The Secret of Padre Pio
A Conversation between
Father Nicholas Gruner and James Demers
Padre Pio has been called "The Living Crucifix" because of the wounds in his hands and feet and in his side. But The Imitation of Christ that was Padre Pio was of course first of all in his heart and soul and mind before it was in his hands, his feet and his side.
It is easy to imagine that the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, attributed to Thomas a Kempis, was as well known to Padre Pio as was his own rosary. So reflective of the character of Padre Pio are the sayings of the four books of The Imitation that it is hard to separate the words from Padre Pio's visage. One can almost hear him sigh these words, words sometimes glorious, sometimes homey, but always steeped in common sense. He might have uttered them when preparing to enter the confessional, or giving advice to penitents, or vesting to say Mass. One can easily imagine the useful reminders and the suggestions dancing like feathers of light in the purity of his soul when, during the Sacrifice of the Mass, he was totally lost to the sensible world.
Time and again those who consider themselves spiritual children of Padre Pio comment on his immediacy, how he is instantly at their side when his name is called in times of distress. In The Imitation of Christ, that immediacy is put to the test and passes with radiant colors. Padre Pio might just as well be reading the words aloud to you, or better yet, reading them softly in the deepest reaches of your heart.
The Approach To This 'Living Crucifix'
Since you already have this article in your hand and have read it thus far means clearly, you already have an open heart. That is all you need to approach Padre Pio.
It might help if you knew the biographical details of his life but you will not find them here. They have been amply dealt with in the myriad volumes of the publishing industry that grew up because of this man.
Nor will you be overwhelmed with superlatives about his humanity, his spiritual ascent, his service to the Church, the priesthood and his fellow man. Padre Pio shuddered at superlatives and seldom used them when referring to mere mortals. He saved his praises for the Love of his life.
The Secret of Padre Pio, rather, has to do with being Catholic. In this age of false rhetoric when, under the guise of ecumenism, political agendas are distorting Christianity out of any semblance to the treasure that issued from the Side Wound of the Messiah, it is important to recall that Padre Pio would have considered it madness to be anything but Catholic. Roman Catholic!
Neither is this article about being Catholic in the political sense. It is not even about the Church. It is about the individual Catholic soul. That is the source of the inescapable magnetism that is Padre Pio. His immortal soul was the theater in which was waged the battle to win Heaven. His immortal message was that nothing matters but winning that battle. He won his with purely Catholic weapons. They will appear recognizable to you here, not only from the excerpts of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis which dot the article, but from Padre Pio's own words.
That Padre Pio's words are Catholic through and through becomes apparent when one notes that his words, phrases, sentences, sometimes short paragraphs, even when taken out of context, stand entirely complete, needing no reference to anything before or after to add even one iota of clarity, meaning or nuance. This, again, is proof of the immediacy of his character that is so often referred to by those who find him part of their life.
Sending Your Guardian Angel On An Errand
Finding Padre Pio part of one's life takes so little effort it is no wonder his spiritual children encompass every race on earth and circle the globe. You simply send your guardian angel to get him and he comes right away. It is that simple.
It requires no small leap of daring to include one's own words, page by page between excerpts from The Imitation of Christ and quotes from Padre Pio. But just as Padre Pio dared to surrender daily to the Love of his life for the good of his own soul, so too he demanded of his friends and the penitents that lined up by the thousands, year in and year out to reach his confessional, that they too seek the Immortal Lover of souls with all their hearts.
In the following interview, Father Nicholas Gruner, no stranger to the need to be daring, who knew Padre Pio personally and lived at San Giovanni Rotondo for the last six months of Padre Pio's life, responds to questions about Padre Pio based on The Imitation of Christ, divided into four parts named for the four parts of The Imitation of Christ.
And so we dare to turn the page and enter a world totally Catholic, totally personal and totally accessible to even the most fainthearted.
The Secret of Padre Pio
Part 1: Useful Reminders
(Earlier this year James Demers talked with Father Gruner before Father Gruner left for Padre Pio's beatification in Rome, May 2.)
J.D: You knew Padre Pio, you met him, lived at San Giovanni Rotondo for six months and worked with him.
F.G: I met Padre Pio for the first time in 1965. I had just graduated from McGill University the year before and had been in Europe since November of 1964. In May of 1965, I was in Italy and I heard about Padre Pio from some Franciscan Nuns when I was in Assisi. So I made up my mind to go and see him. I had heard that his Masses were three hours long so, myself, not known for getting up early in the morning as my friends can attest, I didn't think I'd be there for the beginning of his Mass. But I determined to be there for the middle of it.
I got there about 7:30, but his Mass was long over. He always says his Mass at 5 o'clock. By 1965 he was under obedience to say his Mass in half an hour.
I didn't speak much Italian but someone hearing I had come a long way led me up the back stairway and introduced me to him. He tapped me on the head, (a sign of approval or affection). That was my first meeting with Padre Pio. Three years later I went back.
J.D: Did he at that time already have the reputation for being a miracle worker? And the reputation for bilocation?
F.G: Oh yes! He certainly had the reputation for miracles, bilocation, prophecy. Most extraordinary things. I witnessed some of them and I've talked to people who were witnesses to them.
He already had these gifts back in 1918, when the gift of the stigmata, which he had received invisibly in 1915, became visible on the 20th of September, 1918. It remained visible for the rest of his life.
I attended his last Mass on September 22, 1968, along with thousands of other pilgrims. The only time you could see his wounds was when he said Mass because to do so he took his half-gloves off. I was standing near a pillar close to the front and could see one of the wounds, the one visible in his left hand.
J.D: Aside from the fact that the stigmata was visible to you, was there more? Was there a feeling that you were in the presence of someone special?
F.G: Padre Pio had a gift of perfume, that is, he could send you a fragrance. For example, we are in this radio studio, there are no flowers here, and the doors are closed. Unless someone had wanted to play a trick on us and mischievously sprayed something through a crack under the door, there is no way you could get a fragrance into this room. You could be minding your own business, not even thinking about Padre Pio, and all of a sudden you would get this whiff of perfume. There are no flowers around, nobody walking by with perfume on, you get it all by yourself.
I remember being in San Giovanni, the town where Padre Pio lived the last fifty-plus years of his life. I was with an Irishman who was rather poor. I wasn't that much richer, but I had more money than he did so I invited him out for dinner. He ordered wine, which I didn't, and he went to pour some into my glass, which I turned down. At that time, I had made a promise not to have wine for a week.
He offered me some two or three times but I said no.
So he said "If I even poured you a glass you wouldn't drink it, would you?"
I said "No."
At that moment I got this whiff of perfume, the fragrance of roses, which was one of Padre Pio's better known perfumes. He had over 200 but 5 were most commonly known. It was understood that when he sent you a perfume of roses, he approved of what you were doing.
St. Francis of Assisi had the visible stigmata. St. Catherine of Siena had the invisible stigmata. Padre Pio had the gift of bilocation. Other saints have had the gift of bilocation. He had the gift of reading of hearts. He could tell a person what their sins were even if they were trying to hide them from him. He had the gift of miracles, he worked many miracles in his lifetime.
One man came to him who was blind and Padre Pio said to him, "I could cure you, but if I cured you, you would end up sinning by your eyes and go to hell. Would you like me to still cure you?" The man said. "No."
There's a person in the United States who was left blinded in both eyes by an exploding tire. He also lost his sense of smell. Padre Pio restored his sense of smell. The nerve is still cut to this day, yet he can smell anything anyone else can, it is a miracle because the nerves are not connected. It is not by natural means, but he can smell.
A girl in Sicily was born without pupils and her mother brought her to Padre Pio when she was four or five years old. Padre Pio prayed for her and she was able to see. That's miraculous enough but the fact is she still does not have pupils. She is not only cured, she can see without the benefit of pupils.
I think God works miracles in this way in order to confound our proud age which believe they have all the answers and that science, human scientific knowledge, is the highest power. Well He is obviously much more powerful than science — the science of the Saints is higher knowledge and more powerful. These are just a few of his many miracles. There are hundreds of books written about Padre Pio, a number of them are in English. One of the most famous in the English language is Padre Pio the Stigmatist written by Fathers Rumble and Carty in the 1940's. It is 300 pages of incidents and recounting of different things in his life, many of which are miracles, giving names, dates and addresses.
He would cry at Mass and when asked why, he answered:
"What are a few tears that I shed compared to God giving up His life and dying on the cross for our sake?"
His tears, when dried on a handkerchief would smell like violets. For many people violets symbolize tears of Padre Pio.
An odor of carbolic was pleasant but he was telling you to do penance. He also had the perfume of fresh-cut tobacco, that was a gift of showing his presence.
One gentleman from Ireland, an agnostic, went to church and noticed a perfume reminding him of his uncle who had died in the odor of sanctity. He realized this odor was being sent to him by Padre Pio. He asked Padre Pio, who was not visibly present "How many perfumes do you have?" Over the next half-hour he counted over 200 perfumes, one after the other. He finally lost count and the perfumes stopped coming.
While I was working in Italy, I would spend from 2 to 5 days a week in Padre Pio's town. I remember meeting an American airman, in 1968, he had gotten into an argument with a Baptist or some Protestant group and they proved to him there was no purgatory. He knew this was against the Faith so he went to Padre Pio. He needed an answer to this but he didn't want the experience of Padre Pio sending a perfume to him. I met him again several months later and he had no problem believing in purgatory by then. He told me that one day he had been alone in the pensione where he was staying and he got the odor of perfume. Previous to that day he had thought he would freak out if this happened to him but he obviously survived the experience. Padre Pio had given him his answer in a way he didn't want. Padre Pio had a sense of humor, as you mentioned.
Mary Pyle was an American woman. She died in April, two months after I met her. She had been in San Giovanni since 1920. She had been quite wealthy. She built her house in San Giovanni to be near Padre Pio. She had a servant and she fed the poor, among other things, out of the goodness of her heart. She would serve the poor at all hours and her cook complained. Mary Pyle thought the cook should be willing for love of the poor, to be willing to serve them at all hours. The cook thought Mary Pyle was unreasonable. They appealed to Padre Pio and he ruled in favor of the cook. He said it was not fair to have her work all the time, she needed her rest. She also said at one time her cook was baking a cake and Padre Pio came into the room through bilocation and said that it would be better if you put the eggs in first. The cook reversed the order and it really worked, it was better.
Mary Pyle acted as hostess when Padre Pio's mother and father came to die in San Giovanni. Her one request was that she die before Padre Pio.
Mary Pyle's sister, who didn't speak a word of Italian, was in San Giovanni during the Second World War and went to Padre Pio for confession. Padre Pio did not speak English yet they understood each other, even though they both spoke in their own languages.
Some of the most famous stories are about Padre Pio and soldiers, particularly fliers. An Italian flier who jumped out of his plane because he was fired at and his plane was going down, was unable to get his parachute to open. The next thing he knew he was being let down gently by a friar. He recognized him as Padre Pio. The man went to Padre Pio to thank him for saving his life.
"Just this one?" asked Padre Pio, "What about the time your plane hit the mountain and you also bailed out safely? But don't thank me, thank your mother, it was her prayers that saved you." The man hadn't realized Padre Pio had saved his life that first time.
Late in the war after the American forces took over in southern Italy, they took over an Air Force base about 40 kilometers from San Giovanni. They were using that base to fly bombing missions over Yugoslavia. At the beginning of the war, Padre Pio told the people of San Giovanni no bombs would ever fall on the city of San Giovanni Rotondo. He promised them that.
The colonel had given strict orders to the Americans that they must never return to the base with any bombs on board. The reason for that was if they crash landed they would blow up the base. He warned he would court-martial anyone who disobeyed this order. One pilot in particular told his friend Alphonse D'Ortega, whom I met in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1968, and who worked on that same base, that as he was flying back he realized he was ten minutes from the base and he had a bomb still on board. He went to drop the bomb but before he could do so he saw a cloud coming towards him in the form of a man speaking English saying "Don't do it." Orders are orders, cloud or no cloud, English or no English, he went to drop the bomb. It jammed, he was unable to drop the bomb. He had no choice, he was out of fuel, he landed with the bomb on board. When the colonel heard the man came back with a bomb on board he was livid. He wanted to punish his disobedience by court-martialing him. When he heard the pilot's explanation he felt the pilot had been flying too long and needed a rest. It happened so frequently on that base that the story was heard by a nine-year-old busboy in the mess who said "Oh, that sounds like Padre Pio."
When D'Ortega heard the little boy say this, he knew the Protestant pilot who had this experience.
He asked him to go see what was there. They both went to the church before the 5 o'clock Mass and the pilot who had never been inside a Catholic church before saw the man he had seen in the clouds. It was Padre Pio coming out for Mass. This story was recounted in a secular book called The Italians. There were hundreds of miracles that Padre Pio worked. These are just some of the more dramatic.
J.D: There were instances also of multiple bilocations. He was asked how could that possibly be, to be in multiple places at one time. He explained it by saying it was an extension of personality we can't understand yet. That was as far as he went in trying to explain it.
F.G: Apparently the friars had a debate amongst themselves, he was in the room but not in the discussion. They were discussing whether a person who is in bilocation is conscious of his being in the second place or not. One half said he could not be aware of where he is, the others said he was. After a lengthy discussion, Padre Pio, who wasn't a participant said "He knows."
J.D:The description is often used about him, that he was 'a living crucifix', because of the stigmata in his hands and feet. But one can almost say that his biography can easily be found in the words of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
The first meditation in The Imitation of Christ seems to actually open the door on his character. I felt very close to him when I read this. The first meditation, in the section called Useful Reminders reduced to just one line, reads:
"This is the highest wisdom, to see the world as it truly is, fallen and fleeting. To love the world not for its own sake but for God and to direct all your efforts toward achieving the kingdom of Heaven."
One of the things that Padre Pio is quoted as saying in his later years:
"Theologians can make mistakes and expose themselves to ridicule. The severity of the Church is always necessary in order to clarify our ideas, even when we find it tiresome. With time, you too will understand this. Without severity there would only be chaos."
I think he was relating this to Vatican II. Would you say this relates to the situation in the Church today.
F.G: His phrase "without severity" refers to the Church insisting upon the truth, even if there is a pain involved. For example, Padre Pio endorsed the Encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, about ten days before his own death. The letter he wrote to the Pope has been published. Pope Paul certainly knew of Padre Pio and his opinion of the encyclical was asked before it was published. Padre Pio's response was:
"Publish it right away, publish it as it is."
Many people consider Humanae Vitae severe. But all Paul VI was doing was reiterating Catholic truth.
The point is: if we don't live by truth, we become a slave of either somebody who is telling us a lie, or we become a slave of our own vices. Without that severity of the truth, of course there will only be chaos.
J.D: Padre Pio's follow-up comment to that was:
"There are many reasons for loving the Church, but in my opinion the mere fact that there is severity down through the centuries has kept intact, for us, at least in substance, the word of God and the Eucharist, ought to be sufficient to make us love her more than a mother."
A Unique Sense of Irony
J.D: Padre Pio had a very particular slant on authority figures. This is something you, Father Gruner, can relate to very well.
The fifth meditation from The Imitation of Christ, says "God speaks to us in many ways without considering a person's status."
Padre Pio says:
"Well, well, how the world has changed since I was young! In those days the police were to be found at the heels of thieves and robbers, now they go before them on motorcycles to clear the way."
In the comment that he is making here, he is talking specifically about politicians, but you also know all about those.
F.G: Of course he was referring to politicians. Consider that in North America the police are protecting abortionists and murderers. So the world certainly has changed from the time Padre Pio was growing up. And not for the better, obviously.
At the same time, Our Lord says about people of status, the Pharisees and Sadducees, that they are sitting in the Chair of Moses and when they teach you what Moses teaches you, follow them. But don't follow their actual example because they do not do what Moses taught them to do.
We should not follow the example of people of status in high places that are living hypocritical lives. But at the same time, if they are exercising their legitimate authority, Our Lord expects us to obey them.
J.D: Meditation 14, from The Imitation of Christ, is a lovely meditation which I think sort of intersects with your own life and Padre Pio's.
"Differences of thought and opinion lead to more than enough bickering among friends and neighbors, among religious, and developed people."
This echoes of Padre Pio, who said to certain people who overwhelmed him with attention:
"There are no saints of any kind here so go and find those saints whom you are looking for in some other town. I am disgusted by certain things, especially if they are carried out in public. But if we were alone and I had a ton of water at my disposition I would throw it over you with the strength of a fireman so as to refresh your brain and make you feel lighter."
Padre Pio was trying to say to people, you are overwhelming me with all of your attention, you are overwhelming me with all the minutiae of your concerns and all that. Above all things, I am a human being and I need to be left alone for a little bit.
Sometimes you, Father Gruner, must feel equally swamped. You, too are in demand at conferences all the time, on the move all the time, and are often confronted by people with many varied concerns. How do you deal with it?
F.G: There is a vast difference in the people who were around Padre Pio and those around myself, in the sense that, as Padre Pio said one time, "When you give people God they will eat you up."
He gave God to millions of people. My work is simply, but importantly, repeating what Our Lady of Fatima said. Unfortunately it is not being repeated by enough people. That's why, I think, I am in demand as much as I am. As for the people surrounding Padre Pio, they knew they were dealing with a saint. It's nice to have the people appreciate you and it's also nice to have time to yourself so that you can talk to God and get to know yourself a little better.
Toward The Inner Life
J.D: There is so much conflict following up on this very point in the hearts of Catholics who grew up believing that their role as a Catholic was one of obedience within the Church. Today we are being sold a bill of goods that demand we be obedient to all the rules coming out of the Vatican regarding Fatima. Yet everybody feels instinctively there is something wrong with them.
People are using the term 'false obedience' to describe what is being demanded and standing back, looking very carefully at the whole issue of the pro-Fatima and anti-Fatima conflict within the Church and they are so often misrepresented by the so-called experts as being ill-informed. The faithful loyal to Fatima are maintaining Fatima's whole message with a lot of personal strength. It is reminiscent of Meditation 3 of Part II of The Imitation of Christ, entitled Toward The Inner Life:
"A person who is at peace with himself does more good than someone who is learned."
Padre Pio made a comment about obedience that is really beautiful.
"Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue, there is no good; where there is no good, there is no love; where there is no love, there is no God; and where there is no God, there is no paradise."
That, of course, is why we are afraid to disobey. That is why we are afraid to challenge obedience. Unfortunately, it is used against us by those whose aim is to beat down the pious, is to invert the meaning of the call to piety. It seems an overwhelming juggernaut out of Rome is bent on forcing us to do things we know are wrong.
F.G: The answer to that comes from the mouth of the first Pope, St. Peter. He says: "We must obey God rather than men."
St. Peter said this to the Sanhedrin when they were ordering him not to preach in the name of Jesus Christ. He said he would not obey them. So they scourged him, along with St. John.
When God commands Peter and John and the Apostles to preach in Christ's name, no man can tell them not to. When Our Lord says to us, in the Message of Fatima, "Make it known to My ministers ..." He isn't giving authority to His ministers to silence His message.
Fatima is a prophecy. Scripture tells us we must not despise prophecy. In 1 Thess. 5:19-22, the Holy Spirit, writing through the pen of St. Paul says:
"Do not extinguish the spirit,
do not despise prophecy.
But test all things and hold fast
to that which is good."
The prophetic Message of Fatima has been tested by the Catholic Church, by the hierarchy, and they have found it to be good. So, according to the injunction of Scripture, we must hold fast to it. We must obey. We must obey God rather than men. That is the answer.
J.D: Since Vatican II there seems to be this stratosphere of the learned, or the elite, who have appointed themselves as the watchdogs of the Church. It seems that for 30 years now they have been in direct opposition to the humble Catholic who just wants to practice his faith and live his life day by day while all of these self-appointed elite are distorting the Church out of all recognition to anything we've seen.
In The Imitation of Christ this one lovely line in Meditation 5, Part II, simply says: "A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly."
Padre Pio had a scathing sense of humor, and also of what was allowed, and what was not allowed inside religious life.
You Father Gruner have a reputation and a public profile of one who has withstood a lot of what those outside religious life would think is very unusual behavior on the part of certain members of the clergy. Certainly, the Catholic Church has had a very bad time for the past twenty years with scandals and misbehavior by clergy all over the world. You're known for having no patience with people who put themselves ahead of the laws of the Church, but what would you say now to Catholics who need comfort more than ever before because we're facing another tidal wave of scandals? Rome is beginning to make less and less sense to people. Even though the beautiful Latin Mass is coming back across the country in greater numbers, there is still a constant concerted effort on the part of bishops to make sure the Latin Mass is always said in the ghettoized areas of the city. Where we comprise an underground Church, the authorities seek to sow a sense of demoralization, a sense of depression. What does Fatima say to Catholics on how to pick themselves up?
F.G: First of all, we have the promise of Our Lady. She says:
"In the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph ..."In the first line, "In the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to Me. Russia will be converted and a period of peace given to mankind."
Our Lady is telling us that there will be a battle and it will be a hard battle. The winners are already known, it will be Our Lady and with Her, those who are on Her side. We have that promise in Genesis 3:15, that She will crush the serpent's head.
Our Lord says:
"I have overcome the world."
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