Padre Pio's Big Adventure

A little piece of a bleeding Italian priest has traveled here to help in the healing

Padre Pio wrestled with Satan -- literally.

The eccentric Italian Capuchin Catholic priest would sometimes emerge from his bedroom to celebrate 5 a.m. Mass covered with cuts and bruises after a night of going mano a mano with the red, horned one.

Padre Pio also possessed the power of bilocation. He would occasionally lend a hand in one part of the world (say, appearing as a vision in the sky and guiding a World War II fighter pilot safely to the ground), without ever leaving his home in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy.

Most impressively, Padre Pio bore the signs of stigmata: He was a bleeder. For the last 50 years of his life, blood seeped from scars on his hands, legs, and chest -- symbolic of the nailing of Christ to the cross. After Padre Pio's death in 1968, the wounds were said to have closed up, leaving his skin as smooth as a baby's bottom.

On this evening about 200 people are gathered at Saint Henry's Catholic Church in Pompano Beach to get a peek at one of Padre Pio's hand wounds. The tiny chunk of flesh is encased behind a panel of glass in a six-inch-high golden cross. It sits on a section of red cloth. The piece of flesh is no more than a half-inch in length, and the bloodstains have long since dried. The ceremonial object comes to Saint Henry's from Italy via Dublin and has been sitting on the altar throughout this evening's Mass.

Following Communion everyone comes forward to see the relic of Padre Pio. Most worshipers kiss the object as they file by. Some touch it with their hands. Others simply make the sign of the cross. One woman inches to the front with the help of a walker, but no one else shows visible signs of physical duress or any effect from the experience.

The Mass is intended to bring comfort to people suffering from HIV and AIDS, but judging by the proportion of old folks (of course, they have their own mortality issues to deal with), it's more a typical Sunday-service crowd. There is no immediately discernible miracle this evening. The power of Padre Pio is subtle. If present.

The Padre was born Francesco Forgione in 1887 and became a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. He is yet to be declared a full-fledged saint, but on May 2 he was beatified, the penultimate step on the long road toward canonization. If one more post-death Padre Pio miracle can be authenticated by the Church (three are presently being considered, according to the National Centre For Padre Pio in Barto, Pennsylvania), he'll need only the pontiff's signature to join Matthew, Mark, Luke, Walbert, and hundreds of others in sainthood.

Despite the lack of an official imprimatur from Rome, Padre Pio has long been anointed by the people. He is credited with countless miracles -- from healing cancer patients to filling the rooms of dying people with the smell of fresh-cut flowers. About seven million pilgrims visit his grave each year in San Giovanni Rotondo, making it the most popular Catholic site in the world.

The piece of Padre Pio that has attracted the crowd at Saint Henry's is what is known in Catholicism as a "first-class relic." Despite the crude terminology (it sounds like a designation you would find in an antiques price guide) the term is significant to believers. A first-class relic means that the item contains a piece of the venerated one's body -- whether hair, bone, or, in this case, flesh and blood. This particular relic is credited with inspiring miracles of its own: A man suffering from cancer purportedly sat up and walked out of a Dublin hospital after being blessed with it.

Presiding over the Mass is Fr. Bill Collins. Once a month he holds healing Masses at Saint Henry's for people with HIV and AIDS. Following a rendition of "Amazing Grace" and readings from James and Luke, Collins recites a long list of first names: They are all people whom he has buried who died from the virus. Usually a few dozen people show up for the healing Mass, rather than the nearly two hundred present this evening to see the Padre. Collins cautions the audience against expecting miracles. "We're not saying that this is Barnum & Bailey," he tells the congregation. "This is not magic."

Collins is a bit of a Catholic maverick himself. He has a penchant for off-color jokes and Benson & Hedges cigarettes. Twelve years ago, when AIDS was still a disease mentioned in hushed tones, Father Bill founded the Poverello Center, a Wilton Manors charity that provides food to people with AIDS. Much of his time since then has been spent ministering to people with the disease in hospitals and homes.

Collins has his own connection to Padre Pio. About 40 years ago, when the would-be saint was still alive and bleeding, Collins was part of a contingent sent to San Giovanni Rotondo to keep an eye on the Padre 24 hours a day. (The Church wanted to make sure he wasn't gouging himself with scissors behind closed doors.) "For 31 days this guy, he didn't even go to the john alone," says Collins.

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