Catholic artist Timothy Schmalz calls Padre Pio his favorite saint. And so, when he learned that four of his sculptures would honor the Italian mystic on his feast day — Sept. 23 — he was overjoyed.
“I thought a couple years ago about that moment in my life where Padre Pio gave me that peace and comfort and I thought, ‘I have to honor him,'” the 53-year-old sculptor told CNA over the phone, his hands full of clay. “I really do. And the best way I can honor a saint is by sculpting them.”
St. Pio or Pietrelcina, more commonly known as Padre Pio, is one of the most popular saints of the 20th century. The Capuchin friar is famous for his stigmata (Christ’s wounds, present in his own flesh), his spiritual wisdom and guidance, his ministry in the confessional, his reported ability to miraculously bilocate, and his being physically attacked by the devil.
On Friday, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston was to bless Schmalz’s bronze sculptures to be installed that same day: three for the plaza of San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy, where an average of 7 million pilgrims visit annually to pray at Padre Pio’s tomb . The fourth will stand at another popular, nearby pilgrimage site: St. Michael’s Cave.
A video on Schmalz’s YouTube channel shows the artist working on his Padre Pio sculptures in his studio located in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada. At one point, he holds a rosary.
“I usually consider my sculpture [to be a] prayer, and my hands are always not busy with beads, but busy with clay,” he told CNA. “I do believe that these sculptures — all of them — are prayers, visual prayers and cast in bronze.”
Schmalz is not new to sculpting. The experienced artist’s work can be found worldwide, from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican to Washington, DC He is perhaps best known for his Homeless Jesus sculpture and the Angels Unaware statues. Right now, he is also creating a life-size Stations of the Cross to be placed at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
It took him roughly a year, he said, to form his Padre Pio sculptures. Each one is different.
His first sculpture depicts the saint wrestling in combat with a demon.
“I really do believe that it is something that, if you didn’t know who Padre Pio was, seeing this sculpture, you would want to know about him,” he explained of the sculpture that he hopes introduces more people to the saint.
In particular, he hopes that his work attracts the younger generation.
“Art can be a wonderful entrance, a wonderful doorway, but it has to be exciting,” he articulated.
This sculpture illustrates Padre Pio confronting a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike.
“I think so many people today have struggles with evil, and they have these battles going on,” Schmalz said of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “I thought that to have this saint in combat with evil and winning is a wonderful representation — and a very much authentic representation — of St. Padre Pio.”
A Pieta Offering Peace
The second shows Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Padre Pio encircled in a sculpted ribbon.
“It’s the ribbon for breast cancer, and many people around the world have that ribbon as a symbol of all cancer,” Schmalz said, adding that people frequently pray to Padre Pio when they have a family member suffering from cancer.
But the ribbon doubles as something else: a fish — an ancient symbol of Christianity — facing upwards towards the sky.
Inside the outline of the ribbon (or fish), Mary is depicted looking down on Padre Pio in a way that Schmalz likens to a pieta. Padre Pio’s gloved hands reach out, inviting passersby to touch them.
Schmalz hopes that, when they do, they encounter peace.
“If you consider all the miracles of St. Padre Pio, I think one of the greatest miracles is that he brings people peace,” he said. “What I like to think about St. Padre Pio is [that] the comfort and peace he gave people, including myself, was the miracle.”
His third piece embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel. It is, Schmalz said, a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers; many have entertained angels unaware.”
“You have the pilgrim that has a staff, who has a conch — which is the symbol of pilgrims — and then, before your eyes, artistically, that stranger turns into this mysterious-looking angel,” he described.
Schmalz said he is particularly excited that the Be Welcoming sculpture will be located at San Giovanni Rotondo because “it’s the place where pilgrims go.”
St. Michael the Protector
The sculpture that will be placed in St. Michael’s Cave depicts the archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon.
“It makes me so happy that [on] this feast day of St. Padre Pio, this sculpture will be permanently installed and blessed in St. Michael’s Cave,” he said. “It’s just beyond my wildest dreams of happiness that these celebrations are happening right now.”