Traveling to Rome in 2016 had not been a journey that Padre Pio himself had expected to make. But as he moves through the ancient streets towards the Vatican, large crowds gather, cheer and take photos. And if the priest were to open his eyes briefly, any doubts that people have about his abilities would surely fade. In fact, Pio would be performing a miracle that no one this time around could deny. Right now, you see, Pio is lying in a crystal sarcophagus – having been dead for several decades.
Yet even though the priest passed away back in 1968, his cadaver appears extremely lifelike as he shuttles through the capital in his coffin. Miraculously, perhaps, his face – all the way down to his wispy beard – looks practically identical to how it did in life. And as Pio – who posthumously became a saint – always said that he would do more after his death than during his life, maybe it’s not so strange that he’s drawing crowds even now.
What’s more, while the Catholic Church came to eventually accept Pio, it had certainly been a long road. Once, you see, the former friar had run afoul of Vatican leaders for his seemingly unreal manifestations of their God. But now, Pio’s life inspires millions of pilgrims to visit his stunningly preserved remains – even in the years after the man himself passed on.
Astonishingly, at just five years old, Francesco Forgione knew what he wanted to do with his life. You’ve guessed it: the young shepherd had already decided to devote himself to the church. And as one of five surviving children born to parents Grazio and Maria, he grew up with a strong Catholic grounding. The Forgione family, who were based some 60 miles from Naples in Pietrelcina, attended church and prayed the rosary every day.
And while Forgione had gone through just three years of public school by 1897, he nevertheless felt ready to leave academia behind. After he had heard a Capuchin friar speak in the countryside, you see, he had felt drawn to become one, too. So, his parents brought the boy to a nearby Franciscan order to see if the young Forgione could join.
Fortunately, then, the friars said that they’d be happy to welcome Forgione – so long as he underwent further education. Grazio thus moved to the United States to obtain work and pay for his son’s private tutoring. And the hard graft ultimately paid off when Forgione met the academic benchmarks and entered the Capuchin Order on January 6, 1903.
About two weeks after that, Forgione adopted the Franciscan lifestyle for the first time. On that day, he also changed his name to Friar Pio, paying homage to Pope Pius I. And he vowed to live in chastity, poverty and obedience, after which he embarked on the steps involved in becoming a priest.
But Friar Pio’s journey to priesthood, which began with studying in Umbria, would be a turbulent one. Around two years after joining the Capuchin Order, he became sick, experiencing symptoms of insomnia, exhaustion, migraines and fainting. The then-17-year-old couldn’t digest any food aside from milk and cheese, either, and he vomited constantly.
Strikingly, at around the time of these symptoms, Friar Pio’s peers reportedly started to notice strange changes in his behavior. In the midst of prayer, they noted, the teenager seemed to be in a daze. Another friar even claimed to have seen Friar Pio levitating from the ground and experiencing religious ecstasy.
Nevertheless, Friar Pio’s health didn’t improve in the midst of all of this. His superiors therefore transferred him to a convent in the mountains in the hope that the fresh air would help him to get better. But sadly the move didn’t change anything, so doctors ordered Pio to go home to Pietrelcina.
Yet even at home, Friar Pio’s health remained in the same dire condition. Nevertheless, he survived to make his solemn profession of faith in 1907, and in 1910 he became an ordained priest. The once-sickly religious man said his first Mass in the week following his ordainment, although he would remain in his family’s care for six more years.
And it wasn’t until September 1916 that the man who could now call himself Padre Pio finally returned to the Capuchin Order. In fact, he moved to the Gargano Mountains, where he and six other friars served the San Giovanni Rotondo community. Pio would remain at this post until his death, too – save for his spells serving in World War I.
After World War I concluded, though, Padre Pio’s influence appeared to grow in the south of Italy. As locals started the monumental task of post-conflict rebuilding, they looked to him as a source of hope and inspiration. At the same time, Pio started to exhibit the behaviors for which he would be known long after his death. And a few notable claims were about to cause quite a stir in the Catholic Church.
For one thing, Padre Pio seemed to some to have a miraculous ability to heal his followers. For example, Gemma di Giorgi had come into the world without eyesight, owing to the fact that she had no pupils. But once the young girl met with Padre Pio, it’s said that she gained vision – even despite her condition.
Another woman, Signora Massari, came to Pio to cure her deafness – a condition she had had for two decades. And as the story goes, after she requested the priest’s help, she started to hear his chants during mass. Then when Signora Massari left the service, she could apparently hear the church bells ringing – for the first time in 20 years.
But while Padre Pio also had a reputation for converting people to Catholicism, sometimes that allegedly came in conjunction with a miracle, too. For example, Jewish man Lello Pegna came to the famed priest in the hope that he could cure his blindness. According to Catholicism.org, though, Pio told Pegna that he couldn’t help him until he became baptized in the Catholic Church.
Pio reportedly explained to Pegna, “The Lord will not grant you the grace of physical sight unless you first receive sight for your soul. After you are baptized, then the Lord will give you your sight.” So, while it’s said that the blind man converted against his family’s wishes, his slight then slowly started to return. In the end, as the story goes, Pegna’s vision was completely renewed.
However, not all of Padre Pio’s purported miracles had to do with healing. Most famously, he is known for allegedly suffering from stigmata – markings and bleeding in the same places as Christ’s crucifixion wounds. And the priest appears to have first shared details of his lacerations in 1911, when he wrote a letter to another religious man. In the missive, Pio explained, “In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared – about the size of a penny – accompanied by acute pain.”
But other sources claim that Pio only started manifesting the phenomenon in 1918. At that time, the priest was supposedly in the midst of hearing confessions when blood started to flow from his stigmata. And strangely, those who claimed to have witnessed the sight suggested that the blood smelled as if it had been perfumed, or perhaps that it had the scent of flowers.
Now it’s said that the bearded priest tried to keep his stigmata under wraps – quite literally. Yes, he wore gloves or other coverings to hide the wounds, as he was said to have been embarrassed by them. However, by 1919, word had started to spread that the priest bore the signs of the stigmata. And as you can imagine, visiting him in the Campania region thus became a religious pilgrimage for many.
Plus, while not every person who came to see Padre Pio could expect him to perform a miracle, they could still find out for themselves whether he possessed the markings of the stigmata. And this fact contributed to the priest’s already large following; even non-believers would come to see if he did indeed present the crucifixion wounds.
Beyond that, Padre Pio had a few other inexplicable qualities. For one thing, he is said to have appeared to others in visions – including on the day of his death – while some have reported seeing him praying in church even though he hadn’t left his room. And Pio also apparently gave prophecies. At one point, he supposedly told Father Karol Józef Wojtyła that he’d one day ascend to the church’s “highest post.” Later, that man became Pope John Paul II.
But not everyone bought into Padre Pio’s mystical powers, healing abilities and stigmata. Perhaps most importantly, the Vatican did not appreciate the hubbub surrounding their priest in southern Italy. And in the 1920s Catholic leaders stopped him from giving Mass, blessing his followers, showing his stigmata or answering letters.
Understandably, the church was worried that Padre Pio hadn’t actually received his stigmata from a divine source. Instead, the Vatican feared that the marks were self-inflicted, which would have meant the friar had garnered his following falsely. With that in mind, the organization sent a doctor to examine the wounds.
And the results of the examination didn’t exactly come out in Padre Pio’s favor. Yes, the doctor determined that the priest had not only likely created the wounds himself, but that he had also kept them open. So, the medic wrapped the cuts and sealed them in such a way that Pio couldn’t take them off. But the story doesn’t end there.
After a month, the doctor removed the bandages to find that Padre Pio’s stigmata curiously remained unhealed. Now, during previous medical procedures, the priest’s surgical wounds had closed up over time. Additionally, blood tests revealed nothing abnormal about his genetic makeup. All things considered, then, the lacerations on his hands should have healed, too.
But Padre Pio underwent more than one medical examination, and yet another expert agreed that he hadn’t received his wounds divinely. Yes, Agostino Gemelli, a Franciscan priest and psychiatrist, evaluated his peer in 1926. After that, Gemelli concluded that Pio had used some sort of corrosive agent to keep his wounds open. He additionally claimed that Pio was of “hysteric mind,” and any ideas of manifestation had been “planted” by a trusted colleague.
And later reports – even ones that emerged after Padre Pio’s death – apparently corroborated such a stance. Historian Sergio Luzzatto, who published a book on the priest in 2007, claimed to have uncovered evidence suggesting foul play. Documents proved, the writer said, that Pio had used carbolic acid to create and maintain his faux stigmata. Luzzatto also reportedly discovered that one of his pilgrims had tried to help him procure the acid he needed.
According to The Independent, a woman named Maria De Vito had asked her pharmacist cousin for a bottle of carbolic acid. Not only this, but she apparently requested the item in Pio’s name and in “strict secrecy.” The pharmacist is said to have admitted, “My thought was that the carbolic acid could be used by Padre Pio to procure or further irritate wounds on his hands.”
However, by the time Luzzatto had shared his findings, the Vatican had already changed its mind on Padre Pio. As early as 1933, the Church began to let go of the suspicion that had once surrounded the popular priest. And that year, Pope Pius XI removed the ban that had prevented Pio from giving mass publicly.
Then, 12 months or so later, Pope Pius XI gave Padre Pio the green light to hear confessions again. To add to that, when Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, took over, it became obvious that Pio had been redeemed. How? Well, the new pope actually began to encourage worshippers to visit the priest in southern Italy.
Then in the mid-’60s Pope Paul VI crystallized the church’s position on Padre Pio by dismissing all allegations against the priest. Interestingly, this decision came near the end of Pio’s life, as he ultimately passed away in 1968 after having served the church for most of his 81 years.
Meanwhile, according to Reverend John Schug’s book A Padre Pio Profile, the priest often said, “After my death, I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” In 1982, then, the archbishop of Manfredonia began an investigation to determine if Pio could become a saint.
Intriguingly, the seven-year inquiry did not include an official verdict from the Catholic Church on Padre Pio’s stigmata – even though disagreements over the source of the wounds could have prevented his canonization from happening. Instead, in 1990, the Church focused on considering whether or not Pio had lived an honorable life.
By this time, John Paul II held the Church’s highest post, and he decided in 1997 that Pio was venerable. Next, the Pope and others discussed Padre Pio’s reported healing powers and their effects on others. And this led John Paul II to deem the famous priest “blessed” in 1999.
So just as Padre Pio himself had predicted, even after his passing, he continued to do good on Earth. As such, John Paul II declared Padre Pio a saint on June 16, 2002 – two decades after the investigation had begun. And the event demonstrated the power that the priest continued to wield, as roughly 300,000 people came to the Roman ceremony.
What’s more, pilgrims converged to visit Saint Pio at his final resting place in San Giovanni Rotondo. And in 2008 his presence there became physical when the priest’s remains were exhumed and placed on display. Notably, a silicone mask modeled on his face was produced, with this having the effect of making the corpse appear more lifelike.
Now that brings us back to the start of our story. In 2016, you see, Pio heeded yet another call from the Vatican. This time, Pope Francis wanted to place the saint’s body on display in St. Peter’s Basilica; ostensibly, he would be a symbol of that Holy Year’s theme of mercy. And as Pio’s clear coffin made its way through the streets of Rome to the Vatican, thousands gathered.
According to HuffPost, Pope Francis would also iterate why Saint Pio was such a worthy example of the Holy theme. In effect, the Catholic leader said, the former priest had been a “servant of mercy.” The Pope added, “He did so full time, practicing – at times in exhaustion – the apostolate of listening.”
Thereafter, Pio’s remains sat on display at St. Peter’s Basilica for about a month before returning to San Giovanni Rotondo. And he continues to draw a stunning number of visitors to the small Italian town. In fact, according to estimates, hundreds of thousands flock to the location every year – until, perhaps, Pio is sent on another journey of his own.