From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Pius XII exhorted the faithful to gather together and pray often as a community. The Holy Father’s invitation for groups of the faithful to gather for prayer was picked up by the faithful as World War II loomed on the horizon. This war would divide and disperse millions of people. If war divides and disperses, then prayer would bring together and unite.
Pope Pius XII’s pleas came from the heart of the Holy Father who saw the dangers that his spiritual children would encounter as the world in which they were called to live as pilgrims and strangers moved further away from God-centered values. His pleas for a greater commitment to prayer and a deeper Christian life were expressed by the Holy Father throughout his Pontificate: 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 (February 17, 1942). Do not fear, pray (March 13, 1943). 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 (March 8, 1952).
Understanding the value and need to pray always, Padre Pio accepted the repeated pleas of Pope Pius XII and encouraged the faithful to gather in groups to pray according to the intentions of the Holy Father. In 1947, at Padre Pio’s invitation, Prayer Groups were spontaneously springing up and taking on a more stable form; their sole desire was to pray and pray together. They were, if not officially, certainly in fact, the forerunners of the Prayer Groups we know today. They began as a support for the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (House for the Relief of Suffering), and as a response 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. One day, Doctor Sanguinetti, who had read the words of Pope Pius XII from the Osservatore Romano (Vatican Newspaper), heard Padre Pio say: Let us start doing something. Let us role up or sleeves. Let us be the first to respond to the appeal launched by our Supreme Pontiff.
In a world armed for war, Padre Pio wanted a world armed with prayer: Prayer is the best weapon we have, and the key to God’s heart. We encounter the first document that speaks of the existence of groups of the faithful who have accepted the proposal to pray together, emanating from the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza in 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 first list of officially established Prayer Groups was drawn up in 1950. Pare Pio formulated a precise and clear image of what the Prayer Groups were to be and how they were to fulfill their mission. The Invitation to Prayer, from the August 1950 edition of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza states: The Prayer Groups will live their Christian life fully and openly according to the wishes of His Holiness if they are first groups of the faithful who pray together.
At the Second International Congress of the Prayer Groups, gathered at the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza on May 5, 1966, Padre Pio spoke to the Congress and called attention to their growth and work: to my dear children of Italy and the world,…near and far…now spread throughout the world…and gathered here near the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza…the positions fostered by this little city of charity (the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza), nursery of faith and hearth of love, in which Christ Himself is present every time we gather for prayer and the Eucharistic Agape, under the guidance of the pastors and spiritual directors…It is prayer, this united strength of all good souls, that moves the world, that renews the consciences, that supports the “Casa”, that comforts the suffering, that heals the sick, that sanctifies labor, that elevates health care, that gives moral strength and Christian resignation to human suffering, that spreads the smile and blessing of God on the fainthearted and the weak. Padre Pio repeated Pope Pius XII’s invitation to the faithful and encouraged the Prayer Groups: Pray much, my children, pray always without ever growing tired…we entrust this work to God.
If the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza seemed the Cathedral of Suffering, the Prayer Groups were to be the Cathedrals of Prayer. If pain was the common bond of all those who suffered throughout the world, prayerful charity strengthened and guaranteed a greater bond among Christians. A Prayer Group is a cross rooted in earth, that points directly to heaven, through prayer, and spreads throughout the whole world through charity (Don Giancarlo Setti).
Padre Pio, through the stigmata he bore and the life of prayer he led, understood the sufferings of the infirm, as well as the prayers of both the sick and the healthy. Let us gather periodically for prayer in common. Today’s society does not pray, that is why it is falling apart (Padre Pio).
The idea of Prayer Groups was promoted and supported by Padre Pio because he envisioned them and God’ instruments of relief for a suffering world. Knowing that alone he could do little for those who suffer throughout the world, Padre Pio organized the Prayer Groups so that they would be a source of constant prayer embracing all those around the world who were needy in either body or soul. The Prayer Groups, begun along with the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, found their unity in the spirit of their founder, Padre Pio. As they sprang up around the world, each Group in its own uniqueness would fulfill its mission in accord with the approval of the local bishop and under the spiritual guidance of a priest assistant.
Essentially centered on prayer and charity, the Prayer Groups were expected to grow in the spirit so often recommended and encouraged by Padre Pio: a spirit and attitude of respect and obedience for the Church. These groups of people that gathered for prayer under the guidance of a priest spiritual director had an absolutely private character to them. Some commented that in view of the private character of the Prayer groups, there was no need to request ecclesiastical approval, since there is no need for Church approval to gather for prayer with a priest. The immediate and explicit response that Padre Pio made to this remark was undeniable: If the local Church authority does not approve the Groups, there is only one solution possible: obey immediately and cease all activities, making absolutely no comments or remarks of any kind. The conclusion was more than clear: The Church is our common Mother, to whom we must be absolutely and devotedly obedient (Guglielmo Sanguinetti). Padre Pio would often repeat to Giancarlo Setti, to whom he had entrusted the direction of the Prayer Groups in 1960: They must be united, and must never tire doing good, be obedient and respectful to the Hierarchy, and be firm and persevering in their commitment.
When someone asked Padre Pio if they might establish a Prayer Group, but expressed uncertainties regarding obstacles encountered because of the lack of interest on the part of the clergy, Padre Pio’s response was unequivocal and direct: Do nothing without the permission of the bishops and the priests. Do everything in common agreement, and obey. The need to gather at least once a month, to pray for the intentions of the Holy Father and to be a source of charity for all, were to be the essential characteristics of every Group.
Some bishops, however, were concerned that the Prayer Groups were springing up as personal fan clubs around Padre Pio. Thus it happened that some Groups encountered many difficulties and great hostility there where they should have found encouragement and support (Cardinal Lercaro). Padre Pio did not desire nor did he need publicity or applause, whether in Italy or abroad. Those who knew his humility, reserve, desire for the silent life, and obedience to the Church were convinced that his desire for these Prayer Groups was solely founded on the words of Jesus Who tells us that He is present wherever two or three are gathered in His Name. In a secularized society that often denies God, the Groups were to be, Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna stated: a reminder to Gospel-centered people of their need for God, of His certainties and hopes, of his love and grace…; a collective profession of trust in the fatherly love of the Lord…a fraternal bond that links the members (of the Prayer Groups) among themselves, and goes beyond all human misery, indigence and suffering.
This spirit, set ablaze at San Giovanni Rotondo by Padre Pio, spread rapidly throughout the world. At the last International Congress of the Prayer Groups, while Padre Pio was still alive, the Prayer Groups gathered as an association officially recognized by the Church. In fact, only a few weeks before – July 31, 1968 – the Holy See appointed a General Director for the Prayer Groups. The objectives of the Prayer Groups throughout the world were officially recognized as being a response to the appeal of the Holy Father Pope Pius XII for all Christians to unite in prayer. This act of Pope Paul VI, officially recognizing the Prayer Groups, gave comfort to Padre Pio during the last few days of his life on earth. The vigil of his death, Padre Pio, who in silence had always nurtured the prayerful spirit of the Groups, finally saw the supreme approval. Thus his earthly mission came to a close among the choir of those who pray: in reality, it was a continual prayer, a persistent supplication to the Father, offering Him with Christ, in Christ and through Christ, the needs and sorrows, the hopes and fears of the Church and the world (Cardinal Lercaro).
All those belonging to the Prayer Groups throughout the world considered themselves Spiritual Children of Padre Pio. They looked to Padre Pio as a sure guide through life. They spontaneously sought him out either in person or by mail, in order to receive his counsels and directives. The first group of spiritual children can be said to have begun at San Giovanni Rotondo in 1917. They gathered around Padre Pio as their spiritual director. Padre Pio was given permission by his superiors to guide the many souls of San Giovanni Rotondo who were seeking his guidance in living a more perfect life. The local friary became the first gathering place for his spiritual children. They gathered to participate in his spiritual conferences in the visitors’ area of the friary
The first spiritual children of Padre Pio would gather with their Spiritual Director usually on Thursdays and Sundays. He would speak to them of virtue and vice, weaknesses that had to be fought, good that we are called to live. His approach was simple and practical, rich in a wealth of experiences, directed toward the essence of the Christian life, spurring his spiritual children to generosity, encouraging them by his own mere conviction and personal example. He insisted much on obedience, trust in one’s spiritual director, frequency in receiving the Sacraments, and the need for meditation and mortification.
The group of spiritual children grew. One day Padre Pio remarked to one of them: Many, many, many more will come, but my arms will reach out to embrace the whole world. Not only those particular souls who sought perfection, but also the penitents who received absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, would ask Padre Pio to assist them in leading a better life. From 1914 until 1924, Padre Pio kept in touch with his spiritual children through letters. Some letters were rather lengthy and some were as brief as a slogan but they were always encouraging and enlightening for those who received them. The elements of his spiritual direction can be summarized in the following: a rapport of supernatural affection, a personal awareness and participation in the lives of his spiritual children, a continual discovery of the prompting of the Holy Spirit in the souls of his spiritual children, an uncovering of the insidious works of Satan in a soul.
Padre Pio fulfilled his ministry as director of souls expressing himself with frankness and sincerity, with few words but always to the point and convincingly. He accompanied his spiritual children throughout their lives. He was a true father: merciful and decisive, human and categorical, clear and quick. He would say that I neither call them to me nor do I send them away. To those who wished to be numbered among his spiritual children he would say: I accept you willingly as my spiritual children, on the condition that you always be good and not give bad example before God and man, that you be examples of a good Christian life. Otherwise I also know how to use the whip.
One day Padre Pio said: If it were possible, I would like one favor from the Lord: I would want, if He said to me ‘Go to heaven’, I would like to have this grace: Lord, do not allow me to enter heaven until the last of my children, the last of those persons entrusted to my priestly care, have entered before me…On another occasion, to one of his spiritual children, Padre Pio said: I have made an agreement with the Lord that when my soul is purified by the flames of purgatory and is worthy to enter heaven, I will stand at the gates of paradise and will not enter until I have seen the last of my sons and daughters enter. Through the Prayer Groups and the commitment of his spiritual children, Padre Pio was able to fulfill part of his great mission: to bring the world to God. He wanted to be among all people to proclaim out loud who this great God of mercy is.
Before his death on September 23, 1968, Padre Pio gave a special blessing to the Prayer Groups, the sick, and all of his spiritual children. There were many representatives from around the world gathered at San Giovanni Rotondo to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the day on which Padre Pio received the visible Stigmata – September 20, 1968. It seemed an act of Providence that this great mass of people, for whom Padre Pio had been an instrument of Divine Providence in their journey back to the Lord, should have been present to receive his last blessing and attend his funeral.
Padre Pio’s influence continues to this day. In the spirit of their holy founder, the Prayer Groups of Padre Pio and his Spiritual Children throughout the world continue to respond to the words of Our Lord: Truly I say to you, ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will opened to you…If you ask anything of the Father in my name He will give it to you. Let us remember that our prayers, like incense, rise to God. Let us ask for the grace to live in God’s will and to be instruments of God’s peace and love to those whom we encounter on life’s journey.
Padre Pio was born on May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy, and baptized in the name Francesco Grazio. From his early childhood he was visited regularly by his guardian angel and the Blessed Virgin Mary. He did not think this was unusual until a young friend told him otherwise. He was ordained a priest in the Capuchin Order on August 10, 1910. His young priestly life was marked by numerous episodes of poor health, and also included a short stint with the military. After being discharged from the Army in 1918, he was stationed at the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, never to leave until his death. On December 20, 1918 he was blessed with the extraordinary visible stigmata of Christ (5 wounds on his hands, feet and side). His priestly ministry was characterized by humility, perseverance and obedience to his priestly duties, especially to the celebration of Mass, hours in the confessional, and spiritual direction. He was able to read into the hearts of many who came to him for confession, often reminding them of unconfessed sins and foretelling future occurrences in their lives and God’s will for them. A huge international cult rose up around Padre Pio, manifesting itself in constant crowds of pilgrims to the monastery to attend his Masses and to confess to him.
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Quotes from the great Saint about love, holiness, prayer, suffering, etc.
On January 9, 1940, Padre Pio announced his grandiose plans to develop a Home for the Relief of Suffering (the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza). The Casa opened its doors on May 5, 1956 as a 300 bed facility, built on the small, sincere and spontaneous donations and prayers of his followers. He also developed an international network of prayer groups for the support of the Casa and its ministry that continues to live on and grow today.
Padre Pio considered the Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza (Casa) his “Work”, inspired and blessed by God, to be a haven of relief from suffering for all of God’s children in pain in body or soul. It is a model community of Catholic Christian health delivery, and has grown into a regional referral center of international renown. Today, with over 1,000 beds and services comparable to most academic research centers of excellence, the Casa is thriving by God’s graces in one of the most remote, desolate and poorest areas of Italy…atop Mount Gargano, four hours from Rome.
Related Links: Teleradio Padre Pio
“To be a model of Christian healthcare delivery, based on the ‘Work’ of St. Padre Pio: a ‘Clinic for the Soul’ for all in need; and to provide training and support to professionals of existing and developing hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and physician practices desiring to participate in the fullness of this ministry.” - Read More