The pope called Padre Pio an “apostle of the confessional.”
Before the Mass, Francis visited Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church where Padre Pio celebrated Mass for the last nine years of his life. There, he stood in silent prayer before the saint’s body, moved to the church from the crypt below. He touched and kissed the crucifix that Pio was praying to when he received the stigmata in 1918.
“He is the third pope to visit San Giovanni Rotondo; it’s establishing a continuity,” said Maurizio Placentino, the provincial minister of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, which oversees all things Padre Pio here. John Paul II, who canonized Pio, visited in 1987; and so did Benedict XVI in 2016.
“It’s a strong message that shows the continued attention of the church to this phenomenon: recognizing in Padre Pio a gift of God for our day,” he said.
The church did not always embrace Padre Pio. Both his superiors and the Vatican initiated more than a dozen investigations against him, and Pope John XXIII wrote of Padre Pio’s “immense deception.” But his successor, Paul VI, lifted the restrictions on Pio’s ministry.
Francis being Francis, he went off-script in Pietrelcina, addressing the “internal migration of young people,” a problem endemic to Italy’s less affluent regions, where work is scarce and many are forced to emigrate north — within Italy or to other European countries.
The pope called on locals to pray that young people find work, “among you, among the family and are not forced to leave to look for another way, while the country” spiraled into a decline.
But his mission in coming south was to honor Padre Pio, whose global following has grown significantly since his death in 1968. The mosaics that envelop the walls on the lower part of the saint’s shrine were paid for by a Philippine foundation dedicated to him.
The floor of the crypt where Padre Pio’s body is on view is littered with slips of papers, closed envelopes, photo-booth portraits and even money, mostly small bills. The faithful and other visitors slip similar mementos under the door of the cell where he spent the last years of his life in San Giovanni Rotondo, or into the confessional of the old church where he is said to have heard millions of confessions.
These handwritten pleas for assistance and spiritual sustenance “are too many to count,” said Stefano Campanella, the director of the television station Tele Radio Padre Pio and the author of several books about the saint.
Though St. Pio’s shrine is still popular, tourists who used to flock to it are coming for shorter daytime visits, the result of the country’s economic downturn.
“Now people come from all over Italy, but they travel overnight by bus and bring sandwiches. This helps the penitential aspect, but it depresses the economy of the city,” said Antonio Belpiede, the general procurator of the Capuchin order. He added, “San Giovanni Rotondo owes everything to Padre Pio, that’s for sure.”
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Recently, relics of Padre Pio have begun traveling outside Italy. Last year, several — including a glove, a lock of his hair and cotton gauze stained with blood — went on tour in Mexico, Canada and the United States, including New York. Two years ago, his heart was displayed in America.
But many of the faithful want to be close to his home. Brady White, an American actor who is paid to play Santa at celebrity Christmas parties (he said he has seen the Kardashian-Jenner clan grow up), began traveling to San Giovanni Rotondo 16 years ago, after being “touched by Padre Pio,” he said.
On Saturday, he wore a specially made jacket commemorating Pope Francis’ visit here.
“I was a regular guy, but when Padre Pio wants you, he gets you,” he said.