Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Twelve "Apostles" of Padre Pio

Unlike those of Jesus, Padre Pio's were all women.

Nina Campanile was one of the first of Padre Pio's spiritual daughters, not just in the order of time, but also in the height of her spirituality. Nina was a primary school teacher in San Giovanni Rotondo. She first met the Padre on October 5, 1916, only one month after he was assigned to the friary of Our Lady of Graces at San Giovanni. Although he had just arrived, and the stigmata were not to appear for another two years, his reputation for holiness was already spreading in the Puglia region of southern Italy.

World War One was raging, and Nina's younger brother had recently died at the front. Their mother was worried about his eternal fate, so she asked Nina to visit the “holy monk” to ask if he was saved. She did so, and the reply of the Padre was: “If the mercy of God depended on what you think, all men would be in hell. He is saved, yes, and in need of prayers.” In her diary, she wrote that her first impression of him was that he was entirely a supernatural being, “with a halo around his head,” because at that time she did not understand that before saints can be illuminated by the light of paradise, they first had to be truly human.

Once she had met him, she found it difficult to be away from his presence, and that initial meeting proved to be the beginning of many others, either in person or by letter, through which Padre Pio provided for her spiritual direction. He told her that he understood from their first encounter, that the Lord had sent her to him, and that much work would be required to form her soul in God. About that visit, Nina wrote: “He penetrated to the depths my soul, without my having spoken, such that I felt ashamed to be in his presence, and I did not dare to raise my eyes to look up at him, so much was the confusion that I felt.” 

Nina Campanile

Twice a week, Thursday and Sunday, and often on other days, Nina came to see Padre Pio along with some of her teacher colleagues and other spiritual daughters. Conferences took place in the guest parlor in an informal, friendly atmosphere, where he taught the way of perfection, and spoke about the gospel. They would ask him about things they did not understand, and with paternal gentleness, he would resolve their difficulties and doubts, enlightening their minds.

He told Nina that it was his intention to form a few, good souls, so that they in turn would be the seeds sown in the bosom of the of the people. Whenever he talked to them one-on-one in private, he would not only be interested in their spiritual growth, but also showed an interest in their families, as if he were himself a family member wanting to know what was happening to his loved ones. If one of them were sick, he would inform them of any steps to be taken. “In this way this exquisite conquistador of souls captivated our faith, such that we manifested to him the most intimate fibers of our consciences; he sifted and directed our sentiments and our spirits, steering them towards the supreme ideal.”

Nina writes that there were twelve women who attended Padre Pio's conferences. In her memoirs she lists them as Rachelina Russo, the Ventrella sisters, Giovanna and Lucia Fiorentino, Lucia Campanile [Nina's sister], Maria and Antonietta Pompilio, Maria Ricciardi, Filomena Fini, and Maddalena Cascavilia. Padre Pio said that “Here it is not a question of personal acceptance. Souls are attracted as the Lord disposes.”

From the very first meetings, he taught that their spiritual progress hinged upon five basics. These were: weekly confession; daily Communion; spiritual reading; meditation; and nightly examination of conscience. At whatever the cost, he did not want them to neglect daily Communion, unless they had committed a mortal sin. In order to allay any doubts, he listened to all of their frequent fears and scruples about approaching the altar. He told them that they should abstain from Holy Communion only if they knew for certain they had sinned mortally. In this way he triumphed over their fears. Following the example of his twelve spiritual daughters, in a very short time the practice of daily Communion diffused itself throughout San Giovanni Rotondo. 

Maria Pompilio receiving Holy Communion from Padre Pio

But the teaching of Padre Pio was not simply catechetical, he used various means to make them understand and penetrate the truth. In her initial years under the Padre's tutelage, he treated Nina in an exceptional way in comparison to the others – he treated her as if she were a little child. He often gave her very pretty holy cards and sacred objects, and gave her all the candy and sweets that his devotees had personally given to him. In her spiritual blindness, Nina thought that these gifts were a sign of her special predilection in the eyes of God and of the Padre. However, as time went on, she began to think about the poverty of Saint Francis of Assisi, and here she was eating sweets. She mentioned this to Padre Pio, who immediately responded, “That is why I don't eat them, and give them to you instead.” She replied, “Am I not also a daughter of St. Francis, so then why do you give them to me?” He answered in jest, “You are not the daughter of St. Francis [San Francesco], but of your dad, Don Francesco.” And they both laughed. But the wisdom of this little joke reached into her heart. And she considered it often, especially when the daughter of Don Francesco, who wished to be the daughter of St. Francis, had a great desire for sweets and candy.

God was in him in a supernatural manner the way that natural things are in us, and Nina cited many facts which demonstrated it. During the first year under her direction by the Padre, her mother was stricken with a very high fever. The doctors diagnosed double pneumonia, and the family was very concerned. When Padre Pio met with Nina, he asked how her mother was doing. She told him that the doctors were prescribing certain treatments for the pneumonia, including eight leeches [bloodsuckers – sanguisughe]. Padre Pio exclaimed that her illness was actually a severe case of malaria. A short time later, the diagnosis that Padre Pio had discerned supernaturally, was confirmed.

In February 1918 her sister had a terrible fall from a great height; she was in severe pain and lost consciousness. A doctor was urgently summoned, and he diagnosed that she had suffered serious internal bruises and her kidneys had become displaced – she would die before the night was over. Nina ran over to the friary through sleet and snow, to find Padre Pio, and he reassured her that “This is just God accosting her, she will soon be healed.” But that evening her sister was still lying unconscious on her bed. Nina called out to her loudly, shook her, even pinched her, but there was no response. All of a sudden the face of Nina's friend, who was also present, began to pale, as she announced, “The Padre is here.” It was bilocation.

Nina was stupefied, never having experienced anything like it before. “But the Padre is here?” she asked. “Yes, he is here in spirit.” “How is he dressed?” “Like a monk.” “If I reach out to touch him, can I feel anything? “No, because it is his spirit. See? He has come near your sister and said 'poor girl.' ” After about ten minutes her friend said, “Now, he has gone away.” Nina wanted to verify the reality of this event, and carefully noted that the time was 8:00 pm. She approached her sister's bedside, and once again called out to her. To Nina's surprise, she responded with a profound sigh, and said she was feeling much better. The next day Nina went to the friary, and when she saw the Padre she asked him point blank, “Padre, what time did you come to the house last night to see my sister?” “Around eight o'clock,” he replied. The proof was evident, and her sister was cured.


Nina's nephew was a medic serving on a hospital ship, and one day she heard that the ship was bombed. Fearful, she immediately approached the Padre and asked him about her nephew. He replied without hesitation, “Be calm, he was in port and not on the ship.” Later, she learned that this was in fact the case. Padre Pio could not have learned that her brother was safe by normal means, since she had asked him as soon as news came of the bombing.

Nina wrote that the stormy times in which we live have need of a “divinized being” on earth to give an example, comfort, sustain, and above all to support us through the raging and furious storms, to insure that if the body is lost, the soul will not be. The life of Padre Pio, like that of the Divine Master, is one of total sacrifice. He eats little, and sleeps even less. He prays, works, suffers. Forgetting himself, his life is dedicated to the cause of souls; he is open to everyone. He said, “If you do good to those who deserve it, what merit is there? It is necessary to know how to treat with the bad and with the good, in order to draw out the best in the one and in the other.”

Based primarily on Enrico Malatesta's La Vera Storia di Padre Pio, pp. 136-143. Additional information from Letters of Padre Pio, Vol III, pp. 949-950.

View my books on Padre Pio and others Here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Anatomy of a Conversion

Worldly, cosmopolitan, elegant, she had no time for the things of God . . . until she met Padre Pio.

Luisa Vairo was born into a wealthy family, which zealously strove to cater to her every whim. She grew up to be highly cultivated and intelligent, but could find neither in the books that she read nor in the luxuries of life, any enjoyments that really gave her true satisfaction. She was an independent person, who shone in high social circles, yet her refined, elegant tastes were never totally fulfilled. Consequently, she was always looking for something new, unexpected, and different. Although beautiful, clever and rich, all the pleasures and sensations that she sought after left her with more disgust than joy. Unfortunately, her materialistic life made Luisa insensible and even prejudiced against any thought of a hereafter, and she scoffed at anyone who spoke to her of God. In fact, she was vehemently anti-clerical.

One day in the mid 1920's, one of her circle of friends, a gentleman whom she knew very well, departed from London, where Luisa was then living, and headed for Rome on a pleasure trip. While in the Eternal City, this man heard about a monk named Padre Pio, and impelled by a desire to meet him, he traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo. When he returned to London after encountering the saint, he was like a new person, almost opposite to what he was before. When his group of friends began talking in a bawdy way, he expressed his disapproval, manifesting that he no longer thought of such things the way he used to.

Vairo and her companions, knowing that he had been to Rome, began to mock him: “Now that you have been to Rome, you want to be a monk!” But he replied calmly and firmly, “I have not become a monk, but I have completely changed, and the person who caused this change is in fact a monk.” They would not let him continue speaking, drowning him out with their mockeries and laughter. But he remained calm, and their shouting failed to disturb him. Finally they desisted, and asked him to tell his story. He answered: “I myself will tell you nothing, you go and see for yourselves.”

But later on he told Luisa about San Giovanni and Padre Pio, and this aroused in her an ardent curiosity and a desire to visit this Padre. Ever the lover of something new and unexpected, she soon undertook the journey to visit the modest hermitage where Padre Pio lived. Upon her arrival, she was immediately disgusted by the town, which was then very primitive, quite unlike what it was eventually to become. Used to cosmopolitan society, fancy palazzi and luxurious hotels, she made up her mind to return home immediately after encountering Padre Pio.


However, as she clambered up the rugged, and at that time unpaved, trail that led towards the convent, she started to think about and experience strange new sentiments and feelings that she had never before known. Perhaps it was the tiny birds flying among the branches of the budding almond trees, or the murmur of distant waters, or the bright azure sky of “Bella Italia,” or the song of a shepherd with his sheep. The sad reality of her life appeared before her mind, as she thought of the life that she had lived without accomplishing anything. She felt a sense almost of rebellion against herself for having hearkened to the world of appearances instead of listening to her own heart. Reaching the top of the Patariello, the hillock upon which stood the bare, plain monastery and chapel of Our Lady of Graces, a wave of melancholy and then one of infinite sweetness arose within her. She was overwhelmed by the combination of all these new sensations along with the thought of actually encountering the Padre who had changed her friend's life – the anticipation of coming before the stigmatic who was said to see and know everything about one's soul!

Padre Pio Recounted her Sins to her

Coming before the threshold of the little church, she found herself trembling and fearful, yet hopeful. But as she entered she could not hold back her loud sobs and tears, which fell in torrents from the depths of her soul, overflowing from the sorrowful pains she felt within herself. She would later state: “I can only say that in that church I felt the ice in my heart melting.” Some women who were nearby in the sacristy heard her bitter sobs, and hurried towards her, followed by Padre Pio himself. As soon as he saw Luisa, and before she could say a word he said to her: “Be calm, Signora, be calm! The mercy of God is infinite, and Jesus died on the cross for sinners.” She noticed at once an exceptional brightness about him, and she began to feel more tranquil. The other women did not know the hidden reasons for her tears, but they knew enough to let her alone with the Padre.

She asked him to hear her confession, but told him that she would not know what to say or to do. He replied that this was not the time for it. She should remain calm and come back at three o'clock, when he would confess her. If she did not know what to say, he would say it for her. She went into the church and tried to make an examination of conscience, but in fact she did not recall how to, since she had been away from the sacraments for so many years. And besides, she could not remember all of the many sins she had committed.

She returned at the appointed time that afternoon for her confession a little calmer, but she was still rent with tears and sobs, which made her unable to even speak to him. However, Padre Pio himself began by describing all the varied and diverse periods of her life, her adventures and vicissitudes, and pointed out the grave errors she had committed, and how they had kept her far away from God. When he finished enumerating her sins, he asked Luisa if she could recall anything else that should be confessed. In her heart she felt two distinct impulses. One said that she should confess a certain other sin, even though Padre Pio had not mentioned it, otherwise the entire confession would be invalid. But another voice within her said that it is not necessary to tell it, since Padre Pio would have listed it with the others if it were important. Fortunately, Luisa followed the good impulse, and confessed to him the sin that had been omitted. Padre Pio replied, “Finally . . . this is what I was waiting for.” And he gave her absolution. 

She left the chapel filled with happiness, experiencing for the first time the joy and the peace that she had vainly tried to capture through her worldly pursuits. She later said that if she had been keeping a daily journal all of her life, the description of her sins would not have been as exact as Padre Pio's account of them, since he had not overlooked even the smallest fault. 

Now desirous of completely renewing her life, she remained at San Giovanni Rotondo, daily making the trek to the convent along with other devotees of the Padre, and the visiting pilgrims. She took up residence in the home of the Fiorentino sisters, who were among his very first spiritual daughters. They instructed her in the steps of the spiritual life, and she spent the greater part of her days at the church. She commenced to undertake penitences, privations, and mortifications not only for herself, but also for the conversion of her son, who was assigned to a ship in the Navy.

This Water Does Not Wet

The fancy and elegant shoes from Paris and Rome that she once wore had become an odious memory.  One day, when the weather was so bad it kept many away from going to the church, she made up her mind to walk there on her bare feet, as an act of mortification.  The wind was howling, and the sleet penetrating her clothing felt like piercing thorns, but none of this deterred her. Exhausted, frozen, soaked to her bones, she reached the convent hardly able to stand on her feet. They had become swollen and bloody from plodding up the stony, rugged trail.

As she crossed the threshold of the Church, she fell in a faint, and was taken into the sacristy. The icy water dripped down from her garments, beginning to melt once she was indoors. As soon as he saw her, Padre Pio told her that she was too rash in doing such penance. “Our body is like a donkey that must be disciplined, but not too severely, otherwise it will collapse and be unable to carry us.” Then he placed his hand on her shoulder, saying: “This water does not wet.” And immediately her clothes were completely dry!

But nothing could deter Luisa from her penances, especially because of her son. Each time she spoke of him to the Padre, he would tell her to keep praying, because someday he too would see the light. She often wrote to her son about her conversion, but he did not believe it was genuine. Simply in order to please her he promised to come to San Giovanni Rotondo some day. But Luisa felt no peace in thinking that her worldly life had given him a bad example. Then after many months of penance at St. Mary of the Graces, a visitor brought with him some newspapers from England. Leafing through them in the square in front of the church, she let out a scream that was heard by everyone inside. She had read that his ship had sunk at sea, and over a dozen men had perished – but their names were not given.

Many rushed out from the church in order to calm her. When Padre Pio arrived, she told him that she feared her son was dead. He asked her “Who told you he has died to cause you such desperation?” She replied, “Can you assure me he is alive?” Padre Pio looked at Luisa, who was crying buckets, and then he raised his eyes heavenward. After a few moments he said: “Thank the Lord, your son is alive!” Padre Pio told her where he was staying, even stating the exact address. All the onlookers marveled. 


Luisa Vairo wrote a letter to her son, explaining how Padre Pio had given her the address, and begging him to come and give thanks for his escape from danger. Finally convinced, he obtained leave to come to San Giovanni for a day. His mother urged him to go to confession, and to fast in order to receive Communion. He promised her he would fast, but on the way to the church he stopped for a little snack of some eggs and grapes. Arriving at the sacristy where his mother awaited him, he was introduced to Padre Pio. The saint looked at him and said with a knowing smile: “What a rogue, what a liar!” The man was insulted, and asked Padre Pio, who had never met him before, why he was saying these things to him. He replied, “Are you going to insist to your mother that you have been fasting? What about those two eggs and those grapes that you have eaten?” Luisa's son became greatly disturbed, and then went down on his knees before the Padre, entreating him: “Padre, pardon me. I believe!”

This article is based on accounts in Alberto Del Fante's Per La Storia, pp. 279-288, and on Padre Pio Storia D'una Vittima, by Francobaldo Chiocci and Luciano Cirri, pp. 630-632.

View my books about Padre Pio and others Here.