“The life and mission of Padre Pio prove that difficulties and sorrows, if accepted out of love, are transformed into a privileged way of holiness, which opens onto the horizons of a greater good, known only to the Lord.”–St. John Paul II, Homily at the canonization of St. Pio of Pietrelcina
The very popular St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) is a sign of contradiction for the modern world. During his canonization homily, St. John Paul II points to the heart of St. Pio’s eloquent witness to the universal Church—the transformation of difficulties and sorrows into opportunities for holiness. This makes sense because Padre Pio’s stigmata, one of the most widely known things about him, illustrates this point in a literal way. He actually bore Jesus’ wounds on his body.
The governing ethos of modern life is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. We seek both sure safety from pain and difficulty—and a constant stream of dopamine and serotonin spikes to numb them when they arise. We sprint away from the cross while St. Pio embraced it, bearing its fruits is his own body. His wounds are magnetic.
Perhaps the popularity of St. Pio has something to do with our dissatisfaction with the utilitarianism of modern life. We don’t really buy it—we are not convinced that suffering and death can be avoided. We know that we are not really successful at numbing away pain and difficulty. When we are honest with ourselves, we all know the first noble truth that our Buddhist brothers and sisters articulate so pithily: To live is to suffer.
The Padre Pio’s stigmata, in the context of the witness of his entire life, preaches something powerful about suffering. It is not solitary and isolating. It isn’t meaningless and futile. We can bear the wounds of Christ on our bodies, be crucified with him, buried with him, and raised with him (see Galatians 2:20, 6:17; Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12; 2 Timothy 2:11) As the Scriptures teach, suffering is central to our Catholic Faith.
The life of St. Pio reminds us of the redemptive possibility found in our suffering if it is united to Christ. St. John Paul II also knew this well, as he states in his encyclical on suffering, Salvifici Dolores.
Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
Salvifici Dolores 19
But how can we raise our own trials, pains, difficulties, and disappointments to the level of redemption?
Here are five ideas that are inspired by St. Pio’s own words:
1. Know Yourself—and Conquer Yourself
“The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain”
Just as a loving mother and father must discipline their children to be truly loving and prevent them from growing up to be unhappy, unbearable, and unemployable, so must we learn to discipline ourselves in order to have a healthy sense of self-love.
The secular “gospel of self-care” misses this point. While we must not be overly severe with ourselves, we must also not be afraid to challenge ourselves. We must also be keenly aware of the traps we lay for ourselves so as not to fall into them. We must know our faults, weaknesses, and excuses—and fight back against them all.
So much sinful behavior is self-medication to cope with suffering. Not only are self-medicating behaviors ineffective in actually dealing with suffering, but they also bring about isolation, selfishness, and darkness. When we learn to struggle, lovingly and fiercely with ourselves that very pain is something to offer along with the sufferings with Christ.
2. Stop Worrying
“Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
This is perhaps the most often quoted saying of Padre Pio. It is almost surprising to hear from a man known from his focus on the cross of Jesus.
It almost sounds too “sunshiny.”
The reality is that a heart united to the Cross is united in hope and prayer and therefore has an interior calm and confidence in God. The one who truly conquers self is the one who actually loves himself and is at peace.
As our confidence in God grows, our anxiety wanes and suffering becomes bearable.
3. Remember that Faith is Not a Feeling
“The most beautiful act of faith is the one made in darkness, in sacrifice, and with extreme effort.”
We all know this. It is also true we do not really know this. We are like the man in the Gospel who says, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Uniting ourselves to Jesus’ sufferings will not usually bring about warm feelings. In times of real suffering, we must choose to believe—by making acts of faith through prayer, service, and sacrifice.
Our struggles and dark periods should not be a source of guilt. The witness of countless saints reminds us that time of spiritual darkness are a universal part of the spiritual journey.
Faith is an interior act, not an interior feeling.
4. Don’t Expect Perfect Happiness in this Life
“Happiness is only found in heaven.”
We have all been affected somewhat with the notion that we should work to create our own earthly paradise. We strive for experiences and look ahead to milestones: “When x happens, then I will be happy.”
While we should not expect to be perfectly happy in this life.
This does not mean we shouldn’t be joyful. Actually, quite the opposite. Our joy is rooted in our hope that there is something more. All of our pleasures on earth are diminished by their impermanence and imperfection, but we can see them as a sign of better things to come. This helps us to bear our difficulties in joy.
5. Live on Love
“My Jesus, love is what sustains me.”
Here is the simple key to it all. Here is the witness of every saint.
The “not so secret” secret?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”Matthew 22:36-40
Love transforms suffering. Contemporary saints such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, St.Therese of Lisieux, St. Damien of Molokai, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Josephine Bakhita—and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, of course—are figures unconquerable love in the midst of intense suffering.
How could these saints endure the trials of their lives? First, they knew that they were immeasurably loved by God (see 1 John 4:19). Second, sustained and nourished by God’s love, they returned it with their whole hearts to God and radiated it to their neighbors. Their wounds pressed into the wounds of Christ and made an offering to God the Father.
When the world encourages us to flee suffering and seek comfort, we need to remember the witness and words of St. Pio, along with the great cloud of witnesses that we find in the saints. The saints are joyful, hopeful reminders of the power of the Cross and the hope of resurrection.
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Colin MacIver teaches theology and has served as the religion department chair and campus ministry coordinator at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana. He is the author of the guide to Quick Catholic Lessons with Fr. Mike. He and his wife, Aimee, are co-authors and presenters of Theology of the Body for Teens Middle School Edition. They are also co-authors of the Power and Grace Guidebook, and the Chosen Parent’s and Sponsor’s Guides. Colin hosts The Tightrope podcast.
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