PADRE PIO, now Saint Pio, was born Francesco Forgione, in Pietrelcina near Benevento, on 25 May 1887. He joined the Capuchin monks on 6 January 1903 and was ordained a priest on 10 August 1910.
Pio had deserted from the army and "his spiritual director had him removed to the anonymity of a remote monastery, Our Lady of Grace, at San Giovanni Rotondo (Saint John's Rotunda)," in Southern Italy. There on 20 September 1918 he developed stigmata of his palms "in a violent trance". Fingerless mittens, from which blood ran down his arms as he held up the mass wafer, permanently covered his hands which "remained ... fresh and bleeding," for 50 years until he died on 23 September 1968.
'Devil possessed psychopath'
A fearful Vatican launched a dirty tricks campaign to destroy him in the 60's. The Inquisition kept him under constant surveillance. They dug up Padre Agostino, a former superior, who recalled Pio's "terrible diabolical vision of women dancing naked about the cell where he lay sick". They bugged his confessional and accused him of seducing women and making the stigmata with nitric acid. "The founder of Rome's Catholic University Hospital said the monk was mad, a self mutilating psychopath possessed of the devil who exploited people's credulity. The so called 'odour of sanctity' accompanying his wounds was no more than eau de cologne applied for an indulgent sting of self mortification. The Vatican banned him from taking Mass."
But lying wonders continued, including being seen by several cardinals behind locked doors kneeling before Pope Pius XI begging not to be exiled to a monastery in the north when he was known to be in San Giovanni Rotondo at the time.
"More ... remarkable ... was his appearance in the air over his hometown (San Giovanni Rotondo) during the Second World War. Allied pilots, based at Bari in southern Italy, were flying sorties into Nazi held territory during a search for a cache of weapons hidden somewhere in the area of San Giovanni Rotondo. In their approach to the town, several pilots reported seeing an apparition in the sky in the form of a monk with upheld hands. They also described some sort of 'force field' that prevented them flying over the target rendering them unable to drop their bombs."
Bernardo Rossini of Aeronautica Italians insists the then American Chief of Air Command flew his squadron personally and saw him. On visiting the San Giovanni Rotondo after the war the American apparently met Padre Pio, immediately recognised him, dropped to his knees and converted. The monk was becoming unstoppable.
Consequently Pope John Paul II canonised him on June 16, 2002. By then San Giovanni Rotondo had ballooned as a sprawling shrine, its eight million pilgrims and tourists outdoing Lourdes and fast catching up with the worlds most visited shrine, Our Lady of Guadeloupe, in Mexico City.
Ordinary Italians adore Pio. Peeking over the hedge of many a mason's yard, the old staples of whiter than white, life size marbles of Christ and the Virgin Mary, have recently been joined by the short podgy friar in a bizarre trinity. Countless bars, shops and private homes have his image co equal or even in place of the Virgin Mary. Lately he has appeared on cars and long distance lorries, usurping Saint Christopher. And a real barometer of affection is his appearance on the Italian death notice. Within moments of the posting up of a new death in any hamlet curious villagers will appear from nowhere to look. Modern colour printing has allowed the departure from the formerly dour black and white writing with a little vignette of a reddish RC Christ or sky blue, veiled Virgin. Now especially south of Rome, likely as not the vignette will be the trade mark, brown hooded Padre Pio either joining the other two or even solo.
But this very Italian phenomenon may not easily endure. The over commercialisation of the shrine could spell the death knell of the prosperity of San Giovanni Rotondo leaving the surrounding area despoiled. The town lies in northern Puglia, Italy's heel, in an area of natural beauty covered with beech, oak, yew and pine, called the Gargano peninsula. This outcrop is a green and pleasant spur jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. It is a haven from the scorching summer heat, and it is visible scores of kilometres away from the surrounding flat featureless plain. It is traversed by an ancient pilgrimage track only recently converted into a winding road along the Stignano valley linking San Severo in the west and Monte Saint Angelo in the east with medieval San Giovanni Rotondo en route. San Giovanni Rotondo's latter day sprawl has crept across the hillside, with little sense of planning. It totally dwarfs the historical centre and is only approached via a series of precipitous hairpin bends barely negotiable by coaches.
Natural beauty destroyed
Magazine and colour supplement features of the shrine usually show a collage of easily obtained, dramatic photographs. Because of the steepness of the site, the fantastic new circular church with its vast arched wood interior, colonnaded exterior, and huge bells, are easily shot against the white Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (the hospital or House for the relief of Suffering) towering up above it and etched against blue sky. Architect of the new circular church Renzo Piano was already world famous before this assignment and his fees must have been astronomical for a church building capable of holding ten thousand people, like St Peters, but with outside space so large that many times that number can participate through a part glass exterior. The monks would have no one else. However the destruction of an area of natural beauty is evident in a distance shot.
Pilgrims 'like ants'
As one approaches closer, huge cranes are everywhere. Countless hotels and apartments are still under constriction. Yet according to the guide 83 hotels and 53 restaurants and pizza houses are already open for business. Like a theme park, there is a white Disneyland type electric train to convey pilgrims around the treacherous slopes. The Hotel Gran Paradiso, supposedly occupying the prime position immediately opposite the grand papal approach to the new church, is stranded in the midst of unfinished work. Abutting this unfinished grand drive, the canny occupiers of the preexisting I Due Angeli restaurant have clearly decided not to sell. Instead they have knocked an opening to the shrine in their ugly block wall boundary and put a plank across the divide for pilgrims to climb straight in for refreshment. The owner said "they are like ants . . . but only at weekends". Indeed the vast complex seemed sparsely populated on a high summer weekday. And winter will be no time for negotiating those hairpins.
£100 million annually
If the money dries up disaster looms. Press reports of poor management and over commercialisation by the monks caused the Vatican to step in during 2003 and wrest financial control from the local Capuchins. The estimated annual giving by pilgrims is £100 million. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls stressed that the Capuchins will continue to take care of the sanctuary. The Capuchin's spokesman said, "We feel like we're returning to the dark times that Padre Pio knew, with a decision that seems to us hostile and punitive".
The air of disorganisation, vulgar commercialism and uncompleted facilities suggests money may already have been squandered in a frenzied gold rush, exploiting the shrine fever, which is possibly now faltering. Perhaps that is why we were acted by young people spotting our GB plate "collecting for Padre Pio" with great fervour in unbearable temperatures at a motorway junction 50 kilometres away. A few pilgrims are rejecting all this glitz and seeking authentic Pio magic back at the old church. Metal benches have been put out for the spiritually needy to wait hours, even all night, to see one of the old capuchins who knew Pio well in the hope they can somehow get blessed through an intermediary.
Fr Gino Burresi
Perhaps the Vatican is regretting not crushing Pio when it had the chance. Certainly one of the first acts of Benedict XV1's new Chief Inquisitor, Archbishop William Joseph Levada of San Francisco, following his appointment on May 16th 2005, was to destroy "Padre Pio wanabee" Fr Gino Burresi. This mystic, stigmatic, miracle working priest from near Rome "left the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in 1992 amid a bitter internal dispute and founded a new order, the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Currently the Servants number some 150 members". Amazingly, new boy Inquisitor Levada managed to get the decree out by the 27th May.
Amongst other things, the Inquisitors found Burresi guilty of "pseudo mysticism, as well as asserted apparitions, visions and messages attributed to supernatural origins". God's Rotweiler, Benedict XVI, had already tried to nail him in 2002 on sexual charges and failed. The leaked Vatican decree shows the determined Benedict to be behind the lightening verdict. The ruling "stipulates that in an audience given by Benedict XVI to Amato (Inquisition secretary) on May 27, the pope confirmed the decree in forma specifica, meaning that he made its conclusions his own, and that no appeal is possible". Burresi's alleged activities paint the picture of an out and out charlatan, beneath contempt. But so was Pio once.