The heart of St. Padre Pio visited the Archdiocese of Boston last week, marking the first time that any of the revered saint’s relics have left Italy. The three-day tour of the diocese began Wednesday in Lowell and culminated in the celebration of Mass by Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, OFM/Cap., at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Friday, September 23, Padre Pio’s feast day. I was blessed to be among the estimated over 20,000 pilgrims who came to venerate the relic. I had never seen an actual human heart before Friday’s trip to the cathedral. We all know the generic shape of a heart: two connected semicircles opposite a pointed end—the shape we would crudely draw on love notes when we were young, or which our teachers would have us cut out of pink paper to decorate the classroom every February. I found Friday evening that this simple caricature of the human heart bears little resemblance to the real thing, and that the valentines which we would adorn with them pale in comparison to the valentine whose reliquary graced our cathedral Friday. In his homily Cardinal O’Malley recalled his disappointment when, as a young Capuchin seminarian in 1963, he was denied the chance to visit the living Padre Pio by a superior. A smile came across his face as he mused over the fact that so many years later Padre Pio’s heart had now come to visit him: as if he received “a valentine from God.” And what better way to describe the heart of such a man as St. Pio? Here, before us for veneration, was the heart of a man who truly embraced Christ’s message of mercy, the heart from which his love for those in need and his compassion for the suffering overflowed. His heart itself was a conduit for the divine love of God to enter our broken world. A valentine indeed, for we read in Padre Pio’s life a love letter from God.
Padre Pio was, as Cardinal O’Malley put it, “a simple friar… a simple man, but a man transformed to love.” And transformed to love in the highest way, for though the life of St. Pio was indeed one of hardship and suffering, he bore these burdens so that he might better share the love of God with others. The only male stigmatic aside from the OFM’s founder himself, St. Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio suffered the wounds of Christ. He bore both the physical pain associated with the crucifixion and the mental and emotional anguish which stemmed from self-consciousness of the stigmata and accusations of self-infliction of the wounds. But so great was his love and devotion that, like St. Francis, Padre Pio embraced his suffering as a means to bring to others the redemptive power of Christ Jesus. Cardinal O’Malley noted that in celebrating the Eucharist while bearing the wounds of Christ Padre Pio communicated to those present the reality of Christ on Calvary. The Cardinal further suggested that in the communication of such a reality St. Pio might also “initiate a life which does not flee from the cross” in us. It is not an easy calling, but all Christians are called to bear the cross in both its glory and its suffering. The majority of us are not stigmatics, and we cannot embrace the burden of the cross in this way as Padre Pio did; however, in his daily life Padre Pio set a practical example for us to follow the way of the cross.
The two words his eminence the Cardinal thought best reflect St. Pio’s life are “prayer and mercy,” offering a lesson that we all might take into our own hearts. We live in a time of dire need of such tenderness, as Cardinal O’Malley remarked, “look what a mess of the world we can make without prayer and without mercy.” To carry out these two actions are to follow the way of the Cross. Like Christ at Gethsemane, in prayer we converse with our Father in Heaven, discerning His will for us, and often finding that the cup He wills for us is one quite different from the one we had in mind for ourselves. In mercy we become one with our Savior who even from His cross spoke not of hatred or vengeance but of mercy and forgiveness. What a great gift we were given in Padre Pio and now in his relics, to strengthen and inspire us in prayer and to bring the love and mercy of Christ to others.
God most truly sent the faithful of Boston a valentine last week, for a valentine expresses love to its recipients, and asks for love in return. It was wonderful to see thousands of people, young and old, come to receive this valentine from God, but let us not forget that once we have received it we must reciprocate the love we receive and share it with the world. The love which Padre Pio expressed for others was the love of Christ, and in the Eucharist we receive much more than just a valentine, but the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Lover Himself. I pray that Padre Pio might open our hearts so that the passion and energy our community displayed in welcoming him to Boston might be amplified hundredfold in our reception of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and that we might use this energy to better focus our lives on the acts of prayer and mercy. St. Padre Pio, pray for us!