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Padre Pio wanted to be known as ‘just a poor friar who prays,’ former personal secretary tells group at IHM parish

Attending the mini retreat April 16 on Padre Pio at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Wilmington are, from left, Pat Moss IHM parishioner, Father John Aurilia OFM Cap., and Rita McDowell, pastoral associate at IHM.

Long before his canonization by Pope John Paul II in 2002, Padre Pio had become, for many, a living saint.

No one felt this more keenly than the Capuchin friars who lived and worked with him.

One of those was Father John Aurilia, O.F.M. Cap., who entered Pio’s private world when he was called to serve as his personal secretary in August 1967, a year before Pio’s death.

That month of service gave him some profound insights into the character of one of the most popular, and sometimes, most controversial, saints of our time, which he shared with an audience of 260 devotees during a mini retreat at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Wilmington on April 16.

Aurilia opened the session by leading the attendees in the prayer that Padre Pio said every day of his life.

He then recounted a youthful indiscretion involving Pio. Aurilia was a 14-year-old novice in the minor seminary in Pio’s hometown of Pietrelcina.  The seminary made an annual trip to San Giovanni Rotondo to visit Pio. When introduced, Aurilia grabbed the priest’s hand to satisfy his curiosity about the existence of the stigmata. Aurilia knew the stigmata were indeed real when Pio cried out in pain. Rumor has it he confessed and was forgiven.

Fortunately, they developed a much better relationship years later, which offered Aurilia some insights into the mystery of Padre Pio. “There I learned the secret of this man of God, which was his holiness,” he said. “Padre Pio had three loves: the Cross, the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist.”

A statue of St. Pio of Pietrelcina is displayed in the garden at Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Dunkirk, Md., April 28, 2022. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)So, who was Padre Pio and what accounted for his worldwide popularity that drew crowds to his Masses and confessional and brought bags of mail daily to his residence at San Giovanni Rotondo? “He was known all over the world, yet he never traveled,” said Aurilia.

Aurilia said some devotees were drawn to his miracles, others to his gift of tongues or his ability to bilocate or prophesy. Most, though, were drawn to Rotondo by accounts of the bleeding stigmata, which he received for the first time while in prayer before the cross in September 1918.

Aurilia, however, maintains that it was neither the miracles nor the stigmata that made Padre Pio a saint. Nor was it the power of his oratory. “He was not a great speaker, in fact, his homilies were boring,” commented Aurillia. “And his singing was awful. We used to ask him please, not to sing at Mass, it’s not important, but he sang anyway.”

What made Pio a saint, Aurilia said, was his prayerfulness, his humility and his capacity for suffering, often praying that the suffering of others be transferred to him.  “I thought I knew everything about Padre Pio, but I was wrong,” he said. “Because by reading his letters after I left, I found out how much time he spent in prayer and how much he suffered because of the stigmata which caused him great pain and made walking difficult.”

Pio never sought fame. According to Aurilia, when a reporter asked him what he wanted to be, he replied “just a poor friar who prays.” He would also not tolerate any shouts of “miracles” at Mass nor allow any picture-taking. “Those people he had expelled,” said Aurilia.

Padre Pio’s devotion to the rosary and his ministry were legendary. Aurilia was amazed at the grueling schedule he maintained, considering his lifelong health issues and how little he ate and slept. “He would sometimes hear confessions for twelve hours straight,” he said. “People don’t realize how exhausting it is to hear confessions. If I hear confessions for an hour, I need a break. After two hours, I need a vacation.”

Aurilia witnessed a few instances of Pio’s extraordinary powers while in his service. One was his ability to bilocate, one of his many gifts from God. One day, the seminary received word that Pio had been present in a courtroom in the northern Italian city of Bologna, acting in someone’s defense. When asked how that could have been when he was at Rotondo at the same time, Pio responded that it was a “secret.”

On another occasion, Aurilia witnessed Pio’s ability to read thoughts. Aurilia, whose job it was to answer the mail, received a letter from a woman in Australia who wanted to know if her son would become a doctor or a priest. Since the request could not be answered with a form letter, Aurilia took the letter to Pio, and before he could enter his room, the priest said that the boy would become a priest.

Aurilia, who keeps relics from Pio in his residence, also reported smelling the same flowery scents that others experienced emanating from Pio, even though the priest never used perfume.

Aurilia also saw the stigmata on Pio’s hands and feet. “They were ugly, bleeding,” he said. “And some days the stigmata were so visible that you could see through them. They were deep, round holes. They needed to be dress three, four times a day.”

Aurilia noted that while Pio did not offer him spiritual direction, he did learn a lot about obedience from him. When his month-long service was over, he did not want to return to teaching, but rather wanted to work in ministry. Pio reminded him of his vow of obedience, and that was the end of the conversation. “I returned to teaching,” he said.

Pio exhibited the same obedience to the church, even in the aftermath of the Vatican-imposed sanctions designed to reduce publicity about him. For two years, he was in isolation and not permitted to say Mass in public or show the stigmata. When it was over, Aurilia said he did not lash out, but simply moved on.

Aurilia closed the event by blessing each attendee with a relic of St. Pio.