Francesco Forgione was born to Giuseppa and Grazio Forgione, peasant farmers, in the small Italian village of Pietrelcina in 1887. He was very devout as a child and felt drawn to the priesthood, but he worked on the land up to the age of 10, looking after the small flock of sheep the family owned. He became a Capuchin novice at the age of sixteen, was given the name Pio after St Pius X. He traveled to Assisi by oxcart to begin his studies for the priesthood, and was ordained in 1910. Because of illness, he returned to live with his family for six years.
In 1916 he was sent to join the Fransican community at San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia. He became known as Padre Pio, and began to be renowned for his holiness, his mystical experiences, his stigmata, and his pastoral care.
Some critics argued that Padre Pio was “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity”. He was subject to numerous investigations. In the period from 1924 to 1931 the Holy See made various statements denying that the happenings in the life of Padre Pio were due to any divine cause. At one point, he was prevented from publicly performing his priestly duties, such as hearing confessions and saying Mass.
In 1934 the ban was lifted and from then on Padre Pio would hear confessions for ten or twelve hours every day, bringing sinners and saints closer to God with the right words of counsel or encouragement. Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul II, was among those he advised. He died on 23 September 1968 at the age of eighty-one. His funeral was attended by 100,000 people.
On 16 June 2002, over 500,000 Padre Pio devotees gathered in Rome to witness Pope John Paul II proclaim Padre Pio, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. The Padre Pio Foundation and many benefactors traveled to Rome, San Giovanni Rotondo, Pietrelcina, Piana Romana and many other holy places to celebrate Padre Pio’s Canonization. In his homily, Pope John Paul II reflected:
Padre Pio was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making himself available to all by welcoming them, by spiritual direction and, especially, by the administration of the sacrament of Penance. I also had the privilege, during my young years, of benefitting from his availability for penitents. The ministry of the confessional, which is one of the distinctive traits of his apostolate, attracted great crowds of the faithful to the monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo. Even when that unusual confessor treated pilgrims with apparent severity, the latter, becoming conscious of the gravity of sins and sincerely repentant, almost always came back for the peaceful embrace of sacramental forgiveness….
The new Saint invites us to place God above everything, to consider him our sole and highest good. In fact, the ultimate reason for the apostolic effectiveness of Padre Pio, the profound root of so much spiritual fruitfulness can be found in that intimate and constant union with God, attested to by his long hours spent in prayer and in the confessional. He loved to repeat, “I am a poor Franciscan who prays” convinced that “prayer is the best weapon we have, a key that opens the heart of God”.