Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Our Lady of Fatima saved Padre Pio from imminent death 55 years ago this month

In 1959, Padre Pio’s health went downhill and in April of that year, he became gravely ill.  He could not get out of bed, and in the following months, he fell into even worse health.  Padre Pio had a history of battling lung ailments.  As a young seminarian, not long after taking his permanent vows, he was hit with high fevers and chronic bronchitis that was feared to be TB. 

In June 1959, his doctors gathered around him, to examine him and make a prognosis. Dr Pontoni, Dr Gasbarrini, Dr Valdoni and Dr Toniolo confirmed the worst: Padre Pio only had a few months to live – he was perishing because of a malignant tumour that had enmeshed itself in his lung.  

Enter Fr Mario Mason, a Jesuit priest who was traveling around Italy, bringing a statue of Our Lady of Fatima from town to town. 

On August 5th, Fr Mason was in San Giovanni Rotondo. All night long, the local people came to pray before the statue of Our Lady, asking that Padre Pio’s tumour would miraculously disappear. The next morning at 10 am, the helicopter pilot who transported the statue of Our Lady, the driver, some missionaries and Fr Mason went to see Padre Pio in his cell. 

They found him lying in bed, perspiring heavily and wheezing. With great difficulty Padre Pio whispered, “God bless you for all the good you are doing for the Church and for Italy. Tell the people to practice all the good things that Our Lady is inspiring them to do.”

Padre Pio was carried out on a stretcher and placed in front of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. After praying for a few minutes, he was taken back to his cell. 

Soon it was time for Fr Mason to leave – and they flew away in the helicopter. But when they were some distance away, Fr Mason had a strong impulse to turn back, he felt as though Padre Pio was calling him back and he said to the pilot, “fly over the monastery”. When they flew over Padre Pio’s cell, they remained in the air for some minutes. On hearing the whirring of the helicopter, Padre Pio prayed this prayer, “Holy Mary, when you came to Italy, you confined me to my bed with these illnesses. Now, that you are going, are you going to leave me like this?”

After uttering these words, his body shook mightily, a sight that disturbed the monks who were caring for him, who thought that he was about to die. In a matter of seconds, Padre Pio felt better. He started breathing regularly and without difficulty. His cheeks no longer had a deathly white pallor, but a normal colour had returned. He said that he was no longer in pain, but felt strong and was able to get out of bed. The doctors rushed to see him, and they examined him thoroughly. They found not a hint of the hideous cancerous growth.

Merely two days later, Padre Pio was able to offer Holy Mass again, to hear confession and to meet with pilgrims.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

If the Catholic blogosphere is to survive then our bloggers must become more Catholic

Nearly five years ago, I started a Catholic blog that has been modestly successful. The high-point was when I was invited to the Vatican Blogmeet in May 2011. During those exhilarating days of Benedict’s pontificate, bloggers raised their voices in support of the German Pope.

Now the voices are going quiet. Talking to my fellow bloggers, they say that their minds are occupied with spiteful thoughts on Church politics. Some have taken an unfair personal dislike to Pope Francis, and this aversion has coloured their blogging to such an extent that they fall into two categories: blogging to critique the Pope or not blogging at all. If Catholic blogging is limited to Vatican politics and the personality of the Pope, then it will always run out of steam.

In response to the “there’s nothing to blog about” grumble, why are some grand occasions being ignored outright by the Catholic blogosphere? For instance, just over a week has passed since August 16 when Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean Catholic martyrs. Their beatification was not given adequate attention on the blogosphere. 

Martyrs will make a difficult subject if you don’t like writing about blood-spilling. There’s always the alternative of blogging about saints who were not put to death because of their faith. Even in modern time, saints like St Therese of Lisieux have a remarkable popularity. Showcasing the good works done by Catholic saints also helps improve our image and grabs the attention of non-Catholics who, for example, might urgently need prayer for an illness.

My most successful blog posts have not been about papal politics but about Padre Pio. There are times when I find it hard on my nerves to write about Padre Pio because had he met me, I don’t think he would think well of me. But readers continually say they are “very grateful” because they find that reading about Padre Pio helps them cope with their personal hardships.

As regards bloggers who are “low on inspiration”, perhaps they could devote their energy to myth busting? This takes patience and fortitude, but surely there is little excuse to be idle when by and large our society has such bewildered ideas about our faith. We have a missionary faith, and the Church exists for the aim of saving souls. Being Catholic means doing what we can – including using our blogs to bring back the lapsed and attract converts.

Ironically enough, Catholic blogging will have to become more richly Catholic to survive.

I wrote this blog for The Catholic Herald website.  Do pop over to the newspaper's official site

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"After walking 1,411 miles, I'm still a sinner"

A big reason that Harry Bucknall walked the pilgrimage to Rome down the ancient Via Francigena was because of the age-old promise that you make up for your past sins by doing it.  ‘I’ve led a wild existence. There isn’t much that I haven’t experienced in life!’ Bucknall exclaims in his vivacious way. 

But the pilgrimage is not for wimps. The 1,411 mile journey traditionally begins in Canterbury. From the Kent countryside, you make your way through France, Switzerland, and then through Italy, until reaching St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  

I am deeply curious as to why anyone would want to do such a pilgrimage. Shedding some light on the peccadilloes that he hoped to atone for, Bucknall says, ‘I’ve been a party animal. I’ve had a past with lots of drinking and lots of hedonism.’ 

 The Via Francigena is one of the most physically demanding pilgrimages on earth. Did he know what he was getting himself into?  ‘I started out from a point of naivety. I thought this would be a jolly jape, that it would be a nice outing through the Kent countryside and then onto France.’ When did he realise how hard it was going to be? ‘It wasn’t until I was nearly 300 miles into the pilgrimage. It was at Laon, that I broke down, and wondered if I could go on. But I persevered.’ 

He documented his travels in his riveting book, Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim. Bucknall recounts his many adventures, the friends that he makes along the way, and the many times where he feels the helping hand of an angel or saint. 

 But merely thinking about grueling pilgrimages make me squeamish - I had a beloved uncle who died shortly after walking the Way of St James. That said, the Via Francigena is twice as long as the Way of St James.  Not to mention that it entails relying on the kindness of strangers to give you a bed for the night or a free meal.

When I talk to Bucknall, a dapper man in his 40s, who is the quintessential English gent, I want to go further into his reasons for doing the pilgrimage.  So, I ask Bucknall as to the unique personal benefit the pilgrimage held for him.  ‘The truth is that I did the pilgrimage to expunge a very low period in my life.’

‘Before starting the Via Francigena, I had just come out of a very bad, verbally violent and at times physically abusive relationship.  It was a most foolish time when I elected stupidly and irrationally to go out with another man twenty years my junior. It was full of jealousies, and one felt unworthy because one couldn’t compete,’ Bucknall discloses with admirable honesty.

Not content to blame his ex-boyfriend, Bucknall concedes, ‘an abusive relationship takes two.  It’s not that he was a bad man, but we were bad to each other.’

This need for a cleansing pilgrimage caused him to leave his job, his flat and his family and friends behind in England, in order to trek through  Europe with a rosary and crucifix around his neck.  It was a time of making peace with his past, ‘that relationship was a disaster, and I was largely atoning for my behaviour during that time. I have to take responsibility for my part in the relationship,’ he says humbly. 

The relationship had been over by six months before he started the Via Francigena. That said, Bucknall dealt with some unfinished business on the way. ‘When I started the pilgrimage, my ex-boyfriend would send me text messages.  He wanted to get back together with me.  When I would not agree, he sent extremely abusive texts.’

There was also lingering regret, ‘When I was in the abusive relationship, I felt I had let my family down and upset them. It was a very public relationship, and I had been relying too much on some of my friends for emotional support.’ 

Bucknall had been walking for hundreds of miles ‘before I really got the relationship with the much younger man out of my system’.
It was at the St Bernard Pass in Switzerland that a change came over Bucknall,  ‘when I was staying in the monastery of St Bernard, there is a certain joy that I had arrived at the high point of a journey.  And I aligned my will to forgive my ex-boyfriend and to forgive myself. I came to terms with my past.’

Great suffering in Bucknall’s life was changed to great happiness. He also saw how his troubles had inspired him to do the pilgrimage, ‘had I not been in such a difficult relationship, then I would never have gone on the pilgrimage. And this book would never have been written.’

But the book is not about being gay. Bucknall is frank that, ‘my sexuality does not define my life or my writing. Some people use their sexuality as a weapon of leverage. I don’t. I just happen to be Christian, gay and a writer.’

Like a Pilgrim, Like a Tramp is about a genuine quest to find holiness.  It’s not spiritual fluff either, Bucknall contextualises it, ‘admittedly there are an abundance of sickening articles in the mainstream press about being ‘spiritual’,’ he snorts a laugh, ‘but my book is about actual encounters with the angels and saints, as well as meeting wonderful people who put their trust in God.’

Bucknall has gained an appreciation for the mighty St Michael.  But the book starts with a thank you to a lesser known saint, St Spyridon of Corfu. Bucknall says that he is a firm believer in the intercession of St Spyridon. Some years before walking the Via Francigena, Bucknall fell off a cliff in Paxos, but called on St Spyridon and escaped certain death.

On the Via Francigena, Bucknall  met a fascinating cast of characters, who have rock-solid faith. One of them, a young woman, Sylviane is confined to a wheelchair, and told him that she may have lost the use of her legs, but that God was her guide. She even crossed the Alps before Bucknall did.

Bucknall’s book is largely a very timely celebration of Europe’s Catholic riches.  Yet, Bucknall is not Roman Catholic.  He says unabashedly, ‘I love Catholics!  All my closest friends are Catholic.  Half of my nine God-children are Catholic.’

So, is he about to swim the Tiber? ‘Well, I am a proud Anglican!’ he exclaims.  ‘I got very close to becoming Catholic during 2001. But then I was confronted with the paedophilia scandals and I couldn’t face coming in.’  In his book Bucknall hints that paedophile priests must get more public punishment.  Brief reference is made to this in Like a Pilgrim, Like a Tramp. When he reaches the cathedral of Piacenza, Bucknall saw a cage mounted on the side of the cathedral bell tower.  In the old days, errant priests were put there for up to a year, and fed on bread and water. In his book, Bucknall suggests that he thinks the cage would be useful in these times!

It seems a shame to be so scandalised by the sexual abuse crisis that he misses out on full Communion.  I mean, if he has such admiration for the true Church, then why has he not joined us?  ‘I toy a lot with becoming a Catholic,’ he admits. 

Many people think that the Church has a problem with gay people.  Is that an issue for him?  ‘No, it’s not an issue. The fact that I’m gay has nothing to do with the reason that I’ve not become Catholic. I think Pope Francis has got the balance right in being so open to gay people, but in opposing gay marriage.’

But he is unyielding that, ‘my roots are everything to me.  I would never betray my Anglican background.’  Roots?  I remind him that we were all Catholic once upon a time. He agrees, ‘oh, yes, we were all Catholic, before us Protestants left the Catholic fold and set up on our own.’ 

This leads us to having a spirited debate about his use of the word, ‘Christianity’ in the following sentence: ‘Such was the fervour for Christianity in France during the Middle Ages that there were roughly 200 people to every church built.’

I raise a quibble here, asking Bucknall, if instead of crediting ‘Christianity’ with this flourishing of church building, he should have attributed it to Catholicism?  He relents, ‘alright, Christianity was Catholicism.  There was no difference. Protestantism did not exist at that time.  In my book, when I describe the amazing Catholic churches, I mean to tell people that everyone can worship in them, even a Protestant like me.’

Talking about amazing churches, the aim of the pilgrimage is to reach St Peter’s Basilica in one piece.  Harry Bucknall succeeded in doing so, and is the better for it.  The pilgrimage meant a lot of penance, and does he think that he is still free from sin for having done it? ‘No one stays free from sin for long.  Some people might think that they are free from sin for life after doing the Via Francigena. But I know that in the eyes of God, I’m a miserable sinner.’ 

I did this interview with Harry Bucknall for the  8th of August print edition of The Catholic Herald. 

You may buy Harry's immensely entertaining and life-affirming book on Amazon.

Keep up to date with Harry's travels on the Facebook page.  

Sunday, 10 August 2014

104 years ago today, Francesco Forgione became PADRE PIO

The first Catholic priest to receive the stigmata was born on the 25th
of May, 1887 and named ‘Francesco’.  He was the son of Grazio and Giuseppa Forgione. Pietrelcina, a remote village in Southern Italy was his homeland. 

Francesco grew up on a winding street, in a one-roomed house with a
relentlessly hot, golden sun overhead. His parents were simple, farming people, who were tireless workers, and made their living from tilling a few acres which were located a thirty-minute walk from their village. On their plot of land, they had a stone house, in which crops were stored, and where they also slept during harvest time.

The house where Padre Pio grew up

They led a balanced life, where hard labour and religious observance
went hand in hand. After a hard day of planting crops, the Forgione family
recited the Rosary every evening, without fail. They fasted from meat three days a week, in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Francesco’s parents and grandparents could not read, but they memorised Sacred Scripture and as part of everyday life, they told their children stories from the Bible. His mother, known as Mamma Peppa, was always described as being very gentle, and there was great warmth and tenderness between her and her little boy whom she had named after St Francis.

When he was a young child, his family and fellow villagers did not
earmark him as being very different. But decades later in his life, St Pio,
would recall how he had visions of Our Lady when he was merely five years old.

At the time, he didn’t mention these sightings of Our Lady, nor did he write about them.  The pensive, alert, beady-eyed five-year-old Francesco
believed that visions of the Mother of God were normal occurrences in childhood, and he did not think himself extraordinary because she visited him in person.

Some have suggested that he thought of becoming a Franciscan because he was named after St Francis.  In actual fact, when he was around
ten-years-old, he was drawn to the Capuchins, after seeing a young friar, Br. Camillo, who strolled around Pietrelcina begging for alms. Fr Camillo had a special rapport with the village children, and he always gave them little gifts of medals, holy cards and chestnuts. Young Francesco would follow the friar like the other children, but it was Br Camillo’s long, flowing bear that riveted his attention.  Pio later declared, ‘no one could take away my desire to be a bearded friar.’

His parents greeted the news of his vocation with joy, but also with a
resolute determination that they were committed to making the many sacrifices necessary to get young Francesco into the seminary.  At that time in Italy, the government provided only three years of primary school education. 

The Forgione family would have to find a way to pay for Francesco’s
private tuition, so that he was sufficiently educated, as to be accepted for
priestly formation. But the family had no spare lire. Grazio, St Pio’s father
said he would have to ‘emigrate or steal’. 

In 1899, Grazio travelled on a ship bound for Brazil, but when he
arrived he found that the employment opportunities were few, and that he would have to borrow money to return to Italy. This surely was an exasperating disappointment, but undaunted, Grazio made plans to emigrate again, and this time he crossed the ocean to the United States where he found work on a farm in Pennsylvania. His employer noticed Grazio’s wide experience in farming, and appointed him a supervisor of other farmhands. While Grazio sent money home for his son’s education, there was a growing concern that young Francesco was spending so many hours on end praying in the chapel, that he was neglecting his
school lessons. 

His parents did not disapprove of his piety, but they told him
off because he was not concentrating hard enough on passing school tests. They reminded him that his father had left the family homestead and was doing gruelling farm work in America with the intention of financing his education.

But in time, Francesco got the balance right, and focussed on the three aspects of his life, prayer, farm labour and studying.

In January 1903, Francesco was about to start his novitiate, in the Morcone Capuchin friary.  He was only fifteen, and found the experience of
leaving his mother so hard that it was like an, ‘interior martyrdom’, and he later said that he felt his bones were being crushed. His mother was in anguish too, she said, ‘my heart is bleeding, but St Francis has called you.’ 

On arriving at the friary, the first person that he met was Br Camillo who called out ‘bravo!’ on seeing him. After he was there two weeks, he took the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor and had a white cord tied around his waist.

He was no longer known as ‘Francesco’, but was given the name Pio. For
the rest of his life, St Pio would celebrate May 5th, the feast of
St Pius V as his ‘name day’, a celebratory occasion on a par with a
birthday.  As a novice, St Pio, embraced the strict lifestyle of a friar,
and was an exemplary novice by the humble but faultless way he performed penances, fasts and the imposed silences. During the autumn of his novitiate, his father came home from America for a visit, and together with his mother, they visited Morcone. They were in for a shock when they beheld a gaunt, worryingly thin Pio, who had got into the habit of passing his rations of bread  to the other friars. Their son kept silent and stared at the floor.  The Father Guardian had to encourage him to speak, and only then did he chat freely to his parents. 

On another occasion, the Superior of the Friary announced to his mother; “your son is too good; we can find no fault in him”.

Two mystical phenomenons were associated with Padre Pio during his
novitiate. One day, his Novice Master told him not to receive Holy Communion. 

Pio, reportedly, nearly died because he was not permitted to receive the
Eucharist, and when the Novice Master relented and gave him permission, Pio was revived.  The second was that key witnesses observed that he had ‘the gift of tears’.  They would find Pio in the chapel, before a crucifix, and weeping so profusely that one witness said, ‘the floor would be stained’. 

Finally, the long year of his novitiate ended, and in January 1904 he
made his temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which would last for three years. It is accurate to say that he spent the next six years studying for the priesthood.  But like the street where he was reared, St Pio’s journey to the priesthood would be a rough path with many twists and turns.

At that time, the government had suppressed religious orders in Italy and as a direct result; there was no designated monastery that provided a full seminary education. Instead, Pio travelled to and from five different communities.

After three years of roaming between friaries, and at the age of nineteen, Pio made his Solemn Profession in January 1907, when he vowed to live his entire life, imitating the example of St Francis.

The first three years of studying for the priesthood were successfully
completed. But the latter three years were a time of severe health-problems and painful uncertainty as the shadow of the grim reaper loomed. It was not long after he had taken his permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, that he increasingly endured high fevers and bronchitis.  

He was frequently sent home to Pietrelcina for  convalescence, and would return to religious life when he showed signs of improvement. But in 1908, he was given a diagnosis of tuberculosis, and informed that he only had a few months to live.  Two other doctors dismissed the diagnosis of TB, but they did confirm chronic bronchitis, which was worsened because of Pio’s extreme fasts from food.

But Pio was also struck with stabbing stomach pains and debilitating
bouts of vomiting that took a great toll on his strength.  He had received
permission to study for the priesthood in Pietrelcina. But during this period of severe infirmity, Pio was often so convinced that his death was imminent, that he began to doubt if he would be ordained. 

The rule was that a seminarian had to be twenty-four before being consecrated to the priesthood.  An exception was made, and at the age of twenty-three, on the 10th of August 1910, he was ordained by Archbishop Paulo Schinosi at the Cathedral of Benevento, and became ‘Padre Pio’.  

Nearly 92 years later, on the 16th of June 2002, John Paul II
canonised ‘the simple friar who prays’, but to this day, he is still known
affectionately as ‘Padre Pio’. 

This post was originally published in September 2012 by Oremus magazine.  I re-post it here because of the 104th anniversary of Padre Pio being ordained to the priesthood. 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Forget gargling hot brandy for a sore throat - keep Lourdes water at home

Some weeks ago, I picked up a viral infection that brought on a lung packed with fluid, a constantly runny nose and a terribly sore throat.

Owing to the fact that it was ‘viral’, it could not be treated with anti-biotics. So, I got hold of ground-up grapefruit seed tonic that tasted like floor polish, but only made my throat ache more. A friend playing Florence Nightingale gave me a hot brandy and lemon toddy that I gargled to ‘bump off’ the virus. Let’s just say that hot brandy is not meant for gargling!

The idea of taking some Lourdes water popped into my mind. It’s that time of year, when pilgrims are flooding into the French village, and a few of my friends have already been there on pilgrimage. I remembered the five litre flask of Lourdes water that I schlepped back from my last pilgrimage to Lourdes in 2010. The Lourdes water is stationed at the entrance to my flat to bless my humble abode. And it’s kosher to drink it – Our Lady instructed us to ‘drink at the spring and wash in it’.

Lourdes Pilgrimage 2010
I poured the water into a cup and gingerly took some sips. I forgot about it for an hour, and suddenly realised that my sore throat had vanished. It was not an abrupt cure, the healing came on in a gentle way, and the pain melted and was gone. Shortly, the hideous signs of my infection faded away.

There are 69 miraculous Lourdes cures that are officially recognised by the Church. Not forgetting the myriad anecdotal cures that people attribute to drinking the water or bathing in it.

But many of us can’t go to Lourdes where we would pray at the shrine or immerse ourselves in the water. That’s not to say that we are excluded from all the blessings from Our Lady of Lourdes.

For those of us who long to go to Lourdes, but can’t get the time off work or can’t afford to travel, it can be a source of healing grace to keep a cache of Lourdes water at home.

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald Website, do visit the site and see the full range of bright blogs,  great comment pieces and the latest news from the Vatican.
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