Today we celebrate the feast of the saint who struggled with dark visions

Today is the feast-day of St Pius of Pietrelcina – better known as Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar who was privileged to receive the stigmata in 1918. In his book, Year of the Lord’s Favour Volume 1, Aidan Nichols OP writes, “The Church understands the stigmata, when authentic, as, along with other physical phenomena of mysticism, a sign of credibility in the given mission of some holy person to the Church and the world. On his deathbed, Pius’ stigmata, which had been deep wounds that never formed scabs nor ulcerated, but gave off a discernible perfume, are said to have disappeared. It was a sign that his mission was coming to an end. What had his mission been? Surely it was the mission of St Pius of Pietrelcina to bear witness to supernatural realism in a period of scepticism in Western culture, in an age of doctrinal reductionism in the Church.”

Well, it hardly needs pointing out that we are still in that age and that period. According to Nichols, Padre Pio’s “intercession remains equally needed so long as this period lasts”; in other words, we need to keep praying to him for our benighted times – and also for the Church, that other men and women might be raised up in the mould of this great saint. Incidentally, I once had a novena prayer-card to him; its great merit in my eyes, I am ashamed to admit, was that it was a short novena rather than a long one. I have lost it so if anyone reading this blog knows what I am talking about, I would be delighted if they could put a link to where I might find it again.

A Catholic friend emailed me not long ago to say that she was “sceptical” about Padre Pio’s stigmata, that he had been investigated and the circumstances of his wounds were suspicious and so on. I replied that the Church would hardly have raised him to the altars as a saint if this were true. I find the problem with Catholics is that they tend to be either over-devout and accept all manner of suspicious phenomena (rosaries turning to gold is one of them) or over-sceptical, looking askance at someone like Padre Pio who was obviously not an intellectual like themselves.

He was what he was: deeply humble, charitable, holy – and straight-talking. Someone once asked him, “Do the stigmata hurt you?” “Do you think God gave them to me as an ornament?” was his brusque rejoinder. He would spend 15 hours or more a day in the confessional where, like the Cure of Ars, he was gifted with supernatural insight into souls. Nichols writes that “his bilocations, levitations and the miracles he worked read like the more colourful passages in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.” When he celebrated Mass it could last for hours; doubtless this helped those participating to realize that the Mass is a real sacrifice, not merely a theatrical reproduction.

Frank Rega’s book Padre Pio and America, which the author kindly sent me, also describes other, darker phenomena associated with this saint: he not only had visions of heavenly beings such as his guardian angel, but also diabolical ones: according to Rega’s account, “The demons would appear to Padre Pio disguised as beings of light, often posing as saints, but he always experienced a feeling of disgust at these counterfeit visions. To test the spirits he would ask them to praise Jesus, and if they refused he knew they were devilish. Once found out, they would leave him alone for a time.”

All this is a far cry from the lives of ordinary Catholics. But thank God for saints like St Pio of Pietrelcina who fight (in Padre Pio’s case the Devil used to literally buffet and strike him) in the front line of the mortal combat for souls. They remind us that all the things that so often take up our time and attention – such as intrigues and scandals of others in the Church, who’s in who’s out and the rest – are trivial and unimportant compared with the goal of getting to heaven.