For quite some time I have been graced by accompanying Padre Pio’s prayer groups within the various friaries I have been sent to by my Capuchin superiors.
These prayers did not occur in a vacuum. They are intimately connected with Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. But who was Padre Pio? Francesco Forgione was born in Pietrelcina on 25 May 1887 to Grazio Forgione and Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio. In 1910, after he met Padre Camillo di Sant’Elia, a Capuchin friar from the community of Morcone, he expressed a wish to become a friar. His parents welcomed his vocation enthusiastically. His father, Grazio Mario Forgione, emigrated to America, so that little Francesco might receive an adequate education.
On 6 January 1903, Francesco entered the friary of Morcone and, on January 22nd of 1904, he took his vows and became Fra Pio. On the morning of 10 August 1910, Padre Pio was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Benevento and celebrated his first eucharist in the Chiesa Madre in Pietrelcina on August 14th.
On 7 September 1910, while he was praying under an elm in the countryside area, near Pietrelcina, named Piana Romana, Padre Pio received the Stigmata for the first time, which disappeared a year later. In 1915, he was called to join the Armed Forces. Medical checks revealed that Francesco was suffering from tuberculosis. In view of this he was sent home. In February 1916, he entered the religious community of Saint Anna in Foggia whereas on 28 July of the same year, his Father Superior assigned him to the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, where he would spend the rest of his life.
On 20 September 1918, while he was praying in the choir of the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio received the wounds of Christ on his hands, feet and side. In 1940, the committee for the construction of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza was created. On 5 May 1956, the Casa Sollievo was inaugurated whilst on 22 September 1968, Padre Pio celebrated his last eucharist. He died in the early hours of 23 September 1968. He was beatified on 2 May 1999 and canonized on 16 June 2002.
With the outbreak of World War II, Pope Pius XII exhorted the faithful to pray for world peace, unity and salvation. In his plea of 17 February 1942, amid the turbulent years of World War II, the Pope said the following: We need strong groups of adults and youth, who, keeping themselves closely united with Christ, gather at least once a month for the Bread of Life and encourage others to do the same. The second appeal, also within the war context, came on 13 March 1943: Do not fear, pray. Finally, on 8 March 1952, the Pope launched the subsequent appeal: The Church has urgent need of the faithful and groups of the faithful, from all walks of life, who, free from the slavery of human respect, conform their entire life and activities to the commandments of God and the law of Christ.
Padre Pio immediately realised how important the Pontiff’s plea would mean to him. As a matter of fact, he strove to invite his spiritual children and the countless devotees who used to come to the small Friary at San Giovanni Rotondo to gather together and pray as a community. Soon after, many groups were formed within Italy and all over the world. They would gather on a regular schedule to pray for Padre Pio’s intercession. Moreover, Padre Pio invited priests to handle spiritual direction in each group, in order to maintain a spiritual connection.
All Prayer Groups had the same structure. Their creation, organization and activity were soon regulated by guidelines based on Padre Pio’s teachings. Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (House for the Relief of Suffering), the grandiose miracle of Saint Pio from Pietrelcina, has always guided and helped Prayer Groups throughout the world.
The Prayer Groups, which began as a support for the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, are a continuous reply to Padre Pio’s appeal: Never grow weary of praying. This is essential. Prayer penetrates the heart of God and obtains the graces needed… Without prayer, our House for the Relief of Suffering is somewhat like a plant without air and sun. It is said that one day, Doctor Sanguinetti, who had read the words of Pope Pius XII from the Osservatore Romano (Vatican Newspaper), heard Padre Pio saying: Let us start doing something. Let us roll up our sleeves. Let us be the first to respond to the appeal launched by our Supreme Pontiff.
In a world on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe, Padre Pio’s words highly resonate the importance of prayer when he said: Prayer is the best weapon we have, and the key to God’s heart. The first time we encounter a prayer group that came from Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza dates back to September 1949. They gather once or twice monthly; they assist at Mass, receive the Sacraments, and recite the Rosary together…We would be very happy if these groups multiplied, possibly under the spiritual direction of a priest.
The great spiritual fruitfulness of these prayer groups is attested to at the Second International Congress of the Prayer Groups, assembled at the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza on 5 May 1966. On that day Padre Pio spoke to the Congress and specified regarding the growth and work of the prayer groups. In his speech he called attention to their growth and work saying:
These Groups had been officially recognized by the Church, according to a statue approved by the Holy See which came into effect on 4 May 1986.
My montly experience in one of these prayer groups remind me of a great teaching Padre Pio gave on prayer:
Let prayer be the blessing of our lives! It is the blessing through which we bless others, especially those who are undergoing terrible suffering in silence.