The Last Mass and Final Hours of Padre Pio
St. Pio's stigmata had completely healed - his personal physician Dr. Sala concluded that this was a miracle in itself, and even greater than the stigmata, because it meant that dead tissue had been regenerated.
An excerpt from Chapter 30 of Frank M. Rega's "Padre Pio and America," TAN Books and Publishers
Sunday, September 22nd finally arrived, the day set for the grand celebration to honor the fifty years Padre Pio had borne the stigmata. Countless thousands, including representatives from hundreds of prayer groups, were in San Giovanni. All the hotels and inns had been booked three months ago. The Casa was festooned with lights and banners. A large platform for the featured speakers stood in the church square, and a huge wooden cross was erected overlooking the plaza. Everyone was in a festive mood except the humble Padre himself, who said to his superior, "I am so confused that I should like to run and hide."
Athough still very weak, he was feeling a little better that morning, and entered the sacristy at 4:30 am to prepare for the 5:00 Mass. But he was to receive a surprise: the superior of the monastery, Padre Carmelo, asked him to sing a solemn High Mass in honor of the Prayer Group convention. Pio complained that it would be too tiring for him, but he resigned himself to obey when Padre Carmelo insisted: "Those are the orders." Soon the doors of the church were opened, and an immense crowd surged forward. People were packed into every corner, and those who could not gain entrance were forced to stand outside in the piazza. According to the friary chronicles for that day, "The crowd seemed to be delirious with joy on seeing him and on celebrating his feast day, and silence and order was obtained not with a little difficulty." Two priests helped him to the altar, and he was seated facing the worshippers as he began the Mass. Catholic Masses by this time were now being said in a new format, and in the native tongue instead of Latin. However, Padre Pio had a dispensation to perform the ceremony in the traditional Tridentine rite that he had used throughout his life, with the exception that he was to face the people instead of the altar. As a concession to his age and frailty, he was permitted to perform the Mass seated.
As he sang the High Mass, film and television crews recorded the event for future generations. Even the BBC had flown in a crew from England to make a documentary feature about him. His voice was shaky and tired, and at one point he simply spoke the words, because he was too exhausted to chant. At other times it seemed he was confused and needed prompting by the assistants. Yet, at the Consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, he was completely absorbed in the mystery that unfolded. During the ceremony, two girls and a boy came forward to receive their First Holy Communion from his hands.
When the solemn Mass was over, the church was transformed into a chamber of joyful cheering. The friary annals recorded the "...deafening and never-ending applause with sincere cries of 'viva Padre Pio!', 'best wishes Padre!'" that greeted him as he descended the altar. But suddenly the crowd gasped in horror, as the Padre teetered and stumbled on the altar stairway, and began to fall backwards. Nearby priests rushed to assist him. The young American, Brother Bill Martin, dashed about twenty feet from where he was standing, and cradled Padre Pio in his arms to prevent his falling. He was eased into a hastily-procured wheelchair, and was slowly taken into the sacristy. As he passed by the congregation for what would be the last time, he raised his hand in blessing, lovingly repeating "My Children! My Children!"
The small chapel and tomb in the crypt area below the church, where Padre Pio was to be laid to rest some day, had recently been completed. At 10:00 am on the 22nd, Padre Clemente, a Capuchin official from Rome, gave the official blessing to the tomb...no one suspected how soon it would be occupied. At 10:30 Padre Pio made an unexpected appearance at the choir window in the old church to give his personal blessing to the crowd below. He had planned to give a greeting at noon, but he was extremely tired and wanted to appear sooner, so that he could then rest for awhile. He came to the window assisted by two friars, and waved his handkerchief to the cheers and excited applause of the assembled pilgrims. Later that evening at 6:00, the prayer groups gathered in the church for the evening Mass. Padre Pio watched from the balcony in his wheel chair, and at the conclusion tried to rise and bless the expectant congregation. But he was too weak to stand, and needed help in lifting his right arm to bless his spiritual children. He was then wheeled back to his cell, where a short time later he managed to appear at his window to impart his blessing once more to the joyful throng gathered below. It would be his last. The annals of the friary re-create those bitter-sweet moments:
In the space beyond the wall of the cloister, a good number of Prayer Group members holding lighted torches and candles, waited for Padre Pio's evening greeting; a spectacle similar to that of the twentieth. After repeated greetings and shouts of 'eviva!', 'best wishes!', 'goodnight, Padre!', the window of Padre Pio's cell closed forever; shutting behind it the vision and memory of a man whom everyone, after having met him, had learned to call 'Father'.
The evening of the 22nd , Padre Pellegrino Funicelli checked up on Padre Pio at 9:00 pm, as he had done for the past few years. He found Pio already in bed, and then went to his own room, where an intercom was always on so that he could hear any sounds from Pio's cell. From 9:00 until midnight, Padre Pio called Pellegrino into his cell about half-a-dozen times. He would ask what time it was, and since his eyes were red from weeping, Pellegrino would dab away the tears. At midnight, Pio asked him to remain in the room with him, and grabbed his hands like a frightened child. For the next hour, he continued to ask what the time was, and asked Pellegrino to say Mass for him that morning. Pellegrino later recounted, "It seemed like he had an appointment, and that he was impatiently waiting for the time to come."
Padre Pio then asked his confrere to hear his confession. While not his regular confessor, Pellegrino had sometimes heard Pio's confession during his evening watches. When they finished, the saint indicated he wished to renew his religious vows. At this, Pellegrino was taken aback. "His request made me shudder because it's our custom as monks to do so on our deathbed." After renewing his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Padre Pio asked a favor of Padre Pellegrino: 'My son, if the Lord calls me today, ask pardon for me from the confreres for all the bother I have given them and ask them and my spiritual children to pray for my soul." Pellegrino assured him that he still had a long life ahead of him, and he made a request of Pio that turned out to be prophetic. "Just in case you should be right, may I ask you to give your last blessing to your fellow priests, your spiritual children, and your patients?" Padre Pio proceeded to bless them all, and expressed his wishes that the Father Guardian also impart this last blessing for him.
A few moments later, he asked Pellegrino to help him get out of bed. He got dressed, washed his face, and sat down for a moment in the armchair. Then, saying he wanted to see the stars outside on the veranda, he got up from the chair unassisted, which amazed his confrere. Another surprise awaited Pellegrino when Padre Pio stood up completely straight, which he not been able to do in years, and walked briskly out to the balcony as if he were a young man. They remained standing outside under the night sky for a few minutes, then Pio sat down and appeared to be staring at a part of the veranda. The spot at which he was staring was the precise location where the friars would shortly place his body, until he could be laid out in the church.
After a few minutes, his face beginning to pale, he asked to be taken back to his cell. Now, however, he could barely stand, and Pellegrino hurried to fetch a wheelchair. Once back in his room, Pio sat in his armchair, and continued to grow paler. He kept repeating "Jesus...Mary," as his lips turned purple and it became difficult for him to breathe. The worried and frightened Pellegrino started to leave the room to call for help, but Pio stopped him, saying that he did not want to disturb anyone. He stayed with the failing Padre a few minutes longer; then, in spite of Pio's protests, he strode out the door to find help. Noticing that Brother Bill Martin's door was open, he went in, turned on the light, and exclaimed, "Padre Pio is dying!" While Brother Bill ran to Pio's cell, Pellegrino grabbed a telephone and called Dr. Sala, then dashed off to arouse the superior and other friars.
Within ten minutes, Dr. Sala was at Padre Pio's bedside, and a short time later Dr. Gusso, Director of the Casa, arrived with an assistant. Pio continued to quietly pray "Jesus...Mary," while the doctors administered oxygen and injected heart stimulants. Pio's eyes were closing and his breathing was labored, as he slumped in his armchair. He seemed to be oblivious of his surroundings, paying no attention to the instructions of the doctors. The superior had Padre Paolo administer the Last Rites, and those friars present joined in the prayers. Finally, Padre Pio sighed weakly, and leaning his head against the arm of one of the doctors, he quietly expired. Dr. Gusso remarked that the clinical signs of death were "...the most peaceful and sweet I have ever seen." The time was 2:30 am, on Monday September 23, 1968.
In the months preceding his death, the wounds of the stigmata had begun to close, and had slowly stopped bleeding. As his body was being prepared for the wake, the friars and Dr. Sala observed that the lesions on his hands, feet and chest were now completely healed. The skin over the spots where the stigmata had been open and bleeding for fifty years, was now as smooth as a baby's, without even a trace of a scar. Deep, open wounds that had been bleeding for fifty years, had perfectly healed! Dr Sala concluded that this was a miracle in itself, and even greater than the stigmata, because it meant that dead tissue had been regenerated. Within an hour of his death, one of the friars photographed the places where the wounds had been, in order to document the phenomenon. However, it was decided to put the fingerless mittens on Padre Pio's hands for the viewing, in order to avoid confusion and hasty interpretations among the faithful.
By 3:00 am on the 23rd, the urgently summoned Carabinieri had already begun to arrive, in anticipation of the need to keep order during the wake and subsequent funeral procession. Among the first to learn the shocking news of Padre Pio's passing were the early risers for what would have normally been his 5:00 am Mass. As the morning progressed, an enormous crowd, stunned and weeping, gathered on the square in front of the church. Inside Our Lady of Grace, the friars were placing the saint's body in an open wooden coffin, surrounded by flowers and candles. Finally the preparations were completed, and sufficient police were positioned throughout the church, friary and adjacent areas, to allow the viewing to begin. At 8:30 am that Monday, the large bronze church doors were finally opened. And so began the endless crush of mourners, who would fill the church with sorrowful outcries and bitter tears for four somber days. Late on that first day, the wooden coffin was replaced by a steel casket covered with a piece of glass to protect his body, but still keep it visible.
Tens of thousands of mourners, many waiting for two or three hours, filed past the casket bearing the remains of their beloved Padre Pio. People kissed the coffin, touched personal objects to it, prayed, and paid their final respects to the man that had been their protector for over half a century. Devotees poured into the little town of San Giovanni Rotondo from all over Italy, and many foreign nations. The whole plateau upon which San Giovanni and the nearby small towns were seated was "...literally jammed with people." In a remarkable display of affection, the great and the small filed past the bier day and night in an endless procession, all through Tuesday, Wednesday, and into Thursday morning. Finally at noon on Thursday the 26th, the Capuchins reluctantly closed the church doors to the crowds, in order to prepare for the funeral procession and Mass.
Copyright 2005 Frank M. Rega and TAN Books and Publishers
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