Today, the 23rd of September, is the feast of the beloved Padre Pio. In a happy coincidence of internet unreliability, I couldn’t blog about it until today, his actual feast day, even though we left Petrelcina, Piana Romana, and San Giovanni Rotondo more than 3 days ago now. We spent 2 days exploring first his hometown of Petrelcina, scaling the winding staircases, peeking into the rooms his family lived and worked. Next we made a quick stop in the neighboring town where he received his “invisible” first stigmata (he received a visible stigmata later in his priestly ministry, from which point on the wounds in his hand would bleed continuously for the rest of his life), now home to a church which marks the spot under an elm tree where he was invited to participate in Christ’s passion in a mystical way, and then finally stopping for the night in the city where he lived and ministered as a Franciscan friar for more than 50 years, and where his partially incorrupt body still lies in state.
Of the places we saw relating to Pio, I found his family home and the cell where he studied during his novitiate year to be the most moving. Firstly, because seeing the bedroom where his mother delivered him and the kitchen where she prepared the family’s meals shamed me from ever complaining again about the size of our kitchen and the state of our furniture.
Secondly because, like Assisi, there was a profound sense of the spirit of the saint having permeated the town. Just as Francis still very much dominates his hometown with his presence and protection, so too does Pio. Maybe it’s a particular Franciscan charism?
Seeing his body was surreal. It was not nearly as moving as visiting the tomb of St. Francis or St. Clare or even St. John Paul II, because the church in which his body is housed has to be one of the ugliest religious buildings ever constructed. The scale is bizarre, and the effect is that the saints’ body is almost an afterthought in this gaping chasm of mosaics and swooping curves. I guess there must be somebody, somewhere, who thought the place attractive enough to sign the million dollar check for the renovations. Either that or was too afraid to stand up to the architect.
Padre Pio is one of the “incorruptibles” of the Catholic church. He died in 1968, and his hands (visible as he lies in state) are withered away to the bone, but his face is serene and untouched by age or corruption. His beard looks as if it still needs regular trimming. His skin looks supple and alive through the glass. It’s a remarkable thing to behold.
I prayed for your intentions there in the brief moment we had to stop before his tomb, and throughout the tour through his hometown and his adopted city. Everywhere you go in Italy there is usually a patron saint of the town or city, unless you’re in Rome and there are 1000 different saints. So in San Giovanni Rotondo, everything is Pio. The Pio pharmacy, Pio rosary stands, Pio banners in the square advertising the festival of Padre Pio (today and tomorrow and Sunday, if you’re interested in going). Even a Pio gelato shop. It’s something completely foreign to the American mind, to see such an intersection of the secular and religious. Even just cruising down the auto strada (the Italian freeway) it’s not uncommon to pass semi trucks with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or some particular saint. The Italian people might not be practicing Catholics any longer, for the most part, but culturally they are definitely still Catholic.
I had the chance to go to confession in the old basilica in San Giovanni, the place where Padre Pio’s body used to lie before he was moved to the amphitheater of mosaic confusion, and it was a true Italian experience. There were 4 confessionals staffed by Franciscan friars, and a room full of chatty Italians who seemed to know, in that way Italians are uncannily able, the precise order they’d each arrived, and therefore who was up next. Sure, forming a line would have been easier and ultimately more efficient, but why constrain ourselves to a linear progression when it could be reasonably estimated, by means of continually scanning the room and making mental observations, who arrived and in which order they did so? Plus, it’s an excuse to talk more.
Finally my turn arrived, and while the list of comprehensive languages outside Father’s confessional included English, it was definitely not his native tongue. But it was such a gift to be able to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation there in San Giovanni Rotondo where the saint had labored for so many long hours in the confessional, delivering absolution and relieving people of their great burdens. Even jet lagged and anxious as I was, it was still a tangible peace that descended as father spoke the words of absolution in Italian, after explaining in very halting English that he could not remember the prayer in my language. But what better demonstration of the universality of the Faith then for a white American woman with a baby strapped to her chest to have her confession heard by a black priest from a French colony in Africa wearing the brown robes of a Franciscan friar, having taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as first espoused by a tiny Italian man who lived out a radical gospel poverty 700 years ago?
Tell you what, it’s a wild ride, this Catholicism thing.
Tonight we’re have dinner with our old friends, a mixed American/Italian couple and their 3 beautiful kids, in one of our favorite restaurants near the Vatican. This is my first trip to Italy since cutting out gluten (and most other grains), and it has been a little tricky. Lots of apples and french fries and salads and some surprisingly good meat, at least compared with the stuff I used to buy from my friend the smoking butcher at our local market. Gelato is still good though, and wine is still “senza glutine.” So, va bene.
Happy feast day, and Padre Pio, pray for us!