The piece of art found in Greensburg, Pa., is an ideal destination for a Year of Mercy pilgrimage.
Timothy P. Schmalz worked for days on end in a disturbing silence in his studio with his mind racing back to “everything horrible” he had done in the last 25 years. The darkness became more encompassing, he said, when he also thought about the things that others had done.
“Then I looked at who I was sculpturing — St. Pio of Pietrelcina, the patron saint of confessions — and I thought, why don’t I bring him into this horrible mindset?” he said. “Throughout all this, I had not asked God for forgiveness, not even once.”
That epiphany turned him around.
Every time Schmalz’s own sins and the transgressions of others came into his mind, he turned the thoughts into prayers for forgiveness and mercy. Each piece of clay that he applied to the emerging work of art was a prayer.
“The whole sculpture became my rosary beads,” Schmalz said. “It became a mystical experience for me. I would say that I was the first person to benefit from this sculpture. One of the deepest ways that it affected my Catholic faith is that it brought to me a kind of spiritual wonder and awe.”
He calls the sculpture “I Absolve You,” and as he worked on it in 2014, he was doing what Pope Francis in February told international Padre Pio Prayer Groups when they visited Rome. The Holy Father told them to let their devotion to Padre Pio help them to rediscover each day “the beauty of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy,” and to heed the saint’s words that prayer is “a key that opens God’s heart.”
Schmalz, a world-renowned sculptor from Toronto, Canada, was commissioned by an anonymous benefactor to create the life-size sculpture of the saint for St. Emma Monastery in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It was dedicated in late November. Now that spring has arrived, the Benedictine sisters and their volunteers are completing the landscape around the installation. The small community welcomes thousands of visitors every year to their retreats, shrines, public events and prayer services. “I Absolve You” has been drawing even more.
Mother Mary Anne Noll, OSB, told OSV that there’s a reason that the path leading to the shrine on the hill is not straight.
“Straight is too legalistic, too exact, like there’s no wiggle room, kind of like the rigidity of law,” she said. “God’s mercy meets us where we are, and his mercy will move us from where we are. It’s a curved path that will welcome you right into the merciful embrace of Jesus.”
Padre Pio was the saint, Pope Francis said, who unleashed “the river of mercy” through the sacrament of reconciliation. He often spent 12 hours a day hearing the confessions of people who stood in line for hours.
Schmalz captured that intensity in the 900-pound bronze sculpture centered by a 9-foot crucifix. Padre Pio sits on one side of the confessional wall with his bandaged hand bearing the stigmata reaching to the screen. His face is pressed forward to listen.
On the other side, where there’s a seat to sit and pray, it’s the face and bleeding hand of the crucified Christ that the visitor encounters.
“When you see Padre Pio reaching out and then you walk to the other side, it’s an awesome lesson thrust at you when you see who that hand is imitating, that it’s Jesus,” Schmalz said. He credits that artistic inspiration to “the God of surprises.”
The man who commissioned the sculpture had never heard of St. Pio until a homeless woman told him about the humble Capuchin from San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia, Italy. She gave him a prayer card, and he later prayed for his wife when she was seriously ill.
He credits the saint’s intercession for a series of healings. In gratitude, he asked Mother Mary Anne if there was a place at St. Emma’s for a statue so that others could learn about Padre Pio. She put him in touch with Schmalz, who previously created for the monastery a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus at the Last Supper. The seated figure holds the bread of the First Eucharist close to his heart. The bronze chalice is set before him on a concrete table with 12 empty seats that invite people to sit with Jesus. That shrine is near the monastery’s Rosary Path that meanders through the wooded hillside.
Schmalz has done a number of religious sculptures, including the provocative “Homeless Jesus” — a figure of a man lying under a blanket on a park bench, with a visible nail-pierced foot. Copies of that bronze statue are being installed in a dozen cities around the world.
A copy of the original “I Absolve You” was cast for installation at the friary where St. Pio spent a lifetime bringing the mercy of God to the penitent.