Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pray, Hope and Don't Worry

It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. [1]

The tomb of Padre Pio
Today is the feast day of one of my favourite saints; Saint Pius of of Pietrelcina, known to the Catholic world as Padre Pio. My father has a strong devotion to this enigmatic friar from Italy and spent a lot of time in the years preceding his canonisation spreading his message around the country. From an early age, I remember attending Padre Pio Days which included talks on his life and ministry together with slide shows, film reels, book stalls and piety stalls. I was amazed (and rather terrified) by the stories of his battles with devil and marvelled at his ability to bilocate, prophecy and discern the true state of a person's soul (For those who don't know much about him, I've included a short biography at the end of this post). Padre Pio's life was marked by extreme physical suffering, mental anguish and spiritual assault yet he was able to inspire others to live holy and fruitful lives: 

Joy, with peace, is the sister of charity. Serve the Lord with laughter.

This year, towards the end of May, I managed to fulfil a life long ambition and make a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotundo with two friends. Here, I use pilgrimage in the loosest sense of the word; we flew to the closest airport and stayed at a four star hotel literally a stone's throw from the shrine but I believe we all received immense spiritual benefits from the experience despite cheating.

San Giovanni Rotundo is located in Apulia region of Southern Italy. It's set on a plateau at the foot of a small mountain range in the Parco Nazionale del Gargano. As we had limited time, we decided to hire a car and drive from the airport so we were able to appreciate the geographical characteristics of the region. Driving in Italy is a thoroughly nerve wrecking experience especially when one's SatNav decides take routes through the narrowest streets in town or over a ten kilometre stretch of road which hasn't been built yet. I am quite sure that Padre Pio was largely responsible for returning the car to the hire firm in the same state in which it was leased to us. As taxing as driving was, the car did afford us one of the highlights of the trip - we were able to visit Monte Sant'Angelo and the shrine of Saint Michael. In doing so, we had a better understanding of why Padre Pio had such a strong devotion to the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts.

Mass at Saint Michael's Cave
Apart from Gargano, the land was only a little above sea level and most of it was given over to the cultivation of olives, fruit and grains. Though nearby Foggia is a large city, the rest of the countryside appeared to be sparsely populated with isolated farm houses and the odd coastal town. It was great to get a feel for the landscape in which Padre Pio would have undertaken his ministry. Though a lack of time meant that we weren't able to explore San Giovanni as much as we would have liked, it owes most of it's modern character to Padre Pio and the pilgrims he attracts. May appears to be a very quiet period for the shrine and the town itself felt a little empty.

View from Monte Sant'Angelo to the sea
Due to the nature of its expansion over the years, the Padre Pio shrine complex is set on several levels (though we only discovered this on the penultimate day). The new Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church is a massive structure with an upper and lower church, a blessed sacrament chapel, a museum, shops and a huge piazza. Designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2004, it can accommodate 6500 pilgrims in the upper church and 30,000 outside. To my eye, the upper Church is a monstrosity; it looks like the set off one of the alien films and I didn't find it at all conducive to prayer. Thankfully, the lower church which houses the crypt and the tomb of St Padre Pio is far more intimate and I spent many hours there either in prayer and discernment. The walls of the passage way to the lower church and the interior of the church itself are decorated with mosaics designed by Fr. Marko I. Rupnik. Though the style of the mosaics is not to my taste, the theology behind them (gratefully explained to us by a friend who joined us from Rome) is both profound and awe inspiring. They tell the story of Padre Pio with collieries to the life of Saint Francis and depict scenes from the Bible.

Mosaic of Padre Pio and St Michael
The Holy Family
The piazza
The lower church
The second church on the site is Santa Maria della Grazie and it was built in Padre Pio's lifetime, again in response to the number of pilgrims visiting San Giovanni. Unfortunately, as it was built in the 1960s, it had little to please my more classical tastes. It does however posses a striking mosaic of Saint Pope John Paul II, a beautiful statue of Our Lady and the Child Jesus and houses the confessionals made available to pilgrims during their time there. Going to confession under the patronage of Padre Pio was a deeply significant spiritual experience which strengthened my commitment to a sacrament which has been a great source of solace to me in recent years.

Santa Maria della Grazie
Unfortunately, I only discovered my favourite church in the shrine complex on the last day. Originally dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1529, it is the original church attached to the monastery in which Padre Pio would have heard confession (the confessional he used is on display there). It was small, intimate and very prayerful and proved to be the perfect spot to reflect on the the life, sufferings and message of Saint Padre Pio. 

Santa Maria degli Angeli
I am truly grateful for my quasi-pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotundo and I definitely intend to go back, hopefully for a longer period of time and perhaps in a more penitential manner. In the Year of Mercy, there could be few better patrons than Padre Pio; Pray, Hope and Don't Worry!


Born in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25th 1887 to a deeply religious family, and given the name Francesco, Pio was thrust into spiritual battle from an early age. He regularly suffered physical and spiritual attacks from the devil but was able to find solace conversing with Jesus, Mary and his guardian angel. In 1903, at the age of 15 and with the blessing of his parents, he took the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin and selected the name of Pio in honour the patron saint of Pietrelcina, Saint Pius V.

In response to Pope Benedict XV's call for prayer to end World War I in 1918, Padre Pio offered himself as a sacrifice for peace. In August and September of that year, he received several visions of the crucified Christ from which he received the physical stigmata. For the next 50 years he would exercise his priestly ministry in San Giovanni Rotundo, becoming renown for his devotion to Mass, confession, guardian angels and the rosary, for his fortitude in the midst of immense physical and spiritual suffering and for a mystical union with Christ which granted him miraculous gifts. On occasion, he was able to be in two places at the same time (bilocation) whilst in the confessional he was granted the ability to see the true state of a penitent's soul. Padre Pio's physical suffering led him to establish homes for the relief of suffering whilst his spiritual suffering encouraged him to set up prayer groups to spiritually sustain the patients in their care.

As news of Padre Pio's unique gifts and charism spread, pilgrims flocked to San Giovanni in their hundreds of thousands and this forced the church to ascertain the veracity of his character and vocation. On June 9, 1931, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Padre Pio was ordered by the Holy See to refrain from all activities except the private celebration of Mass. Padre Pio humbly submitted to his superiors and eventually restored in all his priestly faculties. By the early 1960s, he was attracting pilgrims from across the world and they came in such numbers that a new church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, had to be built to accommodate them. By the time the church was completed, Padre Pio's always precarious health began to deteriorate. He died in the early hours of September 23rd 1968, shortly after making his confession and renewing his religious vows.

Following his death, Padre Pio's cult continued to grow; over six million pilgrims visit his shrine in San Giovanni every year. In 2004, an even bigger church, the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, was opened to accommodate the influx. The small town is also home to one of the finest hospitals in Italy, constructed at his behest and paid for by donations made by pilgrims. 

Padre Pio was canonised in 2002 by Saint Pope John Paul II who named him "a living image of Christ suffering and risen". [2]

[1] Colossians 1:24 (Magnificat, September 2015, p330)
[2] Magnificat, September 2015, p331

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