Psalm 85 says – ‘For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.’ and the wise man of Proverbs states – ‘Those who seek me diligently will find me.'(Proverbs 8:17). Furthermore the writer to the Hebrews in the NT proclaims that God – ‘Is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.’ (Hebrews 11)
What strikes me in these verses is that there is no qualification apart from a diligent seeking of the living God. The promises are not restricted to Protestant or Catholic, or, dare I add, Muslim or Hindu. Certainly the promises are not restricted to Presbyterian or Baptist, Conservative or Charismatic.
The first European convert to Christianity would appear to have been Italian, a high-ranking army officer in the Roman army. He had been a Pagan but one who had embarked on a journey diligently seeking the one true God. Interestingly, he subsequently came to faith in Jesus as a result of the intervention of a supernatural being whom he described as ‘A man .. in bright clothing.’ (Acts 10).
For this post and the next I want to look briefly at the lives of two men who, in the great scheme of things, would have had many theological differences and, even had the opportunity arisen, I suspect might not have had any desire to meet or communicate. Both however encountered the living God at the same level of the supernatural, prophetic and, primarily, intimacy with living God. The first would go on to be a Franciscan Capuchin Friar and Priest in Italy, while the other a Presbyterian Minister of the Free Church of Scotland who would serve as Moderator of its General Assembly in 1956.
There are few better examples of the God who is abundant in mercy to all who call on him and to all who diligently seek him.
Francesco Forgione (Padre Pio) 1887 – 1968
Francesco Forgione was born on the 25 May, 1887, in Pietrelcina, a town in the province of Benevento, in the Southern Italian region of Campania. His parents were peasant farmers.
Francesco was brought up in a deeply religious home, where, although his parents were illiterate, Bible stories and deep devotion were part of everyday life. It is said that at the age of 5 Francesco had already made up his mind to dedicate his life to God. From early childhood until the age of 10 he worked on the land, looking after the small flock of sheep the family owned.
The young Francesco was afflicted with a number of illnesses. At six he suffered from severe gastroenteritis. At ten he caught typhoid fever. Indeed, he was to be plagued by various illnesses throughout his life.
On 6 January 1903, at the age of 15, Francesco entered training with the Capuchin Friars at Morcone in preparation for full time ministry. Subsequently he undertook his seven-year study for the Priesthood at the friary of Saint Francis of Assisi in Umbria. Francesco Forgione would later become better known as Padre Pio.
What interests me in the life of this devoted and humble Italian Priest are the parallels, not only with the man we will examine in our next post, but with those we have already examined here who were all from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition. As I have said, on the face of it they would have had very little in common – and perhaps some (if not all) would have held no tack with Francesco due to his background. However, their common experience of the living God, the supernatural, including dreams, visions, bilocation, insights and foreknowledge are remarkable – proving, to me at least, that God is not restricted by our narrow pre conceived conventions or ideas – but, as we have said, is close to all who call on him.
The life of Francesco Forgione is a study in the realms of the miraculous. Even as a youth, he reported experiencing heavenly visions and ecstasies. In his simplicity, the young Francesco assumed everyone had the same experiences. Once a woman who noticed his piety asked him, ‘When did you consecrate your life to God? Was it at your first Holy Communion?’. He answered, ‘Always, daughter, always!
Francesco Forgione was marked above all else as a man of prayer. As to spiritual gifts these included the gift of healing, bilocation, prophecy, miracles, discernment of spirits, the ability to read hearts as well as the gift of tongues. In addition to these more supernatural gifts he was the means of bringing thousands to faith in Christ.
Once settled in the monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, he lived in the Franciscan spirit of poverty. He very rarely left the monastery and in his 51 years within its confines never took a holiday. He never read a newspaper or listened to the radio.
Later in life Francesco Forgione founded a hospital in his community which he called ‘The Home for the Relief of Suffering.’ It is said he saw the image of Christ in the poor, the suffering, and the sick and gave himself particularly to them. He once said, ‘Bring God to all those who are sick. This will help them more than any other remedy.’
The supernatural experiences of Francesco Forgione impacted him deeply. He wrote – ‘I come forth from them always more penetrated by a sense of my own unworthiness’. (1) On another occasion he wrote to a confidante – ‘Everything can be summed up in this: I am devoured by the love of God and the love of my neighbour. God is always fixed in my mind and stamped in my heart.’ (2)
Francesco Forgione once told a friend – ‘Meditation in the key to progress in the knowledge of self as well as the knowledge of God and through it we achieve the goal of the spiritual life, which is transformation of the soul in Christ’. (3)
His advice to his spiritual children was summarised in 10 points – all of which are worth noting but here are the first 5 –
1 – Put you trust in Christ as your personal Saviour.
2 – Know that you have no righteousness of your own.
3 – Never be pleased with yourself.
4 – Do not complain about offences perpetrated against you.
5 – Forgive everyone with Christian charity.
In all of these he more than proved to be a model.
Emerging from a period of intense suffering he was able to write, even of his pain – ‘I feel as if I were drowned in an immense sea of the love of my beloved .. Sweet is the bitterness of this love and sweet is the burden’.
One day Francesco passed a local man who was cripple (he moved about on all fours) and was calling out for a blessing. He shouted out to the lame man – ‘Throw away your crutches’. To the amazement of those watching the man obeyed and for the first time in his life walked on his deformed feet. He never used his crutches again.
On another occasion a blind man approached Francesco with a plea for healing. He was told – ‘The Lord will not grant you the grace of physical sight unless you first receive sight for your soul.’ Several months later the man returned, his sight having been completely restored. He explained that against the strong objections of his family he had become a Christian and been baptised. Thereafter, over a period of some months, his sight, to the amazement of the medical profession, had been completely restored. Francesco kept in touch with the man who could report 30 years later that his vision was still perfect. (4)
Sister Teresa Salvadores became bedridden at 58 years of age. She suffered from gastric disorders (suspected to be caused by stomach cancer) and a painful abnormality of her aorta. The nun suffered from extreme pain, weakness, and vertigo, and her condition deteriorated until she was near death. Her fellow sisters were distraught. Many of them had heard stories about Francesco Forgione’s holiness and miracles. They wrote to him asking for his intercession for a cure.
Some time later Francesco Forgione appeared to Sister Teresa in a dream, touching the side where her tumor was causing her pain. He also blew into her mouth, and spoke to her about heaven. When she woke up, all of the physical sufferings caused by her conditions were relieved, though the tumors remained. The nun lived for a number of years without suffering from the effects of her abnormalities.
There is also substantial proof that Francesco Forgione had the gift of bilocation. The story that follows is only one among many instances of this. Padre Carmelo of Sessano was the superior of Francesco Forgione’s Friary between 1953-1959. On one occasion he was with Francesco and some other Friars attending a show at a concert hall that adjoined the Friary. During the intermission, Padre Carmelo recalls seeing Francesco leaned forward and resting his head and arms on the back of the chair in front of him, silent and motionless. The friars assumed that he was tired and did not disturb him while he rested in this position for about five minutes. As the intermission ended, Francesco sat back up, and spoke with his fellow Friars.
Padre Carmelo thought nothing of the incident until the next day. He was visiting a sick man in town, and the man thanked Father Carmelo for allowing Francesco to visit him the previous evening. Father Carmelo was perplexed. He had been with Francesco at the concert hall – and he had gone straight back to the Friary once the show ended. Francesco hadn’t left to visit anyone that evening.
When Father Carmelo explained this to the man, he and his entire family continued to insist that Francesco had physically been in the house. When Padre Carmelo asked the precise time of this visit, the answer was the exact time of the show’s intermission – during which Francesco had appeared to be napping!
Francesco Forgione was also aware at times when a person would soon die. In May 1962 a Padre Teofilo visited San Giovanni Rotondo on a busy preaching tour. He was 52, active and appeared to be in the peak of health. However Francesco advised caution regarding his hectic lifestyle telling him – ‘Your life is hanging by a thread’. Teofilo laughed this warning off. He died four months later. Two years after this he warned a 26 year old cleric who was intent on travelling to a distant city for further studies saying – ‘Studies! studies! – think of death’. The offended man walked away. He died suddenly less than three weeks later.
On many other occasions people would seek his counsel during times on illness or before major surgery. One such was a Padre Costantino. Before he would sign operation papers he told the surgeon he wanted to call Francesco Forgione before he consented. The surgeon surprised him by saying – ‘Go to Padre Pio, because, when I am faced with a difficult case, I go to him too! In the event Francesco (Pio) told Costantino to go ahead. He did and the operation was a success. Another man, Piero Mellilo, an eminent plastic surgeon and friend of Francesco’s suffered from a brain hemorrhage and lay immobile in hospital waiting for immanent, but dangerous, surgery. Shortly before the operation he phoned the Friary hoping to speak to Francesco who, as it happened, was passing the telephone when it rang! He advised against the operation. Ignoring strenuous medical advice not to Mellio rose from his bed, discharged himself and left the hospital. He was followed out of the building by more than one doctor who fully expected the ill man to collapse at any moment. However nothing happened and Piero Mellilo returned to his practice. He had no further ill effects from the aneurysm.
Francesco Forgione was not narrow or exclusive in relation to the church of his youth but welcomed any and all – especially after the second world war when the area in which he lived was occupied by US forces. One ardent supporter, from long before WW2, was an American lady who took up residence at San Giovanni Rotondo – Adelia Maria McAlpine Pyle. She became a Catholic and strong supporter, at great personal cost, of Francesco Forgione. Adelia’s mother Adelaide was violently opposed to her daughters new found faith and interest in Francesco Forgione. As a result, there was a rift between the two. However, as a result of Francesco’s intervention, mother and daughter were reconciled. Some time later Adelaide herself came to faith through the influence of a Baptist Church. Her daughter voiced her disappointment to Francesco regarding her mother’s choice of denomination. He replied – ‘Let her be, don’t upset her peace – she will be saved because she has faith’.
As the reputation of this humble Friar from remote San Giovanni Rotondo, southern Italy, spread, so did opposition from many within the Roman Catholic church. The hatred, envy and vitriol directed towards him over many years is unbelievable. Some accused him of being demon possessed, of immoral behaviour with young girls, of living in luxury and greed – all of which were totally untrue and later proved to be so. However, his treatment at the hand of the Catholic hierarchy over these unfounded allegations was appalling.
The Vatican initially imposed severe sanctions on Francesco in the 1920s in order to reduce publicity about him: it forbade him from saying Mass in public, blessing people, answering letters, and communicating with his spiritual director. Subsequently the church authorities decided that he be relocated to another Convent in northern Italy. However the local people threatened to riot, and the Vatican left him where he was. Nevertheless, from 1921 to 1922 he was prevented from publicly performing his priestly duties, such as hearing confessions and saying Mass. From 1924 to 1931, the Vatican also made a number of statements denying that the events in Francesco Forgione’s life were due to any Divine cause.
And it is here, in the light of such bitterness and persecution, for me at any rate, that the true mark of the man shines through.
One example, in addition to what has already been said, must suffice. In 1925 a Canon Giovanni Miscio, who had written multiple letters to the Vatican denouncing Forgione as a fraud, completed a book vilifying him. He then attempted to blackmail Forgione’s brothers into paying a large sum of money to prevent publication. However, he was subsequently arrested. Later he received only a suspended sentence, this being in no small measure due to Forgione’s intervention on his behalf. Instead of seeking revenge Francesco Forgione did all within his power to save his persecutor from prison and, when Miscio lost his teaching job because of his behaviour, successfully pleaded for his reinstatement. The chastened Canon subsequently returned to visit the brothers he had tried to defraud and pled for their forgiveness. He and Francesco were also reconciled the latter fully forgiving his would be enemy. As a result both men kept in touch and even in old age it is said Miscio could be seen tottering up the road to to visit Francesco.
By 1933, the tide, in some measure, began to turn. Pope Pius XI ordered a reversal of the ban on Francesco Forgione’s public celebration of Mass, arguing, ‘I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed.’ In 1934, the Friar was again allowed to hear confessions. He was also given honorary permission to preach despite never having taken the exam for a preaching license. Finally, in the mid-1960s Pope Paul VI (Pope from 1963 to 1978) dismissed all accusations against Francesco Forgione. However suspicion continued among some and he was denounced at one point as – ‘A charismatic tongue speaker who would lead to a schism in the church’. (5)
Although Francesco Forgione never enjoyed good health it deteriorated significantly throughout the 1960s, but he continued with his work up until the end. He died in the early hours of the morning of 24th September 1968.
1 – C. Bernard Ruffin – ‘Padre Pio, The True Story’ p 63
2 – Ibid p181
3 – Ibid p138
4 – Ibid p171
5 – Ibid p355
Various other sources used for this article.
In his no holds barred and meticulously researched book on the life of Francesco Forgione, otherwise known as Padre Pio, the late C. Bernard Ruffin, latterly Pastor of Holy Comforter Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C presents an honest and balanced picture of the life and times of this man of God. Coming from a non Roman Catholic background, Ruffin gives us an unbiased and well researched view of a man who was, and still is, a very controversial figure.
Some will note that I have not commented on Forgione’s experience of Stigmata. This is for no other reason than it does not concern us in particular in relation to the matters under consideration in this series of posts.
I am not here endorsing particular doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church any more than I endorse certain Protestants ones. What I am interested in is holiness of life, intimacy with God and, despite our theological errors or the lack of them – the fact that God looks at the heart and the intent, meeting us in grace, mercy and compassion. I have said before I believe our early years largely dictate our religious affiliations, views and subsequent history. In earlier life I would have rejected this – but have come to see the dishonesty of such a view. Transfer between denominations is relatively rare – transfer between larger cultural religious bodies even rarer. I have come to believe God meets us where we are – not because of what we are. I have also come to the conviction that God will work within the confines of our man made structure or outside them – he is, after all, the Sovereign God. What he looks for above all, I would suggest, is a sincere heart that diligently seeks him.