The Dads of Saints: Two Fathers Who Raised Holy Men

The elder Karol Wojtyla, above right, showed his son an example of faithful devotion, as did Orazio Forgione (upper left), father of Padre Pio.

Meet the devoted dads of Sts. John Paul II and Pio.

The elder Karol Wojtyla, above right, showed his son an example of faithful devotion, as did Orazio Forgione (upper left), father of Padre Pio. (Public domain; Mr. Elia Stelluto (Padre Pio’s personal photographer) via Saint Pio Foundation)

In an age where fatherhood is undervalued and deeply misunderstood, we may do well to remember and thank God for the lives of men whose earthly fatherhood paved the way for two of the greatest spiritual fathers of modern times. Both Pope St. John Paul II and St. Pio of Pietrelcina owed much to their fathers — and as a result, so do we.

Pope St. John Paul II, reflecting on his priesthood during the 50th anniversary of his ordination, explained that while the seminary itself most definitively influenced his formation, he had come to understand that God had used many people and experiences, some long before, to “make his voice heard.”  First and foremost was the great saint’s father.

“My preparation for the priesthood in the seminary was in a certain sense preceded by the preparation I received in my family, thanks to the life and example of my parents. Above all I am grateful to my father, who became a widower at an early age. I had not yet made my First Holy Communion when I lost my mother: I was barely nine years old. … After her death and, later, the death of my older brother, I was left alone with my father, a deeply religious man. Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived. By profession he was a soldier and, after my mother’s death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary” (Gift and Mystery, emphasis in original).

Who was this deeply religious man? How did his life — and, ultimately, his death — help to lead his son to ordination and eventually to his canonization as one of the Church’s holiest men? Papal biographer George Weigel’s Witness to Hope recounts the providential “how.”

The elder Karol Wojtyla was born in 1879. He continued the family trade, first working as a tailor, but then later became an officer in the Hapsburg army. He was recognized as a man of character, integrity and justice, and he lived a life of austerity and simplicity, leading his young son Karol, nicknamed “Lolek,” in a daily routine punctuated by regular prayer, including reading the Bible, reciting the Rosary and attending daily Mass. Capt. Wojtyla would teach Lolek Polish history — but the most meaningful lessons were those of interior conversion, resignation to the will of God and redemptive suffering. For by the time young Karol was 12, they had both tasted the bitterness of loss. Not only had the family lost wife and mother Emilia, but Lolek’s brother, Dr. Edmund Wojtyla, 14 years his senior and his only living sibling, died after contracting scarlet fever from a patient.

Years later, a new cross would crystalize, as all the horrors of World War II marched into their beloved Poland and turned their lives upside-down. Suffering from hunger, cold, the suppression of the Church and the university, and the death of their friends and priests, father and son found solace in their faith and in each other. Each day, walking home from his back-breaking job at a limestone quarry, Lolek would bring food to his bed-ridden father. One freezing day in February 1941, he hurried home to his father, after stopping to pick up medicine. He would return home to find his father had died. The young man spent the night at his father’s bedside, overcome with grief and blaming himself for not being there in the elder Karol’s final moments.  It was a terrible blow.

But the future Pope slowly began to see that perhaps this great loss was in fact a signpost, pointing him to a vocation to the priesthood. The fatherhood of one Karol had given way to the spiritual fatherhood of another, and this new fatherhood would bless the entire world.

In Witness to Hope, Weigel explains that “Lolek also learned from his father that manliness and prayerfulness were not antimonies. Perhaps, above all, the captain transmitted to his son an instinct for paternity. He would, later, come to understand this in theological terms: The instinct for paternity and the responsibilities of fatherhood were a kind of icon of God and of God’s relationship to the world. Fatherhood meant rejecting the prison of selfishness; fatherhood meant being ‘conquered by love.’”

Another one of the most beloved saints of the last century was St. Pio of Pietrelcina, also known as Padre Pio. He also owed a debt to his father regarding his priesthood, as related in Padre Pio: The True Story (Third Edition) by C. Bernard Ruffin.

Young Francesco Forgione — Franci, as he was affectionately called — grew up in a humble, hardworking family in southern Italy. Orazio and Guiseppa Forgione owned a small farm that brought in enough money to provide for the family’s needs but not enough to pay for the education of their intelligent, pious second son, who from a young age desperately wanted to be a “friar with a beard.”

When his parents went to the nearby Capuchin friary to speak to the friars about their little boy, he waited anxiously at home. They returned with good news. “They want me! They want me! They want me!” the 10-year-old cried, jumping for joy.

But Orazio had a dilemma. He couldn’t trade an education for farm produce, and jobs were scarce to nonexistent in their area. Yet he was determined that his son receive the schooling necessary to become a priest. With resolve, he left for America and labored there, on and off for years, sending home about $9 a week — enough for Franci to receive the equivalent of a high-school education and allow him to join the Capuchins.

His son was grateful and wrote to his father, “I, in a special way, send continual prayers to our gracious Virgin, in order that she may protect you from every evil and restore you to our love, safe and sound.” His father would return safely to stay in 1912, but had missed his son’s ordination two years earlier, when he was given the religious name of Pio. 

It was a sacrifice he was more than willing to make — for as far as Orazio was concerned, it was just another sacrifice in the life of a father who had done much to shape the life of faith in his young son.

A simple and joyful man, Orazio was devoted to the Mass and Rosary and would stop with his wife to pray in the church each day after laboring long hours in the fields.

Although he could not read, Orazio was a gifted storyteller and would tell his children stories from Scripture that he had memorized.

This was a father who desired above all that Christ be the center of their family life.

In his old age, Orazio would come to live near the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo, already a famous place of pilgrimage for the profoundly moving Masses and many miracles attributed to his saintly, mystical son.

It was said that when the throngs of pilgrims who came to see Padre Pio would compliment Orazio on being his father, the old man would become emotional and humbly reply, “I didn’t make him. Jesus Christ did.” At the end of his life, though, it seems he was ready to claim a little credit. His granddaughter related that, just before he died in 1946, he declared, “All of you have to get out of the way because I’m going to call the angels and tell them to take me to heaven, because I can say, ‘I’m Padre Pio’s father!’”

Like Pope St. John Paul II, St. Pio would become a spiritual father to many who sought his help in life and in death. Padre Pio would say: “I will stand at the gates of heaven, and I will not enter until all my spiritual children are with me.”

These are just two examples of the power of a father’s love — the power to give faith, to make men, to shape saints.