Let me introduce you to Padre Pio and show you his church. If you‘re not a pious Catholic, no Christian, maybe no believer at all, you may not know who I‘m talking about. Padre Who? Let me tell you that he‘s the top saint of the Catholic church, he‘s the No 1 of all 821 saints. According to a Catholic site the making of saints started in the 10th century, during the Middle Ages 96 people were made saints, from 1588 up to today 725, for 478 (!) of those the last Pope, John Paul II, was responsible.
When we were on our school exchange visit to Foggia (move from Naples to the east across the Italian peninsula and you‘ll find the town near the coast) two years ago in April we decided to visit San Giovanni Rotondo and the church where Padre Pio (1887 - 1968) lived and worked as a Capuchin priest nearly his whole life to experience something endemical (present within a localised area or peculiar to persons in such an area).
We travelled inland for 40 km, from the plain into the hills, San Giovanni Rotondo is situated on the slope of a hill looking just like any ordinary southern Italian town from afar. Ah, not quite, approaching we notice the huge building of the hospital built with the donations given to Padre Pio.
When he arrived in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1918 (he was born in a village nearby), it was just a dusty peasant spot connected to the outside world by a mule path, but what has it become! It‘s the Lourdes of southern Italy, a pilgrim boom town full of building sites for more hotels (no skyscrapers though), more restaurants, more souvenir shops. 27 000 inhabitants and 7.5 million visitors every year!
My pocket calculator informs me that on an average day 20 548 visitors come to San Giovanni Rotondo, when we were there we met only some dozens, what does that mean for the summer season, for the Christian holidays Christmas and Easter, Padre Pio‘s birthday, dying day and day of sanctification? I don‘t want to imagine this, I‘ve seen photos of the masses standing on the piazza in front of the church, for someone suffering from demophobia (fear of crowds) it is pure nightmare! Just writing this gives me the creeps.
From the end of the shuttle ride we strolled into the town passing souvenir stalls many of which were still closed at the beginning of April, but we already got a glimpse of what can be done with (to?) a saint once business has laid its hand on him. The street ends in the piazza, one has to turn right to enter the church.
I decided to get in on my own, not with the group, to be able to look at the exhibits undisturbed. We had certainly chosen a perfect day, so few visitors! In the church I noticed a sign ‘Don‘t stop!‘ meaning ‘Keep moving!‘ in order to prevent a pious traffic jam. Padre Pio worked (practised?) in the church as a priest and had his living quarters in it. The route takes the visitors through some rooms exhibiting photos, prayers and sayings of the saint, the things he used for mass, his cell and the room where his tomb stands.
It‘s high time I said something about my attitude! I‘d describe myself as a Protestant fallen out of faith. Due to my mother who was a committed Christian I was an active church member as a child, sang in the church choir, even went to bible reading camps. I don‘t believe in religion as practised by the church any more, as to the Christian belief as such I have my doubts, too. With scepticism and irony being parts of my nature I was not the right person at the right place you may think. I swear, though, that I had come open-minded, I had not come to laugh my head off or something like that and I do not want to offend anyone by writing about my experiences, believe me.
I was glad that I was alone in the narrow passage, claustrophobics shouldn‘t go there on a busy day, but I was overwhelmed nevertheless. The photos did it, a bit bigger than life size, Padre Pio‘s head higher than the visitors? ones and his hands at the height of the eyes of the spectators.
His hands! Padre Pio was stigmatised for 50 years, at the age of 31 he saw a mysterious apparition, a person with marks on his hands, feet and chest that resembled those of Christ. Once the image had disappeared Padre Pio realised that he had the same marks on his body, he was the first priest ever to be stigmatised, the marks only disappeared some days before his death.
On our way back I asked the priest who was accompanying us why the Catholic Church had had problems with Padre Pio in the beginning and why he had even had enemies as I‘d read. He told me that the Church had to be careful as there were always lots of charlatans around and the fact that people came flocking to San Giovanni Rotondo immediately after the news of the stigmata had spread to confess and to touch the priest‘s wounds with a hankie they then could take home as a trophy didn‘t make him popular with his superiors.
Padre Pio wasn‘t happy at all, he suffered. "Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition . . "
Padre Pio healed thousands, he was able to read souls, he could predict the future ‘he told a simple Polish priest that one day he would be Pope!‘ he was seen in dozens of cases of bilocation (appearing far from where he actually was). The Church sent physicians to examine his wounds it was suspected that he had inflicted them on himself with nitric acid. But every day for 50 years? They were able to feel their fingers pressing in from either side, when Padre Pio held up the host at mass, the faithful were able to see light coming through the wounds. Padre Pio lost a cup of blood a day, ate only one Spartan meal a day and slept three hours each night, he was not anaemic, however, and did not lose weight. Don‘t ask! Don‘t ask, I couldn‘t answer your questions anyway.
On June 16th 2002 Padre Pio was officially canonised and named a Saint by Pope John Paul II in what was one of the largest attended masses in the History of the Vatican.
The photos gave me the creeps, Padre Pio used brown fingerless gloves to absorb the blood and cover the wounds except when he said mass. All that blood, the hands more than life size, just in front of my eyes! I was so shocked that I didn‘t look properly into all the following rooms. One boy asked me afterwards if I had seen the letters? No, I hadn‘t, I had passed by a room of which all the walls were covered with shelves on which letters to Padre Pio from one year only were stacked, there wasn‘t any space left.
When I think back only the goriness comes back to my mind pushing aside all the thoughts about holiness and sainthood which I had meant to contemplate.
The visitors to San Giovanni Rotondo leave 1 million Euro (670 317 GBP) a year in the town, that is 7 022 Euro (4 707 GBP) a day, I contributed 2, 50 Euro (1.67 GBP) by buying a metal key ring on the way back to the shuttle bus with a picture of Padre Pio on it for a relative-in-law in Sardinia. I wasn‘t sure about her grade of piety and didn‘t want to spend too much money in case she wasn‘t fond of this saint. When I gave it to her during my following Easter holidays, she pressed it to her lips and mumbled some prayers. More shivers.