Padre Pio was a man who carried his Cross, and the Crosses of many, all his life.
The Forgione family lived in the poorest section of Pietrelcina. Francesco was poor, but by his own testimony, he never lacked for anything. Values were much different in those days. A child considered himself well off if he had the basics in life. Francesco came from a good family. His father, Grazio, and his mother Maria Guiseppa, were hard working farmers. Their children’s well being was number one in their priorities. They were able to provide for their family’s needs, but not much more. There were no frills. Francesco grew up a very sensitive, very spiritual boy. It was as if he knew from earliest childhood, the road the Lord had for him to follow. He would always follow that road.
His mother, Guiseppa, claimed that Francesco was a good boy, who never gave her any trouble. Naturally, she’d say that. She was a mother. Padre Pio, on the other hand, had a few comments to make about little Francesco Forgione. While he admitted that he was never spanked, he recalled his mother running after him, calling out, “Come here, you shameless boy!” When asked why she did this, the famous grin, and little twinkle came into his eye. “Little incidents with my sister.” That one sentence affirms that, while he was specially chosen, he was a normal boy!
His world was the little church of Our Lady of the Angels. It might as well have been his home. All the important events in his early life, took place in that church. In addition to being baptized there, receiving his First Holy Communion, and Confirmation there, he went into ecstasy in that church, and had an apparition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at age five, there. “Our Lord Jesus appeared to Francesco, and beckoned him to come to the main altar.” He placed His hand on Francesco’s head. The course of his life, and his vocation were sealed. He offered himself as victim at that early age.
Age five was an important time for Francesco, a turning point, so to speak. He began to have apparitions of Our Lady, which continued all his life. It was also then that demons began to torture him. There’s an elm tree on the Piana Romana (Roman Plain), which has been picked clean by over-enthusiastic pilgrims since Padre Pio lived there. Francesco used to sit under that tree to take advantage of the shade during the hot summer days. He went through harsh battles with demons at that place. Friends and neighbors testified, they could see him under the tree, fighting with some invisible force. It looked like he was defending himself against a swarm of bees. These battles continued on and off until his final days.
In the slang of today, Padre Pio used to hang out at church as a child. He went there to pray. He stayed hours after Mass. He worked out an arrangement with the sacristan to lock him in the church at times, so he could adore the Lord in the Eucharist. His parish priest was Don Salvatore Pannullo, whom he affectionately referred to as Zi’ Tore (Uncle Tore or Salvatore). Zi’ Tore recalled the future Padre Pio as having told him at age five, he wanted to become a priest. The priest could see special attributes in Francesco Forgione. Others saw the same traits, but could not distinguish their meaning. He had to be categorized; the world insists on putting everybody into a box. Qualities that his friends and neighbors categorized as “shy,” “different,” “quiet,” Don Salvatore saw as the signs of deep spirituality.
Francesco had a hunger to learn. But there were no schools for him to attend. Two men of the town, farmers, volunteered to teach the children of the area. Their major qualifications were that they could read and write. But that, coupled with their sincere desire to help the children, started a school. The children went to class at night, because they had to work during the day. Francesco tended sheep for his father and mother. He studied during that time. His friends tried to get him to play with them, but he kept to his books.
When he did play with his friends, he drew the line at swearing. He used to run away from boys, when they began to curse. But although he was willing to play, it was not one of his priorities. His preference was to spend time in church, praying, and if the church was closed, sitting on the rocks outside, also praying.
Francesco knew what a sacrifice it was for his family to sponsor him in school. At the beginning, when he was being taught by the farmers, there was little cost to his father, little financial cost, that is. Grazio had to allow Francesco to take time off from helping with the sheep, to study. But when it became obvious that Francesco had advanced far beyond his volunteer teacher’s ability to teach, when he told his family that he was serious about becoming a religious, after St. Francis, they knew they had to make much greater sacrifices.
It was at this time that Grazio left his family, and came to the United States, to Jamaica, Long Island, New York. There was no way, he could support his son’s education on the meager earnings he made from the land in Italy.
And so Grazio kissed his wife good-by, gave instructions to his children, who were now in charge, and traveled the six thousand miles it would take to bring him where there was enough money. He worked hard in New York, and sent as much money home as was possible. You know, the more we read about Grazio, we come to realize that Padre Pio had a saintly father as an example all his life. Although he did not attend Mass as regularly as he should have, and profanities flew from his mouth when he was angry, he was truly a man of God, completely selfless, focused on his family.
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