Cardinal’s homily: Prayer, charity and the joy of forgiveness

(This is the prepared text of the homily delivered by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley at the St. Padre Pio anniversary Mass that took place Sept. 23 at St. Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. The cardinal delivered the homily in Italian.)

The saints are the masterpieces of God’s grace. Many saints are hidden from view and remain unknown, but some saints are placed in the world to capture the attention of a society that has forgotten about God.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the head of British television, an agnostic, discovered Mother Teresa pushing a wheelbarrow carrying a dying man infested with maggots to a Hindu temple so that the man might die surrounded by love. She told Muggeridge that the poor were really Christ in a distressing disguise and that her desire was “to do something beautiful for God.” That encounter with a saint, led Malcolm Muggeridge to discover God and to convert to the Catholic faith. Mother Teresa’s heroic love helped Muggeridge glimpse God’s beauty. How many people came to discover God because of an encounter with Padre Pio, at Mass, in the confession, through a letter, or just hearing a report about his life-- Today’s world is obsessed with celebrities, film stars, athletes, millionaires, singers, politicians, television personalities, writers. Padre Pio does not fit any of these categories. In 1971, three years after Padre Pio’s death, Pope Paul VI said to our Capuchin superiors:

“Look what fame he had, what a worldwide following gathered around him! But why? Perhaps because he was a philosopher? Because he was wise? Because he had resources at his disposal? Because he said Mass humbly, heard confessions from dawn to dusk and was -- it is not easy to say it -- one who bore the wounds of our Lord. He was a man of prayer and suffering.”

Padre Pio, like Mother Teresa, like St. Francis, allows people to glimpse the beauty of holiness, which is a reflection of God’s beauty. People look for happiness in passing beauty, in wealth, in power and in pleasure and are always disappointed. The saints give us hope in the possibility of happiness, the power of love, the eternal beauty of God. I am struck by how quickly the chaplet of the Divine Mercy and the devotion to Padre Pio have spread all over the world. There is such a hunger for God’s mercy in this broken world. Padre Pio, our saint, is a saint of God’s mercy in the confessional. We are told that Padre Pio heard over 1.2 million confessions, including the confession of the young Father Karol Woytyla. How powerful a spiritual experience to say in Christ’s name “I absolve you of your sins” and to raise a wounded hand to bless and console the sinner. Padre Pio’s whole life announces to the world that God loves sinners and rejoices over the one lost sheep that is found.

On the island of Martha’s Vineyard we have a lovely Church, St. Augustine’s. There are in the Church lovely stained glass windows depicting the seven sacraments. The first window one sees on entering the Church is that window representing the Sacrament of Penance. On the window there are the keys symbolizing the power to loose and bind, a priestly stole and the words: “Go and sin no more.” But in the summertime, when it is very hot, they open the windows to allow some air to circulate. However, the part of the window that opens is the part where the word “no” is written. Then what people read on the window is: “Go and sin more.” I never heard of any complaints.

The greatest heresy of the modern age is the denial of sin. We have lost a sense of sin, a sense of the offense it causes to God, the destruction it does to ourselves and our loved ones, the poisonous effects it has on the fabric of society. We are like people with a deadly disease and in complete denial, refusing to admit that we need a physician. We have made such advances in science and technology and have become so blind to the reality of our human nature.

Padre Pio was the great physician of peoples’ souls, like the Cure of Ars, St. Leopold and other great confessors of the Church. He was a living witness of God’s unfailing mercy, of the power the risen Lord gave to His Church when on Easter Sunday He breathed on His Apostles and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit, Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them.”

No cures are as dramatic as the ones Padre Pio performed in the sacristy and confessional in the sacrament of God’s mercy. How much hope, how much grace, how much joy filled the hearts of those thousands of penitents, cured of the snake bite of sin like the Israelites in the desert who gazed on the bronze serpent Moses raised up. Padre Pio helped people to look at the crucified Christ with faith and love and experience the healing power of the cross.

St. Pio’s compassion for sinners finds another expression in compassion for the sick and suffering. The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza is a monument to Padre Pio’s concern for the sick and suffering. He reminds us how one of the signs of the Kingdom of God is that the blind, sick, captives are cared for and the poor have the Good News preached to them. The sick and the sinners who are the protagonists of the Gospel, and the special objects of Jesus’ pastoral love are the reason for this shrine. The ministry of Padre Pio is to manifest God’s unfailing love and mercy for His People, especially for the little ones, the sick and suffering and for poor sinners.

The Rule of St. Francis commands the friars to work but insists they should “not extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, which all other temporal things should serve.”

Padre Pio was a man of prayer, a teacher of prayer and a witness of prayer. The 3,000 prayer groups throughout the world show us how his prayer life has been an inspiration for so many. If today we could ask for one grace from this pilgrimage let it be the grace of prayer in our lives.

The saint’s Mass was witnessed by over 10 million people who came to assist at the Eucharist celebrated by this holy priest. One of my favorite quotes of Padre Pio is what he tells us about the Mass: “Every holy Mass, heard with devotion, produces in our souls marvelous effects, abundant spiritual and material graces which we ourselves do not know...It is easier for the earth to exist without sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

St. Gregory the Great says: “The present life is but a road by which we advance to our homeland. Because of this, by a secret judgment we are subjected to frequent disturbance so that we do not have more love for the journey than for the destination. The suffering St. Pio experienced in his ill health, in the persecution by the very Church he loved, the trials and setbacks in establishing the hospital, the pain of the stigmata -- all kept before his eyes the pilgrim nature of his vocation. What allowed St. Pio to persevere was the intense prayer life that he lived faithfully. He prayed more in a week than most people pray in a year. The test of authentic prayer is growth in goodness, growth in humanity, greater serenity in living and in facing hardship. Above all genuine contact with God effects a real displacement of self as the center of our existence.

Prayer is not withdrawing from the rest of humanity. It is more like a wedding feast to which we welcome all who cross our path. A strange thing takes place in prayer. There is a mysterious coupling of our own life with the lives of others -- an embrace that includes the whole of humanity. At first prayer stems from a sense of personal neediness. Prayer progressively becomes less a self-centered plea for personal deliverance than a universal cry for help and for the coming of God’s kingdom.

Prayer and suffering transformed the life of Padre Pio and made him a living icon of God’s unfailing mercy and love. Too often we try to follow Jesus at a safe distance, like Peter after he fled from Gethsemane. Padre Pio’s life and teaching encourages us to climb Calvary to join Jesus in the moments of greatest pain and greatest love.

In today’s Gospel, planted at the foot of the cross are these few brave disciples. I am sure that Mary’s faith and courage was a source of strength for all of them. Mary stood at the foot of the cross. At that dramatic moment, before His death Jesus gives us a gift, His most precious possession, His Mother. Behold your mother. Mary is now not only Jesus’ Mother. She is also our Mother.

For Padre Pio, as for St. Francis, the cross was his book, the book where he read the greatest love story in history. Padre Pio lived his life planted at the foot of the cross in the company of Mary.

Mary full of grace, the costly grace of discipleship, the grace that allowed Mary to renew her fiat, her yes to the Lord even in the face of the cross. There by the cross is our Mother, Our Lady of Grace.

Recently Our Holy Father Pope Benedict said, “He who believes is not alone.” Here we have a host of witnesses. We stand before the beloved cross of Our Blessed Savior, we stand with Our Mother, Our Lady of Grace, and Padre Pio. We are not alone. When the Apostles came down from Tabor, they carried in their hearts a glimpse of God’s Glory. When you return to your homes, share with your families and neighbors the graces of this pilgrimage and the message of our beloved Padre Pio: Prayer, charity and the joy of forgiveness.