It is quite possible that when we think about the great Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, the first word that comes to mind is “stigmata” – this is, after all, the single thing which perhaps drew crowds to this simple friar more than anything else, and which also brought upon him the attention of the Church. The stigmata proved to be a huge cross for our Saint, certainly – but the attention of the Church even more so, I think.
Ultimately, the stigmata were the sign of something else, something much deeper – true sanctity, which they reflected. That is not to say that the presence of stigmata are in themselves necessarily a mark of sanctity – rather, they serve several purposes, amongst which is the possibility that for the sake of the faithful, they are intended to draw our attention. It should be noted that for the recipient, the purpose is something quite different. We might imagine the presence of stigmata to be a great grace – and whilst that is true on one level, for the recipient it does something else; they are a mark of (and a call to) deep humility and a visible reminder of the infinite love of the Lord for such a poor sinner.
Returning to the attention of the Church, this is where Padre Pio’s real humility shone. This, more than the visible stigmata, were the true mark of the man and of his genuine holiness. Having come to the attention of the Church, Pio became subject to a degree of harrassment, victimisation and jealousy as a result of the intent of some in Rome; there were those who spoke great ill of him, and those who – because of their own personal prejudices and judgements – were able to make life very difficult for him. Their erroneous (and sometimes spiteful) views – and the effects these had – would be corrected later on, but it took many years.
Throughout those long years, the gentle friar had the option to vehemently protest his innocence – and yet he did not do so. He had the right to justify himself – and yet he did not do so. He could have demanded that the Church act differently in his regard than it actually did – and yet he did not do so.
Instead, throughout the course of those long years, during which he was carefully watched with great suspicion, he submitted himself perfectly and completely to the will of the Church and to the demands which lawful Church authority placed upon him, even though the demands were harsh and unjustified and they cost him greatly.
And in my view, this constant and perfect submission to the will of the Church and to all that was asked of him in her name, is the real mark of his sanctity – more so than the stigmata he bore in life.
So what was the purpose of writing all this?
Saints are placed before us not simply so that we can admire them and observe how holy they were – but so we can learn the lessons of their lives and in so doing, become holy like them.
There are times when the Church makes various demands upon each of us; sometimes it will be easy to do as we are asked, but there will also be times when – like St Pio – remaining faithful to the Church may cost us dearly, and it may do so over an extended period. When we are not sure what to do nor how to respond, here is the rule of thumb – remain with the Church. In the past two thousand years, there are not any Saints who went their own way and chose their will over that of the Church – such lack of submisison is, itself, a mark of something else.
The Church alone holds the keys. Of course, she may make mistakes along the way because she is made up of sinners – that is, all of us – but all things will come good in the end, one way or another.
Speaking to pilgrims two years ago as he venerated the relics of Saint Pio, our Holy Father Pope Francis commented on this submission, noting that despite the faults of the Church, Saint Pio did precisely as the Church asked of him – he “loved the Church, with all its troubles, our sins. We are all sinners, we are ashamed, but God’s Spirit gave us this Church, which is Holy. And Saint Pio loved this Church.”
When difficult demands are made of us in the course of our lives, may we be granted a similar grace so as to follow this holy example of humility and submission; and in doing so, to love the Church.