Christ, One With Sinners
Cardinal José Saraiva Martins
of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints
PADRE PIO HAD A SPECIAL
MISSION TO LIVE THE WISDOM OF THE CROSS
A multitude of devoted
1. A well-known writer said, "If
there was an Oscar of popularity for saints, Padre Pio would win
hands down. Rarely has there been a religious so widely loved and
celebrated. His popularity rating has reached stardom, and not
only among believers" (R. Allegri in P. Pio Immagini
di santità, Mondadori 1999, p. 9).
This may be a captivating piece of
journalism, but it is theologically flawed. Indeed, with regard to
saints, it is not so much their approval by men and women that
counts but rather the favour they find with God, and here no
classifications or grades are valid. All the attempts to compile
hit parades have bordered on the ridiculous. Every day, when the
Church lives the summit of Eucharistic faith, speaking of the
saints, the faithful say these words: "with all the saints
who have done your will throughout the ages" (Eucharistic
So saints, as such, please God before
they please men. However, we cannot fail to note that the devotion
for Padre Pio has grown out of all proportion among people from
all walks of life. A true "world clientele", as Paul VI
said (Audience of 20 February, 1971).
It has rightly been said that Blessed
Padre Pio is the "people's saint", perhaps unconsciously
highlighting once again, with his forthcoming Canonization, the
charism of the Capuchin Franciscans to be close to the people.
The purpose of this reflection is to seek
the foundation of the message of "this humble
Capuchin friar", as the Pope said in his homiIy at the
Mass in St Peter's Square for the Beatification of Padre Pio who
"by his life ... astonished the world"
(cf. L'Osservatore Romano, n. 3; ORE, 5 May
1999, p. 1), and to highlight this message's urgency and
timeliness. It is certainly not out of place to explain the
attraction to Padre Pio felt by multitudes as a response to the
"hunger for transcendence", to the need for the
supernatural which still grips human beings even at the beginning
of the third millennium, through the singular and evident mystical
An altar on the world
2. "'How often', Jesus said to me
just now, 'would you have abandoned me, my son, if I had not
crucified you ... ?'" (Padre Pio, La croce sempre
pronta, Città Nuova, 2002, p. 3).
Thus to try to understand Padre Pio is
not so easy, despite his simplicity, because it is necessary to go
far beyond appearances. The Blessed even said as much, speaking of
himself: "What can I tell you about me? I am a mystery to
myself" (Epistolario, I, p. 800. The Epistolario
is the collection in four volumes of Padre Pio's correspondence,
edited by Fr Gerardo di Flumeri).
If it is true, that every man and woman
is born with a mission that Providence entrusts to each one to
carry out during his/her earthly life, what was the special
mission of the Blessed "stigmatic" from Gargano?
During the ad limina visit in
April 1947, Pope Pius XII asked Bishop Andrea Cesarano of
Manfredonia: "What does Padre Pio do?". The
Bishop gave the clear, concise answer: "Your Holiness, he
takes away the sins of the world" (cf. P. Pio,
Immagini di Santità, Mondadori, 1999, p. 74).
Francesco Forgione made a constant
offering of himself as a victim of love on the altar, where he
lived Christ's Passion, and in the confessional, where actually he
lived compassion with the sinner. He became one with Christ in the
Eucharistic immolation and with the penitent in the confessional
to reconcile souls with God.
Padre Pio was a great apostle of the
confessional. He exercised this ministry for 58 years, giving
hours and hours, morning and evening, to those who came to him
from near and far: men and women, sick and healthy, rich and poor,
clergy and lay people. In his cause for canonization this is
certainly his major claim to glory, the test of his holiness and
the brightest example he left priests throughout the world, of
this century and of the centuries to come (ibid.).
He told his confreres in confidence:
"Souls are not given as a gift: they are bought.
Don't you know what they cost Jesus? They must be paid for with
the same coin" (ibid.).
The man who knew suffering
3. Referring to his entry into the
Order of Capuchin Franciscans in November 1922, he wrote: "O
God ... from that moment you entrusted a very important
mission to your son. A mission known to you and me alone.... O God
... I hear a voice deep within me saying: sanctify yourself and
sanctify others" (Epistolario, III, p. 1010).
Sanctifying is not only meant in the moral, but also in the
sacrificial sense, for the sanctification and salvation of souls.
He was aware he had been chosen by God as
a collaborator in the redemptive work of Christ, through love and
Crucified with Christ, it was no longer
he who lived, but Christ who lived in him, as with the Apostle
Paul (cf. Gal 2,19). Padre Pio chose the Cross, convinced that his
whole life, like that of his Master, would be "a
martyrdom". In June 1913, he wrote to Fr Benedetto, his
spiritual director: "The Lord shows me, as in a mirror,
that my whole future will be nothing but martyrdom" (Epistolario,
I, p. 368).
However, this clear vision of his
uncertain and tormented future neither troubled nor discouraged
him. Indeed, in the depths of his soul he rejoiced in having been
called to cooperate in the salvation of souls through suffering,
which draws value and effectiveness from real participation in the
Cross of Jesus (Epistolario, I, p. 303).
Consequently, Padre Pio willingly and
joyfully accepted from the Lord all the suffering of body and soul
he experienced and heard God's voice in his heart calling him more
and more insistently to sacrifice and to immolate himself for his
brethren (cf. Epistolario, I, p. 328f.).
Most people are probably unaware of this
aspect. Other things about Padre Pio are emphasized which
are easier to understand and accept, but if the reality of the
Cross were removed from Padre Pio's life and spirituality, he
would be emptied of holiness. The Cross for him was not a
single episode but a whole outlook on life, for he lived his
entire life in the shadow of the Cross for the glory of God, his
personal sanctification and the salvation of his brethren. He
learned entirely and always at the school of Christ the Master,
who freely and lovingly accepted the Father's will: "Sacrifices
and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared
for me.... Then I said, 'Lo I have come to do your will, O God"'
The two most important biographies of
Padre Pio (by Fr Fernando da Riese Pio X, Padre Pio da
Pietrelcina, Crocifisso senza croce, San Giovanni Rotondo
1974; Alessandro da Ripabottoni, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina il
Cireneo di tutti, San Giovanni Rotondo 1994)
have as subtitles respectively "Crocifisso senza croce"
and "il Cireneo di tutti" (Crucified without the
Cross; The Cyrenian for Everyone): two emphases intended to
highlight the essential aspect of his spirituality. Indeed,
after the example of Christ, Padre Pio lived as one crucified from
1910 to 1968, carrying both his cross and the cross of the
suffering human beings who turned to him.
In March 1948, the Padre wrote to a
Discalced Carmelite: "One day, when we are granted
to see the full noon-day light, we will recognize and value, how
great is the treasure, that we earned from our earthly sufferings
for the homeland that will have no end. From generous souls and
from those in love, God expects acts of heroism and fidelity so
that, after the ascent of Calvary, they may reach Mount
These words sum up the thrust of a
spiritual programme centred on the mystery of the Passion and
Death of Jesus and learned from him as he taught them
"at the school of suffering" (Fr Gerardo di Flumeri,
Epist. II, p. 453) "of sacrifice" (Epist.
III, p. 106), and "of the cross, through
which alone our souls can be made holy", as is
explained time and again in the Epistolario.
Padre Pio was able to demonstrate
his unmistakeable gifts as a true spiritual teacher; he succeeded
in forming "generous souls in love with God",
nourished by the wisdom of the Cross and whom he bound to follow
the teachings of this "school" by his example and
Perhaps in no other area of his ascetical
and mystical teaching did he reach such lofty heights. According
to Melchiorre da Pobladura (Alla scuola spirituale di Padre Pio
da Pietrelcina, San Giovanni Rotondo, 1978), this special and
most characteristic aspect of
his has three dimensions: the
spirituality of the cross; the content of the cross; and the
methodology he used in forming and guiding the souls entrusted to
The spirituality of the cross
4. The doctrine of suffering that
purifies and the theology of pain that saves is the basic theme of
Bl. Padre Pio's teaching in spiritual direction and also
constitutes his personal commitment in the ascetical path toward
holiness. He lived and proposed this programme because it is
rooted in the Gospel and reflected in Christ's life and doctrine.
Padre Pio's exterior stigmata make a deep
impression on the superficial observer. However, they are not
important from the theological viewpoint of their clinical aspect
but rather for what they demonstrate: his total transfiguration to
the crucified and risen Christ. These visible wounds are a
manifestation of what St Gregory of Nyssa calls "spiritual
wounds", which procure an agonizing love that assimilates him
to the beloved. Padre Pio's experience was exalating even if
tragic (Epist. I, pp. 300, 522...).
The Cross, whatever name people may give
it, whatever painful aspect it manifests, has a central place in
the life of Christians. The man with the stigmata from Gargano
understood it, lived it and proposed it. He did not offer a
scientifically worked-out programme but he had crystal clear ideas
on God's saving plan, that developed round the Cross of Christ the
Redeemer. He deeply penetrated the riches of the mystery of the
cross, "folly to those who are perishing, but to us who
are being saved it is the power of God" (I Cor 1, 18).
It was enough for him to contemplate the
Cross, the way of life of Jesus, the incarnate Word and the
crucified One, and make his message of salvation alive and active.
For him, Jesus' Passion and Death were a historical and
existential event. The straight-forward task of Christians
seriously committed to achieving holiness is simply to accept that
message, to put it into practice, to have a vital encounter with
the crucified Christ without a lot of comment.
The content of this spirituality
5. In the present economy of grace and of
salvation, the Cross was the means God chose to reconcile humanity
with God the Father.
The Cross is not merely one episode in
the earthly life of the incarnate Word, but an integral part of
the mystery of the Incarnation. The cross, Christ proposed to and
imposed on his followers, is not a mere condition for following
him, but the most genuine expression of belonging to his kingdom.
We are truly Christian only to the extent that we accept the Cross
as the fundamental option of life.
When someone takes up his own cross, he
becomes a witness of salvation among his brothers and sisters so
that others may also share in this salvation, of which he is both
the object and subject. With this free and generous choice,
Christians become mediators and co-redeemers of their neighbour,
under the influence of Christ, and dependent on him who will
always be the one mediator and redeemer of humanity (cf. I Tm
Jesus freely gave his life for all as the
supreme and indisputable proof of his love for human beings, the
most precious and highly esteemed gift that a man can make. Since
his sacrifice, deeply religious Christians have intuited what
divine love means through contemplation of the Cross under the
influence of the Holy Spirit. This reality informs their spiritual
life. The Cross became and becomes a magnetic pole and a centre of
"By this we know love, that he
laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for
the brethren" (I Jn 3,16). Clearly, Padre Pio accepted
this invitation, with all its consequences, and became an apostle
and teacher of this message of crucified love.
Padre Pio confided to his friend Fr
Agostino: "When Jesus wants me to know that he loves me,
he lets me feel in his Passion, his wounds, the thorns, the
anguish.... When he wants me to rejoice, he fills my heart with
that spirit that is all fire, speaks to me of his delight ...
Jesus, the man of sorrows, would like all Christians to imitate
him.... By comparison my poor suffering is worth nothing, yet it
pleases Jesus, because on earth he loved it so much" ...
(Epist. I, pp. 335-336).
It is true that today people cannot
understand how a God who is said to be good and a father can
permit such suffering, especially among the innocent. There is
everywhere a noticeable lack of the spiritual sensitivity required
to understand how necessary it is to make reparation and
The mystery of the Cross in the
Christian's life as well as in Christ's is of central transcendent
and irreplaceable importance. The disciple cannot take any other
way than the one pointed out by the Master, nor can he accept any
other norm of life than the one the Master proclaimed. Christ, the
Master, knew well that his norm would not be easy and would not
give rise to enthusiasm. Yet he proclaims it categorically, with
vigour, "If any man would come after me, let him deny
himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt
The reasons for taking up one's own cross
and for teaching others how to accept theirs
6. First of all, for every person who
sincerely wants to seek God in following Christ, the way of the
cross is the only way to take. There are no other paths that lead
to holiness and salvation. The Cross becomes the identity card of
the Christian, the seal of his authenticity and his
"standard" (Epist. II, p. 175).
The Cross is the one way to salvation for
all; all who are called to a deeper and more perfect realization
of Christ's mysteries must follow it to the very end.
This is what the Gospel teaches,
according to the Blessed of Pietrelcina. "The grain of
wheat does not bear fruit unless it is deposited and germinates;
likewise souls need the trial of suffering in order to emerge from
it purified" (Epist. II, p. 442).
The second reason why we must
embrace the Cross is because Christ always carried the burden of
the Cross and no one will ever be worthy of him unless he follows
him and shares in his suffering. Living with Christ on the Cross
is the most sublime ideal of every Christian. No one can climb
alone. Christ always walks before us carrying his Cross and ours,
and guiding our footsteps that often falter. Jesus will never
abandon anyone who, through love of him, walks on bearing the
weight of his cross, and the troubled will always find in this
consoling thought the strength to persevere.
Padre Pio wrote: "Jesus is always
with you, even when it seems to you that you cannot feel
his presence. He is never so close to you as in spiritual
struggles. He is always there, close to you, encouraging you to
fight the good fight; he is there to ward off the enemies' blows
so that they do not harm you" (Epist. II, p. 156).
Lastly, it should be noted that being a
victim, in traditional ascetic language, means giving oneself over
totally to be habitually sacrificed for love of the Lord. It
presupposes a complete and definitive renunciation of all that
could in any way impede the divine will. It means being able to
say at every moment "I always do what is pleasing to
him" (Jn 8,29).
This is the experience of Padre Pio:
"Daughter, know that I am stretched out on my bed of pain,
I have ascended to the altar of burnt offerings and await the fire
from on high so that the victim may soon be consumed. When
you pray, make the urgent request that the devouring flames
come swiftly'' (Epist. III, p. 738).
To offer ourselves as victims for the
salvation of souls is what Christ himself desired, not because he
needs us human creatures but because in his eternal designs he
preferred to make use of the members of his Mystical Body to bring
about the plan of redemption.
Saint Pio encouraged souls to live this
mystery and thus to complete what was lacking in
Christ's sufferings for the sake of the Church (Col 1,
The Way of the Cross, the way of
grace is granted to those who are called to fulfil more intimately
the ideal of perfection. Those who are called to set out on this
path must be convinced that God has lovingly chosen them to walk
on a way that is humanly so arduous and so unappealing, as Padre
Pio never fails to point out.
In his teaching, the Blessed Capuchin
made no attempt to conceal or play down the difficulties of the
way he had chosen. He well knew the fears, the endless hours of a
struggle which the risk of defeat made all the more dangerous. He
therefore strove to make others aware of the fruits of suffering
accepted and shared with Christ, obeying St Paul, "Take your
share in the suffering like a good soldier of Jesus Christ"
(cf. II Tm 2,3).
Our Blessed found clear, pure formulas,
words accessible to all, convincing tones to help others persevere
on the difficult climb to Calvary to be united with Christ for
ever in the glory of Tabor.
Padre Pio knew and repeated that
suffering in itself is not desirable, and that human nature
instinctively shuns it as alien to happiness. Christians will
strive to meet it for theological and supernatural reasons. He
sought to make suffering souls understand all this.
Our Blessed often used the image of Simon
of Cyrene carrying the Cross of Jesus. He encouraged people to
persevere on the painful way of purification and trial, offering
himself to be their Cyrene, to carry the Cross with them, indeed
to replace them, taking their suffering on himself and leaving
them all the merit. In fact, his crucified life taught him to
become the Cyrenian of all the crucified.
In Forgione's spirituality, suffering is
not a punishment, but the most delicate love on God's part. What
often makes moral suffering more acute, is the subtle temptation
that convinces people that their sufferings are a punishment
inflicted on them by God for their infidelities, and therefore a
reproach for the bad state of their consciences for having strayed
from the straight and narrow path of salvation and sanctification.
In these cases, it is the spiritual director's task to make them
understand that the state they are going through is neither a
punishment for failings or infidelities, nor an expiation for
their unconscious sins, nor the revenge of divine justice. On the
contrary: it is a trial of special love for privileged souls
chosen to share in the sorrowful mysteries of the Redeemer.
In 1918, Padre Pio remarked in a letter
to Erminia Gargani: "Keep calm and be certain that these
shadows and sufferings of yours are not a punishment brought on by
your transgression ... ; you are one of the many chosen souls who
are tried like gold in the furnace. This is the truth, and were I
to say otherwise, I would lack in sincerity and do harm to the
truth" (Epist. III, p. 716).
He also urged Assunta Di Tommaso: "This
state is not a punishment, but love and a most refined love.
Therefore bless the Lord and resign yourself to drinking the cup
of Gethsemane" (Epist III, p. 441). The encouragement
that Padre Pio gives Maria Gargani is likewise encouraging: "Do
not fear, because the One who is keeping you nailed to the Cross
loves you and is breathing into you the strength to bear the
unbearable martyrdom and the love to love divine Love in
bitterness" (Epist. III, p. 333). "Have great
confidence in his mercy and kindness, for he will never abandon
you; but this must not prevent you from closely embracing his
Cross" (Epist. III, p. 935).
What has been said can bring us closer to
Padre Pio as the man of the Cross. Bl. Padre Pio's important
message, more than ever, introduces us to this needed feature: a
theology of the Cross, enlightened by the glory of the
Resurrection, without which Christianity would have no foundation.
The forthcoming canonization of Bl. Padre Pio, will certainly spur
us to strengthen our roots as disciples of the crucified and risen
Lord. I am pleased to make my own, the epigraph that Vittorio
Messori chose to sum up the biography of another blessed but which
is equally applicable to Padre Pio. It is from Evagrius Ponticus
and says "A theory can be countered with another theory.
But who can ever confute a whole life?".
A hundred and fifteen years have passed
since 25 May 1887, the day when Francesco Forgione was born in
Pietrelcina, where, to comply with Crispi's decree, throughout the
Kingdom of Italy, all crucifixes were to be removed, even from
schools. The child, Padre Pio, born that very year, was one day to
become a living crucifix (R. Camilleri, P. Pio, Piemme, p.
6). Even more effectively as a saint, he will never let the Cross
be taken down not just from the walls, but from the hearts in
which it has been planted to bring salvation, to the point of
becoming even a boast: "Far be it from me to glory except
in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6,14).