In some of the classic biographies of Padre Pio an unusual phenomenon is reported when visitors, pilgrims, or souvenir hunters tried to take his photo: they came up blank. Not always, but there are specific incidents when this was true. John McCaffery recounts one such story in his book, The Friar of San Giovanni. During the hot summer months, Padre Pio would occasionally offer Mass outdoors under a portico near the old church. McCaffery was slated to be a server at one of these ceremonies, and his friend Gino was determined to capture the event for posterity. He commissioned a local professional photographer to record the rite, this in spite of the fact that it was well known that Padre Pio was not amenable to being photographed or filmed, especially during his Mass.
As Padre Pio was approaching the outdoor altar, he noticed the photographer and his camera, and told him that he was to take only one or two photos at the Mass – and the man agreed. The photos were to be ready that afternoon, and McCaffery and Gino eagerly went over to see what the photographer had captured. He was not there, but his sister was, and she informed them that there was nothing to see. Her brother, she said, had tried to be too smart. He had agreed to Padre Pio's conditions, but during the Mass he could not restrain himself, and ended up shooting two complete rolls of film. “They all came out blank.” She looked at the two disappointed and irate men as if to say “What else could you expect?”
Later that evening McCaffery told the story to Padre Pio's good friend Dr. Sanguinetti, who was instrumental in the founding of Padre Pio's hospital. The Doctor replied that the exact same thing had happened to him – two rolls of film with nothing on them!
Mary Pyle was an American heiress who renounced the material life in order to live near Padre Pio, as a Third Order Franciscan. Interviewed in the 1950's for Maria Winowska's The True Face of Padre Pio, Pyle discussed the strange anomaly of the blank photos. She said that for years photographers had been frustrated in their efforts to photograph the saint, sometimes even creeping up on him to take him by surprise, but the negatives always came up blank. On the same roll, there could be magnificent views of landscapes, but on the photos of Padre Pio, there was nothing. Sometimes the shutter refused to move. But pilgrims had such great desire to have a picture of Padre Pio as a souvenir, that “his superiors ordered him to abandon his feud with the cameras.” Pyle commented that as a result, “the pictures you will see have been taken quite recently.” She added that many years of his life have been irreparably lost to photographers. If it had not been for the ecclesiastical authorities, we should not even have these!
A more recent book, L'Ultimo Segreto di Padre Pio, by journalist Enrico Malatesta, uncovers an intriguing new dimension to this phenomenon.
Mario De Renzis was a photo-journalist for Il Tempo, one of the major daily newspapers of Rome. It was 1960, and at that time the national press was focusing on the stigmatized friar from San Giovanni Rotondo. In an era becoming saturated with materialism, the example given by the humble servant of God constituted a ray of hope for the darkness of modern society. Consequently Mario's editors at Il Tempo gave him the assignment to report on and photograph the friary, the crowds, and the beloved friar himself.
The little town of San Giovanni had been portrayed in the media as mecca for those on summer holiday, with tourists regarded as a great source of income. When he arrived at San Giovanni for the first time, he made a quick tour of the area, admiring the church of St. Mary of the Graces, the new hospital “Home for the Relief of Suffering,” and noting the many shops and the movements of the people. But when he proceeded to enter the church he was stopped by the ushers, and told that photographers could not be admitted – this would mean the failure of his entire assignment. Fortunately just at that time a number of buses pulled up, and as the pilgrims disembarked and made their way into the church, De Renzis fell in with them, and in this way he slipped inside. Padre Pio was on the altar, and the photographer discretely and with dexterity began to snap his pictures. But he was soon spotted, and the ushers clamored like it was the end of the world. In the ensuring confusion, he made straight for an an exit, and found himself in the garden of the convent.
Noticing a staircase, he clambered up it, entering a little corridor, which led to an open door. It was the entrance to the cell of Padre Pio. In spite of the fact that he had photographed him only a few minutes ago in the church, there he was in flesh and blood, in his room. How was this possible? A healthy person would need at least 15 minutes to get there, and Padre Pio with his painful wounds could only shuffle along slowly. At the time, De Renzis thought no more about it, now that he was in the presence of the saint. He and the Padre “exchanged what is now called in the liturgy the sign of peace,” and they shook hands. With his permission, he took a number of pictures of Padre Pio in his cell. The emotions and surprise of this encounter were so strong at the time that the photographer did not fully comprehend what had actually occurred. Padre Pio, the stigmatized priest, had clasped his hand in his own, without any hesitation and minimal discomfort – how could this greeting be possible with a painful and bloody wound in his palm?
As he left the friar's cell, he thought of the marvel that everyone was talking about – bilocation. In view of Padre Pio's extraordinary capabilities, he concluded that he had not been in the presence of the body of Padre Pio, but of his soul, his essence. And physical, bodily pain does not pertain to the soul, which is why Padre Pio was able to “tranquilly shake his hand.” His photography assignment accomplished, De Renzis visited the local shops to obtain some souvenirs, before returning to Rome.
At the offices of his newspaper, he developed his photos, and they turned out beautiful: Padre Pio celebrating Mass, the moment of Communion, the great crowds. As for the pictures taken with Padre Pio in his cell, they showed the room clearly, except for one strange thing – there was no Padre Pio visible in the photos! But his assignment at San Giovanni Rotondo was a great overall success, and the newspaper Il Tempo sold out at the newsstands.
He never told anyone about what had happened – this particular event was something for him alone, a personal experience of his soul. Even now [around 30 years later] he is filled with nostalgia in thinking about his encounter with the holy friar. Padre Pio, with his extraordinary capabilities, helped him to obtain great satisfaction in his professional field, but much more so in the spiritual. “Now I can say it with greater clarity, my soul is filled with strong emotions that, at the mere memory of the encounter, still make my heart throb.”
Thanks to John McCaffery, The Friar of San Giovanni, p. 39; Maria Winowska, The True Face of Padre Pio, p. 50, Enrico Malatesta, L'Ultimo Segreto di Padre Pio, pp. 248-251.
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