'Talk to me about Padre Pio.'
The woman had recently been bereaved. She wasn't a parishioner, but I'd call in for a chat and a cup of tea anyway when I was passing. We tended not to talk too much about her loss. Every neighbour up and down the road did that with her, as did all her family and friends. I was there to talk about something else, to provide some moments of distraction from her grief. But, of course, her grief was all around us and the consolation I provided was by being there.
St Padre Pio was always popular in Ireland, even before his canonisation (I'll refer to him as Padre Pio from now on, as that's how most people in Ireland that I know refer to him). You'd go into shops and there'd be collection boxes on the counter with his image on it; people would have framed photographs of him in their homes, or calenders, or sometimes prayer cards on the fridge or noticeboard; some had medals or small plagues with him on them in their cars, presumably seeking his prayers that they might have a safe journey.
I've always had something of a soft spot for him myself, mainly because I received my secondary education in a school run by the order he was a member of in Cork. Pictures of him in his habit remind me of my old teachers. It seems inevitable that I'd know stories about one of the most well known members of the order, although looking back, I can't recall a single occasion on which one of the priests actually told us anything about him, or even mentioned his name. Perhaps he was simply in the air around us in the place.
I often run into people who profess their devotion to him. They tell me of the comfort they find in reading about the difficulties he faced in his own life; how their faith is strengthened in pondering how he was blessed with the Stigmata; or simply how much peace they find in gazing upon his serene smile in a photograph. As I said, he's popular in Ireland. One woman recently told me how she has carried a relic of him in her purse or on her person since she was a young woman. One of her children had been very ill 30 years ago; a neighbour gave her a relic of Padre Pio; the child was soon better; and she has had a devotion to him ever since.
I forget how his name came up while I was in the bereaved lady's house. There wasn't a picture on the wall or a holy water font by the door with his image on it, no obvious reason for the conversation to turn in his direction. Maybe he just wanted to be spoken about, in this house, with this woman.
'I'm quite fond of him myself,' I told her. 'I kind of admire the way he dealt with suffering.'
'You mean his stigmata?'
'That too. But I was thinking of the way at one point he was forbidden by Rome to say Mass publicly or hear confessions. That hurt him. How could it not? Bringing the sacraments to the people is what a priest does. And he was a great man for hearing confessions, a regular hero of the confessional. People came for miles to confess to him. I remember one little old lady in Cork telling me it was one of the biggest regrets of her life that she hadn't traveled to Italy to see him when she had the chance.'
'Why did Rome do that?'
'They didn't believe he was for real. The stigmata, the visions, and all the rest. I suppose they thought he was faking it and doing it for the fame.'
'And what did he do about it? Did he protest? Did he fight it?'
'That's just it. As far as I know he accepted it. He was very humble about it all and obedient to those set over him. He knew they were wrong about him, but his response was that of humility. He didn't rail against the injustice; he didn't get angry and shout that it was all so unfair. It was simply what had been sent his way. I suppose he offered it up, as my mother used to say.'
We were quiet then for a while. For some reason, in the silence, the thought came to me that my story about Padre Pio's quiet acceptance of his years of hardship was relevant to the grief this woman was feeling. That his example of quietly accepting what must have been so very difficult to him was something that could be of comfort to someone in their pain and loss. That there is suffering for us all, suffering that is not justified, not right, but yet is part of life; and with God's help we can get through it.
I wondered should I mention this to her. Would it be too heavy handed? Would it seem forced to compare what Padre Pio had gone through to her own raw pain and loss? Would it break our unspoken rule that I was there to be there, rather than addressing her suffering directly? I looked over at her. She was gazing down at the table. Her face seemed calm. And it seemed to me that she was thinking the same thing that I was, that she was drawing the same conclusions from what I had said. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to. It just seemed to be in the air.