As humbling as it can be, a saint always comes forward and promotes what is most lacking in a culture. In many respects, the saint’s very existence is a sign of contradiction, and what the holy one stands for or what they do is a glaring provocation to the spirits of an age.
While this is true for every saint, it is particularly true of Saint Padre Pio, whose feast day we celebrate this coming week. The humble Capuchin friar wanted nothing else than to be hidden away in a life of evangelical poverty, chastity, and obedience, as he would say of himself, “I am a poor Franciscan who prays.”
And yet, God would ask far more from this simple follower of Saint Francis.
Padre Pio was a chosen instrument of providence, and God did supernatural, miraculous, and amazing things through him. The holy friar was uneducated and had no influential friends. He had no earthly power and would have been considered insignificant by the movers and shakers of our world. And yet, God changed the world through him and brought about a renewal in the Church and theology through his witness.
As with every saint, Padre Pio’s very life and mission challenged the spirits of his age. After the Enlightenment, and various subsequent developments in human knowledge, the idea of supernatural activity – such as healings, prophecies, bi-locations, reading of hearts, and revelations – was being dismissed by a growing skepticism.
While all such spiritual activities are heavily biblical and find expression throughout the Christian tradition (and in many other religious traditions), the contemporary believer was taking a pass on any belief in their authenticity and was dismissing their importance to faith in our world today.
In place of supernatural activity, a deep rationalism was taking over. Eminent scholars and great leaders in the Christian tradition were developing heavily systematic arguments on the reasonability of faith and emphasizing the demythologizing of the biblical message (as well as the series of miracles and supernatural workings through the ages).
Among the many such scholars and leaders who were a part of such a movement, one especially stood out on the Italian scene. Father Agostino Gemelli, also a Franciscan, was a physician and psychologist. He helped found the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and the major hospital in Rome which now bears his name. This particular hospital receives sporadic media attention since it’s the facility that is most often used by the popes.
Gemelli had been an agnostic earlier in his life. When he became a military doctor, he was converted by the intelligence and example of a military chaplain he had gotten to know. Throughout his life, he used his priestly ministry and academic work to show the rationality and normalcy of faith. This effort was not misguided, but was incomplete.
Gemelli nurtured a skepticism and suspicion toward the supernatural. He saw it as antiquated and unhelpful. In many respects, he was a man of his age. And while he helped the Church in many respects, he hurt an essential element of her divine constitution, namely, the miraculous and supernatural workings of God in everyday life.
Padre Pio was an affront to men like Gemelli. And so, Gemelli had no use for Padre Pio or anyone like him. He dismissed Padre Pio as mentally ill and accused him of self-harm in regard to the stigmata.
In the end, the life of Padre Pio unmasked the pale face of skepticism and exposed the emptiness of unchecked rationalism. He showed himself a prophet of forgotten lessons and a witness to the supernatural (and sometimes strange) workings of God. And this is why he was so sought after and why he is so deeply loved today.
Padre Pio was a humble man who saw God’s activity in constant motion. He welcomed it without condition, and sought to use it in such a way as to wake up the human family and show us God’s love and mercy in a plurality of supernatural ways.
In this effort, Padre Pio pointed us back to God. He reminded us of the humbling reality that the God of All cannot be controlled by human machinations nor conditioned by human reason. God is Lord and will work however he chooses to reach his children, show them his care, and call them back to himself. This is the lesson of supernatural activity.
It was Padre Pio’s witness. It’s his legacy. And it’s his enduring message to us today.