The last days of Padre Pio were shrouded in mysticism and mystery. The wounds he bore for a half century were gone just days before his death on September 23, 1968.
- “The future will reveal what today cannot be read in the life of Padre Pio.” Apostolic Visitor Msgr. Rafaello Carlo Rossi to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, January, 1922.
In my current home in America where I type this, my view of the world is through a small window with five horizontal bars. Beyond the bars is an iron security grate. Beyond the grate is a dirty screen that I very much want to clean but have no way to get to it. Beyond the screen, however, there is still blue sky, and for that I give thanks. I still gaze outward toward the undiscovered country with enduring hope for the land of our dreams and destiny.
On September 23, 2019, I mark a milestone that on its face seems dismal and devoid of all hope. Saying it aloud makes it feel like a dreaded point of no return, but it isn’t. However, it was given voice in a LinkdIn article by Father James Valladares, Ph.D., “A Catholic Priest Twenty-Five Years Wrongly Imprisoned in America.”
The fact that this story happened in America brings with it a dreadful foreboding about justice for Catholic priests in a time of moral panic. America has long been known throughout the world as the land of the free, a land blessed by God. As the patriotic song proclaims, “My country ’tis of Thee, sweet land of liberty, of Thee I sing.”
I still love my country, but I dread its future in the hands of all that limits freedom: its left turns, its victim culture, its embrace of political correctness, identity politics, and moral relativism. This has become a nation that on one hand accommodates the immoral then on the other descends into moral panic.
There comes a point when people deprived of liberty reorganize their priorities. Some no longer even live for themselves and their own goals. It is not an act of the will. One day it just dawns upon a prisoner that the things with which he once found hope and meaning have changed. People rendered powerless no longer pursue power, or wealth, or influence – all the things that are staying here anyway when we leave.
But these are not my only thoughts about September 23. On that same date in 1968, 26 years to the day before my trial ended in a life sentence, Francesco Forgione, known to the world as Padre Pio, was freed from his prison. And yes, his was indeed a prison. For fifty years – exactly fifty years – he bore the wounds of Christ as a sign for the world.
“I AM A MYSTERY TO MY SELF.” – Padre Pio
I possess treasures in prison. They may not be what most people today would call treasures. They’re just simple things that, if lost, could never again be replaced. Not here, anyway. One of my treasures is a strange little card that should never have made its way into this prison, but it did. It arrived one day in the mail despite the fact that cards – even little holy cards – have not been permitted here for several years. It first appeared in my life in September, 2012 after I wrote a post, “‘I am a Mystery to Myself.’ The Last Days of Padre Pio.”
It became a very popular post about how this modern day priestly mystic asserted himself into our lives behind These Stone Walls – both the prison and the blog. After I wrote it, someone – I never learned who – sent a packet of material about Padre Pio to me. Most of the contents were rejected in the prison mail room and returned to the unknown sender without my awareness, but this one item somehow made its way to me.
It’s a small laminated card with an eerie holographic image of Padre Pio on its face. When the card is moved just slightly, the image becomes that of another ally in my spiritual warfare, someone Padre Pio often turned to in prayer, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The card was signed by Pope John Paul II on the occasion of Padre Pio’s canonization on June 16, 2002, a saint canonized by a saint. On its back is a prayer to Saint Pio written by Pope John Paul. It reminds me a lot of my gaze through a grimy cell window:
- “Teach us, we pray you, humility so that we may be among the humble to whom the Father in the Gospel promised to reveal the mysteries of His Kingdom. Teach us the look of faith that will help us recognize the Face of Jesus Himself in the poor and suffering. Support us in our hours of trouble and trial and, should we fall, let us feel the joy of the Sacrament of forgiveness. Teach us tender devotion toward Mary, Mother of Christ and our Mother. Accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage toward our blessed Homeland where we, too, hope to arrive to contemplate eternally the Glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
I kept the strange card out in the open in my cell for several years. I always feared that it might be taken, but it never was. I was consoled by it and it became important to me. It was a steady reminder that the wounds I bear in wrongful imprisonment are not just my own, and any graces they gain are not just for me. The small image of this man of heroic virtue in the most extreme conditions any priest could live with was a constant challenge to me to see that what has happened in my life is not all about me.
And then, suddenly, the treasured little card was gone. It happened three years ago when my friend, Pornchai Moontri and I, along with many others, had to relocate to a place in this prison that houses eight men per cell. I wrote of that move and the downward spiral of change that it brought to our lives in “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.”
It was a long time before I noticed that my holographic Padre Pio was missing. Living in a crowded and chaotic space, I just assumed that I had packed it away with my papers and writings.
But then came a time when I could no longer keep even those. So I searched through everything that I could possibly discard and what little I could keep. The treasured card, however, was nowhere to be found.
A year later we were moved again, this time to a far better place. At first, I was living out in the open in a recreation area for four months, and then Pornchai Moontri. and I once again ended up in the same cell. Moving into the tiny space, I found no sign of my Padre Pio card. I considered it lost forever, and stopped even thinking about it.
THE LAST DAYS OF PADRE PIO
Two years have since passed in this 60-square-foot prison cell shared by two prisoners. You know from some recent posts that trouble and trials were once again upon us. I remember reading some of the letters of Padre Pio, wondering if he was at all conscious of our other very visible Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe. It turned out that in more than one letter Padre Pio recommended to his correspondents that they take up membership in Father Kolbe’s Militia of the Immaculata.
Then one night in the midst of a difficult time in early August this year, I was sitting on my bunk at night reading a book. I have only a small battery powered book light with which to read at night. I read sitting up with my footlocker containing my life’s possessions on the end of the concrete slab where I sleep. Pornchai Moontri had just returned from the traumatic experience I wrote about in “Saint Maximilian Kolbe Led Us into the Heart of Mary.”
As I read, Pornchai was fast asleep in the bunk above, his first night of sleep in three days. At about 11:00 PM, I turned with my book light in my hand to set my book down. Right there, in the middle of the otherwise empty space atop my footlocker, was the holographic card of Saint Padre Pio that had been missing for three years. I was stunned, of course, and asked, “How can this be?” There may be a rational explanation for it, but I do not know what it is. I cannot explain it at all. The next morning I told Pornchai about it. He knew nothing.
My 2012 post, “The Last Days of Padre Pio,” of which this is a Part II of sorts, was about events in the final few days of Padre Pio’s mysterious life. He was given the visible stigmata while at prayer after Mass on September 20, 1918 after hearing the words, “I unite you with my passion.” Padre Pio related this two years later to a Vatican Inquisitor, Msgr. Rafaello Carlo Rossi:
- “Suddenly I was overtaken by a powerful trembling, then calm followed, and I saw the Lord in the posture of someone who is on a cross, lamenting the ingratitude of men, especially those consecrated to him and by him most favored. This revealed his suffering and his desire to unite souls with his Passion. He invited me to partake of his sorrows and to meditate on them. At the same time, he urged me to work for my brothers’ salvation. I felt then full of compassion for the Lord’s sorrows, and I asked him what I could do I heard his voice, ‘I unite you with my Passion.’ Once the vision disappeared, I returned to my senses, and I saw these signs here, which were dripping blood. I didn’t have anything before.” (Padre Pio, June 15, 1921)
Exactly fifty years later, on September 20, 1968, the wounds that had bled for a half century stopped bleeding. Padre Pio was critically ill and dying. I wrote in that post of a mystical event in which he was seen by the chapel curator some 200 kilometers away kneeling before the Veil of Holy Face of Jesus at the Shrine of Manopello.
On the morning of September 23, 1968, twenty-six years before the very moment of my guilty verdict and sentence, Padre Pio was heard murmuring “Jesus, Mary. Jesus, Mary.” And then he was gone. But on the day before, September 22, he had regained enough strength to offer Mass at San Giovanni Rotondo.
In the weeks to follow the rediscovery of my holographic Padre Pio, he started knocking on my door in a multitude of inexplicable ways. Over the last two weeks, TSW reader Claire Dion sent me a series of messages through my GTL tablet. A photo or short 15-second video can be attached to these messages for a small fee. What Claire sent me was stunning. It was three messages, each with a 15-second audio-video clip of Padre Pio’s last Mass on September 22, 1968.
The video presentation was recently discovered and it has been published at You Tube in a five minute presentation. I invite you to honor Saint Padre Pio this week by joining me, and him, for a brief video visit to the Last Mass of Padre Pio – September 22, 1968.
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post so that it may land before someone who needs whatever hope it brings. And please honor Saint Padre Pio this week with these other posts from These Stone Walls: