Friday, September 23, 2011

Padre Pio and Me

The only connection between this post and the Divine Office is that today is St. Pio's memorial. But since the subtitle above does say that I'll occasionally write about other stuff. This is one of those occasions. 

My parents learned about Padre Pio during the late sixties. I was eight or nine. Mom showed me pictures of the Italian friar who bore the wounds of Christ, and told me stories of how he could heal the sick, tell penitents in the confessional their forgotten sins, and appear miles from his cloister to help those in trouble. I was annoyed that the Pope couldn't declare Padre Pio a saint while he was still alive, since it seemed to me that these miracles were all the evidence of holiness necessary. When news of Pio's death was broadcast on the morning news on September 23, 1969, I remember thinking that now, surely, the Pope would get on with the canonization, at once! I had a deep desire for there to be a Real Saint whose time on this earth intersected with mine. That would mean that sanctity wasn't just the stuff of history and legend, but possible even now.

As the years rolled by, I grew to respect the rigor and even skepticism with which the Church examines saints, signs and wonders before giving them formal recognition. Given the monumental task of sorting through the legends and controversies that had sprung up around the Padre Pio, it's a miracle in itself that it took only 33 years before the canonization took place in 2002.

St. Pio has always been a “friend of the family”-- part of our personal cloud of witnesses that includes St. Joseph, St. Therese, and several other favorites. We'd ask his intercession for healthy pregnancies and “a safe delivery of a happy and healthy baby” . He generally came through for us, although I'd wished I'd given more explicit instructions: one of those healthy babies manifested the symptoms of autism at age two. Although Michael is rarely sick, and is in mischievously good spirits most of the time, this isn't exactly the kind of happy and healthy that I had in mind.I've reminded St. Pio of that more than once.

This summer, as we drove Michael to his special needs summer camp in eastern Pennsylvania, the GPS steered us onto a different route from last year. We saw a billboard that read “National Padre Pio Center – 1 mile ahead.” I'd heard about this place before, but had never been there. I recalled reading that it was built in gratitude by the family of a child who had experienced a spectacular healing at the hands of Padre Pio. “Let's pull in,” I told my husband. “We'll take a quick look around, make a bathroom stop, and be on our way.”

We got out of the car and walked along a colonnade towards a building complex that imitated the style of an Italian monastery. Entering a large chapel, I knelt down in front of a statue of Padre Pio. I offered a brief intention for each of my seven children. When I got to Michael, I said, “Give him more words—give him a voice.” Autism is above all else, a severe deficit in language ability. Michael understands many words, but rarely remembers to use them. When he does talk, his articulation is garbled. I could also have asked for less hyperactivity, some social skills, and an end to obsessive behaviors, but I was in a hurry.

Michael, my husband, and I left the large chapel and went into the smaller one, a replica of the chapel in the saint's monastery. A volunteer motioned us toward the front pew. We sat down, and were given to opportunity to venerate a relic. Michael sat down between Bill and me, and began tapping his finger on the plexiglass that protected one of St. Pio's brown woolen gloves that protected his stigmata from the gaze of the curious. The volunteer launched into a prayer of intercession. My first reaction was “Oh, no. How long will Michael sit still for this before he jumps up and screams to get out of here.?”

Instead, Michael began repeating, word for word, with beautifully clear articulation, each phrase that the volunteer uttered. It wasn't exactly a miracle—Michael will repeat things for me when I tell him to—but this time he did it  with no prompting,  for a perfect stranger, and in an unfamiliar setting. To hear polysyllables like “intercession” and “resurrection” flowing from his lips with such clarity was pretty startling. We left wondering if this was the beginning of a  some sort of miraculous improvement.

It wasn't. Michael continues to be moderately  mentally delayed, extremely hyperactive, and given to a whole menu of odd , repetitive behaviors. His speech therapist still finds him frustrating to work with. So what were God and the capuchin saint trying to tell me with that one minute of fluent speech? I'm guessing it is something like this: God has Michael in the palm of His hand. He can—and may yet—bring about changes in Michael's abilities. I am to trust in His plan for Michael as it unfolds, since His plan and timeline are for Michael's greatest good and, no doubt, for mine as well.

And I'm to keep praying.

Here's the  prayer from the shrine website. 
O God, you gave St. Pio of Pietrelcina, capuchin priest, the great privilege of participating in a unique way in the passion of Your Son, grant me through his intercession the grace of (name intention) which I ardently desire; and above all grant me the grace of living in conformity with the death of Jesus, to arrive at the glory of the resurrection. (Glory be...three times)