Among the ever-growing pile of books in my room is a small compilation of quotations from the great St. Pio of Pietrelcina, often called Padre Pio. It is meant for daily meditation during Lent, but I find myself flipping through its pages at every season of the year, looking for something fitting for whatever my current situation may be. There are profound quotes about loving God and struggling to find him and, more than anything else, about the intense suffering St. Pio endured during his life.
Just as many people my age learned about their faith from their families, I was first introduced to St. Pio because my father had taken up a devotion to him—he, too, began to read the great saint’s writings and hung a framed portrait of him over his bed. But this is where my story branches off from most others. I did not grow up going to Mass every Sunday (or ever) or praying the rosary every night (or ever). Religion was something other families did, but it was never a part of my upbringing, and maybe it never would have been had my father not been diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was 10.
As time went by and his condition worsened, he realized that he needed to return to the faith he had grown up with. And so it happened that in January 2007 he went to a Sunday Mass for the first time in years. I went with him, for the first time ever, and though I have no profound, instantaneous conversion story to tell, there was something there that my 11-year-old self recognized as worth holding on to. By the end of that year, I had been baptized and made my first Communion.
That turned out to be the last year of my father’s life. He died the following January. It was hard on all of us. The faith I had just barely begun to develop was what sustained me throughout those difficult first few months, but at the same time, it made the situation even more difficult, because now I was the only practicing Catholic in the family. The Padre Pio portrait disappeared, and I often found myself attending Mass alone.
My father suffered more than I will ever know, but I can only hope that my newfound faith offered him some sort of consolation in the midst of his pain. And I myself have found comfort in knowing that he had rediscovered closeness to those in heaven who experienced pain like his, both physically and spiritually. And it was out of this suffering that my own faith was born—this faith that has given me a life I might never have known otherwise.
Early on, I learned that we were all given life through Jesus’ death on Good Friday, but I never understood what exactly that meant. It was not until about halfway through high school that the Passion took on anything more than a surface-level meaning for me. I was in eucharistic adoration late at night on a retreat with my youth group, idly staring at the crucifix behind the altar, when I was struck with what I would like to think was a direct response from God. I did not see the heavens open up or hear God’s voice; it was just a thought that popped into my head, and I realized it was not my own. It asked me, “Do you think I liked being up here on this cross?”
Of course, when I told the rest of my youth group they joked that I was the only person they knew to be sassed by Jesus. But the question has remained in my thoughts ever since. For the first time, I considered the notion that Jesus did not relish the idea of being put to death. He was reluctant, even afraid, to die in such an excruciating way. It struck me, thinking about this, that even God incarnate was not immune to pain. He knows what it is like to suffer—and so when we suffer, our suffering has the potential to bring us closer to God.
“The problem of suffering,” as it has been called, is a tricky one, and I know there are a lot of people who turn away from belief in God because of it. They wonder, and I wonder, and maybe we all wonder: If God really cares about us, why does he let bad things happen?
Is there an answer? I don’t know. I struggle with this question probably more than anything else in my faith. At one point in high school, when I was in a difficult place for reasons I can’t even remember now, my youth minister told me the word suffer comes from the same root as “to allow.” Of course, this does not mean that we cannot be upset when terrible things happen that cause us or others to suffer. But if we look at suffering in this way, we can “allow” it because it strengthens us, just as a training athlete allows his or her body to work to the point of pain, knowing that the end result will be worth it because he or she will be made stronger.
And this brings me back to my friend Padre Pio. Here is a man who knew suffering. He dealt with various physical illnesses throughout his life. He was afflicted by terrible spiritual attacks, the kind that sound like they came straight out of a horror movie. But he suffered through this because he was able to see the end result.
This is the quotation for Day 19 of my book:
You complain because the same trials are constantly returning. But look here...what have you to fear? Are you afraid of the divine Craftsman who wants to perfect his masterpiece in this way? Would you like to come from the hands of such a magnificent Artist as a mere sketch and no more?
What does this tell me? It tells me that I am a work in progress and that God is making a masterpiece out of me. And it tells me that in order to become what I am created to be, I will have to suffer. But I have learned not to run away from suffering. I will not pretend that I enjoy it or that I never complain about the crosses I have to carry. But over these past eight or so years of my life, I have learned to look past the pain of my own personal Good Fridays and see the joy that is in store for me when I will finally become more like God.
While I was home for Christmas recently, my mother came into my room to put some blankets away in my closet, and in her search for a place to put them she found on the very top shelf the old portrait of Padre Pio that used to hang above my parents’ bed. We had not seen it in years. I figured it was still around the house somewhere, but I had no idea how near to me it had been all along.
And what does this tell me? It tells me that even in the most difficult times in our life, when it seems that God and even our loved ones are inaccessible, they are never as far from us as we may think. In fact, we may find out later that they were there with us, guiding us through our suffering the whole time, helping us become the saints we are called to be.