As I’m looking at the materials to prepare for this second week, especially the “getting started” section, two words jump out at me: attentiveness and desire. Although I have been attracted by many elements of Benedictine and Carmelite spirituality, I have been most influenced by Jesuit spirituality, as embodied in spiritual direction and the Spiritual Exercises. Since 1976, I have had only two spiritual directors: Fr. John McAnulty, a wonderful Jesuit priest whom I met when I was studying in Rome early in my own priesthood, and Fr. Jack Stoeger, a diocesan priest or a diocesan priest who was his successor at the Priests’ House of Prayer.
The practice of attentiveness to the presence and activity of God in ordinary events of life has become somewhat second nature to me now, including attentiveness to my own deepest desires as I am reflecting upon God’s presence. During this week, with this in mind, I plan to return to some of those images of my childhood and youth. I hope that I can discover God continuing to work in my life as I reflect upon his work in the past. As the week progresses, I hope to add further reflections to this post.
Today, September 23, is the feast of St. Pius of Pietrelcina, popularly known as Padre Pio. He is one saint of my lifetime home I remember very well. He died in 1968, just a few months after I was ordained to the priesthood. He had a large following, even during his lifetime, and I always thought that it was based too much on superficial sentimentality and external displays of devotion. I still think so, and remain very much of the conviction that the “things of God,” which should lead us to God, can too often become our final destination and therefore stand in the way of our letting God in.
That said, there is much in his life that has led me beyond the superficial devotional aspects that seem to characterize so many of his devotees. He was afflicted with the stigmata rather early in his priesthood, and while he welcomed the opportunity to suffer with Christ for Christ’s people, he never welcomed the fame and notoriety that it brought. He should be remembered not so much for his outward show of piety, which I believe was genuine, but for his determination in care for others in establishing, against no little opposition, an ambitious, up to date, and innovative medical center in his town of San Giovanni Rotondo, which was to serve as a model for modern healthcare delivery in post-World War II Italy.
As with so many saints, if you look beyond the superficial elements of their lives, Padre Pio is an example of the kind of holiness and piety that spills over into genuine service of the sick and the poor.
Perhaps one of the graces of this week of the retreat can be to look again at some of those old images of our lives and see new insight new meaning in them, which can reveal God at work back then and now.
It has just occurred to me that one of the priests in Los Angeles who who led prayer groups based on devotion to Padre Pio, which were definitely not my “cup of tea,” also served as my confessor whose wise and practical advice helped me through some very difficult times early in my priesthood. Without him, I may not be here. Hmmm….
(BTW, that priest, Fr. Aloysius, who himself seems to be up for sainthood, was not a Jesuit, but a Claretian.)