At age 12, while visiting Padre Pio of Pietrelcina during a school trip to San Giovanni Rotondo, Fortunato Grottola squeezed the hand of the friar, who bore the wounds of Christ. Young Fortunato pressed so hard that his thumbs entered the sores of the stigmata on the priest’s palm.
Now the guardian of the Convent of Pietrelcina in Italy and the friar who travels with the relics of St. Padre Pio, Father Grottola spoke to students at York Catholic High School on Sept. 13, sharing the saint’s enduring message of prayer and family.
“My young people, we need to see Padre Pio first of all as somebody who gives us direction in life,” Father Grottola told the students. “He said that the family is the center of our life. Without family, we are alone. Without Jesus Christ, we are alone. We can have a lot of money, but we aren’t rich unless we have friends and family.”
Padre Pio was born in Pietrelcina, Italy, on May 25, 1887, and entered the novitiate of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor at the age of 15. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1910, and was known for his piety and spirituality.
He prayed continuously, and was known to pray the Rosary 35 times a day.
The marks of the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – first appeared on Padre Pio’s hands, feet and side on Sept. 20, 1918, while he prayed in front of a crucifix. He bore those painful wounds until his death 50 years later, on Sept. 23, 1968.
Though he lived a life of pain and poor health, Padre Pio was a man of joy and laughter, noted Father Grottola. Thousands of pilgrims visited him over the course of the years, drawn by the spiritual riches that came from his ministry. He would hear Confessions up to 50 times a day.
Father Grottola was among those pilgrims when he joined his middle school classmates in visiting the Franciscan friar in 1963.
“At this time, it was known that from Thursday night until Saturday, blood would come out of his wounds,” Father Grottola the York Catholic audience, his Italian-language presentation interpreted through a translator.
“I myself had questions about it,” he recalled. “I asked myself, ‘If this man, according to what people say, has wounds in his hands, in his feet and in his side, how can it be that he doesn’t feel the pain? When we’re in pain, we don’t laugh, we don’t joke, we usually complain, but he is very easygoing and laughing and joking with us.’”
“I didn’t really believe that he had the stigmata,” Father Grottola said.
As the classmates lined up to personally greet Padre Pio and kiss his hand, young Fortunata Grottola thought to himself, “When I go to kiss his hand, I’m going to squeeze it so strong, and I want to see if he complains.”
He gripped the friar’s hand tightly, so much that his thumbs pressed into his wounds.
Padre Pio responded, “Little boy, do not squeeze, because it is really painful.”
Fortunata moved to the back of the group of his peers, ashamed of hurting the gentle priest. But Padre Pio sought him out, smiled at him, and placed his hand on his head.
Father Grottola has a photo from that day, showing him and his classmates with the eventual saint, who was canonized on June 16, 2012, by Pope John Paul II.
He travels frequently to share the life and spirituality of Padre Pio. At York Catholic, he showed two relics: blood-stained fabric that Padre Pio used on his side wound, and the habit that he was wearing when he died.
Father Grottola lived with Padre Pio during the last few years of his life, and shared stories of how people would line up for days to go to him for Confession. He knew when penitents weren’t telling the truth, or when they were holding back sins, Father Grottola said, and would subsequently send them to the back of the line to return for a true Confession.
“Padre Pio, first and foremost, was a father. He embraced the sinners in order to teach them and lead them on the right path,” Father Grottola said. “He always encouraged people to go to Confession, and to receive the Eucharist.”
I need to say this message to the young ones here today so that the world can really change: The world is not changed by others. We are the ones that can change the world,” Father Grottola told the students. “We don’t change the world by sitting here, but by moving, acting, by prayer, and by a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Katie Seufert, principal of York Catholic High School, said students had been learning about the life and work of St. Padre Pio leading up to Father Grottola’s visit. His visit, she said, was also especially meaning for the Capuchin Franciscan priests who minister in the York Deanery.
Father Grottola’s visit, she said, “is a real-world opportunity for our students to talk to someone who is a true witness to the faith and had a personal relationship with a recently-canonized saint. This assembly offered another opportunity for us to witness to our faith, which is what we do here at York Catholic.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness