The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 6
Exclusive Excerpt from Padre Pio of Pietrelcina: a brief biography by Fr Francesco Napolitano
In the Friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio occupied cell No. 5 for more than twenty-five years. It was here that the most beautiful – and also the most painful – events in the life of this extraordinary man took place. Above his cell door are the words: ‘The glory of the world is always accompanied by sadness.’
This maxim, taken from The Imitation of Christ was one that he applied to himself all his life; but for the glory of God, he also transformed – for himself and others – it to that other maxim, Servite Domino in laetitia (‘Serve the Lord with joy’).
Sense of humour
A special aspect of Padre Pio’s joy was his sense of humour. His paternal guidance had a humorous, witty, brilliant, and vivacious side, and this played an important role in the education of his spiritual children. This side was most prevalent when he relaxed in the friary garden, or on the terrace near his cell. At those times he became an affectionate, cordial, happy, friendly Padre, even when those who were present were awed by his spiritual stature.
Most people think only of a Padre Pio who suffered, who obtained graces, and who constantly contemplated Christ crucified. They never knew Padre Pio in the intimacy of the friary, or in the warmth of the recreational hours which he spent daily with his fellow priests, friends, and spiritual children.
Considering his afflictions, this happy and humorous disposition of the Padre must not be interpreted as a dual personality. The Bible is very explicit in this respect: ‘When you fast, do not have a gloomy aspect … when you fast, comb your hair and wash yourself.’ The Padre wanted to teach all those who approached him to always have a smile on their lips.
Padre Pio was a joyful giver; he served God and served Him happily with a frank, innocent smile that stemmed from a pure heart. His spontaneity was admirable.
As the Jesuit, Fr Domenico Mondrone, wrote in the magazine, Catholic Civilisation, ‘His expressions were proverbial. He would utter an amusing retort, a witty remark, a little joke, right in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes its purpose was to distract one’s attention from his state of martyrdom; sometimes, to lighten the distressing effect of a well-aimed lesson.’
One day the Padre was out in the friary grounds, when the friar who was accompanying him pointed out a gentleman, a famous writer who had come from Milan for the sole purpose of seeing him. Padre Pio unhesitatingly responded, ‘This long trip just to see me? What a fine thing you came to see, all the way from Milan! Don’t you have a prayer book at home? You could have spared yourself a trip. God bless you. A Hail Mary is worth more than a trip, my son.’
Padre Pio was also a witty, brilliant, and formidable conversationalist. With psychological shrewdness, he would corner his listener, deliberately putting him in a difficult position. He could do this even when his opponent tried to involve him in scientific problems with which he was not familiar. At times he would disconcert them with seemingly bizarre remarks. Sometimes, he would stand up and mimic them, making them look ridiculous. He would suddenly change from the pathetic to the comical, or vice versa, depending on the effect he wished to have on his audience. Above all, his superabundance of humour escaped no one.
Once, in reply to someone who was trying to make him understand the difficulty some religious persons have in listening to, and practising the word of God, he said, ‘Three things are useless: washing a donkey’s head, adding water to the ocean, and preaching to sisters, friars and priests.’
Doctors and soldiers
Often, he teased the doctors of the hospital, who came every night to spend an hour of recreation with the Padre. One of them, when told to go to the hospital for some tests, said to his fellow director, ‘What do we doctors know?’ to which the director added ‘But you, Father, have nevertheless built a hospital.’ ‘Yes, but only for sick people, not for doctors,’ replied Padre Pio.
One day, he said to a group of doctors, ‘Don’t forget the proverb of the Salerno School: “A mouse has a better chance with two cats than a sick person has with two doctors.”’
He even joked about his own weakness. To a man who requested his prayers because his leg did not function properly, he quickly replied, ‘You’re lucky to have only one that doesn’t function; I don’t even have one that does!’
Soldiers and officers would often come to the Friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, especially after World War II. Once, when Padre Pio saw an officer who was looking rather sad, he approached him and said, ‘Well, how come you’re here today?’ The officer explained that he had come to say goodbye because he was being transferred from Foggia to the north of Italy. Smiling at him, the Padre said, ‘My son, these things happen only to friars and soldiers. You stay in one place, peacefully do your work, and just when you become accustomed to your environment, you are sent to the end of the world. Who knows why! But don’t let it bother you; accept it and leave. Remember that it is your profession. The cassock and the uniform, believe me, are similar.’
Speaking of soldiers, he often liked to talk about his experience in the army in Naples. One rainy day in 1917, he was obliged to go to some place or another. Our soldier (Padre Pio) courageously armed himself with an umbrella; well sheltered, he took off for Piazza del Plebiscito.
‘Hey, soldier!’ But the soldier kept on going as if he hadn’t heard a thing. ‘Hey, by Jove, I’m talking to you, soldier.’ It was a colonel, who had, naturally, become impatient. The Padre had to go back. ‘What novelty is this?’ yelled the colonel, while drowning in the downpour. ‘A soldier with an umbrella! Are you crazy?’
‘I had to play stupid,’ said Padre Pio with a sly smile. ‘I offered him my umbrella: “If the colonel, sir, wishes to share my umbrella, I will accompany him.” The colonel understood that he was dealing with a dumb recruit, so with a spiteful gesture, he turned his back to me, leaving me standing there with my umbrella in hand.’
At those times the Padre had a childlike simplicity in spite of his age; his laughter burst forth from his innocent heart.
Mary, our mother
The Madonna, who was Padre Pio’s great love, also had a place in his little anecdotes.
‘One day,’ he said, ‘the Lord took a walk through Paradise and saw so many ugly faces wandering around this place that is so full of delightful things and so void of evil. The Lord was amazed, so He sent for St Peter and asked him, “Peter, what has happened? It seems as if we have transferred the jail to Paradise.” Peter replied, “Lord, I don’t know; they come in and I don’t know how they enter.” The Lord then ordered him to guard more carefully.
‘Once more the Lord took a walk through Paradise, and again He saw an increase of ugly faces – jailbirds, so He said to St Peter, “Peter I told you to be on guard. Give me the keys; you are no longer guarding well.”
‘Peter replied, “Lord, I didn’t want to tell you, but since you insist, I will tell you. I no sooner turn my back than Your Mother opens the door and lets them all come in. I’m helpless. Lord, how do You feel about it? What must I do when Your Mother goes to the door?”
‘The Lord answered, “Peter, just pretend you don’t see it.”’
The conclusion is eloquent in the sense that the Virgin Mary is always everyone’s mother, and without her, Paradise would not be the same.
Padre Pio’s wit was part of his apostolate. He sometimes used it to confuse a soul, or to better penetrate the secrets of the conscience.
In this manner some people were able to review some aspect of their lives; while others, feeling exposed, overhauled their lives and became true friends of Christ, and therefore, of Padre Pio.
Every hour of the day was an opportune time to ask Padre Pio’s advice, including the hours of rest in the afternoon. Often, his fellow priests would come in because some penitent had sent them.
Once a woman went to the porter, and with a certain amount of insistence, convinced him that he should go to Padre Pio’s cell to ask his advice regarding her health. The young friar, in the spirit of brotherly love, tried to please her, so he went and knocked on the door of the Padre’s cell. A voice answered, ‘What do you want? Can’t you see that I am resting?’
‘Spiritual Father,’ said the friar, ‘a lady from Genoa who is very sick wants to know whether she should continue or discontinue the electroshocks.’
Padre Pio, minimising the importance of the reply, retorted, ‘But I’m resting! Tell her to discontinue, because if she isn’t already a fool, she will certainly become one.’
Padre Pio’s life of mysticism, observed Spaccucci, did not lessen in the least his natural tendency to playful banter, to scholarly language, and to impart his happiness in a spiritual way to all those who were present.
For example, the comedian Carlo Campanini went to Padre Pio and said, ‘Father, how can I boast of being a member of your spiritual family when every night I have to paint my face and be a buffoon on the stage?’
Padre Pio smiled, ‘My son, in this world everyone is a buffoon no matter where God places him. It is sufficient to surmise what God wants, and then everything will take its proper place. There once was an acrobat who wanted to become a friar, but since he was very ignorant he didn’t succeed in learning the hymns and prayers, unlike his fellow friars. So when the church was empty, the acrobat would go before the statue of the Madonna and exhibit his only talent: somersaults and pirouettes.
‘When it was found out, it became the great scandal of the friary. One morning the Guardian hid behind a column hoping to take the acrobat by surprise. Imagine the Guardian’s surprise when he saw the statue of the Holy Virgin smile, and the statue of the Child Jesus clap hands; both were so pleased with the performance of the acrobat in the grey cassock!
‘So the most ignorant friar of the community offered the Queen of Heaven his only talent, and she accepted it with joy. That friar had chosen his position well. He was a good buffoon in the place that God had assigned to him.’
Thus Padre Pio’s humour, Fr Alessandro wrote, became apostolic; it was not just a pastime. His holy soul was never shocked by sin, but he always found a way to put everything in its proper place.
Padre Pio’s sense of humour, his witticism, his repartee, were not just for amusement and spiritual defence, but were also a defence against the curious and the annoying.
Between a smile and a joke he hid his secret, so that many of those who lived near him never suspected a thing; some never even understood his goodness and his heroic virtues. He said the most serious of things with such simplicity and sincerity, that he made you accept the supernatural without even noticing it. He was always between two lives, smiling and exchanging words with the beings of two worlds.
We can safely say that in that hour of recreation, the friary garden, the terrace, and his cell were transformed into a place of human activity, of spiritual equality, of brotherly love and perfect happiness.
Padre Pio is no longer physically with us, but his spirit is still calling numerous people to his tomb to testify that his life and works were in harmony with the plans of Providence.