Padre Pio, Sergeant Columban, Dad and Pope John II

By Jack Rigert, Director of JPII Renewal Center

I was sitting on the carpet, thankful that it seemed padded, with my back against the wall. Seated in front of me were a dozen teenage boys, all high school sophomores, assigned to me for small group discussion. I threw the forum open for questions or comments and almost immediately a hand went up. One of the boys asked, “So how do we know that Jesus really died on the Cross? I mean it happened a long time ago. How do we know that someone didn’t just make it all up”?

“That’s a fair question and I could answer it in a number of ways,” I replied. “But let me answer it for you the way my dad did for me when I was about your age.”

Dad was in World War II and like many American GI’s, especially those stationed in Italy, came home with stories about Padre Pio. Padre Pio was born in Italy and was ordained a priest in the Capuchin Order at the age of twenty-three. Even as a young man, he loved to pray, and especially loved to pray the Rosary, and he felt that Jesus was calling him to offer his life to God as a victim for poor sinners and for the souls in purgatory.

One day, at the age of thirty-one, while Padre Pio was praying before Jesus on the crucifix, the marks of the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – appeared on his own hands, feet and side. These painful wounds would bleed whenever Padre Pio said Mass and would last for fifty years. In addition, he had the gift of healing, bilocation (he could be in more than one place at a time) and he could read hearts, especially those who went to him for the Sacrament of Confession.

After the war ended, dad and a couple of friends bought a small plane that they would fly from Chicago to a small airstrip near the Benedictine Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Once there, they would jump in an old car they kept at the airfield and head to the Monastery where Brother Steve, a childhood friend and now a Benedictine Monk, had received permission for them to hunt on the vast property. In the evening they would join some of the monks and priests for dinner and drinks.

On one such trip while helping to prepare dinner, my dad mentioned his devotion to Padre Pio and Brother Steve replied, “if you want to know more about Padre Pio you should talk to Father Columban. He’s also a WWII vet who met Padre Pio when he was stationed in Italy.” That got dad excited and he wanted to meet Father Columban right away. Brother Steve told dad where to find him and off he went down a series of connecting hallways to the other side of the building where he found the door to Father Columban’s room slightly ajar and knocked. Father, who was sitting at a desk, looked up with a warm smile and invited dad to come in. “Excuse me Father, Brother Steve mentioned that you were a veteran of WWII and that you know something about Padre Pio. I also served in the war and was hoping that you might have a few minutes to speak to me about him”? With that Father Columban’s face changed, his eyes closed for a just a moment, he became reflective and then he said, “yes soldier, I know a little about Padre Pio, come sit down.”

He began, “I was a Master Sergeant in charge of the squad. We had been in many battles, first in North Africa and then again as we pushed further north through the Boot of Italy. One day we found ourselves near the town of San Giovanni Rotondo and a couple of the guys came over and said, ‘Hey Sergeant, aren’t you Catholic? There is a priest named Padre Pio not far from here who we heard can read hearts and minds and a few of us plan to go to confession to him in the morning. He can tell if you told him all of your sins. Why don’t you come with us?’

‘No thanks I said, I haven’t been to Mass or Confession since I was a kid. I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore. One of the soldiers said ‘Sergeant, I think you’re afraid to go to Confession to Padre Pio, you have too much to confess, I think you’re scared.’

I replied, ‘after what we’ve been through, I’m not scared of anything. I tell you what, I’ll go with you and not only that, I’ll tell Padre Pio everything I’ve done, and it is quite a list. I’ll blow that priest right out of the Confessional.’

So the next morning, we took a Jeep to San Giovanni Rotondo where we got in a long line for confession that extended all the way up a hill to the monastery. The line was moving slowly and after about an hour, I realized that we were never going to make it in time to get back before our outfit pulled out. Disappointed, we decided to head back but just as we started down the hill someone at the top yelled out that Padre Pio wanted the American GI’s to come to the front. Astonished, we looked at one another and then headed up the hill. I suddenly found myself in the front of the line and when it was my turn, I went in and knelt down in front of Padre Pio. I opened up and confessed everything just like I said I would. When I finished, it was silent and I wasn’t sure what came next. Then softly, warmly Padre Pio said, ‘son, when you were a young boy you dreamed of becoming a Catholic Priest. Persevere and you will become a Priest.’ I walked out into the fresh air, tears streaming down my face. I had not thought about that dream for many years. My life changed that day, and as you can see, my long-forgotten dream became a reality. You can’t make this stuff up can you soldier, he said to my dad.”

It was not long after Sergeant Columban had met Padre Pio that a young priest, who was destined to become Saint John Paul ll, also journeyed to San Giovanni Rotondo. There he spent a week in the company of Padre Pio and at one point asked him which one of his wounds (from the stigmata) caused him the most suffering. Padre Pio divulged, “It is my shoulder wound, which no one knows about and has never been cured or treated.” [i]Padre Pio never told anyone else about his most painful and bloody wound.

Later, I was to find that according to pious legend, St. Bernard of Clairvaux asked Jesus which was his greatest unrecorded suffering and the wound that inflicted the most pain on him in Calvary and Jesus answered: “I had on My Shoulder, while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound which was more painful than the others and which is not recorded by men.”

From the 19th century Mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, we have this observation from her vision of our suffering Lord when He was crucified “There was a frightful wound on the shoulders which had borne the weight of the Cross.” Unlike His more noted wounds on his feet, hands, and side (John 19:34; 20:27) this one as He said, was not recorded but that didn’t make it any less painful!

“Young man”, I said to the boy, “there is not a serious historian in the world that would deny that Jesus walked upon the Earth or even that He died on the cross. The question is – did He rise from the dead, is He God and can He change your life? Read about Padre Pio, Saint John Paul II, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Anne Catherine Emmerich and talk to people whose lives have been changed and whose hearts transformed by Jesus Christ. You will find people like Father Columban all around you.”

[i] Mary O’Regan, Catholic Herald article, 25 April, 2014