Saint Father Pio – a sign and challenge

Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Fr Gracjan Majka, a Capuchin.

Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis: – Recently you have written about the opening of the tomb of Saint Father Pio. We all worship this Saint. Tell us please the story of the exhumation of this holy Stigmatic?

Fr Gracjan Majka: – Father Pio died on 23 September 1968 and was buried on 26 September in San Giovanni Rotondo. His body was put in a wooden coffin inside the second metal coffin and inside the third zinc one and placed in a crypt. The cover of the coffin had a glass window so that you could see the body of the Saint if needed. But since his burial his grave was not examined except the necessary actions related to beatification and canonisation. When Archbishop Domenico D’Ambrosio, the local bishop, announced on 6 January 2008 that he had received a decree from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the consent of the appropriate authorities to exhume the body of Saint Father Pio, it was decided to display the body to the public on 24 April – 23 September. The coffin of Father Pio was taken out of the tomb on 28 February in the evening. On 2 March, late evening, after prayers and preparatory work, the coffin with the body of the Saint was opened. The seals that secured the access to the coffin were sawed through, the first cover was removed and through the glass one could see Father Pio… I know that after 40 years the body was preserved well and as relics it underwent special conservation so that it could serve as a sign and challenge at the same time.
For me it was rather unexpected and very meaningful since every year at the end of April and the beginning of May we organise a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo.

– You direct Prayer Groups of Father Pio. Could you tell the readers of ‘Niedziela’ something more about it?

– Generally speaking, Father Pio left two works that were characteristic to him as John Paul II said once: the House for the Relief in Suffering, a monumental hospital with over 1,300 beds, which is constantly developed, and the centre of Father Pio Prayer Groups, located in the building. The idea of prayer groups originated after the appeal of Pius XII in 1942. It was the time of the terrible war and the Holy Father appealed to all faithful to create prayer communities to save the world. Towards the end of the war the restoration had to begin with prayers and not with constructions, which were important but not the most important things. Father Pio answered in a very concrete way, creating prayer groups. People were to pray and meditate together, to gather for services, Masses, rosaries and talks on prayer delivered by priests. In San Giovanni Rotondo Father Pio himself gave short talks; he gave prayer intentions. Not all his talks were written down but it was an exceptional matter. The year 1947 is regarded as the beginning of the prayer groups. The Statutes were written and they contained several prayer calls formed by Father Pio and the words of the Gospel: Jesus says, ‘Pray continually and never lose heart’ (cf. Luke 18:1-8). After the Statutes had been written Fr Pio’s prayer groups were formed. Each group, having the permission of the local bishop, was to be led by a priest as its spiritual director. But some bishops, including the Italian ones, opposed those groups. Father Pio did not want to act against the bishops and asked people to pray individually in such cases. It was a beautiful attitude, expressing humility and obedience towards spiritual authority. In the Statutes Father Pio wrote that prayers should not take the forms of formulas or discussions about sensational events, e.g. miracles, apparitions, graces, the smell of violets, etc. So the Prayer Groups originated very quickly. Currently, over 3,000 groups are in Italy and about 200 in Poland. On 3 May 1986, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli approved the Statutes of ‘Father Pio Prayer Groups’ as obligatory to all members of the movement. The Statutes say that prayers should be said with the Church, in the Church and for the Church. Moreover, these should be prayers of reparation in the spirit of Saint Paul. This was a special idea of Father Pio as St Paul writes to the Colossians, ‘in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church’ (cf. 1: 24).

– What did Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI think of Fr Pio’s activities?

– I dedicated my publication entitled ‘Sw. Ojciec Pio. Zycie, charyzmat i postawa papiezy’ [Saint Father Pio. His Life, Charism and the Popes’ Attitudes] to this issue. I presented the attitudes of the Popes from Benedict VI to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We have his last talk delivered in 2006 when he spoke to ca. 30,000 representatives of the Prayer Groups in a special audience on 14 October. As far as Pope Pius XII is concerned he was very much in favour of the groups. When the representatives of the committee for constructing a huge hospital arrived in Rome the Pope expressed his gratitude for them in a special audience and encouraged them to continue the work, which is providential for the whole of Italy – to treat the ‘whole man’. Since the House for the Relief in Suffering has a unique task. A sick person is to feel at home, not in hospital or a hotel. And he is to be treated in all aspects: his spirit and body so that the ‘whole man’ is treated. The Holy Father Pius XII was very much in favour of Fr Pio’s initiative and gave him his special blessing. As far as I can remember, on the occasion of the anniversary of his ordination he allowed him to give the apostolic blessing with a plenary indulgence. Then the Pope asked Father Pio for prayers when he was seriously ill, in the last weeks of his life. Father Pio ensured him that the communities would pray for the Holy Father and after the Pope had died, according to the chronicles of the monastery, Father Pio was to say that he had the grace of seeing the Pope in the glory of heaven. John XXIII’ s attitude towards Father Pio was generally very positive but the Pope was given wrong information. That’s why, his attitude was rather critical. But just before his death, having got to know the whole truth, John XXIII confessed that he had been wrongly informed. He recognised Father Pio’s sanctity and asked him to pray for him. The Pope himself, as a cardinal, was in San Giovanni Rotondo. He met Father Pio but no notes about their meeting were preserved. The Pope said that he had prayed there and gone to confess his sins to Father Pio. We have his excellent speech of 1973 when the Pope received the general board of the Capuchin Order after their chapter. Then the Pope said that Father Pio won worldwide fame thanks to his prayers and suffering. He spoke highly about Father Pio. We know that just before his death Father Pio sent a letter to Pope Paul VI in which he expressed his admiration for the Holy Father for defending the fundamental values concerning God’s law and human dignity in his encyclical ‘Humanae vitae’.

– And what do we know about the relationship between Father Pio and the Polish Pope John Paul II?

–...this is a very immense matter. When he was a priest, during his studies in Rome, he went to San Giovanni Rotondo with a group of Polish priests, and went to confession to Father Pio and he also talked to him. But we do not know what they talked about. After the assassination attempt on John Paul II in 1981 the media informed that Father Pio had been to foresee his papacy. But the Pope never confirmed the information. We also know that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited the grave of Father Pio in 1974. As the first Pope John Paul II visited San Giovanni Rotondo. He was in the hospital and gave a few speeches. He lived according to the message of Father Pio and regarded him as an extremely meaningful personality, valid for the times of the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. It was John Paul II that beautified and canonised Father Pio.

– Certainly you have your own experiences related to Father Pio...

– The decision concerning the beautification of Father Pio was announced in the consistory before Christmas, in 1998. It was to be held on Sunday 2 May 1999 in St Peter’s Square in Rome. I was in the Eternal City with Fr Piotr Andrukiewicz from Radio Maryja and during a radio broadcast I reported from the hall of the consistory over the frontage of the basilica. The first thing one could notice was the amazing crowds, ca. 300,000 people gathered in Rome, ca. 20,000 gathered in small Pietrelcina, the birthplace of Father Pio, and ca. 50,000 gathered in San Giovanni Rotondo. Those people knew that they had to be there. There was a gigantic enthusiasm. The papal speeches concerned the life, spirituality and holiness of Father Pio. And then there was a canonisation – on 16 June 2002 (the decree was announced on 26 February), in St Peter’s Square. Again large crowds. There have never been such crowds in this square in the history of the Church.

– What spirituality does Fr Pio give the Church today?

– Firstly, absolute adherence to Christ and the need to follow him. Adherence to the Person of Christ through accepting the Gospel teaching and faithfulness to your calling. Father Pio always said, ‘Fulfill your duties and do not neglect your prayers. You cannot neglect prayers at the cost of any job.’ Father Pio stressed two virtues in spiritual life. The first one is humility before God and another person but this humility means dedication and devotion. The decree on the heroicity of the virtues of Father Pio stresses his attitude of generous dedication and faithfulness to his religious vows. He observed all requirements scrupulously, especially, which strikes me, is his observance of the rule of obedience. All things begin with obedience. The origination of sin began with disobedience whereas all things begin with obedience. Jesus was his model of obedience until his death. His two great works originated out of love for Lord God and the desire to follow Christ: the spiritual work – prayer groups and the material one – a huge hospital, the House for the Relief in Suffering. These are the living traces of St Father Pio who died 40 years ago.
The Capuchin Order ministers in the shrine in Terliczka. The friars continually carry out works of Christian mercy, helping the poor, organizing meetings with children of special health care needs, helping the Church in the East, helping the Polish children in Ukraine, helping the lonely and the needy. In order to develop this place, which has such excellent patrons – Our Lady of Fatima and Saint Father Pio – the friars need to complete the construction of a new building. The Capuchin Fathers would be grateful for any support for the development of the shrine in Terliczka and humbly ask for financial means.

Foreign currency can be transferred to the bank account:
Bank Polska Kasa Opieki SA, II/O. Rzeszow, ul. 3 Maja 21
42 1240 2614 1787 0000 3970 2858.
The bank account for Polish zloty is given on the form.
The Capuchin friars offer continuous prayers of thanksgiving for their benefactors whose names are recorded in a special book. With the Franciscan greeting ‘Peace and good’,
Capuchins from Terliczka

"Niedziela" 21/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl