SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy, JUNE 14, 2002 (Zenit.org).- There are 2,700 prayer groups worldwide inspired by the spirituality of Padre Pio, who will be canonized this Sunday.
The prayer groups sprang first from an appeal of Pius XI, to stave off war, and then from Pius XII, at the end of World War II. Faithful were encouraged to meet in small communities of prayer to ask the Lord for assistance in the moral reconstruction of society.
“Padre Pio formed a small prayer group in the ´20s,” said Father Marciano Morra, the secretary of Padre Pio Prayer Groups. “Pius XI had exhorted people to pray to forestall the war. ´To pray together to move the heart of God,´ the Pope said. And Padre Pio responded: ´We must be the first.´”
“At the time, the monastery´s guesthouse was still in existence — today demolished — a building that was not part of the cloister and could accommodate guests,” the priest recalled.
“The guesthouse had a fireplace,” he said. “Padre Pio gathered about 10 women there, around the lit fireplace. They were simple, village people. He taught them the catechism, read them the Gospel, and helped them to understand the Old Testament. Imagine, in the ´20s!”
The idea was improved in the 1940s: Padre Pio gave precise instructions to Guglielmo Sanguinetti, the energetic physician who was the soul of the nascent hospital of San Giovanni Rotondo, founded by the Capuchin.
“He indicated the characteristic that distinguished his movement today,” Father Morra said of Padre Pio. “He established that the groups should be directed by a priest appointed by the local bishop.”
The priest said Padre Pio himself explained the motive when he gave his instructions: “We want to avoid all prominence and any possible deviation due to personal initiatives that might falsify the ends.”
The ends were, and are, to pray “in the Church, with the Church, for the Church,” Father Morra said.
Padre Pio was the first to be aware that the “Padre Pio cult” could end in sectarianism, narrow-mindedness and wonderworking, the priest said.
“He avoided it,” Father Morra continued. “If the bishop of the locality did not want the prayer group — this happened, especially, at the beginning — Padre Pio would dissolve it.”
The prayer groups have flexibility. “One of these groups meets in the police quarters, created by the commander and his wife and children. There is another in the FAO headquarters in Rome, made up of employees who meet during their lunch break,” he said, referring to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
What do they do? “They pray,” Father Morra said. “They meet four times a month for Mass, the rosary and a meditation on Scripture. Padre Pio was content with small steps for the laity. Little by little, prayer in common becomes active charity.”
When Padre Pio died in 1968, there were close to 700 groups. Now, there are 2,300 in Italy alone.
“But the figures say little,” said Father Gerardo Ruotolo, the vice postulator of the friar´s cause of canonization. “I recently went to Poland to visit three groups that we knew about, and I found 24. In Argentina, where supposedly there was one, I found 70. Groups that are maturing and hope to be stable in order to ask for recognition.”
Father Morra said that the prayer groups are meeting with unexpected success because they are based on a simple but crucial idea in an age of individualism: to pray “together.”