St. Pio and Bohr

I came across two unrelated stories and had a thought. What if St. Pio of Pietrelcina and Niels Bohr had met?

The brilliant Thomistic philosopher, Mortimer J. Adler, told a brief story in his book, Angels and Us. He had occasion in the early 1920’s to attend a luncheon at the University of Chicago and was the only philosopher at a table of eminent physicists, among them Niels Bohr who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. The physicists, Adler wrote, were marveling over the novelty of Bohr’s atomic model and the quantum movement of electrons. According to his atomic model, electrons move in circular orbits at fixed distances from the nucleus, jumping instantaneously among them without moving in between. It was like nothing they had ever heard before! Citing angelic motion, Adler pointed out that this idea was not novel at all.

The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote about instantaneous movement of angels some 650 years before Bohr’s atomic theory. Because they are spirits without bodies, angels can move discretely from one place to another instantly. An angel can “quit the whole place, and in the same instant apply himself to the whole of another place.” (ST.I.53.1) Angels move in what we might today call a “quantum leap.” Adler also noted that this reference made the physicists uncomfortable, which is not surprising since Niels Bohr was an atheist. Adler himself was, at the time, a self-described pagan.

Fr. Alessio Parente O.F.M. Cap., told another story in his book, Send Me Your Guardian Angel. A gentleman from England, who was one of St. Pio of Pietrelcina’s spiritual children, was seriously injured in a car crash. The injured man’s friend went to the post office to send Padre Pio a telegram to request prayers. Upon presenting the telegram, the clerk instantly handed him back a response from Padre Pio assuring him of prayers. Months later, the injured man having healed, the two friends traveled to see Padre Pio and thank him. Obviously, they wanted to know how he already knew of the need for prayers so as to, at the very instant the friend was at the post office, arrange for a telegram to be sent with his assurances. Padre Pio replied humorously, “Do you think the Angels go as slowly as the planes?” An angel communicated to him, faster than the friend, faster than a telegram, faster than a plane—instantly.

What was an abstract theory for one man was a reality for the other. One man changed the paradigms of modern science and went on to help develop the atomic bomb. The other man lies incorrupt, canonized a saint. By 1922, stories of Padre Pio’s spiritual gifts had spread around the world. It’s entirely possible that the two men knew of each other. While there is not much use in musing what-if’s, maybe it’s worth considering what insight might have been granted the genius physicist had he met the holy mystic who knew we are always in the presence of our celestial companions.

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