I had the pleasure of interviewing Grace West and her mom Sharon for the National Catholic Register. Grace is an amazing 11-year-old girl fighting stage 4 neuroblastoma. Her request to the Make-a-Wish Foundation was to meet Pope Francis, and they made it happen:
“He came around to where the wheelchairs and sick people were first and then to our row. I was so excited!” she added. “He touched my forehead and gave me a blessing and shook my brother’s hand. It was his birthday, so I gave him a birthday card with a personal note inside and a picture. It was magical there. It was so nice. People who were around us were so kind. While he was talking to a man, he was holding my hand the whole time. It was so amazing. He was so welcoming and warm and fuzzy.”
Read the whole story at the National Catholic Register.
Now, I want to preface this by making clear that Grace and Sharon told me this story very carefully and without making any extraordinary claims. They did not claim to see an apparition of St. Pio. They simply related the story.
The tomb of Padre Pio is a good four hours from Rome, but they had developed a devotion to him and wanted to make the pilgrimage. The great saint, who is famous for popping up in unexpected places, kept appearing in their path. “We could do a whole interview on places we’ve encountered Padre Pio,” Sharon told me.
I’ve read and heard about this many times in my research on Padre Pio: people suddenly having multiple instances where his name or picture seems to show up more than chance, or even the pattern-seeking behavior of the human mind, would suggest. The West’s story, in fact, was prompted by my mention of Padre Pio during our interview (his statue sits on my desk next to St. Benedict and Pope Benedict), which I guess makes that yet another example of him showing up in their lives.
I’ll let Grace tell the tale in her own words:
We went to see his tomb, and it was beautiful down there. When you looked outside it was looking at a screensaver or a postcard. We went to the gift shop there and I got rosary beads. Me and my dad were going back to the tomb to touch them to the glass and say a little prayer. This lady stopped us and gave us a card with a prayer in Italian. She told us we have to say the prayer, in Italian, at the tomb. Now the first time we were [at the tomb], there were lines and crowds of people. When we returned to say the prayer in Italian there was nobody there at all. It was completely empty except for one man in the very last pew closest to the door. We went up and we touched our beads to the glass and we had our hands on the glass. I see my dad open his dictionary and take out the prayer the lady gave to us. We were trying to say it in Italian. All of a sudden the man who was in the back walked up to us, and he looked exactly like Padre Pio. He had a robe on, the beard, the sandals. I’m trying to not make it obvious that I’m looking at him. Padre Pio was a big guy and he was the same size. He walked between me and my dad and put his hand on the tomb on the glass between hours. He was still there when we left. It was crazy. I am not exaggerating. He looked exactly like him.
Who knows? Maybe San Giovanni Rotondo is filled with Padre Pio impressionists, just like you find Elvis at Graceland.
However, after being a real skeptic about Padre Pio, I did my own research and read the original documents of the investigation, as well as many account of unusual encounters with him.
I initially had suspected the man might have been a zealot or fraud, with his community milking his postmortem fame. I don’t believe that any longer. He was the real deal, and I don’t think the way he appears in the paths of various people can be dismissed as mere apophenia.
Even if the Wests did not experience an apparition of Padre Pio, their encounter was unusual enough in the context of a long pattern of like encounters to have meaning.
Please, I’d ask anyone who has read this far to pause a moment to pray for the intercession of Blessed Miriam Teresa in the full healing of Grace, and strength for the West family.