Padre Pio and the Freemason
By Father Pascal P. Parente, S.T.D., Ph.D., J.B.C.
A well-known attorney of Genoa, Comm. Cesare Festa, a first cousin of Dr. G. Festa of Rome, former mayor of Arenzano and one of the most prominent Freemasons of Genoa, was one of the first conquests of Padre Pio’s kindness and zeal. Dr. G. Festa had often exhorted his cousin to abandon Freemasonry and to return to the Church, but to no avail. When he became acquainted with Padre Pio, he spoke about the Padre to his cousin Cesare. One day, out of curiosity, Cesare left Genoa and traveled all the way south to San Giovanni Rotondo.
“What, you here? You, who are a Freemason?” exclaimed Padre Pio the moment he laid eyes on the newcomer.
“Yes, Father,” said Cesare.
“And what is your intention as a Freemason?”
“To fight against the Church from a political point of view.”
Padre Pio smiled, took his visitor’s hand and with extreme kindness began to tell him the story of the Prodigal Son. That same day Cesare went down on his knees before Padre Pio and made his confession, the first in twenty-five years. The next morning he received Holy Communion.
For a few days he remained with the Padre to strengthen his soul for the ordeal that lay ahead. Padre Pio advised him to wait before announcing his official break with the Freemasons. After a few months he returned again to see the Padre, and this time he stopped in Rome to tell his cousin, Dr. Festa, of his conversion and change of heart.
When an Italian pilgrimage to Lourdes was organized under the leadership of Archbishop Achille Ratti of Milan (later Pope Pius XI), Cesare decided to offer his services to the invalid pilgrims, both on the train and later at the hotel. This fact soon became known, and the Socialist paper Avanti and similar sheets let loose a violent attack under a big headline: “A Freemason at Lourdes!”
Cesare was immediately requested to explain his actions. His answer was brief and to the point. At Lourdes, he said, he had admired not so much the restoration of bodily health as the miracles of faith. A new storm followed, because, officially, he was still a member of the brotherhood. As he was preparing to go to the last meeting of the Lodge to break all ties with Freemasonry, he received a most encouraging letter from Padre Pio.
“Never be ashamed of Christ or of His doctrine. It is time to fight with open face. May the Giver of all blessings grant you the needed strength!”
These words, coming at such a critical moment, gave Cesare the necessary courage. He went to the Lodge and there, with great fervor of spirit, spoke openly of Christ, the Saviour of the world, of His doctrine, His Church, and of his own supreme happiness in returning to them. Then he officially presented his resignation from office and broke all ties with the sect.
All this took place during November, 1921. The following Christmas Cesare was in Rome with his cousin, Dr. Festa. There the former Freemason was to be seen in the garb of a Franciscan Tertiary, walking in the procession of the Bambino in the church of Ara Coeli, a lighted candle in his hand. Three days later he was received in an audience by Pope Benedict XV, to whom he described his conversion through the good offices of Padre Pio.
“Yes,” said the Pope, “Padre Pio is truly a man of God; some have doubts about him, but you will help to make him better known.”
Only half a block away from the Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo is a book shop, owned by a distinguished photographer, Signor Federico Abresch. A German by birth and a former Protestant, he has long been a convert to the Catholic Faith. However, his conversation made at the time of his marriage to a Catholic girl had really been rather a formality than a sincere change of mind on his part.
In 1928 Signor Abresch came from Bologna, where he had a photographic studio, to visit Padre Pio. Kneeling down for confession, he simply expressed his unbelief, saying that he regarded confession as a good social institution and no more, not a divine means of grace.
Padre Pio looked at him with an expression of extreme pain. “Heresy! All your Communions have been sacrilegious!” he exclaimed. “You need a general confession. Examine your conscience. Jesus was more merciful to you than to Judas.” And with these words he dismissed him.
The poor man felt terribly confused, for he was unable to remember the last time he had made a good confession since entering the Church. When he returned to Padre Pio again, he explained his plight as best he could. Then, very kindly, Padre Pio told him what he could not remember. He had made his last good confession when he had returned from his wedding trip, something which the friar could never have known through natural means.
It was exactly so, as Signor Abresch now remembered the circumstances of that confession. From this point on, Padre Pio began to enumerate the other sins of commission and omission of the penitent before him, concluding with these words: “You have glorified Satan, and Jesus in His boundless love broke His neck for you!”
Signor Abresch then received his penance and absolution, and with them such a joy and happiness that he felt like a new person. From then on he went to daily Mass and Communion, and finally became a Franciscan Tertiary.
“I believe now,” he writes, “not only all the dogmas of the Catholic Church but even her smallest ceremonies. And I feel that if anybody should attempt to take this Faith from me, he could only take my life!”
Signor Abresch and his family, like so many other converts of Padre Pio, wished one thing more — to be able to live near the Padre. Those who cannot afford a move to San Giovanni Rotondo are satisfied with frequent visits there; those who can, settle down in the shadow of the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace — which explains the presence of Signor Abresch in San Giovanni Rotondo today. Most of the photographs published in this book are his property, and he has kindly permitted us to use them. He must exercise great skill to secure these photos, especially those taken during Mass, because Padre Pio never poses and will never knowingly allow anyone to take his picture.
Dr. Angelo M. Merla was one of the doctors who assisted Dr. Festa in the operation performed on Padre Pio which we have already described. He had been an unbeliever, and for thirty years had stayed away from the Church. Padre Pio brought him back to the Sacraments and to regular religious practices. He made his First Communion at the same time as his little daughter. Today, in his office, Dr. Merla often shows people a thermometer which broke when he tried to take the extraordinary temperatures of Padre Pio. (These, at times, reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Concerning other conversions brought about by Padre Pio, Dr. G. Festa relates that he saw, with his own eyes, how a young Jew knelt before Padre Pio one day and said: “Padre, I won’t leave there until you baptize me!” He had come to San Giovanni Rotondo out of curiosity; he went home a Christian.