Miraculous testimony of an elite level gymnast touched by Padre Pio: 'Pio, like all the saints, is like the window-washer that scales tall buildings to clear away the muck and allow us to see His luminous rays aflame. God sends them, as He pushes us forward, to wipe clean the windows of not only our own lives, but also of those around us.'
BATON ROUGE, LA (Catholic Online) - Life is nothing but a continual struggle against one's self, and it does not open to beauty without the price of suffering.
His lifeless, stony eyes pierced the immortality of my soul and plucked my curiosity right from its youthful perch. The flesh-tones that my mother painted onto the cold, lifeless features of a three-foot tall statue of one of modern times most magnificent soldiers of Christ, Padre Pio, were of little consequence upon our first meeting--I was inexplicably mystified by a beckoning of compassion.
Rather than reveling in the notion of mysticism, my then-callow practicality suggested a more subtle approach to the Lord's will. Then again, I'm always amazed how at any given moment my own discernment can dramatically do an about-face. Staring at nothing more than an inanimate carving of masonry was enough to remind me how insignificant and fickle my own judgments are and how they're steadfastly and boundlessly linked to His greater will. If God wants to reveal Himself, then He'll most certainly do it in His own way, be it through the natural or supernatural.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina, Italy, was not yet a canonized saint when I first became aware of him in 2001, he was the modest Padre...another pious priest from a small country, Catholic city. Pope John Paul II had beatified him in 1999, but he had yet to reach his future saintly heights in the eyes of the Church or the world into which she is sent.
I dare to speak of things that set many uneasy. Perhaps I dare because it happens to be ingrained in my character to turn things on their heads (both literally and metaphorically). I recognize and give prayerful consideration to those who don't believe; faith isn't an easy gift to accept. The seemingly "hocus-pocus" talk of subjects like the stigmata, exorcisms, angels and saints are enough to turn many away from faith out of fear of the unknown. Losing oneself in the secular world of iPhones and Blackberrys can be a sufficient way to squander the divinity of the things we can't see and touch.
Like Pio, I serve only as an apparatus for the Lord's greater honor and glory. God has especially chosen to speak through some and allow us to ask for their intercession. Pio, like all the saints, is like the window-washer that scales tall buildings to clear away the muck and allow us to see His luminous rays aflame. Ascending the dismal heights of our disbelief, the saint's job is oftentimes dangerous and unwelcome...after all, who wants their intimate lives to be seen and meticulously judged? God sends them, as He pushes us forward, to wipe clean the windows of not only our own lives, but also of those around us. In the nine years since I've rediscovered my faith, I've tried to do my small part to propagate my belief, particularly concerning Pio and his message. Over the years, many people have asked me: "Why do you like this Pio guy? How did he come to be in your life?" Sometimes I ask myself this same question; after all, it is a rather strange story...
Pondering a future full of potentials, I was on vacation back home in Baton Rouge, LA, suffering from three stress fractures on my L2 vertebrae that I suffered as a result of a training accident in the gym in Houston, TX. I took that opportunity of hurt to go home and try to recover. I was busy doing nothing when the doorbell rang. A family friend stood in the doorway, toting a stone figure whom he wanted to make look "a bit more human-looking." My artist mother agreed to paint on skin-tones as our friend launched into a short narrative of Pio's life. It struck me as strange to have this man, someone who lived in town but whom none of us had seen in quite some time, come unannounced to our home with such a strange request for my mom. Nevertheless, I can remember being fascinated by the story and feeling an intense yearning to know more.
After I looked Pio up in the Yahoo! search engine bar, and read a brief summary of his life on Wikipedia, I felt giving a book about him a read could at the very minimum be entertaining. I bought one of the first ones that was recommended on that website: "Padre Pio The Wonder Worker." You have to understand that I was, at that time, suffering from not just the physical calamities of having a broken back, but also from the inner frustration of not knowing where my life was going and if I'd ever be able to be active (let alone do gymnastics) again. The latter part was perhaps the hardest for me; I'd heard many horror stories of athletes and their career-ending injuries. Was my ambitious and active future about to be stomped by 3 hairline stress fractures? It was enough to drive me mad.
I listened to this man, temporarily forgot about my own pain, and shared in the story of another's. Stigmata? Healing powers? But this man is Italian, like me!..and was lived only a few decades ago! That was enough to ignite my curiosity.
A book that cost about $10 was enough to act as a launching pad into a world of a man I read to be just what the title claimed--a wonder worker. I need not delve into the countless miracles Pio performed in his lifetime (there are numerous books devoted to such happenings), but the simple notion that a man of this earth could be blessed with a portion of Jesus' gifts was astounding to me. In catholic school I read about St. Francis of Assisi and people just like him. But to such a young boy, they all seemed so far removed from the 1980 catholic school system I grew up in--the insignificant life of another rambunctious 20th century child. At 18-years-old I read that book and got a big glimpse of just how alive Jesus' ministry is today, not just 500 years ago.
My prayers to Pio started out rather humbling; I simply asked for his holy intercession. Since Pio was known to be an amazing healer, I figured it couldn't hurt to ask him to pray to Jesus for my healing too. All I could think about was the beggar-woman who pulled at Jesus' robe, in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, after realizing a portion of His power had left Him, said: "Who touched my clothes?" The woman, afraid at this point, began to tremble. But surely enough, compassionate as always, Jesus told her that it was her faith that healed her. This poor woman of the street was granted Jesus' attention and healing love not because Jesus wanted to heal her or because she was the only one who needed healing, but rather because she had faith. So I too figured that, at the very minimum, I would work (trying to mirror Pio's astounding life's example) to develop a colossal faith, and maybe Jesus would respond in kind to me too.
The stigmata is something that I'd briefly heard of and became very enthused about after first seeing Pio's statue. How could any man be scorned with the very wounds of Christ? Like the athlete in me, I became fascinated by a man that endeared his entire verve to something much bigger than himself. How often do you find someone like that in today's time? I've always been captivated by a good success story. What better example can be found than a man who not only suffered Christ's wounds but also possessed the remarkable spiritual gifts of transverberation, bilocation, reading of the souls, odour of sanctity and the healing of the sick? Padre Pio, as many other saintly figures have done when they moved closer to God, served as a unique example of what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ.
I knew Padre Pio had a special relationship with Jesus. I knew that his prayers, due to the supernaturally holy life that he led, were held in high esteem. I figured that if I could get Pio's attention, then maybe he could pray for me. The more prayers, the better, I thought. Pio is often quoted as saying that prayer is our best weapon of defense.
The powerfully prominent paradigm of Pio's life was such a huge inspiration at that particular time in my life. I've always tried to develop a role model in gymnastics, watching the great Olympic Champions and trying to pattern myself after them. Now I saw my spiritual life in equal need of such a potent mentor. I chose Pio. I chose him not because he was better than Jesus (a sad misconception of non-Catholics) but rather because he is a fulfillment and stunning facilitator of Jesus himself. Padre Pio would pray as if it were akin to waking up and making breakfast for the rest of us. His modern revolutionary example of prayer and living according to Jesus' teachings were at the very heart of why I chose him. If figured that if I could be even a fragment of the kind of man he was, I'd be doing pretty well. And anyway, I don't think I chose him as much as he chose me. I think Jesus spoke to me through Pio to show me that such a holy life, even in today's time, is very much attainable.
Suffering from any ailment, be it physical or mental, is no day in the park. God teaches us to suffer with dignity and to offer it up to Him. It was in the fall of 2001 that I began to understand just a sliver of what it really meant to suffer. Be we rich or poor, strong or weak; suffering will find its way to each and every door. I learned from Pio's example of a life filled with compassion for others, despite choosing to suffer with poverty and his own physical ailments. I linked his pain with mine, having the epiphany that it's not in what we suffer from, but rather how we suffer that makes us who we are--God's children.
For almost a solid year I languished, wandering in aimless back pain. I was cast and set immobile, wading chest-deep through the uncertain waters of frustration. I knew God had granted me athletic gifts in my gymnastic endeavors, but why this setback of pain and immobility? My inexperienced eyes failed to see what would later be revealed to me. Upon meeting Pio as I did, I began to think that if I'm going to suffer, and can do nothing much about it, then I may as well suffer properly. Suffering properly became a whole new concept to me. Since that athletic injury all those years ago, I'm now better at enduring. Padre Pio became my spiritual director, so to speak, and I had regular prayer-conversations with him about how to go about this extended stay of strain. After nine months, three in a casted back brace, my spine specialist doctor was quite amazed at the healing that took place...nothing short of a miracle. Eternally grateful, but not surprised, I was cleared and returned to an even more active life than I had led before.
In 2001 I not only suffered, I was blessed to suffer. As I look back with the wiser eyes of experience through trial, that traumatic event of pain and physical inaction happened just when it should have, exactly as it should have. Of course, hindsight revealed this truth after long reflection. However, it was the process of going through that hardship that made me stronger, more aware and confident of my own abilities. After learning to develop a better relationship with Mary, I prayed the rosary daily--another Pio suggestion. I began to go to daily mass and felt a sense of connection with the church. Wherever I go on this planet, somewhere there is a Catholic church just like mine back home, waiting to welcome me.
How could I have known the big plans that little statue had for me? Jesus entered my soul in a most unusual way and made his home. How often does he beckon us in such strange ways to hear his call, I wonder?
Matt Hicks is a 27-year-old Catholic from Baton Rouge, LA who is also an elite-level gymnast, training for the 2012 Olympics. This is his first article for Catholic Online.
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