How to Raise a Saint
Padre Pio wore mittens when he celebrated Mass. The Church recently declared him a saint, but the designation was hardly needed—anyone who knew him could tell the Franciscan priest was otherworldly. He was known to bilocate and read people’s hearts and prophesy the future. But that’s not why he wore mittens.
He wore mittens because he had a series of mystical experiences where he encountered the suffering of Jesus and bore the marks of his crucifixion in his body with the stigmata. What worried Pio most about the wounds was not that they were ever fresh and raw and tender—which is to say they were as painful as having nail holes in his limbs—but that they called attention to him. So he covered them up. He wore mittens to celebrate Mass so that he wouldn’t distract the faithful.
The tempting thing to do with a saint like Padre Pio is to wonder if the signs of holiness shown by his life are real—the man was a walking miracle dispensary. But let’s assume that God can do all things and dig below the surface. A deeper question emerges: How is it possible for someone to shape their lives such that they become a single-hearted lightning rod for the divine?
The answer to that deeper, more interesting question rests on the shoulders of Pio’s parents.
Pio’s family was unexceptional—hardworking and religious. His parents couldn’t read, but they memorized stories from the Bible and told them to their children. Every day, the family prayed the rosary together and attended Mass, and they fasted from meat three days a week.
Pio grew up in a world where faith was just part of the air he breathed. Prayer was as regular as eating breakfast. When he was 5, he decided to dedicate his life to Jesus with at least as much devotion as a kindergartener can offer, which is maybe more than we’d give them credit for. Just after his tenth birthday he met a Franciscan friar who was walking the countryside begging for donations and Pio ran home to declare that he knew what he wanted to do with his life—he wanted to do whatever this shoeless, wandering, begging friar was doing.
His parents listened, and that’s an amazing thing if you think about it. They took him to a nearby Franciscan monastery to see if this was possible. The Franciscans said yes, but Pio needed more schooling than he’d gleaned from intermittently attending public school.
So Pio’s father—who was illiterate, remember—got on a boat and sailed across the ocean to New York City to find work to pay for a tutor. I encourage you to read that last sentence again.
I came across this article recently that declared that religions are on the decline in America except for one denomination that is growing. And it is growing precisely because parents are dedicated to forming their children in its traditions—its practices and nuances and meaning. They commit to this religious practice in communities and in their homes. It shapes their schedules and meals. They tell their children about role models and the kids follow them with interest.
What is this single, growing denomination? The author named it Athletica: the culture of sports achievement that has become the center of gravity for many American families.
It is a biting critique. It made me wonder if we give as much time and attention to our family’s religious practice as we do to the music lessons and sports leagues we facilitate for our kids. What is the air our children breathe? What is the center of gravity for our family rhythm? What is as regular as breakfast for them? What would Padre Pio’s dad notice if he followed me around for a day?