A saint close to my heart, we paid pilgrimage to Padre Pio’s hometown and the place that has come to mean hope for millions.

POSTED BY PINKY

23 September is my father’s birthday. It is also the feast of the saint who profoundly touched my life with a miraculous healing years ago.

Some might call it a fantastic coincidence, but I’d like to think that I had a bit of help. Grateful for that intercession, I was happy when my parents included in our family pilgrimage visits to the sites most significant to the life of Saint Pio.

Pietrelcina

He was born Francesco Forgione on 25 May 1887 to farmers Grazio Mario and Maria Giuseppa in this small, humble town southeast of Rome, about a 3-hour drive away, in the province of Benevento.

Our private bus dropped us off and parked in front of the Padre Pio Museum beside the church of the Capuchin order (an offshoot of the Franciscan order) along Viale Cappuccini.

After exploring the Capuchin church and the museum, we headed towards the center of the old town in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, just a few minutes’ walk from the Museum, where you instantly begin to get a better feel of the town.

Church of St. Mary of the Angels near the Piazza

Lined with tiny shops selling souvenirs and gift items, the narrow Via Prof. Marone provides an interesting walk leading to the house where Saint Pio was born.

Along the way, I was able to pick up Christmas trimmings of delicate hand-carved cut-outs of the nativity scene made from pine wood which, hung on a tree, will always remind me of our visit to Pietrelcina.

Finally, our destination: Casa Natale di Padre Pio. It was a little tricky to find among the labyrinth of narrow streets, but getting lost was part of the adventure. Luckily, the town wasn’t packed during our visit at the beginning of summer (June), so large crowds weren’t a factor.

Inside Padre Pio’s birthplace

Other places to see in Pietrelcina:

• St. Ann’s Church, where Padre Pio was baptized, received his First Communion and his Confirmation.

• Church of St. Mary of the Angels (near Piazza S. Annunziata), where Padre Pio was ordained and administered his first Baptism*

• The Torretta, or small tower, where Padre Pio stayed in the 3 years he was ill and had to be away from the convent but wasn’t permitted by the Capuchin Order to stay with his parents.

* Story has it that in Padre Pio’s first Baptism, he had placed too much salt on the infant’s tongue that when the infant opened his mouth, his eyes rolled in such a way that frightened Padre Pio, making him run to the archpriest Don Salvatore Pannullo saying, “I killed a child”!

That child grew up to become a Redemptorist priest.

A 2-hour drive away from Pietrelcina, we head back to our base, San Giovanni Rotondo.

San Giovanni Rotondo

From Rome, it’s a 4-hour drive eastward to this town in the province of Foggia where Padre Pio lived from 1916 until his death in 1968.

The second most-visited Catholic shrine in the world – the first being Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe – S Giovanni Rotondo stood witness to Padre Pio’s most famous spiritual gift, the stigmata, which he received in 1918 while praying before a crucifix. Believed to bleed from the five wounds of Christ, it caused him great suffering and embarrassment for the rest of his life.

A life that now continues to serve as a source of hope for millions of people worldwide.

Santa Maria delle Grazie

To set the tone of our visit, top-most on our agenda was a visit to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1956 to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims flocking to the town when Padre Pio was still alive.

Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church

Receiving 7 million pilgrims each year, the large and modern Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church was added and was dedicated by Pope John Paul II in 2004.

Designed by the famous Genoan architect Renzo Piano, the new church has a seating capacity of 6,500 inside and a standing capacity of 30,000 outside.

Here our family attended the Holy Rosary and Mass, followed by a visit to the Lower Chapel, whose walls were adorned with some of the most beautiful mosaics I’ve ever seen. These ones depicting the life of Saint Pio.

Outdoor chapel in the Padre Pio Shrine

Via Crucis

I urge you to walk the 254 steps up to appreciate this amazing Way of the Cross, set on the forested hillside above Santa Maria delle Grazie. It’s an easy-ish climb, specially if you take your time.

Work on the project began just one day before Padre Pio’s death in 1968 and was completed in 1981. Made of granite with bronze and marble sculptures, it was designed by Sicilian sculptor Francesco Messina, culminating in the impressive image of the Resurrected Christ at the top of the hill.

At the foot of the Via Crucis (above) and The Resurrection at the final station (below)

Where We Stayed

Our party of 16 stayed in the comfortable 3-star Hotel Approdo Domus Francescana owned by the Capuchin Friars along Viale Padre Pio. Our rooms were generously-sized, clean, had a great view and direct access to the terrace. The dining hall was large and served good food, and the grounds pleasant with ample space for parking. The only downside was the weak wifi signal. We had to go to the lobby to get a stronger connection.

Nevertheless, the Approdo was a pleasant 12-minute walk to the shrine even in the summer.

San Giovanni Rotondo can be reached by bus or taxi from Foggia train station. The bus leaves the station every hour for the hour-long trip and lets you off near Santa Maria delle Grazie. (Please check the best way to get to your hotel when booking.) 

The closest major airport is Naples International (2-1/2 hours away).