Remembering Capuchin friars

Padre Pio and Fr. Solanus Casey

The memorial feast of St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known as “Padre Pio,” is Saturday (Sept. 23). The relics of Padre Pio have been touring the United States since May 6, and were in both La Crosse and Milwaukee this past Wednesday (Sept. 20). Many local people, including some parishes, made pilgrimages to Milwaukee.

A lot of people know about Padre Pio. This humble priest was born in Pietrecina, Italy, and died in Foggia, Italy — both are about 150 miles from Rome. However, his fame spread worldwide because of his miraculous healing ministry and the fact that he bore the stigmata — the wounds of Christ — on his body. Since Padre Pio lived until 1968, many people who were Catholic school students in the 1960s still remember hearing about this Capuchin priest — because of those wounds and the many photos of him with white bands around his hands, spotted with blood.

But there was far more to the man who was born as Francesco Forgione. His quiet humility in the face of church opposition and the unjust treatment by some of his superiors was one. He was eventually vindicated.

Another memorable aspect of this saint was his focus on prayer, which he called “a key that opens the heart of God.” Padre Pio began founding local prayer groups in 1947, to address the intentions of Pope Pius XII. These prayer groups spread worldwide and today are located in many countries including the U.S. (For more information, see pppg.org).

Another mark that made this holy man stand out during his life was his skill as a confessor. It was said he had the ability to look into people’s hearts, something called the “gift of reading souls.”

Padre Pio’s life also had an active ministry aspect. He dreamed of establishing a “House for the Relief of Suffering” in San Giovanni Rotundo, Italy. It took many years, but the medical complex was officially opened on May 5, 1956. Today, “Padre Pio’s Hospital” has 1,200 inpatient beds, 30 medical and surgical wards, 50 clinical specialties and about 4,300 diagnostic and therapeutic services, according to its website: www.sanpionelmondo.com/en.

Padre Pio was a Capuchin, a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, which was  founded in 1528. The Capuchins — as Padre Pio’s life showed — emphasize prayer, contemplation, preaching and physical care of the needy.

A love of prayer and the ability to read people’s hearts was something Padre Pio shared with another Capuchin priest from the United States: Venerable Solanus Casey. Fr. Solanus was a Wisconsin native who celebrated his first Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Appleton on July 1, 1904. (The Capuchins staffed and continue to serve at that Appleton parish.)

Fr. Solanus Casey — who was declared venerable in 1995 and will be beatified on Nov. 18 in Detroit — also knew about humility. While he had been ordained to the priesthood, he was not considered skilled enough to be granted faculties to preach or to hear confessions. Instead, he served most of his religious life as the porter at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit. Even though he only “answered the door,” he became a much sought-after counselor and many claimed to have been healed by his prayers.

Fr. Solanus was also a co-founder of Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929, which still operates today, hosting the kitchen, a food pantry and a bakery where men who have served in prison or substance abuse programs can work as bakers and at turning their lives around.

One of Fr. Solanus’ favorite words of advice was: “thank God ahead of time.”

While the church today thanks God for both these priests, we would all do well to emulate them both — in humility, prayer and service to those most in need of God’s grace, whether they be hurricane victims, refugees or any other of the least among us.