number above each solid steel door.

There is one small exception to the absence of human evidence, and I’ve written of it before. In “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed,” I described the sole evidence of individualism in a prison cell. There are two rectangles, exactly 24 inches by 36 inches, painted on one wall with 12 inches of space in between them. Within these dark green rectangles, the two prisoners living in each cell may post a calendar, photos of their families and friends, and religious items. Nothing else.

You can learn a lot about a man from what is posted within this rectangle on his cell wall. In my first years in prison, commencing 18 years ago, I had lots of photos of family and friends, evidence of the life I once knew beyond these stone walls. Like every prisoner over time, that evidence slowly diminished. In my first five years in prison, I was moved 17 times, often with just minutes notice. Each time, I would take down all my evidence of a life, and then put it back on the wall in another cell on another tier in another building with other people. Each time, something of myself would be lost forever. Then the day came that I was moved, and nothing went back up onto the wall. The wall remained an empty space for many years.

This was true of my friend, Pornchai Moontri, as well. After 21 years in prison, beginning when he was barely 18 years old, Pornchai only vaguely recalls a life beyond and the people in it, but he no longer possesses any evidence of it. His uprootings were much more severe than mine. As you know from reading “Pornchai’ s Story“” he was ripped from a culture, a country, and a continent. Much was taken from him, and then, finally, so was his freedom. You know that story which he wrote of so powerfully in “The Duty of a Knight.”  Father George David Byers just added another chapter in a September 10 post at Holy Souls Hermitage.

When we were moved to the same cell four years ago, Pornchai and I both stared each day at two green rectangles with nothing in them. Then These Stone Walls began a year later, and ever so slowly our wall became filled with images sent to us from readers. (Remember that laminated images are not allowed).  Today, every square inch of Pornchai’s rectangle is filled with evidence of his very much alive Catholic faith.

But one day just this month, I noticed that a very nice photograph of Saint Padre Pio that was in my rectangle on the wall somehow migrated over to Pornchai’s wall.  On the day I noticed that my treasured image of Padre Pio “defected,” I also mentioned that I didn’t have another one and wished that someone would send me one. An hour after voicing that a few weeks ago, the mail arrived. I opened an envelope from my friend, John Warwick, a TSW reader I once wrote about in “Create in me a New Heart, 0 Lord.”

I opened John’s envelope to find a beautiful card enrolling me and my intentions in a novena to Saint Padre Pio, and the image on the card was the very same one that took up residence over on Pornchai’s wall. It is my first experience of this great Patron Saint’s bilocation, and I treasure it. Thank you, John!

“Stay with me, Lord, for it is getting late: the day is ending, life is passing; death, judgment, eternity are coming soon … I have great need of you on this journey. It is getting late and death is approaching. Darkness, temptations, crosses and troubles beset me in this night of exile.” (Excerpt, Padre Pio’s prayer after Communion).


Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.