Padre Pio had saved Michele's life during World War II, but then refused to hear his confession.
Michele Cardone was born in Padre Pio's hometown of Pietrelcina, before moving to Australia later in his life. While he was living in Italy, he heard Padre Pio spoken of often, even from his childhood. However, he never bothered to find out anything about the saint, and was not even sure what he looked like. As a young adult, all he knew about him was that he was a holy monk who lived in San Giovanni Rotondo.
When the Second World War broke out, Michele volunteered for the Navy, and was assigned to various ships. On Palm Sunday, April 18, 1943, he was serving on board the destroyer Alpino, which was anchored at the port of La Spezia, in northern Italy. The chaplain of the ship had invited the sailors to perform their Easter duty that morning, by going to confession and communion. Almost everyone responded to the request, except for a few. Among those few was Michele Cardone. But it was not because he was opposed or indifferent to the sacraments. Instead, during his next shore leave, he was planning on going home to Pietrelcina, and then from there to travel to San Giovanni Rotondo, in order to make his confession to Padre Pio, and to receive communion from him. It was to be his first visit to see him and his friary.
But that Palm Sunday evening, about half an hour before midnight, an alarm suddenly sounded, taking the 200-man crew by surprise. A heavy incursion of enemy aircraft rumbled overhead, and they began raining down their load of bombs. In just a few minutes, the earth and the sky were transformed into an immense ring of light and fire, both from the anti-aircraft artillery and from the exploding projectiles. There were enormous flames and deafening booms – it seemed like the end of the world. The destroyer Alpino was directly hit by the incendiary bombs at many points, causing deaths and injuries among the crew. The ship began to take on water through the numerous holes opened by the bombs, and slowly began to sink. In the meantime, crude oil naphtha began leaking from damaged storage tanks on board; it ignited and spread in rivulets of fire along the deck.
The sailors were trying to remain calm as the situation became more frightening, but the terror disoriented everyone completely. They did not know where to go to seek safety because of the suffocating fumes and heat produced by the spread of the burning naphtha. In addition, munitions that were stored on the deck were beginning to explode due to the intense heat, endangering the larger ammunition stores that were below deck in the interior of the ship. The situation was desperate. In those moments Michele was sure that his life would be over.
“Then I beheld before me, at some distance, the figure of a monk with a beard, who had suddenly appeared. He was there with his arms opened wide as if waiting for someone at the opposite side of the quay. I don't know why, but I regained courage and hope again.” Then, just as quickly as he had emerged, the monk disappeared. How would it be possible to get across through the flames of the naphtha raging on the ship and on the dock? “Then I saw once again above and in front of me the same friar beckoning me with open, inviting arms. I became infused with tremendous energy, and dragging along with me two wounded companions, succeeded in reaching a place of safety.”
A few days after that fearful April night, all of the uninjured survivors were allowed a short period of leave. Michele returned to his home in Pietrelcina, in order to be reunited with his family, and to refresh himself spiritually and physically. He hastened to the parish church of Our Lady of the Angels, to make his thanksgiving before the statue of the Madonna della Libera (Our Lady Liberatrix), the Patron Saint of Pietrelcina, to whom Padre Pio was very devoted.
|Madonna della Libera|
Then on the first of May, Michele, accompanied by his mother, traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo. They entered the monastery church, where he waited in line to confess to Padre Pio. “While I was waiting for my turn to make by confession, I began to feel empty and spiritually dry in my soul. When my turn arrived, and I saw Padre Pio for the very first time, my breath was taken away, and my heart gave a start. He resembled perfectly the monk whom I had seen two times in front of me with open arms during the evening of the bombardment at La Spezia.”
But Padre Pio refused to hear his confession. Brushing him away he said to Michele, “One does not pray to God only at San Giovanni Rotondo!” Although mortified and confused, the very next morning Michele returned to the friary. This time Padre Pio listened with kindness to his confession. His emotions reached a peak when later he was allowed to visit the saint in his cell. Padre Pio blessed him, saying, “Go forward, pray, and may God be with thee.”
Based on an account in the “Voce di Padre Pio,” January 1996, page 46.