"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 Shrine of the Holy Face at Manoppello 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.

“WITH MY BODY OR WITHOUT IT”

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.

The 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).

PART II: A FACE ON MY WALL

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.

It 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).

Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-Stigmatized-Padre-Pio-2

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Fr. Gordon J. MacRae says:

    From John: Father Gordon, Thank you for including me in your writing about one of my special Saints, Padre Pio. I waited until this day of anniversaries September 23 to reply. You were remembered at Mass today when I prayed “Stay with me Lord…” and every day. Christopher with his “new heart” , began college this month.
    “PRAY, HOPE and DON’T WORRY” – Padre Pio.

  2. Fr. Gordon J. MacRae says:

    From Gemma: Dear Father,

    Thank you so much for yet another great message.
    I feel the same deep emotions as those expressed so well in all the earlier blogs. I sit here reflecting on your daily life in prison day after day, month after month, year after year and I shudder with horror in total disbelief.
    I, too, pray for you.
    Time drags so slowly in time of trial but we also know that this ,too. will pass and that there’s an enormous, golden and sparkling ”cell” with your number and dear Pornchai’s,as well, ready and waiting for you both up above. In the meantime may this be of some measure comforting and strengthening for you both as you await your freedom.
    I have a nephew who is a guard at the Grand Cash Federal penitentiary in Alberta. I always remind him to be fair and caring toward his brother inmates that he must deal with in carrying out his duty.
    Love and prayers , Gemma

  3. Fr. Gordon J. MacRae says:

    From Jeannie: Hi Father Gordon!
    A wonderful posting!
    I was introduced to his life at a very young age.
    I have since reread his life and it so reminds me of what you have gone through. The ones who are special receive the most trials from the devil. The faith doesn’t waver for truth will always shine through.
    He remains one of my favorite saints as you are one of my favorite candidates for sainthood!
    God love and bless you all. I continue to pray at Mass for you
    each day! Your friend, Jeannie

  4. John R says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. God bless you

  5. John says:

    Hi Fr. Gordon, you are always in my prayers and thoughts. You are the living matriarch in the world. God needs your prayers. Your prayers are powerful. If you pray anything God will listen your words. That is why he put you in the stone walls. Pray for the world. Pray for the Christianity. Pray for peace and life

  6. Mary Elizabeth says:

    I love this Fr. MacRae. I always receive something wonderful when I read your posts. Thank you.

    Padre Pio is always in my thoughts and prayers. He just touches my heart, as do you Fr. MacRae. I have read,in a book by C. Bernard Ruffin, of the many instances when he was abused in so many ways by those who should have been understanding and supportive of him. His humility and obedience in the face of all these instances is inspiring, to the point of leading one to conversion. He was truly a servant of the Lord and he blessed those who treated him badly. He teaches me so much about what it means to love and to suffer for Christ, along with Him. I ask him for his intercession daily, for myself and for all those I love,and for many others.

    How good God is to allow us to know how close He really is to us. In thinking about Padre Pio’s reaction to those who inquired about his bilocations, I can see that it was not he, but Christ who used his body, to intervene in many circumstances. Padre Pio was a willing and humble servant; one of the most willing I have ever heard of, to be sure. How I wish I could yearn for the humility to suffer willingly for Christ. Maybe in time I will. There is always hope.

    God bless you Fr. MacRae. You have your own brand of humility, as you sit on your cement stump and type on an old typewriter so that you many communicate with us. We just don’t know how difficult living like this really is, but I do know that Christ has given you the grace necessary, for today. I do keep you in my prayers, dear Fr., and as always, you continue to bless cyberspace with your poignant messages.

    Padre Pio, pray for us!

  7. Judy Stefencavage says:

    Dear Father
    this is beautiful, I especially love the excerpt from St. Pio’s prayer after Communion; I just may adopt it for my after Communion prayer.
    I, also keep you in my prayers. Almost weekly we read of another injustice done to a priest, the latest being dear Father Benedict Groeschel. Though I doubt that Father Groeschel is personally bothered by the whole thing. I can just see him saying something like “Oh, they’ll get over it”!. It only matters what God thinks; not what everyone else thinks. I found that out the hard way after a lifetime of worrying about other’s thoughts of me. God bless you dear Father.

  8. Karin says:

    Thanks for this, Father. I never tire of hearing more about this great saint. I will keep you in my prayers and ask for Padre Pio’s intercession for you this Sunday.
    God bless.

  9. Gérald C. LaJeunesse says:

    Dear Gordon – Next Monday I’m going to Italy with a sister, a brother, and his wife to honour our youngest brother who died a year ago. After he became sick, Gaëtan and I made plans for a visit but his health deteriorated so fast, the trip never materialized. Now that you know the background, and after reading this latest post, also know that every mass that I will preside there, you will be mentionned. It is not bilocation but it is a show of solidarity. — En toute amitié, Gérald, ptre

  10. Edward.Fullerton says:

    Fr Gordon ,I remember you often in my prayers.May you and Porchai and one else you can think of be released soon,IHS.

  11. Gail Ramplen says:

    Hi Father Gordon, You are in my prayers constantly. I am amazed, both surprised and horrified, that the US Justice/Injustice Department is taking so long to set you free. I am sorry to say that your once respected American justice system is becoming a laugh a minute. I wish I could say that my country’s system (South Africa) was any better, but it seems they rush headlong along the same path as that of your own country. Similarly to the abortion racket. Come Lord Jesus! Courage and blessings to you, Dear. God bless.

  12. Domingo says:

    Father G, I pray for the grace of faithfulness to the LORD for you and for all the priests. Pray, as well, that I may remain faithful to Him. The Year of Faith will be soon upon us. May we all be strong and steadfast, through the grace of Our Lord Jesus CHRiST. Amen.

  13. Babs says:

    Gooseflesh seems a poor response to this remarkable post. I have felt near death three times since 2004, and Father’s prayer after Holy Communion has the most familiar, companionable feel…is that odd? I’m now going to copy it by hand in a notebook and will hope to follow some if not all of your links given today, as the week progresses.

    Thank you also, for the Mass and prayers for my late friend Lloyd. This eases my heart. May our Lord reward you in due season for all that you are and all that you do.

    Rejoicing in hope,
    Barbara

  14. Cheralyn says:

    Father MacRae,

    God bless and keep you! Thank you so much for your wonderful writing. I learn so much from reading your posts. We are trying to help you Father MacRae, actually there are quite a few of us trying to help all of our falsely accused Priests. Please hang on, I know its going to be 18 years on Sundsy, I’am so sorry. God willing, all of our Prayers and Prayer in action will be answered soon. May Mother Mary wrap you in her Mantle.

    Yours in Christ,

    Cheralyn

  15. Magnificent! thank you Fatrher!

  16. Michael S. says:

    ……continue in faith and prayer…….you’re in mine every night !!!

Comments that are courteous and on topic are most welcomed. Please note that they are held in moderation. Comments Policy

*