Francesco Forgione – better known to us as Padre Pio and now titled Saint Pio of Pietrelcina – has become front page news once more.
Since last week, the remains of the Capuchin friar have been on display at his shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of his death.
The body of the saint, situated in a raised transparent casket, is expected to draw a million visitors to the southern Italian town between now and September 2009.
The Italian public’s fascination with Padre Pio shows no signs of waning. A recent survey revealed that more Italians offer intentions to him than they do to either Jesus or the Blessed Virgin, which is a pretty remarkable feat.
Arguably the most talked-about person elevated to sainthood during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, Padre Pio’s popularity in Ireland is probably exceeded only in Italy and the United States.
A well-received book on Padre Pio recently written by Colm Keane makes reference to a college lecturer of mine, who ranked among his greatest devotees on this island – if not the greatest.
The late Mairead Doyle, responsible for the shorthand used by many of this trade’s luminaries including Des Cahill, Eoghan Corry and Joe O’Brien, introduced me to Padre Pio, for want of better phraseology.
It wasn’t that Padre Pio wasn’t known to me – his bearded visage adorned window ledges and mantelpieces in both grandparents’ homes – but he’d never been a major conversation topic as such. Well all that changed in the autumn of 1998, when my journalism studies began.
Mairead Doyle established the first Padre Pio Prayer Group in Ireland, and for two of my four college years, I dictated notes for the many PPPG meetings she chaired and trips she organised.
Such was her devotion to Padre Pio that her East Wall home was named ‘Franpio’.
Since the 1950s, and for the vast majority of the half-century that followed, Mairead led pilgrimages to San Giovanni. It’s fair to say it was the highlight of her year.
The many journalism students she taught Gregg Shorthand to, “the only pure form of shorthand,” listened to Mairead’s Padre Pio stories, of her meeting him privately as well as his many abilities, including bilocation.
“Yes,” Mairead often told her journalism class, who received her many stories with varying degrees of interest. “Padre Pio could appear in two difference places at the same time.”
While the friar’s stigmata is the most frequently discussed topic regarding Saint Pio’s life, this seemingly superhuman ability fascinated me from the off.
A former Italian army officer fell to his knees upon glimpsing the friar in a church sacristy. “Padre, thank you for saving me from death,” said the awed and grateful soldier.
The man immediately told those within earshot: “I was a captain of the infantry and one day on the battlefield in a terrible hour of battle, not far from me I saw a friar who said; ‘Sir, go away from that place!’
“I went towards him and as soon as I moved, a grenade burst in the place where I was before and opened a chasm. I turned around in order to find the friar, but he was not there anymore.” The friar he believed he saw on the battlefield was Padre Pio.
Of course there are those who dismiss Padre Pio as a fake. As recently as last year, a book written by Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto suggested that Padre Pio faked his stigmata by pouring carbolic acid on his hands.
In the book, titled ‘The Other Christ,’ the author claims to have seen a note written by Pope John XXIII in which the Pontiff describes an “immense deception” committed by Padre Pio, who was banned from saying Mass for a time.
Upon the book’s publication, the Vatican said it was aware of the allegations made by Luzzatto and that such matters had been fully addressed and considered during Padre Pio’s beatification process.
That Irish devotion to Padre Pio remains strong is undoubted. Two separate pilgrimages to San Giovanni Rotondo are being planned by the Irish Office for Saint Pio – one due to visit his shrine within the next month and another due in October.
On the third weekend in September, celebrations to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Saint Pio’s death will be held at Our Lady’s Shrine in Knock.
Over the next few weeks and months, Saint Pio is likely to become the focus of renewed media coverage.
And while much of what shall be said and written will surely veer on the sceptical side, the faith of those devoted to the saint shall not waver by as much as an iota.
And that, no doubt, would please Mairead Doyle enormously.