God alone, I say, can enlighten the soul with his grace and show that soul what it is. Saint Pius of Pietrelcina
Every year when we celebrate the feast of St. Pius of Pietrelcina on September 23, still fondly known as “Padre Pio,” I gratefully remember the day I was “introduced” to him in the mid-1990s. It happened when my dry cleaner, Curt, dropped off a relic of the deceased Capuchin friar along with our newly cleaned clothes. “He’s a very powerful intercessor,” Curt said as he handed me a brochure with information about the legendary mystic, which also contained prayers for his miraculous intercession.
At the time, having only recently returned to the Catholic Church from evangelical Christianity, I knew very little about saints—and quite frankly, I still wasn’t quite sure about the whole “praying to the saints” thing. Noting from the brochure that Padre Pio was the first priest in the Church’s history to bear the visible Stigmata or wounds of Christ, as well as the fact that he shared a May 25 birthday with my then-husband, Bernie, I challenged him to become a special intercessor to secure Bernie’s conversion.
I immediately bought a book about Padre Pio to learn more of his life story. Quite frankly, it scared the heck out of me when I read about the devil throwing him around his bedroom! Nonetheless, I figured Pio was a potent force to contend with and called upon his heavenly help. Next, I did what any good Catholic wife would do—I put the relic Curt had given me under Bernie’s side of the mattress and prayed for Pio’s intercession to awaken my husband spiritually.
This continued for the next two decades.
Fast-forward to 2008; the year Bernie suffered a massive and ultimately fatal heart attack. While I tell the whole miraculous story at length in my book, Miracle Man , suffice it for now to say that we were in serious trouble as a family at the time, and Bernie was in deep trouble personally and spiritually.
Taking a trip to Rome that summer, for a week of bioethics classes, I decided to visit Padre Pio’s shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo to pray for my spouse before the newly exhumed, incorrupt body of the now canonized saint. I arrived there on Father’s Day, which also happened to be the anniversary of Pio’s canonization seven years earlier as St. Pius of Pietrelcina. I spent the entire day there in prayer for Bernie, having a Mass offered for him and participating in a Marian procession around the grounds of the monastery alongside hundreds of other pilgrims who had gathered to pray. It was an incredibly powerful, holy day, the highlight of which was kneeling before St. Pius’ perfectly beautiful and intact body to beg for Bernie’s conversion, as the incorrupt Capuchin priest, who had died in 1968, appeared to lay serenely asleep.
Who could have possibly known that mere months later, Bernie would suffer the “widow maker”—a heart attack that generally kills its victim in less than three minutes. Bernie barely survived it, then lay comatose and in multiple organ failure in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of a nearby hospital for 87 incredibly painful, yet precious, days.
A particular moment one horrific night is seared into my memory—the night doctors shocked Bernie’s heart three times to keep him alive.
During the middle of that night, as doctors fought to save his life, I became convinced of two particular spiritual occurrences: 1) I believed that Bernie had died and met God 2) I strongly sensed Padre Pio’s presence in the hospital room interceding for him.
While I won’t know this side of heaven if my second suspicion was correct, Bernie awoke from a coma six weeks later to tell me that he had indeed “died” and gone to heaven to meet God. He had seen with great clarity the condition of his soul—his self-described divided heart—and was told by God that he was not permitted to enter heaven. He was sent back to “make amends for his life,” and spent the last six weeks of his earthly life indescribably sick, yet peacefully enjoying what he called “fellowship” with the God of unspeakable love and mercy that he had come to know personally on the other side. Bernie’s death was nothing less than majestic and holy, and I carry the relic of St. Pio with me to this day to regularly pray for his intercession.
One of the things I’ve come to treasure most about the Catholic faith is the Communion of Saints, and the daily celebration in the Church’s liturgical life of “so great a cloud of witnesses,” who help us keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
St. Pius of Pietrelcina, pray for us!
This article was previously published at Aleteia.