September 23rd marks the feast day of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II. I would like to offer a reflection on how the Theology of the Body relates to the body of Padre Pio.
When I studied Mystici Corporis (On the Mystical Body of Christ) by Pope Pius XII, I was on fire and consumed with the idea of being in Christ, of being Him in the world among my fellow men and women. Six years after I was ordained, on the exact anniversary of my ordination, being one with His Mystical Body, I was gifted a trip to Rome by my parishioners. A friend of mine, Father Robert Galligan, and I left Pennsylvania, where we were both priests of the Diocese of Scranton, and we flew to Rome. During that trip, I had extraordinary experiences of grace. I had hoped that while I was in Italy I might see Padre Pio, a man I knew little about except that he had the stigmata. In Rome, we then took a rapido to Naples and from Naples we went by bus to San Giovanni Rotundo, the monastery where Padre Pio lived on the Adriatic Coast.
Neither Bob nor I spoke Italian and the only name I knew was Mary Pyle. When we got off the bus, we inquired about Maria, and it seemed that everyone in that town knew her name. Eventually, Bob and I were directed to a cottage where we met Mary Pyle, who welcomed and introduced us to Padre Pio’s nephew who was at the cottage. We had a delicious meal of wine, bread and cheese and a beautiful introduction to San Giovanni Rotundo. In the midst of this wonderful hospitality, Padre Pio came to visit and I was amazed that he had shown up. I knew that he knew Mary, but I was still amazed that he was there. He came to the table and directly challenged me with “What are you doing here? Are you a curiosity seeker?” I was really surprised, but I did tell him what I was really thinking. I didn’t know why having the stigmata was so important. We did not talk about his wounds. I did say that I thought nothing was more important than the Eucharist and that I believed that when I offer Mass my body is the Body of Jesus and that I am one with Him.
What I said to Padre Pio about my experience of celebrating the Eucharist was a truth I had lived since my ordination. Every day of my priesthood I had the awareness that I had union with Christ, that He was in me and I was in Him. I knew that everything that happens to me happens to Him and everything that happens to Him happens to me. The two of us are one in the suffering, and the dying and the rising. The Paschal Mystery takes place in me. The kind of dramatic manifestation of Christ’s suffering in Padre Pio was something that I thought so extraordinary and I didn’t say I didn’t believe it, because there it was in front of me. Here was a man with the wounds of Jesus Christ and he and I were talking together and I was saying to him and him to me what his experience in the suffering and the dying and the rising was. We had the most wonderful exchange and conversation, and I’ll always remember it. I’ll always remember too the loving eyes that were looking back at me during those twenty minutes.
When I turned to ask Mary if he came there often, she told me something strange. “We didn’t know he was here. If he had a conversation with you, he came to see you. No one else at the table saw him. He often does that; he has the gift of bilocation.” I had never heard that before. It was a unique and beautiful experience.
After a night of rest, we got up at about 2 o’clock in the morning to go up to the monastery. We had been told that while we were waiting we would have to sign up in the sacristy to celebrate Mass, because in those days they didn’t have concelebrated Masses. There were people there from all over the world and we were all waiting our turn. Suddenly a door opened that was just a few feet away from me and Padre Pio walked in. I knelt down. With hundreds of people around, there he was standing right over me, but this time the eyes were not gentle as they had been the night before. They were quite angry. What he was experiencing that was causing what I perceived as anger, I didn’t know then and to this day, I still don’t know. Finally, he left and went to the kneeler to prepare to offer his Mass. When he got up from the kneeler, he came right back to me, smiling this time and he took off his glove. I saw the wound in his hand and it appeared to be more than a half inch long. It looked like a burn blister on his hand. As he raised his hand, I could actually see light through the wound. Still smiling, he put his hand on my head and then blessed me with his pierced hand. I can still to this day recall that blessing. What a powerful blessing it was! Some days after this encounter, I was told that Padre Pio also had the gift of reading souls. That day in the sacristy, I was unaware that he had that gift. I often think about what he might have been responding to in me. Some of the people who were there that day, told me that he stood over me for about twenty minutes. I had no grasp of the time and so I assume that what they told me was so.
Padre Pio left to go to his altar. All of us went to that unforgettable celebration of the Eucharist by Padre Pio. The first part of the Mass, we prayed as always, but after the Liturgy of the Word, as he began offering the bread and wine and throughout the Consecration, blood appeared running from his hands and from his sandaled feet. When Mass was over, many people, with small swabs of cotton were dabbing the blood that had fallen onto the floor near the altar. They obviously believed this to be a relic that they wanted to preserve.
That day was truly unforgettable, a gift that God wanted for me in my time. How many others, thousands and tens of thousands were able to participate and see a man of God become Jesus at the altar, to see that transformation of Padre Pio into Christ. The Eucharist, Padre Pio and Jesus. It was right in my time. I couldn’t have been closer to Calvary.
At my own celebrations of Eucharist, I have always been aware that Jesus Christ suffers, dies and rises. I had no question when I manifest that great truth in my own body, in my role as priest, in my celebration at the altar. I do believe I do that, but experiencing the unique manifestation of Padre Pio was huge for me.
If I had any kind of question within me that day or the night before, I might have asked why God gave Padre Pio such an extraordinary manifestation of Christ’s passion. I know that many had questions about him. He was Jesus in our time—suffering, and eventually dying in 1968. His was in union with Christ, as he manifested in a unique way in his own life the wounds, which Jesus manifested. This is what I testify to in relation to the entire body of belief in the Theology of the Body: My body and your body and all the bodies in the Mystical Body will share in the Passion of Jesus Christ.
I go through the anxiety, worry and pain about what He went through when Jesus was left alone and in dialogue with His Father. “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.” On each occasion that I am at the altar and I am about to drink from the chalice, I respond to the question, “Can you drink this cup?” with “Yes, Lord, if you want me to.” How many days has that happened over my fifty-nine years as a priest! Each and every person has had this experience in their lives. When did you go through an agony, a suffering in your interior self when no one understood? You wanted a Peter, or James or John to share with you and to be with you in dialogue about what you were going through, but no one did. They were all asleep. Have you ever had an awareness of God and what He wanted from you? Yes, every Christian, I believe, at some time in his or her life will go through the Agony in the Garden. Padre Pio was alienated from his bishop, alienated from his fellow monks, rejected and alone. In his aloneness in the garden, Padre Pio suffered the Agony, too.
Each Christian in his or her body suffers the scourging. I have met so many people who have been beaten and scourged physically. Each person in his or her own way has a scourging that we undergo in our hearts. Like Padre Pio, we have that intimate union with Jesus Christ that never leaves us.
Each Christian is also crowned with thorns. When we are called on to experience a special kind of pain and suffering, we sometimes fail to recognize that it is He, the suffering Christ, who is within us. Every single Christian as a member of the Body must endure and will endure the Paschal Mystery. We will carry the Cross. We will be crucified.
My experience with Padre Pio was that his stigmata glorified God all through his life. He was born, baptized and gave glory to God. Then, for a time, he did not have the stigmata and during his priesthood, the stigmata was manifested for the glory of God. There are countless priests, like me, who do not have stigmata; we do not have this manifestation that gives glory to God. Still I, as well as others, do have other pains. Each day that you and I believe in the theology of the body, we can accept those aches and pains, which unite us to Jesus.
All of us experience union with Christ when we embrace the sufferings we endure in our bodies, minds, hearts and souls. By loving Him who is in us, we manifest the glory of God in our sufferings, for only Christ can embrace with total love the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual sufferings of the body, mind and heart. This ordinary manifestation of Divine Love is expressed in the extraordinary love of St. Pio in the Eucharist when his whole body, mind, heart and soul were united in Christ. The union of the divine with the human in the embrace of spousal love in the sacrament of marriage, the one flesh union is here expressed in the union of Padre Pio’s body with God in Divine Love, the stigmata which is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ here present in the Eucharist. Through my contemplation of Padre Pio and the stigmata he bore, I experience a union with Christ in his suffering. I suffer in Him and He in me. We are not all called to have the stigmata, but we are called to offer our bodily pain in union with Jesus Christ for the glory of God.
Monsignor John Esseff is a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Msgr. Esseff served as a retreat director and confessor to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He continues to offer direction and retreats for the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity around the world. Msgr. Esseff encountered St. Padre Pio, who would become a spiritual father to him. He has lived in areas around the world, serving in the Pontifical missions, a Catholic organization established by Pope Saint Pope John Paul II. Msgr. Esseff assisted the founders of the Institute for Priestly Formation and continues to serve as a spiritual director for the Institute. He continues to serve as a retreat leader and director to bishops, priests, sisters, seminarians and other religious leaders around the world. Listen to podcasts and read more from Monsignor Esseff on his website: www.msgrjohnesseff.net