On September 23 we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of St Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio. Just three days earlier, September 20, it was the 100th anniversary of Padre Pio receiving the stigmata. There are millions of people, living and departed, who owe a great deal to the advice, intercession and example of this great saint; and I am one of them.
My first encounter with St Pio was round a meal table in 1990, where one of the guests had regularly served Mass for the saint. He regaled us with stories of his many encounters with this extraordinary Capuchin Franciscan friar. At the end of the evening, the guest slipped into my hand a small plastic pouch containing a third-class relic, which I placed into my cassock pocket. At that time, I was an Anglican minister who had been struggling with the “call to Rome” since before my diaconal ordination. Hearing those tales and putting that small piece of cloth into my pocket took my life along the right path.
In those days, unlike now, I had the gift of sleep. When I went to bed I fell straight to sleep and woke the next morning. Some months after receiving the relic, I began waking in the early hours. The first time it happened I realised there was “someone” in the room. I wasn’t anxious about it. In fact, I felt completely at peace. But this continued night after night, at the same time, and eventually I realised that it was Padre Pio. In his presence, and in the forefront of my mind, in this atmosphere of peace, was only one thought: “I must convert to the Catholic faith.” Once I made that decision, my normal pattern of sleep returned and the visits ceased. And so, in due course, I left the Church of England, and in 1997 was ordained to the sacred priesthood by Cardinal Basil Hume.
While visiting family in New York, I met a wonderful Catholic family, the Realis. Michael, the husband, is alive and well today because of the prayers and the direct intervention of Padre Pio. It is an incredible and moving story, told in full in Diane Allen’s book, Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry. But in short, Padre Pio guided the surgeon’s hand when Michael was born via a tricky caesarean. Through the Realis, I grew to know St Pio even more and developed a greater awareness of the devotion there was to him, as well as an inkling of just how many lives he has affected in such wonderful ways.
While I was parish priest in Bayswater, and still carrying that tattered relic in my cassock pocket, it was announced that Padre Pio would be canonised on June 16, 2002. I knew I just had to go to Rome and thank Padre Pio for giving me the courage and push I needed that led me into the priesthood.
One morning after Mass, a frequent visitor to the parish came up to me and said: “I know you have a great devotion to Padre Pio.” How did she know? I’d never spoken to her about it. She told me that it was so important I made this pilgrimage that she wanted to make it financially possible for me. And so, off I went, full of gratitude to this generous benefactor.
The canonisation was a most wonderful experience, with around a million pilgrims gathered in a roasting hot St Peter’s Square, the overflow of people filling the Via della Conciliazione as far as one could see. When Pope John Paul II made the proclamation of sainthood, a huge roar broke out from the pilgrims, as the relics of the saint were brought forth.
The next day, after the Mass of thanksgiving, I returned to my hotel and was told that someone had tried to contact me, and had the number for me to call back. When I did, I spoke to a Sister in the papal household.
She said: “Can you please be here at 7am tomorrow, bring your celebret [permission to celebrate Mass], and don’t forget to kiss the Holy Father’s ring.” I had been invited to celebrate Mass with the Holy Father in his private chapel the next morning.
I’m sure you can imagine what a wonderful experience it was, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with someone who is now a saint of the Church. In spite of his advancing Parkinson’s, his gaze filled me with great joy and love for him and the Church. Through all this, I could feel Padre Pio’s encouragement to strive to be a better priest.
Padre Pio gave me the final push I needed to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic. He drew me towards Catholic priesthood. He led me deeper into his own life through my continuing relationship with the Reali family. And he brought me fully home, through the Mass with the Holy Father.
There is only one thing left for me to do now; and that is to visit him in Pietrelcina, so that I can kneel before his earthly relics and thank him for all he has brought about in my priestly life.
Fr Alan Robinson is parish priest of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane